“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.