Books LIVE is proud to present the list of fiction, short story collections and poetry to look out for in the first half of 2016.
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There are new novels by Lauri Kubuitsile, Paige Nick, Yewande Omotoso, Sam Wilson and Nthikeng Mohlele to look forward to, as well as Niq Mhlongo’s long-awaited collection of short stories, Affluenza.
In addition to the books listed below, Modjaji Books will be publishing two debut poetry collections, Gedigte by Shirmoney Rhode and How to open the door by Marike Beyers (working titles), as well as Tjieng Tjang Tjerrie and other stories, a collection of short fiction by Jolyn Phillips.
There is also a promising crop of debut novels.
Looking towards the second half of the year, the 2016 Short Sharp Stories anthology, Die Laughing, will be launched at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July, while Ekow Duker’s third novel The God Who Made Mistakes will be published by Pan Macmillan in August.
If you think we’ve left something out, feel free to let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.
Ed’s note: We usually make a point of not using the word ‘local’ to refer South African books, but include it the title of this bi-annual list simply to differentiate it from the many international lists that pop up at this time of year.
Without further ado, have a look at the list:
Note: Covers are subject to change, and information was provided by the publishers
From Man to Man, or Perhaps Only by Olive Schreiner, edited by Dorothy Driver
Schreiner is best known for her youthful The Story of an African Farm, but the “new book” of her adult years may well be her greatest achievement. It is arguably more important and relevant, not only because it is a more mature study of early racial and imperial relations but also because of its more modern characterisation.
This new edition of From Man to Man, edited by Dorothy Driver, corrects the editorial and proofreading errors that marred previous editions. It also provides another ending, in Schreiner’s own words, as told in a letter to a friend.
More about the book
Outside the Lines by Ameera Patel
Outside the Lines is both a thriller and a family drama. It tells the story of two women: Cathleen, a troubled young woman living in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg; and Flora, who is the domestic worker at Cathleen’s house. Cathleen disappears and tensions and drama ensue.
Craig Higginson calls the novel “edgy, witty, fresh, engaging, moving, memorable”.
Ameera Patel is an actor who has worked on stage and in television (best known for her role as Dr Chetty in Generations). She is also an award winning playwright. Outside the Lines is her first novel.
Happiness is a Four-Letter Word by Cynthia Jele
Happiness is a Four-Letter Word won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa region and the Film Category of the 2011 M-Net Literary Awards. This is the film-tie in edition to coincide with the new movie starring Khanyi Mbau, Renate Stuurman and Mmabatho Montsho.
Think Sex and the City, in Sandton …
Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood
Nick Wood’s debut novel, which will be launched at the British Science Fiction Association Convention this Easter, was longlisted for the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013 and has shouts from Sarah Lotz, Ian Watson and Ursula K Le Guin.
Azanian Bridges is a socially acute fast-paced thriller that takes place in an alternate modern day South Africa where apartheid still rules.
More about the book – and an exclusive excerpt
The Peculiars by Jen Thorpe
Phobias abound at the Centre for Improved Living, where Nazma goes for help. She’s crazy about baking and desperately wants to become a pastry chef, but her fear of driving keeps her stuck working in a train-station kiosk, where she sells stale food to commuters while dreaming of butter croissants and fresh strudel.
Set in a Cape Town as peculiar as its characters, The Peculiars is Jen Thorpe’s heart-warming and humorous debut.
More about the book – and an exclusive excerpt
Stations by Nick Mulgrew
David Philip Publishers
In his the debut collection of short stories, Nick Mulgrew tells 14 subtly interlinked tales set along the Southern African coastline from Cape Town to Mozambique, in which relationships, dreams and even narrators die; where fields catch fire, towers implode, and the shadows of the past grow long.
But even from the most uneasy corners – tourist traps, colonial purgatories and libraries for the blind – these stories offer small mercies: glimpses of faith, beauty and the possibility of salvation, no matter how slight.
More about the book and launch
The Cry of the Hangkaka by Anne Woodborne
Shamed by a divorce, Irene seeks to flee with her daughter from post-WWII South Africa. Jack, a Scotsman who works at the tin mines in Nigeria, seems to be the answer to Irene’s prayers. In the torrid heat of the Nigerian plateau, Karin is exposed to the lives of the colonisers, colonised, and most of all to the dictatorship of Jack.
Máire Fisher says: “I read compulsively, hoping Karin would find a way to escape, hoping she wouldn’t … because then this beautifully nuanced story would come to an end.”
The Cry of the Hangkaka is the debut novel by Anne Woodborne.
Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo
In his characteristically humorous and piercing style, Niq Mhlongo writes about the span of our democracy and the madness of the last 20 years after apartheid.
His short stories address issues such as crime, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, the new black elite, and land redistribution. They have been published to critical acclaim in France, Spain, Germany, Italy and in the USA but remain largely unknown in South Africa.
Affluenza follows on the success of Mhlongo’s three novels, and is his first collection of short stories.
More about the book – and an excerpt
Permanent Removal by Alan Cowell
Permanent Removal is a beautifully written political thriller focusing on the nature of justice, truth, betrayal, sociopolitical and ethical quandaries, complicity and moral agency. The novel introduces readers to a cast of players whose destinies intertwine in a particularly gruesome murder.
Alan S Cowell is an award-winning New York Times journalist.
