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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.

Trade Secrets

Book details

"History is neither coherent nor linear; especially when voiced by individuals" - a Q&A with Mapule Mohulatsi

Mapule Mohulatsi is a South African reader and writer. Her work appears in the Kalahari Review, Itch Magazine, This is Africa, Black Letter Media’s The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story, and the Enkare Review. Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories award and Mapule recently sat down to discuss Mapule’s winning entry, the rebirth of the oral storytelling tradition, and decolonization:

What is the provenance of the title of your story, ‘The Line of Beauty’?

The line, as noun, is a long narrow mark or band. The line, as verb, is to stand or be positioned at intervals in a linear fashion. A line can also be an indication of demarcation, or a verse of poetry. The line of beauty, the story, was inspired by untold stories that are nemesis to symmetry.
The story has many themes or threads running through it, which pertain to ‘the line’. Can you tell us more about this?

The notion of the thread in the story is associated with memory and meaning made as active and present in the process of storytelling – the line is not always coherent, neither are our memories and the meanings we make of the things we can remember. In this sense then, history is neither coherent nor linear; especially when voiced by individuals. This story is against all notions of the historical timeline, and in its own way, against form and structure.

“The notion of the thread in the story is associated with memory and meaning made as active and present in the process of storytelling – the line is not always coherent”

The writing is lyrical, almost mesmeric. In some cases it reads as uncensored free writing. Is this the way the story came to you? Almost as if it was actually being ‘told’ rather than written?

Yes. If anything, I might just be a worthier poet than I am a storyteller; but yes, the story came as a tale told, rather than one written. I do pay attention to how the writing sounds, which is not always an advantage. Each story has its own sound, and this one in particular was very adamant of where it was going, musically, that is.

Is storytelling, particularly oral storytelling, as passed down through the generations, becoming a lost art?

I don’t think so. To me, something as simple as a rumour that spreads through word of mouth is oral storytelling. In fact, I think the oral tradition is experiencing a sort of rebirth. I mean, look at the efforts Afro-futuristic work does, particularly visual artists like Wangechi Mutu who use oral narratives to convey artistic aspirations, as well as tales and fables that have passed down through generations. My protagonist is one such example, she is a drunkard more than she is a storyteller, but for the pleasure of her company, she rambles. These ramblings, rumours, songs, sculptures, etc. maintain the oral tradition.

And of course your unnamed protagonist tells the story of ‘Mama’ herself a powerful figure as storyteller. Mama sits under the peach tree, drawing the girls of the village to her feet to listen to her fantastic tales, many of which are also peppered with sexual allusion. How did you create her as a character?

She reminds me very much of my own grandmother who sat on the bark of a dead tree and spent most of her old age telling herself, and anyone around her, stories. Stories that did not make sense, not that they had to. The characters in her stories were all real. My grandmother’s animated way of telling them even more so. I never had any experience of the villages. I was ‘born and bred’ in the township. But growing up, I realize that even though my grandmother had no fireside, and a circle of grandchildren around her, it was the story of her life, from her side. That matters to me. I did not create a character. I remembered one, and added my own poetics/politics to her. My grandmother had no baritone, no bulging figure; those are merely the instruments of my memory remaking her. She was funny, and beautiful. Those aspects of her I kept.

The story goes back to the beginning (of sorts)… Is it a story of colonization?

Yes. And no. Both. Haha. It is a story (retold) of colonization, which makes it, in its own way, a story of decolonization. Decolonization to me is the shifting of the lens of seeing, of telling, of understanding. It is a story of colonization because it tries to make sense of the sexual tensions and liberties of a time, and it is a story of decolonization because of who tells it, and how. Colonization and miscegenation in particular are usually the stories of men – men who conquered, and men who were conquered. This story is of a different beginning.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Ensure clarity and simplicity, then writing will come across as being of outstanding artistry and skill.

