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Flow of life: Water is a collection of 21 superb stories by top African writers

By Diane Awerbuck for the Sunday Times

WaterWater: New Short Fiction From Africa
Edited by Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek (Short Story Day Africa)
****

The brainchild of Rachel Zadok, Short Story Day Africa is five years old. It has a “survival ethos”: to subvert ideas about what it means to be a writer in Africa, and what makes a story African. With that brief, the 2015 competition theme, “water”, attracted a pool of 456 writers from 13 countries across Anglophone Africa and its diaspora. Judges Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Billy Kahora and Mary Watson read the top 21 qualifying entries blind, and the resulting anthology is superb.

nullCat Hellisen’s winning short story, “The Worme Bridge”, recounts a natatory family curse and how we cling to the present – however painful it is. With nods to Lovecraft and Bosman, Hellisen’s voice is utterly distinctive, both bitter and sympathetic. Of her own heritage, she says: “It impacts only on my work in that I don’t belong anywhere in particular, so most of my work tends to have this outsider’s perspective; this sense of being a puzzle piece from a different puzzle.”

nullSecond was Alex Latimer’s “A Fierce Symmetry”, an extended metaphor with its origins in real life, in which a bereaved family boils down the remains of a dead tiger from the East London zoo. Visceral, quirky and profoundly affecting, the story deals with the process of grieving, “what we choose to remember and what we’re forced to forget”.

Mark Winkler’s high-concept “Ink” took third place, the judges calling it delicate, evocative and vivid. Riffing on the Rorschach cards used in psychological testing, the narrator maps a post-apocalyptic Cape Town via the old water sources under the city.

Journalist and novelist Fred Khumalo received special mention for “Water No Get Enemy”. Khumalo uses his trademark hard-hitting humour to investigate how water is used as a pretext for the denunciation, betrayal and brutality experienced by young freedom fighters in the Angolan liberation camps.

nullAsked about the clean sweep by white writers, Zadok gets passionate: “The three writers that did win are writers with multiple novels and other books under their belts, and they’ve had the privilege of working in a robust publishing environment … just read Water. You’ll find at least 10 other stories that could have won.”

Co-editors Karina Szczurek and Nick Mulgrew advise writers to organise, diversify and collaborate. “Those are the predicates of so-called development, and Short Story Day Africa champions that.”

Zadok says: “What we need on the continent is distribution networks … we’re doing it. We just need to figure out infrastructure. Participate. Volunteer for Writivism. Be part of the bigger picture that is the [vibrant] African writing scene.”

The Short Story Day Africa theme for 2016 is “migrations”. “Not everyone leaves [Africa] of their own volition, and not everyone comes with the best intentions; nevertheless, the story of Africa is the story of souls migrating, settling, unsettling, fleeing, seeking, resting … [we] are looking for short fiction that will bring a fresh, urgent perspective to one of our most profound phenomena, and the basis of all our greatest stories.”

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