More about the book
Nwelezelanga: The Star Child by Unathi Magubeni
With a rich vocabulary that is poetic and uncluttered, this debut novel is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Thando Mgqolozana says the novel “will be a rare gift for the scholars, and we ordinary readers will not remember our lives before Magubeni happened”.
Unathi Magubeni is an Eastern Cape-based writer, sangoma and trainee herbalist, who left the corporate world in 2009. His first book, a collection of poetry called Food For Thought, was published in 2003.
Nwelezelanga is a BlackBird Books title.
Like It Matters by David Cornwell
Ed and Charlotte are trying to make a life in Muizenberg, but old habits die hard, and they become embroiled in a scheme that soon slips out of their control.
The first novel from writer and musician David Cornwell, who you may have heard of from the rock band Kraal. Cornwell’s writing has appeared in the Mail & Guardian, Prufrock, Aerodrome, Jungle Jim and New Contrast, among others.
Bearings by Isobel Dixon
In this wide-ranging poetry collection, Isobel Dixon takes readers on a journey to far-flung and sometimes dark places. These poems are forays of discovery and resistance, of arrival and loss. Dixon explores form and subject, keeping a weather eye out for telling detail, with a sharp sense of the threat that these journeys, our wars and stories, and our very existence pose to the planet.
JM Coetzee calls Dixon “a poet confident in her mastery of her medium”. Bearings, her fourth collection, will be published in the UK by Nine Arches Press.
Predator by Wilbur Smith, with Tom Cain
Hector Cross, Wilbur Smith’s most cut-throat and exciting protagonist, is back.
Two men are responsible for the death of Cross’s wife and only one is left alive: Johnny Congo – psychopath, extortionist, murderer, and the bane of Cross’s life. He caught him before and let him go. Now, Hector wants him dead. So does the US government.
Predator is a blockbuster of a novel, with rampaging action and edge-of-your-seat thrills.
Pleasure by Nthikeng Mohlele
Pleasure is one of the oldest and most enduring grand themes of literature, presented here through the eyes and thoughts of writer and dreamer Milton Mohlele.
Drawn against the canvas of 1940s wartime Germany/Europe and modern-day Cape Town, South Africa, Milton sacrifices all for glimpses into the secrets and deceptions of pleasure – and how little those are in the vast scale of life in its glory and absurdity.
Pleasure is Nthikeng Mohlele’s fourth novel.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Penguin Random House
World rights in all languages for Yewande Omotoso’s new novel were snapped up by Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House, in April last year.
Omotoso’s first novel, Bom Boy, was published by Modjaji Books, and won a 2012 South African Literary Award for first published author. It was also shortlisted for both the Etisalat Prize and the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.
The Woman Next Door tells the story of neighbours Hortensia James and Marion Agostino – one black, one white – both over eighty, and sworn enemies.
Dutch Courage by Paige Nick
Grace Hendriks has led a pretty sheltered life. So when her sister Natalie begs her to take her place as a Rihanna impersonator at a club in Amsterdam, no alarm bells go off …
Paige Nick’s new novel, hot on the heels of the hilarious Death By Carbs, is being described as Big Brother meets Showgirls. It’s a hilarious and revealing glimpse into the life and times of a group of career strippers and celebrity impersonators.
The Scattering by Lauri Kubuitsile
The Scattering follows the journeys of two women through history as they wrestle with betrayal, loyalty, hope and the struggle to survive.
Lauri Kubuitsile, who lives in Botswana, is the author of three children’s books, a book for young adults, three detective novellas, four romance novels, three collections of short stories for children (co-written), and a book of her own short stories.
Our Fathers by Karin Brynard
With Plaasmoord and Onse vaders, Karin Brynard made her mark as one of South Africa’s most popular crime writers. Her much-loved characters now make an appearance in Our Fathers, the English translation of Onse vaders.
The novel is part of the hotly contested four-book deal won by Penguin in 2013.
When an apparent break-in goes awry in Stellenbosch, Captain Albertus Markus Beeslaar is drawn into the investigation, while 1 500 kilometres to the north, Sergeant Johannes Ghaap finds himself in a race against time to save the lives of a kidnapped woman and child who are being held captive in Soweto.
In the Maid’s Room by Hagen Engler
How to be white when you’re no longer centre of attention? When you no longer even matter? How to be white when everyone’s patience runs out?
These existential questions are addressed in Hagen Engler’s third novel, the satirical farce In the Maid’s Room.
Other crucial learnings are how to buy weed, how to handle a “brown mouse” and how not to rhyme 16 bars about wanking.
Namaste Life by Ishara Maharaj
Namaste Life is a South African Indian novel, set in Durban and the Eastern Cape, that tells the story of twin sisters who grow up in a sheltered traditional Hindu home.
The sisters’ lives change dramatically when they get to university in the Eastern Cape.
Ishara Maharaj has a background in background in organisational psychology, but is also a closet nomad and is the author of Nine Life Lessons: Answers from the Universe.
The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo
Mohale Mashigo is the pen name of Carol Mashigo, also known by her stage name, Black Porcelain. She is a radio moderator, storyteller, award-winning singer and songwriter.
The Yearning, her debut novel, comes endorsed by Zakes Mda. It is the story of Marubini, a young woman whose past starts spilling into her present. Something is making her sick and her mother is not willing to tell her what it is. She embarks on a journey that is both magical and frightening to find out what it is that haunts her.
