Tag Archives: Caine Prize

Review: Incredible Journey – Stories that Move You, edited by Joanne Hichens

incredible-journey“Every nation needs its awkward truth-tellers”, Sindiwe Magona quotes Ben Okri in the foreword to Incredible Journey: Stories that Move You, the latest in the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthologies, edited by a champion of the South African short story and founder of the project, Joanne Hichens. Magona makes two succinct points about the collection: it shows “the country’s rich diversity that, perhaps, is found only here and nowhere else”, and, it allows the reader “to better understand intimate secrets, dreams, yearnings, fears and the wounding that walks our streets, all too often looking as normal as you please.”

Produced in conjunction with the National Arts Festival, the anthology includes twenty stories, the longlisted and winning entries of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and is the third of its kind, after Bloody Satisfied and Adults Only. Hichens understands “that there are many stories to tell, from entirely different perspectives, sensibilities and cultures; we are hardly a one-dimensional society, nor would we want to be” and aims to be “inclusive and representational”. The project succeeds on all these fronts. The book includes diverse voices and many striking stories – it will offer something for most people, whatever your reading preferences might be.

The winning story, “Train 124” by Andrew Salomon, features an uncanny first-person narrator on his way to a doctor’s appointment. His reading and interpretation of the world around him are scary, to say the least. During the train ride, Salomon manages to create a sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the fact that his character is on the move. Original, crisp writing completes the winning package.

Two short stories from the collection were shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize: Bongani Kona’s superb “At Your Requiem”, and Lidudumalingani’s Short.Sharp.Stories Awards runner-up, “Memories We Lost”, which eventually won the Caine Prize. These two young voices hold so much promise that one can only watch and wonder as their talents unfold.

The other runner-up in the collection is the remarkable “The Infant Odysseus” in which Bridget Pitt tells the story of a woman who spots a baby crawling in a busy street of Johannesburg and decides to abandon her husband in their car to rescue the child. The encounter triggers a chain of emotions which lead her to make life-changing decisions.

Authors interpreted the theme of the competition in myriad ways. The most obvious take, a physical journey from point A to B, has been emphasised only in a few of the stories. The others concentrate on an internal transitioning from one state of being to another. Some combine both to great effect. The subtitle of the anthology says it all: “stories that move you.” The most incredible journeys happen inside:

“I’m sitting by the jacaranda tree where the story of your life ends. I can’t rewind time and bring you back. What happened between us – between you, Aunt Julia and me – at the house on St. Patrick’s Road, burned through our lives like mountain fire in a high wind. There’s nothing left. Everything is ravaged.” (Bongani Kona, “At Your Requiem”)

In Sean Mayne’s “The Pyramid of Light”, two conscripts get more than they ever bargained for when hitchhiking home on a pass. Homophobia and a search for personal purpose are the subject of Tebello Mzamo’s poignant “My Room”. Máire Fisher exposes tense family dynamics in “Space”, in which a small boy dreams of the stars as he clandestinely watches the night sky through his father’s telescope.

It is fascinating to see how different genres feed into the mix of the anthology. Dan Maré in “Watermeid” or Chantelle Gray van Heerden in “Voodoo Karma” do not shy away from fable and magic realist elements in their stories. In “The Island”, Megan Ross reimagines an initiation ritual for young women along the lines of the kind which Xhosa boys undergo to become men. Merle Grace examines a myth surrounding people with albinism in “Disappeared”. And Stephen Symons writes about a Cape Town of the not too distant future in his speculative story “Red Dust”.

A personal favourite in the collection is Tiffany Kagure Mugo’s “Return Unknown”. It centres on a heavy trunk the narrator’s grandmother brings with her into the house when her family decides it is time for her to move in with them in her old age. The story ends with the warmth of the trunk to the narrator’s touch, and one’s heart.

Publisher’s choice went to Bobby Jordan’s “Shortcut” which recounts a man’s tumultuous trip on the Bedford Road between Johannesburg and Grahamstown late at night. The story has a magnificent ending, and since it is the last one in the anthology, it leaves the reader deeply satisfied.

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Review: The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories – The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014

The Gonjon PinThe Caine Prize for African Writing has a reputation of launching literary careers. Previous winners include Helon Habila, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Henrietta Innes-Rose. The Caine Prize collections of stories comprise each year’s shortlisted entries and pieces written during a workshop organised in conjunction with the prize.

