No Flies or Muzzles on Africa’s Young Storytellers: Diane Awerbuck on Short Story Day Africa’s Feast, Famine & Potluck
By Diane Awerbuck for The Sunday Times
Short Story Day Africa: Feast, Famine & Potluck
Edited by Karen Jennings (Megabooks)
I’m still working out what it means to be an African writer. For me, collections such as Short Story Day Africa’s Feast, Famine & Potluck are evidence of some kind of consciousness – of heritage, of genetics, of culture and identity. What makes us us ? And how do we write about that without it getting in the way of the story?
SSDA runs annual writing competitions, and 2013’s anthology collects the nineteen longlisted entries. Many of the offerings deal with the truth of sorrow and injustice as the existential pre-condition of the continent, but the stories are also imbued with humour that directs the rising above that existence.
These stories don’t begin with the ordinary: they take the extraordinary for granted. My favourites are saturated with the pathos and mystery associated with the South American writers of magical realism. Nick Mulgrew’s outstanding, Coupland-esque “Ponta do Ouro” has “a sea pulling azure and mild-mannered”. In Efemia Chela’s marvellous “Chicken”, the narrator “…had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath, over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely.”
Also pleasing is the absence of carefulness that often muzzles South African fiction. The writers here spare no one. The characters spew cheerful prejudice, all in their quest for better lives. These social climbers are embarrassed by black parents who still hand out Dickensian names to their children, though Aloysius and Enid get points for “…rebranding themselves Loyo and Nida.” Lauri Kubuitsile, in “Black Coffee Without Sugar”, has her motivational speaker muse that in Botswana “…it was easy to convince people you were something if you said it confidently enough.” In other words, the characters blame themselves as much as their circumstances for their predicaments, the collusion of indolence and bad luck.
Correspondingly, the more serious trauma narratives in the anthology are less polished. They may be earnest but they are deeply clichéd. Such is life, they seem to say – and especially, life in Africa. These narratives are necessary trajectories for the writer, but, my God, they are hard on the reader.
For comparison we can only refer to the other stories in the collection. Luckily, Rachel Zadok and Tiah Beautement, who oversaw the judging and selection processes, have put together a very clever anthology. The fact that these stories are all first-draft versions is even more impressive. I’m waiting by the mailbox for more from Chela, Mulgrew and Okwiri Oduor, who took first place in the competition with “My Father’s Head.” Because there is always something new out of Africa.
- Short Story Day Africa: Feast, Famine edited by Karen Jennings
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