Gold Never Rusts by Paul-Constant Smit
Reminiscent of Wilbur Smith and Tony Park, Gold Never Rusts is a unique and inventive adventure story that links the Queen of Sheba with Paul Kruger, and is as captivating as it is entertaining.
Gold Never Rusts is the debut novel from Paul-Constant Smit, a keen diver, spearfisherman, hunter and traveller, who has worked as a translator, art dealer, bespoke-furniture designer and international trader. The book will also be released in Afrikaans as Goud Roes Nooit in June.
By Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho
The fragrance of new books permeated the air inside Giyani Multipurpose Hall during the recent launch of two Xitsonga books, Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula and Mpimavayeni.
Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula is a poetry anthology, featuring 10 poets and edited by Moses Mtileni (left). The title can be translated as “If Only it Could Rain”.
Mpimavayeni is a novel, authored by Mtileni. Both books have been published by Nhlalala Books, a publishing initiative that aims to produce books that tell interesting and ignored stories to bolster South Africa’s reading level in African languages.
Speaking about the making of Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula, Mtileni says that the poets are young writers whose paths have crossed his at different times during the past five years.
“These are writers who presented to me complete manuscripts they had attempted to have published before, in full or in parts, and whose work I fell in love with,” he says. “They write differently from much of what existed in Xitsonga poetry and from each other, in concern and in style, and I felt they needed to be heard.”
Poets featured in the anthology are Basani Petronella Mathye, Hitekani Ian Ndlozi (left), Thymon Rivisi, Mkhongelo Prayers Chabalala, Onassis Mathebula (middle), Enock Dlayani Shishenge (right), Shikhumbuza Shadrack Vutlharimuni Mavasa, Khanyisa Vista Chauke, Nzam Noel Mathebula and Moses Nzama Khaizen Mtileni.
Mtileni says there is hope in the fact that these young people have chosen to write, and to do so in their own language. He believes publishers should give more time to books that transcend the education market.
“It is said that the levels of reading in African languages are very low,” he says. “As a result, much of what is published is aimed at the education market and not at general readership. The material published, both on language and fiction, is tailored in design, content and packaging to meet requirements outlined in bulky guidelines issued by the Department of Basic Education.”
Mtileni says that the criteria put in place by the Education Department do not allow much space for experimentation and innovation between and within genres.
“It limits writing for enriching the language and the cultures they embody,” he points out. “It limits the infinite possibilities language, writing and literature present for cultural preservation, sustenance and growth.”
Mtileni also notes that because much of the writing material developed for education is produced within very tight deadlines, there is limited time to hunt for new talent, new voices, new publishers, new writers, and by extension new stories and experiments.
“Many publishers confine themselves to this space, because it promises guaranteed purchase of books, it guarantees a market, an audience,” he says. “And emerging publishers who do not immediately penetrate this market battle for survival, the numbers they reach are too few to generate sufficient profits.
“Then there are the libraries, under the Department of Arts and Culture, which do not procure sufficient African language titles, especially in the cities.”
The answer, Mtileni says, is to try harder to cultivate a culture of reading and writing.
“We need to have as many book clubs and writing workshops and competitions as possible,” he says. “We need to make it fashionable to read and write in our own languages, because they allow us to speak more deeply about ourselves and for ourselves and with ourselves, and in doing so, to speak better to the world.”
Mtileni says writers writing in African languages need to engage with other languages and cultures from a position of authority, and to allow for richer cross-pollination of cultures and wisdoms embodied in their writing.
“And so we must find ways of opening up processes of book selection for education and for libraries and for archivism,” he says. “Having said all these things, I must qualify that I speak solely from my own experiences as a Xitsonga writer, translator and publisher and I do not assume that these challenges I cite apply across the board.
“Through concerted collective effort, it is possible to enrich our own languages, and to be enriched by them.”
Proud poet Basani Mathye says: “I’m honoured to be featured in Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula. I am excited to be part of a group of young writers who are passionate about writing and preserving our mother tongue. We need to make reading fashionable, and especially books in our own languages.”
Mathye sees a bright future for herself as a writer. “I’m looking into writing Xitsonga children’s books and also working on a book about my family history. I hope to publish a collection of my poetry as well in the future.”
Everyone who attended the launch were offered free copies of both Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula and Mpimavayeni.
The launch has opened more doors for more books to be written and published, and for more literary activities to happen in and around Limpopo.
Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho is the author of A Traumatic Revenge and The Violent Gestures of Life:
Perhaps I had begun to truly believe that the importance of African literature was to connect us ordinary Africans to each other’s lives.
Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a young writer and thinker from Botswana, who is rumoured to working on her first book, has written a thought-provoking and somewhat controversial article for Okay Africa in which she categorically states:
“I’m done with African Immigrant Literature.”
Mohutsiwa, who was recently longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize and won second place in the 2015 Bessie Head Short Story Awards, makes a call for African stories set on the African continent.
Read the article, and let us know what you think in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter:
I’m over it: Immigrant Literature
I don’t know when it happened. It might have been somewhere in the middle of Teju Cole’s Open City, as I followed his protagonist around the streets of New York. Or maybe it was at the end of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, when I boarded the flight to America with its precocious star. Or perhaps it was a few weeks after finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and I had finally begun to forget the stress carried by illegal African immigrants in Europe.
