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Archive for the ‘Joanne Hichens’ Category

“I am always amazed by the way in which women artists articulate pain” – a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Megan Ross

Megan Ross is a writer, journalist and poet from the Eastern Cape. Her work has appeared in New Coin, New Contrast, Prufrock, Aerodrome, Itch and in several award-winning collections and anthologies. She is the winner of the Brittle Paper Literary Award for Fiction, and also the second runner up of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize, for her short story, ‘Farang’. She is a Miles Morland Writing Scholarship shortlistee. In 2016 she travelled to Reykjavik as the first-ever winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. Megan is most herself when she is in the Indian Ocean. Her debut poetry collection, Milk Fever, is forthcoming from uHlanga. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and Megan recently discussed ‘Eye Teeth’, the body as memory, and subverting the patriarchy.

 

‘Megan Ross’s ‘Eye Teeth’ is a lyrical psalm of recovery written from the worst type of betrayal. This story reminds one that abuse all too frequently takes place in the home, by those we know and love. At a deeper level, this story is a rewriting of a trauma narrative by a narrator who reclaims the geography of her body, effecting both a re-imaging and a re-imagining of her past.’

You planted a question (or several questions) at the heart of your commended story ‘Eye Teeth’: how to speak the unspeakable? Did clarity come with the writing? Or did you have an idea of how you’d proceed?

I think because my process in life and in writing is rushing straight to the heart of things, which I think I do unapologetically, because it’s so personal, and so urgent a task for me, that clarity did arrive, eventually, mostly because it had to. Something cannot be spoken if it is unspeakable, but perhaps it can be shown, in another way, find life in new forms. I think this was where the tattoos came in. They are not just images: she specifically used motifs and scenes from her past that came to symbolize the horror she couldn’t verbalise, a private language she wrote across her body, with care and love. No matter how difficult it is to confront, my protagonist finds release, and nourishment, in realizing what has really happened to her, what her father has been doing, all these years, which has been blanketed by the gauze of denial, and of course, a life of being gaslit. I wrote the germ of this story years ago, and returned to it just last year, when the series of vignettes became known to me.

The story, about abuse so very much in the news, is also a reflection on memory. Can you tell us a little more about your understanding of memory, and concepts of time, ways in which memory is recreated as words, or images, and how memory is central to this story?

The idea of dipping into and out of the past came naturally to me because I find that time is most days, more circular than linear. The past is always very much disrupting and interacting with the present, which impacts on the future. I wanted to explore the idea of memory being its own entity, a ghost almost, but more living than that, something embodied, in the way that we carry our memories with us, our pasts are always present, in our bodies, in our minds, we take our emotional and psychic baggage along with us into every relationship, into every exchange with people. We also know that childhood trauma impacts the memory quite significantly, and anyone with PTSD will understand how a traumatic event is not returned to us as a flashback, as it is explained, but that the traumatic event is very much relived.

So there is this idea, for me at least, that until something is properly dealt with, which I am not sure is actually possible, by the way, that it will return, again and again, not as a reminder, but as itself. I myself have given birth only once, but I have relived its scariest moments many times: in the bank, in bed, in restaurants, in moments when I’d rather be doing anything but having a PTSD flashback. And during those moments it is not a flashback, perhaps that would be a comfort for people who experience them. No, it’s very much the moment, the hour, the day itself being reborn. So, for my protagonist at least, there is this sense of legitimizing her own passages of time, as circuitous as they are, with signposts and symbols personal to her, that form part of her own mental and emotional constellations.

You talk of the body’s memory too, ‘memory lives in the bloodstream’. Do you believe that memory is stored in the cells?

I think that if one has experienced a traumatic event, and has or has had PTSD, then we can really agree that memory is a very physical thing, at times. Certainly an experience can be lived countless times over a lifetime, simply because the body refuses to forget something that perhaps someone would rather not confront. But that’s the nature of abuse, and of being abused: there is sadly no escape. At some point, no matter how deeply trauma is buried, it will arrive, and demand to be felt and acknowledged. I was speaking to a friend who is a neuroscientist, and he was explaining how every single thing someone does, feels, thinks, believes, can be brought back to neuroscience, to the brain.

We know that events that occur at certain points in a baby or child’s life can impact their psychological health later on, perhaps precipitating a predisposition to being on the schizophrenic or mood disorder or autism spectrums. So in terms of memory being stored in the cells – there is definitely evidence to prove how memories both positive and negative will affect the chemistry, and makeup of some of the body’s most important cells, which is difficult for some people to understand because we still view so much of emotional and mental health as being these ethereal concepts quite detached from the body. Which they really aren’t. Serotonin and dopamine are physical, depression is physical: these are all events that take place within the body.

You talk of the body as an archive, of writing experience, over the experience already stored in the body’s memory. What do you mean by that?

The body already has its scars: its pains. It doesn’t lie. For instance, if you’re around someone who you don’t trust, you might tell yourself you’re being silly but you may experience a really visceral reaction to them – an aversion to their touch, a need to cross one’s arms over one’s body when they move closer. So, there is this intimate, instinctual knowledge that our bodies possess, an intuition that we should heed more often than not, and so writing the body is really narrating what is already playing out in the form of physical sensations; acknowledging that yes, this person gives me the grils, here I am, writing to that, and yes, this person hurt me, here lies my hurt, in the belly ache I get when I know I’m going to see them, in the inexplicable headaches I have before this meeting. Here I am, honouring that, by giving it verbal and written expression, by articulating it. I think great relief and catharsis comes from finally listening to one’s body.

My own experience with self-harm has taught me that sometimes inflicting physical pain on one’s self, and leaving a scar, creating a physical site for emotional trauma, is powerful, and addictive, because it feels healing somehow. In the same way that a tombstone can be a site for mourning, a place to locate and cement one’s grief, probably because, as I said in a prior answer, we still view so much of our emotional lives as being nebulous and untethered from the body. I don’t want to link tattoos to self-harm in any way, but I think what is interesting about creating a permanent web of images on one’s body, is that they are a private and wholly personal superstructure that command one’s body, that change its appearance and perhaps create for someone a stronger tie to their body, to their experience of it. Perhaps externalizing values and beliefs and memories that might not otherwise be known to anybody else, were they not plainly visible.

