The launch of Incredible Journey: Stories that Move You, edited by Joanne Hichens, was held at The Book Lounge recently.
The short story anthology contains the winning entries to the 2015 Short Sharp Stories Award and received an excellent turnout on the rainy winter’s evening.
Hichens, who started the short story competition in conjunction with the National Arts Festival in 2013, interviewed some of the shortlisted authors and winners at the event.
The competition received more than 200 entries this year. Hichens said, “The stories encompassed personal revelations and politics. Again this year it was daunting choosing stories, but we kept in mind our brief which specified strong narratives with a South African flavour or sentiment. The reading team created a list of 30 from which the final 20 stories were selected.”
Bridget Pitt’s “The Infant Odysseus” won the Judges’ Choice Runner-Up award of R5 000. She said she’d written about an infant because babies allow us to get in touch with our own vulnerabilities and tenderness, fears and expectations. “When you have a society that is so contested and divided as South Africa, our opportunities for engagement in a vulnerable and human way are quite proscribed. It’s interesting how encountering each other through or over a baby challenges some of those proscriptions.”
Hichens said that this year’s collection turned out much darker stories than she had anticipated, but that Pitt’s story focuses on reconciliation. Pitt said: “Hope and reconciliation are difficult concepts that have bred cynicism in the wake of Mandela’s ‘Rainbow Nation’. They’ve become a wishy washy band-aid with which to plaster over the injuries of the past. At the same time, if these concepts don’t have strength and meaning, we’re doomed as humans because there’s so much we need to reconcile with and so much we need to hope for.”
Máire Fisher’s “Space” arrived from the vantage of a young boy who has appeared in various scraps of her writing over a longish period. Hichens said: “He crops up in his pajamas in a confined space and gazes at the night sky through a telescope.”
“He has big issues for a young boy to deal with. ‘Space’ took on a lot of different meanings, including the notion of an incredible journey if one could take one,” Fisher said.
When Fisher is writing, everything tends to happen inside a small place rather than out in the wild, “and yet such wild things happen in small spaces, behind closed doors when the curtains are drawn”. “That tiny little speck of life becomes a microcosm that allows you to deal with the big emotions despite the claustrophobia,” she says.
Racism and intolerance feature in Andrew Prior’s “Terraplane Journey”. “When you have alcohol, young men, a fast car on a Friday night, things are going to happen! This was an ordinary situation with an out of the ordinary result,” he said. He referred to how any journey through life can lead you to an unexpected place and reveal to you a world you might rather not see.
He recalled visiting The Book Lounge some years ago and discovering Stephen King’s classic text On Writing. “I hoped it would be as interesting as Cujo, which I had recently read. You know what? He actually teaches successfully how to write a story. If anybody wants to learn that, there is one copy left downstairs!”
Next on the programme was Shaun Mayne, who Hichens introduced as “a pizza chef who has been fired a lot!” His story “Pyramid of Light” explores the nostalgia some former conscripts might feel for the army days. “How far can I push the boundary of ignorance? Can I seek redemption and treasure memories at the same time?” Hichens asked.
Mayne reflected on the topic, saying: “Nostalgia is important for guys who were in the army, but I want to explore this more in a longer novel. I treasure the memories I made at the time. It’s a paradox. Can you be nostalgic about losing, about fighting on the wrong side?”
Jumani Clarke’s story “Lift Club” was inspired by the stories he heard from his partner who was a member of a lift club. He said that South African literature seldom focuses on work, which for many South Africans means commuting. He aimed to tell the story of someone who makes sure everyone arrives at work on time.
Clarke said that being stuck on the N2 at 6 AM strongly evokes elements of magical realism. He spoke of tales of the underworld, for example Odysseus, Virgil and Dante, and said: “I wanted to go to the underside of traffic and blend it with the everyday of work. You could tell the history of South Africa in terms of traffic. Nelson Mandela, when he finally got bust, was at a road block.”
Eldi van Loggerenberg’s “Communis” explores the experience of riding in a minibus taxi and was inspired by her reflections on the social media blabber about Heritage Day. “Does anyone actually think, or take stock, or make an effort to unearth their own history in a brutal way on Heritage Day? This is a central thing to analyse in the last few years, but I have no conclusions. It was an important process for me and I would encourage others to have the guts to give it some thought,” she said.
“The story asks what it means to share a communal space. I traced the history of the word ‘communal’ which means shared or general. What is our shared history and heritage is what I wanted to know.”
