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Words exchanged on short-story writing

As spotty-faced, arrogant students, Nick Mulgrew and Efemia Chela used to present radio shows at Rhodes University. Five years later, they’re arrogant, award-winning short-story writers. 

Ghana-born Chela (22) was one of the youngest nominees ever for the Caine prize for African writing and Durbanite Mulgrew (24) is this year’s winner of the National Arts Festival’s Short.Sharp.Stories award, the richest prize in South African short-story writing. He asked her about her rise and about the future of local writing – and where it should be going.

So, Effie, let’s start at the beginning of our relationship. We met at Rhodes Music Radio in 2009. Times were tough. Weather was cold. I had a terrible haircut. But what were your ambitions then? Did you come into university thinking you wanted to be a writer? If not, how has that changed?
Ha! I remember those nights. Kak, it was cold and, man, was your haircut bad. I was also a greasy-faced, speccy little thing. I started off as a shy violet and became a loose cannon. This one time I set up two Scrabble players and dramatically live commented on the match going on in-studio in between songs.

Then I did my last show naked in the booth. I didn’t tell my listeners that. But I think they could feel my nakedness over the air.

Now I would like to be a literary fiction translator and film subtitler. I have always fancied the idea of being a writer and thought I would get down to it in university. But I didn’t write a word of fiction and instead had wonderful experiences like chairing a wine-tasting society and lying to my parents at least once a month that I had gotten mugged and needed more money.

In fourth year, I went on exchange to Aix-en-Provence – where Sartre, Camus, Van Gogh and Christine Lagarde used to hang out – and when I came back something [had] happened and I was no longer afraid of the empty page.

Now I do think of myself as a writer. There is an entire novel in the bottom of my handbag written on the back of receipts, at least.

What are your biggest literary influences? And what are your biggest life experiences? And, anticipating your answer to these questions, what would you say has been more influential in your writing: Fanon, or that time you were forced to be an illegal immigrant? (In which country I won’t say, for obvious reasons.)
I think it’s a tie. Being illegal was definitely thrilling but, at the same time, Frantz Fanon changed my life.

I was introduced to his oeuvre by Richard Pithouse, my lecturer in politics at Rhodes and it opened up a whole new way of thinking about the often confusing nature of black lives in the post-colony and the importance of us recording the experiential, whether in fiction or otherwise.

Nick Mulgrew: ‘I want to see more genre-bending … more innovation.’

My biggest literary influence is probably the completely underrated Georges Perec. My favourite book of his is A Void (La Disparition), an entire novel written without the letter “e”. Then Chinua Achebe – do I really need to explain this one? [Another influence is] Douglas Coupland, whose books have wryly surveyed the grand fallacies and personal failures of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.

Then Toni Morrison – for who else has so eloquently articulated the complexities of the black woman’s existence in fiction?

And your upbringing? Going from country to country?
I was raised all over … in the most random places, from a council flat in Essex to Chikankata in Zambia – which Google Earth does not acknowledge exists.

Bumping along from country to country has made me feel like a rough rolling stone. I suppose it’s shaped my character a lot. I have very strong opinions on the Queen’s [Elizabeth’s] brooch collection, I have trust issues, and I always know the exchange rate – just ask me.

It’s also made my way into my writing where I like to explore the travel, emotions of a space, feelings of placelessness, the segue from being awake and being asleep.

That’s interesting, right? People want to read that, right? But if you say the word “diaspora”, I will kill you.

Let’s talk about your Caine-nominated short story Chicken. It’s the first short story you have written. It’s the first short story you have published. It makes you one of the youngest nominees ever for the most prestigious prize in African writing. What do you make of this?
[The year] 2014 has been a careening and quite awful ride. I ran away from home. I have done odd jobs and slept on 15 different couches. I have been – am still, really – broke, cold and crazy. I still can’t afford rent.

But I was completely blown away by the nomination. It’s the best thing to happen to me this year.

I wrote Chicken at 21, after work, in the evening disillusionment of my first job. I thought I had a good story but nothing of Caine prize calibre. I didn’t realise people would appreciate it so much until [writer] Rachel Zadok said to me: “This is incredible, you’re clearly a fucking writer.”