“I use writing to make sense of my life, and my past. The body is an archive, of writing experience, over the experience already stored in the body’s memory.”

 

The protagonist remaps her body with tattoos in order to tell her story and to reimagine her past. The reader is treated to a masterful insight into the artistry inherent in the process of creating tattoos. Do you have tattoos? Did the experience of having tattoos etched under skin influence the writing of this story?

Funnily enough, I don’t have a single tattoo, but my boyfriend is a tattoo model, and so I’ve watched as his body has become this incredible expression of his life over the last decade. He is also the father of my child and so the experience of his body is intrinsic to how I have experienced my own body; perhaps this is why tattoos interest me so much. Maybe if I had my own I wouldn’t be as fascinated by them, but being a voyeur in this instance, of his and my sister’s tattoos, and what they have meant to both these very significant people in my life, who have shaped me so much, influenced the way I wrote the story, and how I knew I might create these homing beacons for my character, who feels lost in her own histories, and needs some kind of lighthouse to guide her back to her sanity, to her sense of self. Which is not to define tattoos in this single light, far from it; but rather, I thought it an interesting way, and perhaps a method of creating understanding, and initiating healing, that I could get on board with, being a visual person who also very much admires the artistry of tattooing and the beauty of permanently altering one’s appearance.

In what way is this a process of reclamation? Is it possible to reclaim the body from trauma?

Tattoos, for my protagonist, are a way of making her body her own, and changing how it looks, as well, transforming it from the naked naiveté of its childhood incarnations to this vessel that is more in line with her spirit, using images from her past that are so vivid, and immediate to her, that they become this comforting armour when she wraps them around her body. Talismanic, in a way. Certainly I think she feels that she has taken steps to reclaiming her body from her father, whose distortion of her childhood, and body, and sexuality cannot be erased, but, perhaps, can be set apart from her. She steals her body back from his gaze: I think she manages to view her body away from his terrible, powerful gaze, and begin working against its distortions. The tattoos are another skin, a new body, as if she shed the old one to which so much happened, growing into this new, albeit scarred body, in terms of its history, that gives her confidence.

I think one of the most terrible things about being abused or hurt is that one loses one’s sense of self; it’s either distorted or simply lost, and a lot of people spend years trying to figure out who they are, why they have been hurt, if they are deserving of love, how to treat people with kindness when you have not always received it yourself, and it means that knowing what you want, what you like, your ambitions, your dreams, your goals, your talent, it all takes a back seat, because you’re just trying to survive. Knowing that you can choose, that you can have likes and dislikes and interests, that you can create a life very different to the one thrust upon you, takes a long time to understand, and accept.

Can you comment about feminism in your work in general, and the way women articulate pain?

My feminism and my writing cannot be separated. I believe that in writing – in bringing my subjective experience into the world – I am subverting the patriarchy. Writing is resisting silencing, and writing about the things that I want to: girlhood, womanhood, motherhood, the body, themes that are considered to be ‘domestic’ when written by women, are my own particular stake in the fight against the male gaze, in fighting for my right to express myself and to articulate freedoms and beauty and pain and wonder that are particular to me, to young girls, to women, to mothers. I feel fortunate to write and have my work recognised without having to use a male pseudonym, and in that way I am always amazed by the way in which women artists articulate pain: there is always such inventiveness, and creativity, and almost cruel incisiveness. Women have largely not had the luxury of articulating pain without being pathologised for it. And I still feel that now, very much. But I think that things are changing, and looking at the crop of young writers and visual artists that are rising to the fore on this continent, there is certainly not only a wealth of talent amongst women and non-binary artists, but an ambition, and single-mindedness, and sense of community that is making it possible for many, many more people to create.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

I’m just going to drop one of the old clichés which has served me well the last two years, which is: persist. Through every heartbreak, through every shitty story, shitty rejection, shitty everything, persist. Keep writing. Never stop. If you want this, then you’re going to get your heart broken a couple times and it does every writer good to grow as thick a skin as humanly possible and keep focused on the end goal. Which is personal to every writer. Persist through trying times with your notebook in hand, and write all the junk out of your system, keep writing and writing and don’t feel like you have to publish everything you write because some of it is just the starter and you have to get to the main course, to the dessert, because that’s where the goodness lies, that’s where story is.

So, if you end up with an entire book, be it a novel or short story collection or collection of poetry, and you don’t like it, it’s not the end of you. You’ve just been writing out all the gunk, cleaning house. Write to the end of yourself and you will see that you too are round and the world doesn’t end at the horizon: you can keep sailing and writing and you will eventually, always, reach new land, discover new stories, articulate new truth, find a new way to describe something. It is the most exciting part of writing, this pushing-through, and part of it is being okay with failure, because it’s only by getting through each let down and rejection that we can get to the heart of what it is we’re trying to say, and improve and evolve as artists.

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A Q&A with Mishka Hoosen, winner of the 2017 Short.Sharp.Stories Award’s ‘Best Story’

Mishka Hoosen was born in Johannesburg. She graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and later from Rhodes University with an MA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel, Call it a difficult night, was published by Deep South Books in 2016.

Mishka Hoosen‘s ‘Wedding Henna’, which won the R20 000 prize for BEST STORY, is a powerful exploration of the erotic taboo behind the hijab. Hoosen’s tender and sensual writing explores the delicate process of painting lacy floral patterns, in henna, on the bride’s hands on the morning of her wedding. Behind this technical artistry, the author weaves another, more haunting tale, as she explores the past relationship between her protagonist, Aisha, and the bride to be. Mishka and Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently discussed her winning entry:

Congratulations on winning this year’s Short.Sharp.Stories Award for BEST STORY. What does this ‘win’ mean to you?