Whichever way it happened, it happened. And I found myself flinging my copy of The Granta Book of the African Story across the room, vowing to never read a piece of African Fiction again, or at least its “Afropolitan” variety.
Let me explain.
Mohutsiwa recently presented an inspiring TEDxTalk in Amsterdam entitled “Is Africa’s Future Online?”. She ends the talk on a powerful note:
I realised that, even though sometimes it’s very difficult to believe in Africa, Africa has no problem believing in me.
Is Africa’s future online? Yes. We are Africa’s future, and yes, we are online.
Watch the TEDxTalk, then read an article about her experience at the event:
My TEDx speech was about hope. I didn’t mean it to be. The organizers certainly didn’t mean it to be. They’d invited me to give a speech about a hashtag (#ifafricawasabar) and possibly add a bit of color to a line-up of otherwise European intellectuals.
After my speech, I went backstage and something truly moving happened. I was met by every African person who had attended the TEDx conference that day. They hugged me tightly and told me how proud of me they were. And then one of them, a middle-aged man who I would later find out was once a refugee from Congo, told me that my speech had melted his heart and in-so-doing had lifted the anger and disbelief he had nursed about leaders like Kabila and Mobutu his whole life.
David Philip Publishers invites you to join them for the Cape Town launch of Stations, the debut collection of short stories by Nick Mulgrew.
In Stations, Mulgrew tells 14 subtly interlinked tales set along the Southern African coastline from Cape Town to Mozambique, in which relationships, dreams and even narrators die; where fields catch fire, towers implode, and the shadows of the past grow long. But even from the most uneasy corners – tourist traps, colonial purgatories and libraries for the blind – these stories offer small mercies: glimpses of faith, beauty and the possibility of salvation, no matter how slight.
Told with a magpie’s eye for the vivid in the ordinary, and the surreal in the everyday, Stations presents a fresh, compelling and essential new voice. Masande Ntshanga will be chatting to Mulgrew on Thursday, 3 March at The Book Lounge to find out more about the book.
Mulgrew launched the myth of this is that we’re all in this together , his debut collection of poetry, at the end of last year and co-edited the new Short Story Day Africa anthology, Water: New Short Fiction from Africa, with Karina M Szczurek. Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive, one of the biggest debut novels of the past two years.
See you at The Book Lounge!
- Date: Thursday, 3 March 2016
- Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
- Venue: The Book Lounge
71 Roeland Street
Cape Town | Map
- Interviewer: Masande Ntshanga
- Refreshments will be served
- RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
Azanian Bridges, Nick Wood’s debut novel, is published and due to be launched at the British Science Fiction Association Convention this Easter, and the author has kindly given Books LIVE an excerpt to share.
Wood is a South African-British clinical psychologist, researcher and genre writer, with stories in two recently published anthologies, Afrosfv2 and African Monsters. His Young Adult novel The Stone Chameleon was published in 2004. He is also a reader for the Short Story Africa Day Prize.
Like Nikhil Singh’s Taty Went West, which we featured as our Fiction Friday recently, Azanian Bridges was longlisted for the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013. It has impressive shouts from authors such as Sarah Lotz, Ian Watson and Ursula K Le Guin, who says: “I read Bridges with much pleasure … chilling and fascinating.”
The novel’s cover art is by Capetonian illustrator Vincent Sammy.
Azanian Bridges is a socially acute fast-paced thriller that takes place in an alternate modern day South Africa where apartheid still rules, and a young man, Sibusiso Mchunu, finds himself in possession of a secret that could offer hope to his people. Pursued by the ANC on one side and Special Branch agents on the other, Sibusiso has little choice but to run.
Wood explained a little bit about the process of writing the novel, and his decision to partner with Long Story Short.
“Busisiwe Siyathola, a clinical psychologist working at the hospital where some of the novel’s scenes are set (I worked there too, a good few years ago now), helped with beta advice, particularly with Sibusiso and all the Zulu references.
“I also agreed to share author royalties with Long Story Short as it felt unethical for a white writer to solely benefit from a tale around apartheid.”
Read the excerpt:
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Chapter 1 – Sibusiso’s Start
I never knew it would be so hard to say goodbye – especially to my father. (I leave him until last.)
“Sala kahle, tata!” I say, bowing my face so he cannot see my eyes.
For a brief moment, he holds me close to him and I can smell the Earth, sweet, sharp sweat and the decades of cattle manure on his skin. His jacket buttons poke into my stomach – he has indeed dressed for this occasion too. He is so like a fragile bird – a kiewietjie comes to mind for some reason – but then he pushes me away, turns and walks off in a hurry and without looking back. He has left me with a little gift, a small beige plastic digi-disc, on which I can record the happenings in my life. I put it in my pocket.
Since when did my father get so old, so delicate, so suddenly?
I look over my brother and sisters’ heads to watch his stiff blue-jacketed back disappear into the house. The brown door shuts against yellow brick and the late afternoon sun glints off the corrugated silver eaves and roof.
Behind our master’s house, I hear the cows sounding out as a dog barks, unsettling them.
Lindiwe is crying openly but I keep my own eyes dry. I am the eldest son; I am strong.
There is time for one last hug before the taxi arrives.
Mandla grips my arm tight. ”Careful brother,” his eyes are almost on a level with my own, despite the three years I have on him, “There is much danger and distraction in the city.”