Everyone tries to be all noble and say prizes don’t matter but they do to a young woman who isn’t sure of her writing or even where she’s going to lay her head next.

I feel so honoured and excited about this journey. The winning is in the journey.

I know that things weren’t exactly – how should we say – great for you around the time that Chicken was written, because we were working together then, too. The story – about a young woman from an indeterminate West African country making do in an indeterminate Afropolitan city, who eventually sells her eggs in a fit of ennui – isn’t autobiographical, I know that. But does exploring difficult situations in your writing, whether it be in Chicken or your other work, in a way help you out of your own? I don’t particularly write for catharsis personally – is it the same for you?
When I used to play The Sims as a child, I would build a swimming pool for a Sim, make them jump in the pool and then take away the ladder so they couldn’t get out and would drown.

I like to torture my characters somewhat and put them in awkward situations. I do write for some element of catharsis. Isn’t it just so satisfying to kill your co-workers in a story? 

But, like you, I use my writing to express things, like a lonely hearts ad I saw and laughed at, or an idea wandering around my mind, or a song whose words I can’t remember, or someone I wish existed.

So then what do you think are the sorts of things you’re going to want to deal with in your future career, thematically and formally?
I’m reluctant to answer this question because then people will actually expect things from me and I’ll have to stop watching old episodes of Daria and Adventure Time and do more writing.

But I would love to write an incredible graphic novel: a 400-page, beautifully illustrated, cinematic, zeitgeisty masterpiece with piercing prose that makes your heart tumble like the stock exchange, then brings you up as quick as coke.

I’m still on page one, though, so don’t wait up for me.

What do you think writers in South Africa should be focusing on? We’re super young and I just don’t, for example, relate to a lot of writing done by many of our older peers. I want to see more genre-bending, more gender-bending, more … I don’t know, innovation.
I would like to see fewer books that use apartheid as a crutch to prop up bad writing. I would like to see more tentacles in South African writing. There are very few, if any at all. Tentacles are very important. They have suction and are wiggly. What more could you want?

But, seriously, I want to see publishing houses get bolder about what they publish. I want to read absurdist South African plays. I want to read a fantasy short story that seamlessly opens portals into stories inside other stories. I want to read more graphic novels.

I want South Africans to write a fictional icon, in the same way [that] Okonkwo, or Patrick Bateman, or Marla Singer, is an icon. I want dystopia, utopia and the afterlife rolled up into one. I want to read feminist zines that smash together poetry and pictures.

I want more literary journals like Prufrock that are game to take on anything and aren’t stuffy and boring like some others I could mention.

I want to read more work in translation, or works written in isiXhosa on the left and English on the right, for silly people like me who can’t speak any African languages. I would like to see much more equitable access to books.

So, basically, I want all the things. We deserve it.

Kenyan author Okwiri Oduor won the 2014 Caine prize for African writing for her short story My Father’s Head, which the judges described as “an uplifting story about mourning”.

20 best stories in 20 years

Books Live, Short Story Day Africa and the department of arts and culture worked together on the Twenty in 20 project to come up with the best South African short fiction published in English over the past two decades of democracy. The result, said the chair of the judges, Mandla Langa, is “a smorgasbord of ideas to cater for any appetite”. Here is the list alphabetically by author surnames:

1. Phosphorescence by Diane Awerbuck

2. The Year of Sleeping Badly by Gabeba Baderoon

3. The Visit by Nadia Davids

4. Do You Know What a Leader Is? by Luke Fiske

5. A Mouse Amongst Men by Ivor Hartmann

6. Pigeon Fancier by Sarah Lotz

7. Push-push! by Sindiwe Magona

8. The Suit Continued by Siphiwo Mahala

9. The Bath by Wamuwi Mbao

10. The Mistress’s Dog by David Medalie

11. Goliwood Drama by Niq Mhlongo

12. Brooding Clouds by Phaswane Mpe

13. Space by Masande Ntshanga

14. Homing by Henrietta Rose-Innes

15. A Visit to Dr Mamba by Andrew Salomon

16. Relatives by Chris van Wyk

17. The Loss Library by Ivan Vladislavic

18. The Dress that Fed the Suit by Zukiswa Wanner

19. Jungfrau by Mary Watson

20. Running by Makhosazana Xaba

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