It’s incredibly difficult to explain really, and deeply, deeply moving and humbling. It’s difficult, when it’s a story that is, for me at least, centered in so much pain, so much internal and external struggle, and so many unresolved things. This contest means so much in terms of setting the tone of the literary landscape in this country, the conversations we’re having, the stories we’re bringing to light. I’m utterly humbled and awed to be counted among the writers included in this anthology, who are producing such startling, necessary, brilliant work. I’m just deeply grateful, to everyone who enjoyed the story, to the judges, the organizers who have done such exemplary work, and to my husband, who is my biggest supporter and helped give me the space and love to tell this story.

I think one of the biggest and most powerful things about this whole experience is the passion and attention of the Short.Sharp.Stories team who by doing this, are making space for voices and stories that are so often erased, vilified, ignored, to be heard. In recent years, I’ve been trying with all my heart to follow Toni Morrison’s advice, to write the stories I want to read, and more than that, to write the stories I need to hear, the stories younger me needed like air, but didn’t get to hear. If there’s solace that comes from this story, for one person, if there’s a hand reaching in the dark, or a little more empathy and kindness kindled in the world because of it, that’s everything, that’s enough.

“…love demands truth from us, the fullness of truth, and the fullness of acknowledgement, of honoring it.”

 
‘Wedding Henna’ reads in one sense like a coming of age story, as Aisha reconnects with her school friend and the memories are ignited, of being school children together, as Zahra takes this next step into marriage. Would you agree with this?

Yes, I definitely think so. It’s meant as a kind of laying to rest, a necessary addressing and honoring of something before the next stage of life can begin.

The story has such an authentic right to it, one wonders about the inspiration and how close is the story to your own experience?

My story is inspired by some of the people, places, and things I have loved, and what love does. I’m not sure how else to put it. There are aspects of people I’ve known and loved in here, and things that belong entirely to the story. Above all it’s the experience of love I wanted to capture, love that is beset on all sides, love that sears, and is forced to transcend so much in order to remain whole. There’s a great deal of my feelings about love and the sacred in here. About how love lifts us out of ourselves, brings us closer to the sacred, the transcendent. And when you’re dealing with such ignorance and harm and prejudice, the only solace, often, is in the sacred. I wanted to capture that feeling I’ve experienced, and I think many others have. I think art comes from compulsion, and our experiences are what compel us.

Love is not always easy… your protagonist, Aisha, has to subjugate her love for her schoolfriend Zahra… it seems as if instinctively she knows she must do this, yet she tells her aunt. The aunt in turn is revolted by the disclosure: ‘I told her, Auntie Sohair, I love somebody. I’m in love with somebody. With a girl….’ Wasn’t this a big risk for Aisha to take? Why did she do it?

It was a terrifying, horrible risk, yes. But I find, for better or worse, that love demands truth from us, the fullness of truth, and the fullness of acknowledgement, of honoring it. And also, what we love, and who we love, is so often a part of ourselves, a part of what makes us ourselves, and we want to share ourselves with the people we love, with our family and friends, especially. I think that if we have to keep that part of ourselves in the dark, out of sight, then we’re not wholly ourselves with the people we have to keep that from.

I think Aisha would feel that her love of her aunt demands that she be wholly herself with her, around her, and so she can’t deny or hide her love of Zahra. She wants to celebrate it, and share it, because what feeling human being wouldn’t want to do that? If she had been in love with a boy she could have confided in her aunt, she could have sought her advice, it could have been something that brought them together, and if one day she wanted to get married to him, it would have been a source of joy, of closeness, between them. It is inhumane to deny her that, and I think on some level she knows that.

Aisha is one of the most sincere characters I’ve ever written, honestly, and she’s sincere to the point of naivety, in a way. But she’s a Muslim, and we’re taught to speak truth no matter what, even unto our own parents, not to be underhanded, to be sincere in our intentions and our actions, and so if she believes in that, then she will be truthful and forthright. She will speak the truth even if it harms her. She will honor the goodness she finds in her life sincerely and in the open, if she can. It’s perplexing to me why we say one thing and do another, particularly in religion. I wanted Aisha to be a stand against that, this virulent hypocrisy that so many people enact, and most especially when they use religion to justify their own hate, their own dismissal and arrogance and lack of empathy.

Not only are questions of love and sexual identity placed in the spot light, but very gently, and subtly, questions of God are raised too, as Aisha comments: ‘What we were brought up with was so finite… God confined to black and white lines…’ Can you comment on this?

There’s almost too much I have to say about this, and I don’t think I can do my feelings justice. I think I poured a lot of my feelings about it into the story, to be completely honest, and so that will have to say the bulk of how I feel, and even that doesn’t do it very well, in my opinion. I have a reverence and love of the sacred, of God, of faith, that goes beyond anything I could say. It is my driving force and my deepest love and the impetus behind everything I attempt. I have also had the most sacred and sincere and noble parts of myself attacked, and harmed, horrifically, by people who claim the same, and who use religion as their justification for a kind of unkindness, a lack of empathy, of mercy, of love, a virulent and cruel hatred, a cruel dismissiveness and mockery, towards people based on their gender or sexual identity. I find it completely antithetical to what I believe God is – which is all-encompassing, all-understanding, most merciful, most gracious and beneficent and kind. I still struggle with that, with what to do with that.

The themes I address in the story are definitely shaped by and influenced by my own Muslim background, people I’ve known, things I’ve witnessed, and so on.

And so the story unfolds as Aisha tenderly executes the wedding patterns on Zahra’s hands. Apart from being an excellent fictional device to carry the story along, what is the particular significance of the ritual?

It’s generally a celebratory kind of act, and often that’s when a lot of laughter and secrets and advice will be shared. There’s a big aspect of womanhood and camaraderie to it, at least in my experience attending Mehndi nights and doing Mehndi patterns for brides and so on. But there’s also a profound and gentle intimacy to it that is very poignant when there’s erotic love between the two people involved.

