Tag Archives: Etgar Keret

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.

Homecoming launch of Invisible Others

Photo by Roma Szczurek

Photo by Roma Szczurek

A small but very enthusiastic crowd gathered earlier today at the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch for my “homecoming launch” of Invisible Others. Thank you to everyone who made this one so special!

The first copies of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, photo by Roma Szczurek

The first copies of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, photo by Roma Szczurek

The shop is beginning to feel like an extension of our lounge. As Johan from the shop remarked, it is located almost in our backyard. I will never forget the first time I browsed there. I think it was Del who asked me whether I needed help. I was looking for a collection of stories by Etgar Keret. The bookshop did not have a copy. I bought another book and then forgot about the Keret. About two weeks later, I was done shopping at the centre and was putting some groceries into my car, parked in the vicinity of the shop, when Del recognised me and came out to say that they now had the Keret book I had been looking for the other day. Did I want to have a look at it?
Of course I did, and I was very impressed by such kindness and service. It is always a pleasure to go back to a bookshop where people care and know about books (which is not a given nowadays – I once had to spell Nadine Gordimer’s name at a bookshop…).

Emma after the launch, reading Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World

Emma after the launch, reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World

Today at the launch, I had the honour of being interviewed by the wonderful author Emma van der Vliet. We spoke about the influence of film on Invisible Others, particularly the 1992 film Damage, staring Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons. Often when I write, individual scenes come to me in the form of film-like images and the medium is an inspiration for my work. There is one line in Damage which I found haunting: “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.” Konrad reflects on it in the novel. We also discussed how the novel began, how the main characters formed in my head, and how Cara refused to be written the way I’d first imagined her. The first images of Konrad I had in my mind were connected to a jersey a hitchhiker my Mom and I picked up in Poland many, many years ago wore. The young man told us he’d knitted the jersey himself. Konrad, also an avid hitchhiker in his youth, owns a jersey like that in the novel. Emma also asked about my writing process. When I was still working on my thesis about Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid writing, I found many references to her strict schedule of devoting the mornings to her stories. Inspired, I tried to do the same, only to discover that I could not write one decent sentence in the mornings. (Recently, a friend gave me a sign I love for my kitchen: “I don’t do mornings”.) I am an afternoon person. My best time for writing is after lunch and coffee, that is when I am at my most prolific and inventive.

By Renée le Roux

By Renée le Roux

It was great to see Renée le Roux at the launch whose amazing artwork has been an inspiration for Dagmar’s art in the novel. Before encountering Renée’s work, I couldn’t find a way of responding to abstract art, but the first time I stood in a room full of her paintings I understood and felt what abstract art was about. It was such a thrill and discovery. Her images spoke to me like no other. Her “Mommy’s Boys” are in my study and despite their sadness, make me smile every day.

Thank you to everyone else who was there!

Launch cakeThis is the launch cake which Emma and I enjoyed for our breakfast after the talk. The woman who baked it is going to hear from me soon. It is always good to know where to get a divine chocolate cake, definitely one of my all-time favourites.

Thank you for this delicious literary treat: launch, cake and all!