/ 22 August 2014

The short’s a hit with fans

Past master: Herman Charles Bosman's short stories are South African classics. A new crop of writers feature in the 'experimental and titillating' Adults Only collection.
Past master: Herman Charles Bosman's short stories are South African classics. A new crop of writers feature in the 'experimental and titillating' Adults Only collection.

“At one stage of our lives, when we manned the barricades and recited poems about a glorious future, when we plotted and planted bombs and marched, we imagined ourselves midwives,” says Mandla Langa. “The baby birthed in 1994 is now 20 years old, acne-ridden, gawky, imperfect, beautiful and as opinionated as a chat-show host.” 

Along with Karabo Kgoleng, Fiona Snyckers and Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Langa was one of the judges for The Best Twenty in 20, a soon-to-be-released anthology that will showcase, says Langa, “stories about the journey our young democracy is willing to take beyond the destination we have set for it”. This project was initiated in conjunction with the department of arts and culture and the South African website BooksLive, and is one of several worthy initiatives to keep the short story alive and kicking. 

Langa’s sentiment can be extended to writing in general. South African writers certainly are opinionated and at loggerheads when it comes to ideology or politics, but we’re full of creative ideas and a sense of our personal power to voice whatever is on our minds and in our hearts. 

We write about our reality in the press and in blogs, but also explore our experience through fiction, with the short story continuing to hold a place of literary prominence in South Africa. Celebrated writers of our history such as Bosman, Plomer, Head and Schreiner, Benjamin Letholoa Leshoai, RRR Dhlomo and Can Themba spring to mind. Themba’s short story The Suit has particular significance as recent contemporary short story responses to his tragic tale have been penned by Siphiwo Mahala, Makhosazana Xaba and Zukiswa Wanner.

In this way, history is honoured as modern writers build on tradition. But fiction writers also have the privilege of using their wildest imagination to create worlds that otherwise would not exist.  Democracy brought the freedom to place value on whatever stories make up our arsenal. As a result, the contemporary South African short story is as diverse in style and content as the myriad South African experience. 

The South African “voice” has a specific quality — a nuance, a sensibility — which the reader recognises as “authentic” no matter from which quarter, or period of history, it comes. Whether it is penned, or indeed passed down in the oral tradition, we have so much incomparable material.

We have so much to write about, that diversity, as with everything else in South Africa, sums up the way it is. At the same time, the universal themes of hope and struggle, particularly the conflicts intrinsic to human nature, ensure the South African short story has resonance beyond our borders. The short story also continues to be a vehicle through which beginner writers cut their teeth and established authors hone their craft or explore — in fewer words than it takes to pen a novel — the themes of interest.

When it comes to the Short Sharp Stories awards, which I co-founded with the National Arts Festival, it was clearly recognised by festival chief executive Tony Lankester and artistic director Ismail Mahomed that we have “stories” in abundance and that now is the time to capitalise on them.  

These awards are presented annually for excellent short story writing. It is the aim of these awards to encourage, support, and showcase established and emerging South African writing talent (including the writing of citizens and residents) by producing quality anthologies that will delight, intrigue and challenge. 

The theme set for writers differs from year to year. The winning stories, selected from the stories to be published by a panel of independent judges, are announced at an annual launch event at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. 

“The National Arts Festival’s primary currency is storytelling — that’s at the core of almost everything we do, be it theatre, dance, comedy, film or songwriting,” says Lankester. “So Short Sharp Stories is a logical extension of what we do. By encouraging writers to write, by offering them a decent prize that validates their work, and by promoting South African writing and storytelling we are supporting our core business and, ultimately, improving the quality of what we’re able to offer our audiences.” 

It’s this kind of progressive thinking that has seen the successful publication of back-to-back anthologies — 2013’s crime-fiction collection Bloody Satisfied and this year’s sexy title Adults Only

Pre-1994 it might not have been as easily possible to devote 3?000 words to the orgasm, yet Adults Only tackles not only the “Big O” but also gay marriage, the stigma of lesbianism, the adventures of the dissatisfied housewife, and extreme S&M fantasy. The stories are brave and experimental and titillating, as well as beautifully written and thought-provoking.

In the collections we have published stories from prize-winning authors such as Ken Barris and Roger Smith, and from acclaimed journalists such as Bobby Jordan and Carla Lever. In Adults Only we feature new voices such as Wamuwi Mbao, Sean Mayne, Nick Mulgrew, Tiffany Kagure Mugo and Efemia Chela, each with a totally different take on love, lust, sex and sensuality.

Another forward-thinking initiative is Short Story Day Africa. Co-founded by Rachel Zadok and Tiah Beautement, it’s aimed at stimulating an international interest in the African short story. 

Then there’s the fabulous FunDza Literary Trust. “Our cellphone-powered initiative gets young South Africans reading,” says managing trustee Mignon Hardie. “There’s huge demand for exciting, relevant and home-grown stories. Every day thousands of young South Africans access FunDza’s reading app through their mobile phones. And they’re not just reading, they’re interacting with the stories too — reflecting, commenting and sharing with their friends.” 

It hardly needs to be said that to grow a culture of reading we need to publish stories and content that resonates with the reality that many young South Africans face. Hardie says: “We need to produce stories that touch young people’s hearts and minds. We believe we’re doing that — and our 50?000-strong monthly readership is testament to that.”

And then there are literary magazines to be celebrated. For example, Prufrock, of which Nick Mulgrew  is associate editor, and the online literary magazine Aerodrome, run by Alexander Matthews, promote South African prose and poetry. Both Nick and Alex are featured in Adults Only as young writers to watch. 

Let’s get to some nitty-gritty, though. The short story, or any creative writing, combines writing of coherence and originality with content, particularly the “what happens next?” factor. Practice is the prerequisite for ultimate success, which needs to be recognised by less experienced writers.  Another stumbling block for writers is that most initiatives are for stories written in English. It’s time to see more competitions for stories penned in other official languages, as well as opportunities for translation. 

In closing, the anthology is an ideal vehicle for exploring the diversity of our culture, offering readers a palette of hues, from the blaze of anger and desire to the pointillism of political satire, from the pastels of quiet pleasures, contemplations on the beauty beneath the misleading shades of ideology to bold experiments seeking to offer alternative ways of seeing — and being.  Some might argue that one cannot separate text from context, which indeed makes stories of our developing democracy so noteworthy, but always — always — there will be a place for stories that exist for no other reason than to entertain and enthral. 

Joanne Hichens will be on the panel The Short Story, chaired by Literary Festival co-director Corina van der Spoel, on Sunday August 31, 11.30am to 1pm. They will be joined by Okwiri Oduor, winner of the 2014 Caine Prize for African writing, Karabo Kgoleng, literary journalist and a jury member of The Best 20 in Twenty South African short story project, and Dudumalingani Mqombothi, a contributor to the short story anthology Adults Only.

For the M&G Literary Festival programme and to book your seat visit  www.redballoon.biz/mglitfest