I nod and brush my lips with the back of my left hand to hide my smile: “I hear what you say, Mandla – you repeat father too – but I will be careful.”
He grins and puffs his 15-year old chest, which looks increasingly like a solid drum of utshwala besizulu – but only the finest of beer.
There is a high-pitched car hooter sounding behind me. Father had to pay much to have the man detour off his route to come here.
My five sisters wave as I step with difficulty into the crowded taxi; the door is slid fully open, the minibus is silver and muddy brown from the farm tracks splatter of early-summer showers.
The driver accelerates before I can sit. I fall into a large woman’s lap and realise there is indeed no seat. She shovels me aside with a large forearm and I sway, trapped between her fat hip and a thin man’s sharp thighbone. He wriggles a bit like a contortionist and my buttocks manage to find some sticky leather to ease the weight off my feet.
My grey Sunday slacks sticks to the seat, as we sway around and bump over farm potholes.
The ‘gamchee’, as the Cape Coloured people call them, waves a hand towards me from the front seat: “Where you going again, boy?”
“Fundimiso College, Im-, Imbali,” I say, finding it hard to breathe, crushed as I am as the large woman squeezes against me.
The gamchee turns to the driver, who is accelerating into a violent right-turn onto the tarred road: “Seems like we have a clever boy in our taxi, hey Smokes?”
Smokes just grunts from under his Man U cap and shakes his dreads. I see he has an OPod plugged into his ears.
I plug an earpiece into my ears, folding my arms tightly over my old music pod and the rands strapped in a leather purse across my stomach inside my white buttoned shirt, the purse hot and wet against my skin from the late afternoon heat.
The sky still looks clear – no gathering thunderstorm tonight it seems. I glance across at the passengers swaying and talking in front of me. They’re arguing about the price of bread.
I am too tired to listen and try to sleep. Keeping my arms crossed across my hidden money pouch, I doze in fits and starts to random braking, accelerations and Church-Rap from the Crischen-Niggaz.
I finally fall asleep to Muth’fuckas Who Don’t Know Jesus …
The fat woman is climbing over me and I see she has a baby hanging off her right hip, swinging it onto her back as she steps outside. It’s built like me; it keeps right on sleeping …
Then I see the driver getting out too – what’s his name?
I look across to the open door and see I’m the last one inside. I stretch and rub my eyes. My OPod has gone silent.
A big white man with a fierce brown handlebar moustache and blue police cap sticks his head inside: “Out, kaffir!”
Hayi no, it must be a roadblock.
I step outside, sweating hard, although the sun is low and the air is cooling.
There’s a mellow yellow police van parked in front of us. We’re pulled off to the side of the road, traffic whooshing past us and down the hill, down into the smoky valley of umGungundlovu – or Pietermaritzburg as the boere like to call it.
So close, why did they have to stop us now?
Fierce-moustache policeman is going through the driver’s papers. Two other black cops are rummaging through our taxi, looking for guns or drugs, probably both.
“Hey, line up!” the white cop shouts, throwing the driver’s papers back at him – Smokes, that’s his name, catches the papers deftly with a weary shrug of his shoulders and turns back to his cab.
We stand in a ragged line, all nine of us, as he slowly works his way through our dompas. My hands are clammy as I pull mine out of my hip pocket.
He moves alongside me and snatches it from my hand; as if angry they’ve all been in order so far.
I sweat, even though it’s getting cold, the sun sinking below the city’s smog.
He looks at me and I’m reminded of Ballie Boetze, the big white South African world-boxing champion from several decades ago – whose face has received a nostalgic comeback on TV since his death, advertising Rocket Jungle Weetie-Oats.
“Hey, why you sweating so much, boy, what you hiding?”
“Nothing, sir!” I hate my sweat and my use of “sir”, but all I want is to get to College safely.
“Ach man, they can go!” He slaps my dompas into my open palms.
I see the two black cops are standing behind him, hands on hips, empty.
“Next time I’ll give you a bledy fine for over-crowding, hey!” he shouts at us as we climb back into the taxi.
Smokes lights a cigarette, but no one says anything.
This time I find a space next to the window and keep my face averted from the others, watching the lights popping up like fireflies, as the quick dusk deepens into murky darkness.
The rest of the journey is made in a tense silence – as for me, I shake until the end.
I miss my father already.
Over the past three weeks, Books LIVE has had the honour of exclusively sharing the winning stories from the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.
This week, the final story: Cat Hellisen’s “The Worme Bridge”, which took home the trophy this year.
Read the previous instalments:
Both of SSDA’s previous anthologies have received widespread acclaim; two stories from Feast, Famine & Potluck were shortlisted for The Caine Prize for African Writing – with one, “My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor, going on to win the prize – while Terra Incognita was given an excellent review from the LA Review of Books.
The theme for this year’s edition of the SSDA Prize – Migration – was announced on Wednesday, along with a new editing mentorship programme.
Hellisen is a South African-born writer of fantasy for adults and children. Her work includes the novel When the Sea is Rising Red and short stories in Apex, F & SF, Shimmer, and Tor.com. Her latest novel is a fairy tale for the loveless, Beastkeeper.
This year’s judging panel, Mary Watson, Billy Kahora and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, said: “‘The Worme Bridge’ stood out for us with its brave story and clear, distinctive voice; it’s a wonderfully dark exploration of the water theme.”