In this story, I was actually inspired by a painting called The meeting on the turret stairs by Frederic William Burton, which captures this utterly poignant moment between two lovers whose relationship is forbidden. It’s a perfect depiction of so much of the medieval ideas surrounding courtly love – silence and restraint, sincerity and reverence and longing. The woman turns away while her lover is only able to kiss her sleeve in passing. It’s so charged with erotic tension but executed with such restraint that the moment is held taut, and it’s that aspect, the restraint of ritual and etiquette, the longing and erotic charge of touch, of the hand brushed in passing, that inspired me.

How did you research the ‘trade’ of painting Mehndi?

I’m actually a practitioner myself. I’ve done henna and Mehndi painting since I was twelve.

To get to the style, the writing has a lyrical quality which makes for fluid reading. Are you aware of ‘rhythm’ as you write? Or is the writing style determined by the character?

I’m not sure, I think it depends. I think often, when you get into the kind of ‘flow’ of writing, when you’re receptive and open and things are moving and happening, it kind of happens organically, and when you tap into a character’s voice, it takes on a life of its own.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

There’s not much of a secret except to remember that it’s work. And as Khalil Gibran said, and my dearest mentors always reminded me, ‘Work is love made visible’. You must honor the work. Keep showing up. Keep paying attention. Keep your love as sincere as you can.

Click here to visit Mishka’s author’s page.

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Trade Secrets contributor Stephen Symons on human conflict, reconciliation, and avoiding literary cleverness

Stephen Symons is a graphic designer and poet. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies (UCT). Stephen’s PhD research focuses on how former South African Defence Force (SADF) conscripts (1980-1990) navigate memories of induction into the SADF and whiteness in post post-apartheid society. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. His poetry, essays and short-fiction have been published in journals, magazines and various anthologies, locally and internationally, including Prufrock, Carapace, Stanzas, New Contrast, New Coin, Type/ Cast, uHlanga, Aerodrome, Poetry Potion, The Kalahari Review, LitNet, Badilisha Poetry, Wavescape, Patricia Schonstein’s Africa anthology series and the Short.Sharp.Stories anthologies. Stephen’s debut collection of poetry, Questions for the Sea was published in 2016 by uHlanga Poetry Press. He lives in Oranjezicht with his wife and two children.

Stephen and Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently discussed his Trade Secrets entry, the inevitability of politics slipping into your work, and avoiding literary cleverness.

‘My Cuban’ is a thrilling story by poet, Stephen Symons, which shows this talented writer trying out a new form. By the end of the story, I wished it was the first chapter of a 20-chapter novel. I hope this poet, now turned short story writer, might yet have a novel for the world. His craft and structure are excellent. It is a reader’s delight to encounter a writer who balances the condense power of poetry in the expanded line of fiction’ – Liesl Jobson

You have written that your commended story, ‘My Cuban’, ‘…oscillates between the lingering memory of an aerial encounter over Angola during the Border War and the difficulties of wrestling with an ambiguous present’. What do you mean when you talk of an ‘ambiguous present’?

Contemporary ‘South Africa’ often seems like a surreal cyclic space where the histories and narratives of the past are open to a multitude of interpretations; where the cultural and historical replies and conversations of a few have suffused to many. I think this allows for an ‘ambiguous present’, which is both exciting and equivocal. Uncertainty also presents obvious challenges to artists, irrespective of their creative language, but I’d like to think it acts as fuel for increased creative scope and inspiration. I’d also like to mention there’s an element of intertextuality in that the title ‘My Cuban’ refers to Etienne van Heerden’s 1983 short story ‘My Kubaan’, written at the height of the Border War.

Although reconciliation is at the heart of your story, is it common for ex-combatants to meet their former enemies?

Indeed, there are many stories of soldiers spending the remainder of their lifetimes seeking out their former enemies, and I think those who have never experienced combat like to rationalise the quests of these men with words like reconciliation, closure and catharsis. I believe it’s a lot more complex and inherently more human than that. This is especially true for fighter pilots; as their ‘killing’ is done at a distance. Aerial combat is traditionally focused on skill, technology and the machine — not the man, reason enough to for ex-combatants to meet their former enemies in an attempt to ‘humanise’ their experiences of war.

Faced with the indescribable horrors of war, how challenging was it to humanize both parties — the South African and the Cuban?

Human conflict has always relied on binary views of an objectified enemy, which as we know have ‘oiled the gears of war’ for millennia. The problem is that the aftershocks of combat are felt long after battle, and the need for former combatants to seek out each other is born out of a shared need to ‘humanise the experience’. In some respects it has less to do with reconciliation, and more to do with simply connecting with another human who has experienced similar horrors. There is of course an element of curiosity, another distinctly human trait. Have a look at the following article that appeared in ‘Die Burger’ on the 20th of September 2017.

“Human conflict has always relied on binary views of an objectified enemy”

 

The dogfighting scenes in your story have such authenticity one wonders were you ever a fighter pilot?

I flew light aircraft many years ago, but no, I was never a fighter pilot in the SADF. I’ve spoken with many ex-fighter pilots, from the Second World War, Korea and Angolan war. I did a fair amount of technical research for ‘My Cuban’ and managed to track down a Mirage F1 operating manual and consulted a number of pilot accounts of aerial combat over Angola during the Border War, which allowed for a certain degree of authenticity. The description of the dogfight in ‘My Cuban’ is a collage of various aerial encounters, although my story focuses on a dogfight that took place on the 6th of November 1981. Two Mirage F1-CZs flown by Major JJ Rankin and Lt J du Plessis were scrambled from Ondangwa to intercept two MiG-21 MFs. A dogfight ensued and Rankin could not lock his missile, so he switched to guns and opened fire. His Cuban opponent, Lt Danacio Valdez’s MiG broke in two and then exploded. Although Valdez was seen to eject, he sadly did not survive the encounter.

Please tell us more about your recent exhibition (mixed media, including installation art, sculpture and illustration) held at the Cape Town Castle. Is the story perhaps an extension of/ or part of that work?