All the stories were read blind, which enabled the readers and judges to assess them on their own merits, without bringing their prior expectations of specific writers to the text. Hichens said: “By listening to the range of writers here tonight, I hope you’re getting a sense of the differences and the community we share as South Africans.”
Stephen Symon’s “Red Dust” is set in a dystopian South Africa where the country is imploding and starts with these words: “The president collapsed like a pile of books.” He said: “The title gives the reader an inkling of how South Africans are all intimately connected to the landscape. The dust of the landscape coats us. It’s controversial, dealing with elements of racist stereotypes. When it was written as a draft for an MA seminar, it caused quite a stir and a spirited response from my fellow students.”
Hichens noted that Sindiwe Magona and Ken Barris had commented on how this story highlighted the problematic way we see “us and them” in our fellow compatriots. “To that end it was an important story that needed to be included,” she said.
Bobby Jordan’s “Shortcut” won the Publisher’s Choice award, which Tim Richman described as transcendent. Jordan said he had spent a lot of time in a bakkie travelling to Grahamstown late at night when he had to decide whether to take a short cut over a mountain pass. In the South African tradition he was drawn to the landscape. Hichens wondered whether it was a nod to Herman Charles Bosman. “This wasn’t deliberate, but once I was in the bakkie, the character took on a life of his own. Bosman’s love of the landscape always came through as did his sense of humour,” Jordan said.
Lidudumalingani Mqombothi was another runner-up. “Memories We Lost” features two sisters, one with schizophrenia, and explores the territory of mental illness and the eccentric traditional practises people undergo in search of a cure. “When I was growing up I read about a sangoma that claimed he could cure the mentally ill by baking them,” said Mqombothi, who was at pains to stress that this wasn’t a definitive narrative about the topic.
Mqombothi recalled growing up in the villages of the Eastern Cape where space was something he grew up with. The landscape of mountains and forest were part of the heritage that shaped him. “In the city there is not a lot of space, but it’s also interesting to imagine how people navigate small spaces,” he said.
“A collection like this teaches us about each other,” Hichens said, referring to the different cultural narratives exploring village and city. Through reading fiction, we see how diverse we are, how exciting our literary landscape is. “This is the value of these collections,” she said.
Bongani Kona reflected on his story “At Your Requiem” which grew out of a R10 discovery at a second hand book shop. An old copy of New Contrast contained a poem called “At Your Requiem” which evoked strong resonance and inspired his story about the relationship between siblings. “Strange things that happen in families is often an incredible journey all of its own,” Hichens noted. Kona, who has written as a book critic, found the process of writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction “brutal”.
Tebello Mzamo’s “The Room” features the outside position that is taken up by a gay man from Lesotho who contemplates his future and his dreams. Hichens asked her about her process and the decisions she had taken. “I just started writing and everything fell into place,” she said.
“Train 124” is the winning story in the collection, written by Andrew Salomon. Hichens read the opening lines aloud: “Neuro-developmental disorder. Hypersensitivity. The professionals are wrong. I am not impaired. What I have are talents that happen to complicate my life. I close my laptop and pick up my bag. I have a train to catch.”
The judges particularly enjoyed the deconstruction of a journey and the humour, Hichens said. Salomon said he saw the story as a concentration or distillation. He travels by train to work and has a love/hate relationship with Metrorail.
“There’s so much stuff that happens in a carriage on a 24 minute journey, that truth really can be stranger than fiction. I started taking notes on what people were saying, how they dressed, the interactions I saw. I wrote this from the perspective of someone with a neuro-developmental disorder that forces them to concentrate really closely all the time, and to note what they’re seeing,” he explained.
“The bizarre is a daily feature of commuting in Cape Town and humour is the only way to survive it. You see the strangest things, the oddest things, that might not be funny to someone else. It’s easier to write down what you see than to think them up,” Salomon said.
“The other day a man selling Fritos was shouting out his wares, but it sounded like ‘fried toes’. The other day on a dark rainy morning when the wind was howling, somebody from the Department of Health had put a sticker on the window with a stop sign. ‘Stop the spread of TB! Open the windows!’” He confessed to feeling an urge to scrawl below it, “Get pneumonia instead”.
Hichens said that the readers and judges had particularly enjoyed the humour in Salomon’s story. “Maybe as South Africans we need to laugh more … humour often covers pain. The theme for the next competition is ‘Die Laughing’ and writers are invited to send in stories of satire, wit and irony. We look forward to a lot of new and wonderful stories,” she said.
Hichens thanked the readers and judges, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Ken Barris and Makhosazana Xaba, as well as Sindiwe Magona, who wrote the foreword.
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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using #livebooks:
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