In a chat with SSDA recently, Hellisen explained the background to the story:
Tiah Beautement: “Serein” the original story you wrote for Water didn’t meet SSDA’s submission’s guidelines for length, so you sold it Shimmer. You then penned “The Worme Bridge” which took the coveted $1 000 (R10 000) prize. What was it like trying to write a second entry after you’d already invested so much energy into “Serein”? Did you consider quitting after it fell short of our entry rules? Or are you one of those people with a multitude of stories whirling around in your head?
Hellisen: “Serein” came about because I find the non-endings of the stories of vanishing people, people who go missing intentionally, so delightfully and horrifyingly fascinating. After I was done, and realised that it was too short for SSDA, I sent it off to Shimmer because that’s what you do – never stop submitting stories. I needed something new for SSDA but I wasn’t too stressed because water is a pretty open-ended theme and I think it’s clear from my fiction that I am obsessed with people who live in the liminal zones of human community. And water is a perfect metaphor for that – it’s even in the clichéd phrase, “a fish out of water”. Which is essentially what “The Worme Bridge” is about. Once I started playing with that and I had the voice of the character in my head, the initial draft came out very quickly.
Read Hellisen’s SSDA-winning story:
The Worme Bridge
When I was old enough to walk by myself to the shops to buy my mother her cigarettes, she decided I was too old to believe in rubbish like Santa Claus and the tooth mouse and fairies that live at the bottom of the garden. Instead, I would learn the real stuff, like what really happened to Pa and my older brother Matty, and what was going to happen to her.
Why ever since Pa had died she’d made me take him as medicine, ground up into my food to ward off the sickness.
Ma couldn’t walk properly because her feet pained her now that they’d gone all boneless and scaly with sickness, and no one would serve Matthias because of the stink, even if he could have walked to the shops himself. Which he couldn’t. Matty was born like that though, Ma told me, with his legs all melted together like two candles lit too close to each other and forgotten.
The trips weren’t so bad. I liked the walk past all the square little houses with their concrete ox-wagon wheel walls, with their laundry and their chimney smoke, flicking the lighter in my pocket and thinking about things to burn. I liked to pretend no one saw me, walking up to the corner shop where the Indian men would sell me cigarettes even if I was only ten, because they knew my ma and I guess they felt sorry for her. The walk there and back took twice as long as it should have because I had to go to the second-closest shop. The closest one meant going riverwise and crossing the foot bridge built in 1809 and named after some dead man, I guess the one who built it in 1809. Or maybe he just had other people build it in 1809. He was very proud of it because he put a big stone right by the front that said Built in 1809 so we would never forget. The man was called Matthias too, but they called the bridge Worme instead.
By the time I got back to Ma, I’d always be wishing she didn’t have these rules about the bridge and the river. Some days it could get so hot the tar would melt under your feet and give you new soles for free, and sometimes it was so cold you wouldn’t even be sure you had feet and would have to check at the door before going in to the house. Are these feet inside my shoes? Or have I got the sickness too?
Let me tell you for nothing it was a great relief to find all my toes in the right order and with the right amount of skin and bone. You miss them fierce when you don’t have them.
I would open Ma’s cigarette box for her while she shivered, wrapped in dog blankets she bought cheap at the Pick n Pay. The skin on her hands hurt too much to do it herself. I loved that crinkle of the see-through plastic, thin as sleep, the slow tear. I loved peeling back the silvery paper and finding the twenty sticks, all neat as soldiers. The smell of new tobacco, before the fire ate it. I would breathe deep, then pick the bottom middle one to draw out. The virgin straw.
If it had been my box of smokes, I would have taken that one and turned it over and placed it back in, filter face out. I am old enough to know about virgins, but too old for fairies.
Ma was always like that – telling me what it was time for me to believe in. I knew about virgins because one time she decided I needed god, or we all did, so she took me and Matty to the church – rolling him all the way there on a low wooden trolley with wheels from a pram. We had to sit on cold hard pews and listen to the man at the top tell us stuff from the Bible. This was when Matty was alive, of course. We didn’t take his stinking twisted body to church after, even though they seem to love believing in dead guys.
It was boring in the church, and because Matty couldn’t sit properly, he was rolling around on the pew and flopping about and just being a general nuisance, so people kept looking at us and whispering and shaking their heads. It was also because Ma was single. I had a dad but he died before Matty was born so it was hard to explain to people how that worked. They thought Ma was a whore. Another word I was old enough to know.
Except for all the idiots, there was one nice thing, and that was the singing. During the boring bits the man at the top would say every body rise and turn in your hymn-books to page and every person who still had their body would shuffle up with whispers and cracks and rustles through their pages until they found the right one. Not Matty, he just rolled about, gasping because he already couldn’t breathe properly then. But I would stand up, and Ma next to me, and we would share this hymn-book which was a thick book with pages made of fairy wings. We joined together in praise of our good risen lord, who I guess was Jesus or his dad, since they were actually the same person. And this Jesus guy was dead and then alive again, and all the church people were okay with that and made songs about it. So you can see why I didn’t understand when they couldn’t deal with Pa or Matty.
The music was slow and sad and filled with water, and it was like drowning, but nicer. There was an old lady who would play this organ, which was a big thing like a piano but with a different sound, a sound of waves. It made music that crashed down right over your head. Then all the cold deep men’s voices rose up with currents and little waves and eddies of higher sounds, like water that is warm in the sun.