No, I didn’t see my story as an extension of the exhibition, but the Border War lasted almost two decades and certainly remains a largely silenced era of South African history that I’m drawn to. In June I had an exhibition titled ‘’NUTRIA’ – Imprints of Conscription into the South African Defence Force (SADF)’. The exhibition aimed to interrogate the manner in which memories of the conscription of white males into the former South African Defence Force enter a contested present. These largely silenced ‘militarised journeys’ began in childhood and have entered the present imbued with a sense of nostalgia and romanticism. I hoped that those memories could be navigated, acknowledged and disrupted effectively by means of a series of creative engagements, perhaps prompting further conversations relating to the hidden and oft silenced histories of all South Africans. (Visit the NUTRIA exhibition website here.)

Your story, ‘Red Dust’, in Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Incredible Journey, focused on an ambiguous ‘future’. Is South African political tension inherent to most of your writing?

Despite my general disdain for politicians, there’s no way as a South African, and a writer, I can ignore politics – it simply attaches itself to your story like a remora fish. If you’re writing about South Africa, the landscape has a way of writing itself into your story, with its politics, history and inevitable tensions. Even a ‘de-people’ landscape (to use J.M. Coetzee’s term), remains a contested space in itself. As much I want to run away from it, politics has a habit of catching up with me in my writing.

With reference to Liesl Jobson’s quote, how do you as a poet ‘retain the power of the short form in an expanded line’?

I was once told that I should treat my poems as short stories and then perhaps a novel. I’m not so sure about that, but I try to avoid ‘literary cleverness’ and unnecessary embellishments that have a tendency to deplete the energy of the narrative, and shift focus from establishing a sense of rapport with the reader. I believe in accessibility, not code, but do believe that readers like to be challenged. Poetry forces one to choose carefully and avoid obvious solutions or easy exit routes, so I inevitably attempt, and mostly fail, to follow a similar approach to the expanded line.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

I think Thoreau was onto something when he said: ‘Write while the heat is in you. … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.’

Visit badilishapoetry.com to read Stephen’s poetry.

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Trade Secrets contributor, Michael Yee, on Auschwitz angoras, writing violence, and second chances

Michael Yee was born in Pretoria. His story ‘Mouth Full Teeth’ appeared in Short.Sharp.Stories Incredible Journey and he’s thrilled to be included again. He’s had the privilege of working in Joburg, Prague, Frankfurt, London, and most recently as a freelance creative director for an ad agency in the Ivory Coast. He looks forward to living in a world where things are more equal. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently conducted an interview with Michael during which they discussed the cruel history behind his entry, having to stay detached while writing scenes of violence, and why short stories shouldn’t be age-restricted.

What was the initial spark for your short story, ‘Satins and Giants’?

I received a horrific video about the angora fur trade from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that I wanted to write about for this year’s competition.

Your story is a hard-hitting exposé of your protagonist, Achim, who gets caught up in a cruel family system as well as the taint of the worst of European history… How did you marry these ideas?

I would love to take credit for that, but really, once the protagonist appeared it was just a case of staying out of his way. He showed up after some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.

The story, influenced as it is by Nazi war crimes, highlights this evil in a visceral way. Was it difficult to write?

Having to stay detached while rewriting those scenes of violence was really tough, many nights I went to bed seeing double.

Your protagonist, Achim, perpetrates a kind of unspeakable cruelty to animals. It has been suggested that your story should come with a ‘trigger warning’. Do you agree with this? (Or are we too molly-coddled as readers?)

I guess movies and music albums use warnings, but that’s a legal requirement to protect minors, which is not the case for short stories, so I would tend to disagree. I hope nobody is ambushed by the cruelty though, as I tried to avoid that with a pretty dark tone from the start. (Having said this: I’m even more thankful now that the story was included in the collection, given the subject matter.)

“Some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.”

 

Did you feel you were taking a risk with this subject matter, a risk which might exclude you from publication?

Definitely, I was nervous when the time came to submit and with so many excellent writers with great stories to tell, the risk of not making it always looms large. But a year on, I’m very grateful to have a story included that I cared about in the collection.

Back to Achim. He does find some kind of redemption. Was this important to you as writer?

Yes, I’d like to live in a place where people get second chances, no matter how badly they messed up. Plus, after everything Achim had been through, he deserved a break. He had earned it!

Is the setting an echo of the concept that ‘wealth corrupts’? Yours is a fascinating scene …

Very much so. After realising what this story was about, it guided many decisions: the setting of structural rot, mansions overlooking other decaying mansions in ‘Sol Kerzner’ country in Johannesburg, and props, dialogue, Achim’s relationships, his motivations. The order that this brought was comforting because the protagonist was so chaotic!

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Be kind and patient with whatever arrives on the page.

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Trade Secrets contributor Kamil Naicker on the dynamics of co-dependence, Alexandre Dumas, and the messiness of life

Kamil Naicker was born in London and moved to Cape Town with her family in 1991. She holds an MA from the University of Leeds and has just completed her PhD thesis on postcolonial crime fiction at the University of Cape Town. She is currently working on a novel about the lives of young South Africans born into exile. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Kamil recently spoke about her Trade Secrets entry, friendship, and the dynamics of co-dependence:

The threads of your story, ‘The Liberator’, of politics, of ageing, of looking back into the past, of personal need, are seamlessly woven into what could be described as a relationship drama. Would you agree?

I think so. I liked the idea of the main character beginning with a mission of sorts, which is gradually revealed as being the result of a very complicated relationship instead of anything overtly political. Dhaneshree is essentially recruited by Isaac, and it struck me that recruitment depends on there being some kind of unfulfilled need on both sides. Obviously this is also true of friendships and mentor relationships, albeit in a much less manipulative way, so I decided to explore a dynamic where there seems to be genuine attachment between the characters in addition to this imperative that’s carried out in the course of the story.

Was there an initial inspiration for the story? Are you personally interested in the stories of struggle heroes?

I think we all are as South Africans. It’s a great part of our cultural mythos, so it just naturally found a place in this story too. The initial inspiration was a bit more weird and ephemeral, a strip of corridor that reflected all these fluorescent lights. I pictured a character trying to walk sedately through this place that felt like a sort of creepy, submerged disco without being able to break into a run.

