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.
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.
- Trade Secrets edited by Joanne Hichens
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- Questions for the Sea by Stephen Symons
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