And I would sing too, catching the tune and letting it pull me on, the notes flickers of fish, shoals of bright sounds that raced through the river of the organ swell. And that’s how I know about virgins because they kept going on about Jesus’s ma being a virgin and my ma had to explain it there in the church because I kept asking.
And then one day Ma decided we didn’t need god after all and we stayed home on Sundays again. She had to drown Matty and there’s no way to explain that kind of thing to church people.
“Sanette? Is that you?” Ma called from inside the house even though no one else ever comes to us. I sighed and kicked off my shoes so I could unroll my socks and check my toes. It was winter – the third after Ma took Matty to the river and the second after her own feet gave in. All my toes were present which is what you say at school when the teacher calls your surname in home class.
I always get called last: “Worme.”
And my answer is to say: “Present, mejevrou.” Like I am giving her a gift, which I am not, unless it is the gift of my presence, which is a pun, Matty says. Also I must call her mejevrou, even though it is an English school, because she says mis is what cows make.
I wriggled all my toes, one by one. “Ja, Ma,” I said. Then I frowned, because the one pinky toe was stiff and a little blue, but I couldn’t tell if that was because of winter, or because I was going down the road of illness. Ma had always said that I would be fine because my legs were straight and strong, and it was only the boys who have to be drowned and brought back. But that was before her feet went, so now I am extra scared all the time.
Quickly, I covered up my toes, rubbed them hard to make them warm, and shoved them back in my school shoes, which were black and pretty with a strap and a floral cut-out and were more expensive than plain Mary Janes. I had feet, so all the shoe money went on me.
“I got your cigarettes, Ma.” I grabbed the plastic bag back up. Cigs for Ma, a Kit Kat for me and a tin of sardines for Matty. I hopped over the little ridge of wood on the front door step, and went inside.
The smell was very bad in my house. Partly it was because of Matty, but also Ma who sat with her feet in a black plastic tub of hot water and her dog blankets wrapped around her, hoping to stay human, and partly it was because she kept Pa’s bones. Though they were dried out now, they still had a funny stink to them, like the skin of a snake or a lizard. They were in a box covered with sea shells and lined inside with red felt. A very expensive box – almost a hundred rand – but not very big, because there weren’t so many bones left. Ma kept grinding them up and feeding them to me.
“Here,” I said, unwrapping the box of cigarettes as slowly as I could. I folded the silver paper neat and tucked it in my blazer pocket, took out the first virgin straw and lit it with my yellow lighter that I keep only for Ma’s cigarettes, and not for anything else, like setting fire to the school dustbins. The smoke tasted like the death of fairies and Santa Claus. The smoke tasted like learning the truth and it always made me choke. I handed her the lit cig and crouched down to look at her feet.
They were going wrong. I didn’t need to be a doctor to see they were turning long and thin and see-through like Matty’s. The skin at her ankles was rubbery, melting together. There were raw bits shining pale red where she’d pulled the skin apart. It didn’t matter. In a few months Ma would be as bad as Matty. She was already starting to smell rotten. Worse than cigarettes and not-washing. “You okay, Ma?”
She nodded, and blew out smoke so I couldn’t see the expression in her eyes. She only started smoking when her feet started changing, and I think it was because she believed that the stink of the cigarettes covered up the other smell. Which was definitely getting worse. Maybe she and Matty couldn’t tell because they were wrapped in it all day like a duvet, but I still went outside and knew that healthy people with two good strong legs did not smell like cod liver oil rotting inside a bottle left on a windowsill in the sun.
“Ma, where’s Pa’s old trolley?” I said, because at thirteen I was learning to be practical. We’d used the trolley to take Matty to school, and to church, and then, right at the end of his first life, to take him down to our family bridge built in 1809, which is probably when the first Worme had to drown someone in their family.
Ma coughed, choking on her stinking cigarette. “Don’t need the trolley yet,” she said and waved at her feet. “I’m fine now, the water’s helping.”
The water would only help with the pain for so long, we both knew. Towards the end, we kept Matty in the bath, trying to slow everything down with clean water, scraping off his scales and trying to cut his fingers apart. He used to cry when Ma took the little vegetable peeling knife and slit through the skin growing thin between his fingers, gluing them together. He never cried loud, but he turned his face to the wall and his shoulders would shake. Ma dropped the bits of skin in a plastic bowl that I held out for her, and then I buried them in the garden.
But even with all that cutting and burying, we couldn’t stop his insides from changing, or help his lungs work. We had to drown him. It was the quickest way to set him free, in the end.
We’d gone at night, Matty crouched and covered with a sheet on his trolley, and rattle-bounced down the gritty tar road that was always full of potholes because of the summer rain, all the way to the river and the Worme Bridge.
Ma had drowned him. I had just sat on the edge of the river with my knees right up against my chest and cried because ten is too young to know that sometimes your parents have to do what’s best for you even if it hurts you. Even if it hurts them.
Afterwards we had dragged Matty back home, wrapped in his sheet again, and three days later he’d said he felt much better and he was sorry that Ma was so sad.
I watched Ma smoking her cigarettes and smelling like rancid fish, before I left her and went to the bathroom. The door was closed, so I knocked, and after a while Matty said to come in.