Follow Mapule at
Mapule Mohulatsi @3rdbombadil

Trade Secrets

Book details

The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for Writing 2017 collection

The Goddess of Mtwara and Other StoriesThe Goddess of Mtwara and Other StoriesThe Goddess of Mtwara and Other StoriesThe Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories
The Caine Prize for African Writing is a literature prize awarded to an African writer of a short story published in English. The prize was launched in 2000 to encourage and highlight the
richness and diversity of African writing by bringing it to a wider audience internationally. The focus on the short story reflects the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.

This collection brings together the five 2017 shortlisted stories, along with stories written at the Caine Prize Writers’ Workshop, which took place in April 2017.

The Workshop authors are:
Lidudumalingani (South Africa), last year’s winner
Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya), previously shortlisted
Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), previously shortlisted
Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe), previously shortlisted
Cheryl Ntumy (Botswana/Ghana)
Daniel Rafiki (Rwanda)
Darla Rudakubana (Rwanda)
Agazit Abate (Ethiopia)
Esther Karin Mngodo (Tanzania)
Lydia Kasese (Tanzania)
Zakariwa Riwa (Tanzania)

Book details

A palatable aftertaste: Anna Stroud reviews Ken Barris's The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions

Published in the Sunday Times

The Life of Worm The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions
Ken Barris, Kwela

The worlds depicted in The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions are ordinary, mundane, bizarre and surreal, but always rooted in the beauty of language. Ken Barris is a craftsman – chiselling away at each sentence until it gleams with understated elegance. Three stand-out stories are the titular “The Life of Worm”, “The Olive Schreiner Stall” and “Poor William”. The raw emotion in each is familiar and discomfiting. In the first, we see a man imprisoned in his own paranoia. His house is a fortress and his dog is a beast; yet he still feels unsafe and simmers with rage at something as innocuous as a tree.

In the second, a victim of necklacing tries to reach out to the living from beyond the grave. He fails, in life and in death, to make connections. In “Poor William”, a man comes across a talking ape in his kitchen. This is a complex story, signalling how chance encounters can alter our perceptions forever.

The opening story, “To See the Mountain”, about a writers’ retreat in Cameroon, introduces writing as a major theme. The narrator and his friend wish to see a nearby mountain up close, and embark on a pilgrimage to get near it. Very little writing gets done, as in “The Grand Parade” when a writer sets up a makeshift office in a busy marketplace in Cape Town and witnesses the cruelty and desperation of humans, himself included.

The idea of writing as something that happens under pressure, and perhaps under siege, crescendos in “Really into Timeshare”, where readers can no longer afford to buy whole books and must settle for a few pages at a time.

The mood of the stories is at times gentle and melancholic, like a simple yet exquisite meal that lingers on your palate hours after the plates have been cleared. The collection imparts invaluable knowledge on writing, writers, history, culture, nature, relationships, and the human condition. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

Book details

Enter the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Deadline: 1 November

Entries for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize have opened!

This prestigious prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished fiction (2000 – 5000 words) in English. Regional winners receive £2,500 and the overall winner receives £5,000.

Translated entries are also eligible, as are stories written in the original Bengali, Chinese, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan and Tamil.

The competition is free to enter.

Click here for the submission guidelines.

Watch the video below, created by the Commonwealth Writers YouTube channel, for both insight and inspiration:

"Ja, offices are the home of intrigue, back-stabbing and old-fashioned dishonesty" - Trade Secrets contributor, Sean Mayne

Sean Mayne works for Cape Town’s favourite coffee company. When he can, he snatches minutes, sometimes seconds, to write. In 2014 he cracked the nod for the Adults Only Short.Sharp.Stories collection, picking up an accolade for Publisher’s Choice and simultaneously getting his piece of smut published in Playboy SA. In 2015, he was again published, in Incredible Journey. He is beyond thrilled to make the cut for 2017 as getting published is like tik for his frail ego.

Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Sean’s recent kaffeeklatsch was a telling one to tell the least, e.g. did you know that Sean has been submitted to – and passed – a polygraph test? And once sold a waterless urinal to Pollsmoor Maximum security? No? Read on…
In your story, ‘The Unbelievable Truth’, the tension builds as Lenny and Doon – a couple of salesmen – await a polygraph test for a theft in their office. Have you ever been submitted to a polygraph?

Yes. And I passed. The interview starts innocuously: “So you live in False Bay? The sea views must be lovely, but seriously, how many times have you been to jail?” (Twice.) Then they delve into childhood. Like, “Did you ever pinch money from your mother’s purse?” (Yes.) Or reverse-psychology questions, like “Explain why you don’t fill up your car from petty cash?” (Because I catch the train.) Or “What do you think of the boss?” ( . . . ) I wondered at the time about using a polygraph for marriage vows, or marriage counseling. It got me scheming.

Was that the only inspiration for your story?

No. If there’s a lonelier profession than writing, it’s salesman. The entire psychology of selling is based on overcoming a fear of the word No! Probably because ‘no’ is the first word we learn after ‘mama’ and each working day is spent mentally preparing for rejection (kind of like entering a writing competition). This is done by clinging to a belief in the law of averages, which dictates that one in ten will buy from you. Or in reverse-psychology speak: only nine more ‘no’s’ before I make the first sale of the day. All sorts of kak swirls round in your brain before you pick up that scary phone and make a call (or submit your story) and it’s this mental anguish I tapped into.

So enter Doon, who’s having a bad run and is kind of desperate. Is he desperate enough to steal eight grand from his boss? That’s for the reader to discover.

Personal ‘office relationships’ are at the core of the story, as revealed through the eyes of Lenny. Would you agree that the office provides a pressure cooker when it comes to personal relationships? Did you capitalize on this?

Ja, offices are the home of intrigue, back-stabbing and old-fashioned dishonesty – similar to Survivor, except no one gets voted off – or not the person you tried to frame. Sales offices in particular are without morals because selling is concerned with manipulation. This is what makes crooked salesmen interesting. And isn’t story writing essentially a bunch of lies told in a manipulative way? Some people have a natural gift for selling, an aura, where customers magically say ‘yes’ to their offering. Of course the best of them are in jail for fraud. Sadly, I don’t have that aura, which is why I have to write instead.

Have you ever had a nine to five office job?

I had a sales job where the day started in an office. But the mornings degenerated into long breakfasts in cheap cafés as fellow salesmen and I dissected why that day, specifically, wasn’t good for knocking on doors. We’d reappear in the afternoon. Occasionally we’d sell stuff. Once I sold a perfume machine to Salt River Mortuary (there’s a braai grid outside the walk-in fridge, fyi); another time we sold a waterless urinal to Pollsmoor Maximum security and got to visit the kas (wyfie’s are real – high heels, lipstick, skirts, the works). Mostly I sold septic tanks (your shit is our bread and butter was my elevator pitch).

The office setting might be the most obviously associated with the concept of ‘trade secret’. Why choose this setting?

True. But nowhere in the story is there reference to ‘place’. The office could be anywhere. I did it to make the story dialogue-driven. The setting is stripped down to a bland corridor, a smoking nook, and a boardroom. I’m trusting the South Africanisms of the characters will provide context for the reader. It was a risk because I know how important ‘place’ is to a story – almost like it’s supposed to be one of the characters.

High on entertainment value, it’ a slick piece… As far as the writing goes, there are no inverted commas, the sentences often run on… Was this a conscious choice?

A wise editor once introduced me to contractions (I think it was you, Joanne). The idea of brevity snow-balled and soon any word ending –ly also had to go. It was inevitable that inverted commas would fall. But I love sentences that run on if it’s a first person narrative. It allows for an element of distraction (and manipulation), a key device if hoping to create a twist.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Make each word fight for its place on the page. Choppity chop chop.

Follow Sean on Facebook @lakesidemaynes

Book details

Trade Secrets

Adults Only


Incredible Journey