By nature an anthology of short stories is usually a mixed bag. This year’s volume, apart from some excellent exceptions, is not particularly accomplished. Reading most of the contributions one senses amazing talent and potential, but the stories, even two or three of the shortlisted ones, feel unfinished. They intrigue, but do not wow despite varied themes, innovative approaches to form and content, and moments of stylistic beauty. All the elements of great short-story writing are present, but they hardly ever feature together in one piece.

African writing has a certain reputation, on the continent and beyond. Depending on individual tastes, readers either fear or count on stories of socio-political relevance, everyday hardship and disillusionment, the diaspora experience, violence and abuse, the HIV pandemic, neglect or instability. There is a prevalent feeling of ‘things falling apart’. The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories includes all of the above and in that sense does not disappoint.

The shortlisted stories stand out for their originality. In Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence (South Africa), a suicidal young woman bonds with her daring grandmother over the bulldozing of a city landmark. While following the election back home on television, a Zimbabwean family tries to negotiate between a quarrelling couple in Tendai Huchu’s The Intervention (Zimbabwe). Billy Kahora’s protagonist develops an uncanny relationship to a zoo gorilla in The Gorilla’s Apprentice (Kenya). And in the winning entry, My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (Nigeria), a woman tries to conjure up her dead father by drawing him, but his head refuses to fit into her sketches.

The shortlisted story which impressed me the most, however, was Efemia Chela’s Chicken (Ghana/Zambia). A young writer of remarkable assurance, Chela has that rare gift of making you pause again and again to appreciate a striking image or a perfectly balanced sentence while never allowing you to take your mind off the story she is telling. Chicken is about a woman who cuts the ties to her family and tries to survive on her own in the big city by making some tough choices.

Of the twelve workshop stories, the titular The Gonjon Pin by Martin Egblewogbe (Ghana) and The Lifebloom Gift by Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) were a true discovery. Reminiscent of the mad and irresistible story-telling of such authors as the Israeli Etgar Keret or the Welsh Alex Burrett, these surreal tales made me sit up, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the incredible power of the genre. Egblewogbe has his characters dealing with a man’s functioning genitals hanging on a study wall. Adan creates a world where an unusual man spreads cult love by stimulating people’s moles. It is gems like these that make reading anthologies worthwhile.

The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014
Jacana/New Internationalist, 2014

First published in the Cape Times, 10 October 2014.

Review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens

adultsonlycoverThe stories in this anthology have been selected from some 150 entries submitted for the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories competition. As with all such collections, the quality of the twenty-two individual pieces varies. The authors range from first-time-published to award-winning practitioners of the genre. Additionally, in this particular case, every reader’s sexual preferences will strongly influence their reading of these diverse contributions. Sex in all its permutations is a highly personal experience, as is writing and reading about it. Hats off to the editor and all the authors for their daring explorations of the mine-fields of our sexualities.

As Aryan Kaganof’s narrator states, “there is no love that is not an echo”; he also understands that “real sex happens in the head”. Erotic stories are like lovers. They will either satisfy you or leave you wanting.

No doubt a few of the contributions will bring many readers out of their comfort zone and will have you reading through your fingers. Others will excite you. Some will delight with their humour or tenderness. There is a lot to be learned. Who would have thought that Woolies would emerge from the anthology as the preferred place of choice for sexy lingerie shopping? Or that the smell of semen reminds some of peeled potato? I didn’t even want to know what blunt knives could be used for. Every reader will find something to please or disturb them. No matter what, brace yourself: Adults Only is one hell of ride for most of its journey.

After reading the opening story, Alex Smith’s “The Big Toad”, I knew that I would never be able to look into my kitchen cupboards without apprehension, and perhaps a tiny bit of envy. I might have to get some Jungle Oats to liven up the scene inside my predictable cupboards. Arja Salafranca’s “Post-Dated Sex” made me look at post-it notes with fresh eyes. Her story approaches that beautiful space between lovers where words “dissolve” and become something “instinctive that moves against them.” Beauty is also the subject of Donvé Lee’s “The Mirror”. Lee is the author of An Intimate War (2010), one of the most erotic local novels of recent years. Her story shines with a similar intensity and rare honesty.

The competition’s winning entry, Nick Mulgrawe’s “Turning”, is a well-written and a worthy choice, but it did not move me as much as Ken Barris’s captivating “Louka in Autumn”, or Anthony Ehler’s shattering “Breaking the Rules”, or Alexander Matthews’s illuminating “Entropy”. Efemia Chela is a young writer to watch. Her “Perigee” is as bold and astute as her recently Caine Prize-shortlisted “Chicken”. She writes a lush and supple prose that is a pleasure in itself.