Your protagonist, Dhaneshree, regularly visits a care home in order to read (which could be considered her ‘trade’) to Isaac, an elderly struggle hero who has a ‘trade secret’ of his own. As the story develops, how does the close relationship between them unfold?

Their story unfolds in reverse, so we don’t see a chronological relationship as such. Isaac is a consistently difficult guy, very brusque and angry with his circumstances. As we learn more about Dhaneshree’s past it becomes clear why she appreciates Isaac. They’re both lonely, and she’s never met anyone who is willing to trade difficult truths with her instead of just pretending everything’s all right.

Then there’s also the reading itself, which kind of introduces her to a new world and different way of thinking, even though her job as a paid companion is ostensibly for his benefit. I think Isaac is also impressed that Dhaneshree doesn’t let him bully her. He senses an inner strength there.

Is the literature that features close to your heart, or chosen to show us more of Isaac’s ‘character’?

Both. It’s what I was reading at the time, but I like the idea of something as distant from our context as Dumas’s writing being used to understand the way we live now.

The Three Musketeers is actually about a group of extremely messed up, but oddly lovable, individuals”

 
What is the particular significance of The Three Musketeers?

The enduring appeal of The Three Musketeers is the fact that it’s actually about a group of extremely messed up, but oddly lovable, individuals. None of them are able to achieve any kind of stability in their personal lives, but as a fighting unit they’re unstoppable. Athos is the most daring fighter in France, in part because he actually doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. They’re able to turn their brokenness into strength, which plays back into the dynamic I was discussing earlier. Tom Burke, who acted in the recent BBC adaptation, describes the bond between the musketeers as ‘co-dependence’ rather than simply friendship, and this describes the dynamic in my story as well. It’s this relationship of great depth and extremes, but not necessarily one most therapists would approve of.

The relationship between the unlikely pair, Dhaneshree and Isaac, is also one of courage and compassion. Is this a story of redemption?

Redemption is maybe too strong a word. There’s a darkness to the story that never really goes away, an undercurrent of distrust and ethical unease. There’s no resolution as such. Courage and compassion, definitely, but it’s all very much embedded in the messiness of life. Everyone continues in their complexities rather than transcending them. At the very most, it’s a piecemeal kind of redemption. Glimmers of grace.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Can I steal one from Emily Dickinson? ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.’

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“Corporations give back just enough to justify a parasitic existence” – Trade Secrets contributor Philip Vermaas

Philip Vermaas writes copy for the cosmodemonic agency. He says, of his fiction writing, “A story idea needs to grab me fully before I try and write it. An understanding family and supportive partner have allowed me to keep at it.” A few years ago, The Blue Hour, an American small press, published a full-length book of his poems, Better Cigarettes and Other Poems. He’s had a several stories and poems published here and there, in print and online, and Cape Town-based pulp magazine Jungle Jim published an excerpt from a novel. “Inclusion in Trade Secrets,” he says, “is a shiny milestone.” Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Philip recently discussed his Trade Secrets entry, ‘The Generate Corporation’, the intrinsic corruption of big business in South Africa, and why he prefers to keep everything he works on a complete secret until at least the second draft…

Philip Vermaas’s story is a game of cat and mouse…

 
Would you agree that your story, ‘The Generate Corporation’, is a scathing comment on South African business practice?

The story is an attempt to distil suspicions that big business operates immorally, often criminally. Corporations give back just enough to justify a parasitic existence. The predators are charting the course. It’s about the fear that predator rationales and rhetoric have been normalized.

I hope it’s scathing about big business in all capitalist countries, not just South Africa. I hope it’s more universal than that.

It’s a brave comment too on BEE. Did you intend this? Or was it a by-product of the developing story?

The BEE thing is a separate issue to the intrinsic corruption of big business generally, worldwide, but a salient aspect of business in this country. It’s inevitable to include BEE if the story is in any way to represent South Africa. BEE is a valid tool for change. But I suspect its spirit isn’t always embraced by those entrusted with implementing change, especially when established methods of making money are to be adapted. It’s merely a suspicion. That’s a benefit of writing fiction, you don’t have to quote sources, and you can indulge suspicions.

Your story also shows how the gullible – in this case your protagonist, Marcus – fall prey – through their own desires – to corrupt ethics. Tell us a little more about Marcus and how you’ve ‘manipulated’ him yourself, as the writer of the story…

His ethos is retro, with his Vespa and 70s film reference. And his naivety is not total, but rather comparative. I want him to be fairly likeable, at least in the way for which I’d forgive a friend his smugness, but not beyond question. I don’t need him to be so either/or. He’s also out for money, and his idea isn’t one to better the world, but rather to fatten the wallet … I don’t want to discredit him as a valid mind. Part of the point is that anyone who isn’t cold and mercenary would be naive in his situation. But Malthus, the antagonist, is naive in his own way. His attitudes to business and society are cynical. Cynicism and optimism are two sides of the proverbial coin. Both are naive. The story is cynical, so in a way it’s also naive. But perhaps a little naivety is necessary to write fiction.

At one point Marcus, who approaches a company to offer a new idea for patent, is offered a seat in reception, yet there are no seats. Is this intended as a bizarre ‘clue’ which foreshadows the later turn of events?

…The whole idea of there being no seats, which comes back at the end, is to convey a Kafkaesque sense of the corporation, a sense of alienation. It’s supposed to be surreal, with a nod to the difficulties in dealing with the corporate stone-walling structure, where things are said that are meaningless. The disbelief when dealing with corporations, the sheer difficulty in explaining yourself, can be very surreal.

The structure delivers a wonderful last line… many might stress that this is central to a successful short story. Do you agree?

