“Now, there are storytellers, and there are Storytellers”, the narrator of Water No Get Enemy, one of Fred Khumalo’s stories collected in Talk of the Town, tells us about Guz-Magesh, a larger than life character who features in two of the pieces: “His well of tales is bottomless.” He has that in common with his creator. Khumalo is the author of four novels. His short stories have been considered for prestigious awards and featured in several magazines and anthologies. Talk of the Town is his debut collection.
The titular story of the volume is told from the perspective of a child who witnesses how his enterprising and hard-working mother sets their family apart by not having the furniture she buys repossessed by creditors. When her luck changes, the mother relies on her unsuspecting children to protect her from the fate of most of their neighbours.
Khumalo’s range of settings and characters is versatile. He moves between the apartheid past to the present, and between several countries. Water Get No Enemy and The Invisibles are set in present-day Yeoville, but the former moves back in time to the Liberation Army camps in Angola.
The stories of This Bus Is Not Full! and Learning to Love take place in the US, where two South African men end up living, but not entirely fitting in. The longest story in the collection is set in neighbouring Zimbabwe and has the feel of an abandoned novel in the making.
Reading Khumalo’s stories, one’s imagination and sense of political correctness can be both challenged to their limits, and it is to his credit that he can make us curious and care about even the least likable characters. At the same time, his stories can be poignant and excruciatingly funny. That is what keeps one returning for more.
Talk of the Town
by Fred Khumalo
Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.