The language of sexuality is a very tricky thing to master. What will arouse one person, will do nothing for another. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and vulgarity. So it was quite refreshing to smile at phrases like “sex has always been at best pedestrian – Tim walks all over me” (in Christine Coate’s “The Cat’s Wife”, a tale of a bored wife seeking out adventures which will make her fly, literally and otherwise), or to admire the eloquence with which Justine Loots describes the sadness of an encounter between a prostitute and a young inexperienced man: “One of his wings, if he has wings at all, is torn at the edge. It won’t affect his flight much, you won’t even see it, but it’s there all the same.” The magic realist twist of Loots’s story “Uncaged” brings a wonderful dimension to the entire book. Strange beasts roam the world she creates; one can never be sure who is the prey and who the predator.

Not every use of the word “cunt” will have the same impact of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And yet I was reminded of it in Aryan Kaganof’s powerful story “Time Out With My Destiny”. With every paragraph the first-person narrator lures you in, manages to surprise and capture something unique, and ends on a shattering note. A “wow story”, my husband said when I read it aloud to him.

The stories in Adults Only capture different aspects of our relationships: from tender intimacy to raw sex, and beyond, to abuse and rape. Wamuwi Mbao’s “The Ninth Wave” tells of that moment when wanting more from a relationship breaks the little that the other is prepared to give. Alan Waters’ debut story “A Threesome in the New South Africa” recounts a hilarious encounter between a middle-aged man, his younger girlfriend, and a Rastafarian of intimidating proportions. Not every longing is clearly identifiable. In Dudumalingani Mqombothi’s “The Streetwalkers”, the search for his lost father leads a man into the arms of a sex worker.

Adults Only is a fascinating read which showcases the diversity, audacity and vibrancy of South African fiction.

Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality
Edited by Joanne Hichens
Mercury, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 12 September 2014, p. 10.

Alex Smith

Alex Smith1A long time ago, behind seven mountains and seven rivers… That is how fairy tales begin in Polish. The words make me think of the time I met Alex Smith when she was looking for people to translate her Orphan’s Lullaby. I did the Polish version and we met for coffee at the Book Lounge to discuss the project and to get to know each other. It’s hard to believe that this already happened six years ago. Since then we have become friends and have supported each other through the ups and downs of writing careers.

We share a deep love for literature, even if our reading tastes often differ and the kind of stories we tell are sometimes worlds apart. The one thing which has always stood out for me in Alex’s work is her powerful, versatile, irresistible prose which has few equals in contemporary South African literature. I once told her that I would even read the history of toilet paper, if she were to write it. Her prose is like a cup of delicious tea, like a favourite bar of chocolate, like a warm breeze on a perfect day on the beach. One wallows in it with pleasure, no matter what her subject matter.

My absolute favourite of Alex’s books until now is Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008), a quirky travel memoir about the time she spent in Asia. I will never forget the kettle falling scene. Simply wonderful, like the rest of the book. I reviewed it along with her Four Drunk Beauties (2010) for ITCH.

Alex contributed a funny, moving story to Touch: Stories of Contact. She has been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize. One of her more recent stories features in the Adults Only anthology and I am told that it is remarkable (can’t wait to get the book just to read it). She has been recognised for her work with the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award, has been short-listed for the SA PEN Literary Award, won a silver award in the English category of the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, and was shortlisted for the international Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. And I believe even greater things are to come for her.

Her latest novel, Devilskein & Dearlove (published by Umuzi locally and Arachne Press in the UK) is about to be launched at the Book Lounge next week. Alex will be in conversation with the amazing Versuhka Louw. We are in for a real literary treat.

“Young Erin Dearlove has lost everything in a violent attack on her family. She now lives with her bohemian aunt Kate in a run-down Cape Town apartment block. Locked into a fantasy of her previous life, she shuns all overtures of friendship from her new neighbours, until she meets Mr Devilskein, the demon who lives on the top floor… and opens a door into another world. Just as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reworked Kipling’s The Jungle Book for a modern audience with a liking for the supernatural, Devilskein & Dearlove is a darker, more edgy, contemporary reworking of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden. An orphaned teenager is taken in by a reluctant distant relative, and in her new home makes an unexpected friend and finds a secret realm. It has shades of the quirky fantastical in the style of Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) animated films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (originally a novel by Diana Wynne Jones). Alex says ‘As a child The Secret Garden was one of my first favourite novels – one of the first I relished reading by myself. Although Devilskein & Dearlove is very different, it was inspired by that novel and its themes.'” (Arachne Press)