I felt a little iffy about the last line, the whole paragraph really. I worried it was too mechanical, too emphatic a twist. But I think the short story, as a medium, does dispose to harder mechanics, a punch line. Roald Dahl is known for his strong punch lines, but there are writers for whom the wrapping-up doesn’t have to be so gimmicky, have the sting of a joke. A writer like, say, Raymond Carver, offers emotional, psychological, and observational last lines or, rather, last ideas; which often open up new ideas. And I generally prefer those stories. For me, a satisfying narrative is one that sparks thought rather than finishing it off.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

I keep everything I’m working on a complete secret until it’s done, at least until the second draft. It’s about ownership of the idea. If I mention what I’m working on, even someone’s facial twitch will bring in the doubt. My ideas are fragile and easily overwhelmed. They’re best protected until they’re safe-ish in the second draft.

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“I hope my story illustrates obstacles to the full realisation of the dignity of Black Women” – Trade Secrets contributor Ntsika Gogwana

Ntsika Gogwana was born in Mdantsane, South Africa in 1984 and educated at UNISA and the University of Fort Hare, in Agricultural and Animal Sciences. Currently, he works as a Food and Beverage Chemistry Analyst for Aspirata Auditing, Testing and Certification in Cape Town. He also volunteers for Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda, a grassroots peoples’ organisation based in Keiskammahoek that mobilises rural communities in the Eastern Cape on issues relating to communal land rights, traditional leadership, rural democratisation and sustainable development. He is interested in producing fiction that challenges normative gender and sexuality narratives. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, and Ntsika recently discussed writing from the point of view from a woman, society’s overly sympathetic approach to men, and how reading is a must for any aspirant writer.

Ntsika Gogwana

 

Your commended story, ‘Home Cooked’, about a troubled relationship between a husband and wife, brings into focus abuse of women by men and the rage of women against that abuse. What sparked this interest?

The story was inspired by Black Women whose unacknowledged, unremunerated work as wives and mothers underwrite the racial and patriarchal structure of South African capitalism. During the Fees Must Fall protests of October 2015, I had a conversation with Wanelisa Xaba, who features on the title page of my story pictured here. She detailed the marginalization, violence and erasure that Black Women and Queers experienced within the movement. I felt that, beyond the overtly political act of organizing protests, I had to stand in solidarity with women even if I could only do so in the field of literature.

Wanelisa Xaba on the cover of ‘Home Cooked’

 

Was there a particular driving factor for you when developing the story?

I hope my story illustrates obstacles to the full realisation of the dignity of Black Women, which is a blot on the progress of our entire society.

However, in your story, the wife and mother, Nomafa, creates a revenge scenario that could be considered just as heinous as the treatment she suffers from her husband. Why did you choose to do this?

In writing my entry I was inspired by several texts that feature male/female antagonism (in particular ‘Cruel Karma’ by Nduka Ekeh, ‘Eve Was Framed’ by Helena Kennedy, ‘The Huntsman’ by Anton Chekov and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ by Roald Dahl). I wanted to produce a literary response to what I saw as ‘Woman as subject’ in these texts. I set out to make the woman the prime mover, a revolutionary agent, who uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

What was it like for you to write from the point of view of a woman? How did you put yourself in Nomafa’s headspace?

I felt incredibly apprehensive about tell a ‘woman’s story’ in the first place, and so I chose to write from a third person perspective to connote a respectful distance from my male-self and the female protagonist. That said, I believe that subjection is a common South African experience given our history and that the oppression of women is objectively wrong. The conversations I have with Black feminists helped a great deal, but I still think that my story could have been told more authentically had it been written by a Black woman, especially with regard to the dialogue and Nomafa’s ‘voice’.

Do you have any sympathy at all with her husband, Sizwe?

Yes, I do. However I think society is overly sympathetic to men and that fragile masculinity is a patriarchal device to excuse abusive men. Given that I am a man, I understand the expectation that I should feel gender empathy with any and all men, but I think the reality of gender-based violence in South Africa required that I break ranks in telling this story. My ethical position is that there can be no symmetry between the violence of the subjugated and the violence in resistance to that subjugation.

As this is your first published work, are you inspired to write more?

Absolutely! I was greatly honoured and encouraged to be commended for my entry. However, it has been an incredibly busy year for me – mostly managing relocating from East London to Durban, and then to Cape Town. I just need to get some kind of regularity in my life so that I can concentrate on developing new stories.

What have you learned through this process?

I’ve learnt a great many things. From how to better structure my prose, to the intensive editing process it takes to get a story ready for publication… I suspect I still have much to learn.

As a ‘new voice’, if you could share a writing Trade Secret what would it be?

Read, read and read. The teacher of good writing is reading great stories.

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Trade Secrets contributor, Kerry Hammerton, on her short story, researching dagga, and South Africa’s political climate

Kerry Hammerton lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She has published poetry in various South African and overseas literary journals and anthologies – most recently Hallelujah for 50ft Women (Bloodaxe Books: 2015). She has two poetry collections These are the lies I told you (Modjaji 2010) and The Weather Report (2014). Kerry has an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from the University currently known as Rhodes. ‘Spider Woman’ is her first published short story. Here, Kerry and Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, discuss her futuristic crime romp, researching dagga, and South Africa’s current political environment.

Your story, ‘Spider Woman’, a futuristic crime romp in which your protagonist, Carey AKA Mrs Harvester, takes ‘entrepreneurship’ to the extreme, is great fun. What first inspired the story?

The daughter of a friend of friend delivered a suitcase full of cash to a smuggler at an airport (not in South Africa). The idea really intrigued me – how would you find such a person? How would you identify them at the airport? That opening scene wrote itself very quickly and established the personality of my main character, Carey.

Carey is certainly versatile when it comes to business. And she keeps a cool head. How did you research her role as ‘botanist’ in the fullest sense of the word?

I imagined the story set in the future with an authoritarian government that didn’t want interference from the outside. One of the big threats to such a society would be food security. To make Carey and her husband valuable to that society it made sense to give them jobs as botanists who are trying to feed the nation, jobs where they don’t need earn a lot of money. In this scenario Carey needed an activity that would give her a lot of cash. In an authoritarian society it would have to be something illegal. Growing and selling marijuana seemed to be the best option.

