Tag Archives: Stephen Symons

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.

Blue light at Temenos

light

How often can you shatter and remain whole?

Death. Loss. Grief.

House break-in.

Cancer scare.

Institutions breaking you down by sheer incompetence and lack of understanding.

Death, again. And again.

Car accident.

And then…         . A void, a negation of time and space, of reality. How do you describe something or someone whom you tell, repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe. I am in unbearable pain. I feel small. I am fragile. Vulnerable. Skinless. Please do not hurt me…’ And they violate your body and soul regardless? I do not know. Perhaps some things cannot be described. Sometimes words are too good to contain this, this…          ? blue-light-too

I care about words.

Another shattering.

Another loss.

What remains are the pieces. And a life-long illness. Deal with it, Karina.

turn-withinIn a corner, with no way out, when everything seems lost, broken, incomprehensible, a tiny light might save you. Holding on to that light is not an act of bravery. It is an act of compassion. I survive because I have kind people in my life. Perhaps recognising and reaching out for that kindness is courage? I do not know. I know that the sharing, the true care of friendship, have saved me from utter despair. The women in my life. I repeat: The women in my life. I do not know what I would have done without You. I salute and cherish you!

blue-lightThe first time I travelled to Temenos in McGregor, the retreat was recommended to me by my friend Margie. She knew what I was going through and said that the beauty and silence would be good for me. I fell in love with the place. One-and-a-half years later I went back, for the beauty and the silence. It is a silence punctuated by the outrageous screams of peacocks and the reluctant striking of the church tower clock. People smile, from the distance.

breakfast-at-temenos  sirloin  bemind

You can do things, or just be. Read. Sleep. Eat well. There is a bric-a-brac shop in the middle of McGregor which sells the best olives in the country. Tebaldi’s, the restaurant at Temenos, serves delicious meals. There are donkeys. Wine estates. Dusty heat. Tarot card readers and aroma therapists. Kindness, in the place and its people. The veld. And lazy sunsets which make you believe in tomorrow. It is all right to go to bed before 8pm. To read next to the pool for hours. To start brewing coffee at 5am and drink it on the stoep of your cottage while watching the light yawn and rise in the magical garden around you. Meditate, or just sit doing nothing at Temore, The Inner Temple of the Heart, with its soothing blue light.

reading-next-to-the-pool  falling

Wherever I go, I find coins. I call them my lucky coins. In South Africa, usually, 5c or 20c; 50c if I am really lucky. When I arrived in the gardens of Temenos, I found a R2-coin next to my car. Then, a few hours later, another R2-coin next to the pool. And the next day, while I was telling this story to my friend Helen (our stays at Temenos overlapped for one day and one night) during our sunset walk in the veld – in that very moment – I found another one next to our path. I want to believe that good things are coming. That despite the insanity of reality surrounding us in these troubled times, the kindness of people will prevail.

helen-in-the-veld-at-sunset

questions-from-the-seaDuring the last McGregor Poetry Festival a poem was inscribed on the walls of Temenos, my favourite one from Stephen Symon’s stunning debut collection Questions for the Sea. What synchronicity to find it there when I was returning home last night for the Q&A at Stephen’s reading/launch at Wordsworth Books in Gardens. On the way to the Gardens Centre, I stopped at The Book Lounge to pick up a book I’d ordered earlier, only to find out about the violence in the streets outside the bookshop just hours before. Louanne and Werner spoke about lost children and fear. They cancelled the event scheduled at the bookshop for that evening. The book I was buying was a gift for my friend Louisa who recently shared the remarkable Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard with me. I started reading it at Temenos. Uncanny is not the word… There is a collective wisdom of women out there, to tap into it, to allow it to nourish and heal you, that is what I am reaching out to.

with-resident-catI arrived at Wordsworth Books rattled, but there were good friends, cheese and wine, and poetry – subtle, soul-restoring poetry. Beauty, like light, can save you. How precious that it can be contained in words. Thank you, Stephen and Nick, for caring about words.

My words are safe. I find strength in the beauty of peahens. I love my Friends. I can’t wait to share my McGregor olives with them.

peahens

And I am very curious what R6 of luck will gift me.

coffee-in-bed

Book review: Questions for the Sea by Stephen Symons

questions-for-the-seaQuestions for the Sea, the debut collection by Cape Town-based poet and graphic designer Stephen Symons is the latest exquisite offering from the independent local publisher, uHlanga. The sea, questions, light and poetry: an irresistible combination.

Divided in six parts, Questions for the Sea opens with poems about death and memory: “the ashes of dreams, / too fine for remembering // settle over a moonlit bay / and shimmer / into forgetting.” A surfer drowns and death comes to him “in a whorl / of cobalt and white.” A lover recalls the map of a beloved body: “And here I lie, / closer to fifty, / still lost within its darkest territories.” A couple visits a dusty dry dorp: “All this place comprehends is a vertical sun and a deficiency of clouds. Every house burns at the stake and every surface has long forgotten the taste of dew.”

Symons captures life’s instances in words which evoke all senses. The poetry is subtle, seductive, soothing – even when it tackles pain and loss. Or war, a tough theme to handle in any art form. The second part of the collection comprises of poems about conscription. “Call Up, February 1990” speaks about the biblical Abraham and Isaac, ending with these quietly shattering lines: “There, just the firm grip of sons’ hands / and the impatience of engines.” In “Wordless (Township, 1990)”, a man is “shot through in the dark, just twenty kays from my childhood”. In “Letter Home”, young men are “cleaning rifles, / or licking lies into envelopes.” A visit to the famous battlefield of Spioenkop in the poem by the same title ends with “light splintered / and still twisted, deep into the flesh / of this country’s history.”

The third and fourth parts of Questions for the Sea return to the intimacy of loss and love. Adultery is a theme: “the circumference of his lie / weighing down his finger” or “Over a stove / untruths are being told by a wife / of an afternoon spent / with a friend.” As is parenthood in poems like “Emma”, “Sleeping Son”, or “Fathers Are Mostly Absent”.

The penultimate section of the volume focuses on place. In meticulously crafted stanzas Symons travels across the Cape Peninsula and beyond, illuminating our longings for beauty and meaning.

The stunning titular “Questions for the Sea” forms the last part of the collection and includes snippets of seaside images and human existence as traced through the hours of a day and a night. In “16h30”, we witness the beach “stunned / by a day’s worth of heat – ”. Just before midnight, the poet asks: “Do you feel the ceaseless rubbing / of bone and timber / that lies wrecked / beneath your skin, // held under by a black tonnage / beyond maps / and human claim?” And finally at midday, we are left with the question: “How are these words / more or less / than prayer?” I do not know, but they are.

Questions for the Sea

by Stephen Symons

uHlanga, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 21 October 2016.

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