It is very interesting what you can find online via Google… I simply searched for websites that would tell me how to grow and harvest marijuana. There were several and they gave me the specific information I needed – how you would grow weed in a confined space, the lighting you would need to make it grow, how you would know when it was ready to harvest and how you would cure your product. This helped to add authenticity to the story.

What appealed to you about setting the story in the future?

The freedom to create a world that works in a particular way – I could create a walled-society with a ban on cars in the inner city, few jobs, very little money, a society that goes through a second revolution. It made the story believable.

It seems that the world Carey and Jamesy inhabit, and the rest of the cast of wacky characters, isn’t actually much different – on many levels – to the world we live in today. Would that be fair comment?

If we look at the world it feels as though we are going backwards – that we haven’t learnt from history. All the things in my future society have already occurred and may be occurring again. I think that there is a real possibility that the world in future could become more fragmented and turned inward – my story is just a reflection of that.

The ‘politics’ of the story reflects that of South Africa. Is this intentional?

That was the one element of the story which I deliberately introduced. The rest of the elements of the story seemed to introduce themselves to me. I thought the political element – in particular appropriating state funds for personal use – rounded off the story and at the same time made a direct comment on the current South African political environment.

In my story I recreate: the large gap between the haves and have-nots, the haves being seen as more worthy, and the use of propaganda to tell the state’s version of the truth. It sounds all negative I know but my future society does have positive aspects – the ban on cars in the inner-city, a multiracial and multicultural society where normal citizens respect each other and each other’s traditions, leisure activities that are free for everyone – while these may not be a reality in our society now they could be in the future.

The title is intriguing. Why this reference?

As you mentioned Carey has a cool-head, she organises the illegal activities she and her husband, Jamesy, are involved in; she is smart and knows what she wants. She is the super-hero of her own life. In the story spiders help Carey and her husband fulfil their dreams. Combining these two factors gave me the title.

As a poet, how did you translate your skill and craft to writing the short form?

Writing short stories is very different from writing poetry. In a poem often what you leave out enhances the poem. In a short story you need to flesh out all the details. I found my editing skills helpful – in poetry you have to edit a poem until you have the essence of the poem, until it flows. Reading and writing poetry develops your ear for language, pace and rhythm – I like to think that I have managed to bring these into my short story writing.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Be intrigued by the world. Listen to other people’s stories. Don’t pay attention to the obvious. And let your imagination wander.

www.kerryhammerton.com

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Trade Secrets contributor Sally Partridge on magic, being a kitchen witch, and carbomancy

Sally Partridge is a novelist and short story writer from Cape Town, South Africa. She is a three-time winner of the M.E.R Prize for Youth Fiction and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Short Story Prize in 2013. She is passionate about youth literature, and bringing words to life. Her popular first novel was adapted into a school play titled Gif. For her contribution to the creative arts, Sally was named one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2011. Her fourth novel for young people will be published in February 2018. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories.Award, recently sat down with Sally and the two discussed her short story ‘Kitchen Witch’, magic, and the art of carbomancy.

Sally Partridge

 

Your story ‘Kitchen Witch’ tells the tale of a tender relationship between an elderly ‘baker’ and her protégé. What was your initial inspiration?

The story happened by accident. A typo over Whatsapp resulted in an exchange over what the arcane art of carbomancy would involve. From this “what if” scenario, it evolved into a story about the past and present, how fast time moves and how quickly the modern world can change if you stop paying attention. In a sense it’s my way of exploring a changing world. While I’m focused on the past, the present seems to have skipped ahead, and sometimes I look around and think to myself, “When did Snapchat happen?” and then, “Oh, it’s already gone.” I enjoy spending time offline, but there’s a cost attached to that – you stop keeping up with what’s happening. I wanted to create a character that’s so out of place in the modern world that she feels like she doesn’t belong anymore, and explore how she comes to terms with that.

Mrs Bailey has a charming sense of humour. Is it her age and experience which adds to this?

It was a defining characteristic. I wasn’t intending to write a caricature of an elderly woman, but rather a real character that the reader could engage and identify with.

For the uninitiated, what is ‘carbomancy’?

Carbomancy is the practice of predicting the future through baking and the reading of crumbs.

Do you personally like to bake?

Yes. Like Mrs Bailey, I’m a complete kitchen witch. For me, cooking and experimenting in the kitchen is all about how the results are going to be experienced. I’ll make pumpkin fritters because they’re a friend’s favourite, chicken soup for someone who is feeling low, a cake to make someone feel special on their birthday. I love how food is able to lift the spirits, and there’s magic in that. It’s transformative.

What is it that fascinates you about magic?

There’s an awe and wonder to magic, and a complete absence of rules and reason. I’m in love with the idea of using your imagination and creativity to make sense of things you don’t understand. I love looking at old ivy-covered buildings and imagining ghosts inside and leaves circling in the wind as some sort of impish mischievousness. It’s liberating to be able to see the world as this wild, powerful thing and not just an endless dredge of making ends meet.

Is magic a common theme in your other work?

I think so. Which is maybe why I love the young adult genre so much. Teenagers haven’t been jaded by the economic hamster wheel yet. The world is huge and full of possibilities. I like to think books can keep them believing that for a little longer.

Not only is the sense of magic enchanting, but in ‘Kitchen Witch’ the sea-side village of Muizenberg takes on an ethereal quality. Was this setting deliberate choice?

While I was writing the story I imagined that it could have taken place anywhere, but the more I built this world and added detail the clearer is became that Mrs Bailey lived in a ramshackle cottage in the old Muizenberg village. It seemed perfect somehow. Muizenberg is a place that changes slowly. Landmarks like the colourful changing booths and the water slides have stayed exactly the same for years, but change is happening. New additions like the Bluebird Market and the trendy restaurants at Surfer’s Corner show signs of a subtle gentrification, which was perfect for the theme that was developing.

What is your writing Trade Secret?

This pertains to magic again. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that magic exists and wanted to explore how and why it reveals itself to a select few.

Follow Sally on Twitter @Sapartridge

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