“How was school?” he asked. He could still talk, though it could be hard to make out the words unless you knew what he was saying. Also, he was really smelly. Not in a rotting way, like Ma, but like a harbour full of seals and seaweed.
“Okay,” I told him. “You lucky you missed all this, I think this is the hundredth time we are learning about the Great Trek.” Which is basically the story of how a bunch of Dutch people in the Cape got mad at the English and missioned off up the country, and mostly they had a horrible time of it but they said god was on their side so he helped them kill a lot of black people, which seems a bit unfair to the black people, really. This god guy, I don’t know.
“I brought you something,” I told him, and peeled open the tin of sardines.
Matty took them with a wide grin, which was horrible because all his teeth had fallen out and his mouth was full of needle white splinters. I was used to them, but I could imagine if anyone else had seen him they’d be grossed out. And scream, and probably try bash his head in with a spade.
I waited till he finished his meal, dripping the last of the fishy oil down his throat, and handed me the empty tin before I told him about Ma.
He frowned. “I was wondering why she never came to visit me any more,” he said, and I could hear how sad that made him. “Thought maybe she was sick of seeing me.” He waved at his legs, which were under water, fused all together and silvery green and scarred with white ridges. In the beginning Ma had tried to scrape the scales off with the back of a knife, but she gave up after he died and now they’ve grown in funny. Some scales were beautiful, silver and the size of my thumb nail, others were twisted and small and a dull grey. In places the scales never grew out at all, and the skin was white and puffy-raw. I knew they hurt him, those raw scars. We would never do that to Ma, but we couldn’t stop her doing it to herself.
“She’s definitely going funny,” I said. I curled my toes in my shoes, and felt the one twinge and ache. Not me. I wasn’t going. My legs were fine. I wasn’t going to die. But Ma was. “I’ll dig the trolley out of the garage tonight. We’ll need it soon.”
Matty didn’t say anything after that, just swirled his webbed fingers through the little bit of water he could move in, and sighed deeply. Every now and again he would shift his body so that he could put his head under water for a moment to wet his gills. He could breathe out of water for a little while if he had to but preferred it the other way: gillwise.
I pulled the plug to drain some of the water, and ran in fresh cold water from the taps. Matty didn’t feel the cold like I did. He said it was better, the cold. Being warm made breathing hard, even though he tried holding on to it, because it made him feel human still. “If I have to drown Ma,” I whispered to him, “you’re going to have to move out to the river.” There was only one bath in the Worme house. The Wormes who had died couldn’t survive out of water. Just look at Pa. Or what was left of him.
“It won’t be so bad,” Matty said, which was a lie. Matty would be in the river, and Ma would live in the bath. And I – I would have to keep grinding up what was left of Pa and sprinkling him into my sandwiches to keep me from turning. I would have to buy Ma sardines with the little bit of money she kept under her mattress, and change her bath water, and watch her be alone and dead.
“If it happened to Ma,” I said, “Chances are it will happen to me.”
Even Matty couldn’t lie that much, not right to my face. “Perhaps,” he said. “But Ma is old, it only took her now. You’ve got years to live.”
Years. A whole lifetime of living in the Worme house, with only my dead ma in the bath tub for company, and being able to spend time with my big brother only when there was no moon and I could pray to the dead Jesus who rose again that no one would see me sneak down to the river.
I took Matty down to the river first. Three months had gone past since we’d talked about killing Ma, and winter was softening a little at the edges. Ma could hardly breathe most of the time, and she’d stopped sending me out to buy her cigs. She’d turned down the last pack I bought, and I kept it now, sealed and new. Like a reminder. “It’s time,” I told him. “There’s no moon tonight, and it’ll be dark enough.” I could wheel Matty down on the trolley, wrapped in his sheet. He could breathe long enough for me to get him to the river, we knew that much. If people heard the midnight rattle of the pram wheels, they would just think it was some homeless guy, looking for junk, rooting through the rubbish bins. No one would come to see what I was doing.
We waited for the dark to fall and for the stars to light up. When there is no moon, the stars shine much brighter, as though they’re trying to make up for all the time the moon takes from them. When the cat’s away the mice will play, I thought, and pictured the stars as little bright mice leaping here and there, looking for crumbs in the night. It was better than thinking about what we were going to do.
It was better than thinking about the toenail I found in my sock, and how my pinkie toe had started growing long and thin, and how I could see the bone through the skin, how it bent easily as the quill of a small feather. How spongey the skin on my legs felt.
I carried Matty, half-dragging him out to the trolley, and when he was firmly wrapped in place, I grabbed the thick plastic twine of the pull, feeling it bite into the softening skin of my palm, and tugged him down the road to the Worme Bridge. Matty went easily into the water, and stretched out, flicking the long bones of his feet. Of his tail. He belonged here. It would take a blind idiot to think he didn’t. And Ma did too.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. He nodded. He’d promised to do the drowning. It would be easier for him, already there in the river. No sense getting me all wet and I’d already had to do all the heavy work of hauling both of them down to the water.
Ma didn’t argue with me. Her legs were mostly grown together by now, and her feet were gone. Just a big split tail like a fish’s stuck on all wrong. She’d given up on scraping away at her growing scales sooner than she’d given up on Matty’s, so she was already silvering. Her legs were bare and sexless, but she wore a big loose T-shirt.
“I’m not about to go around naked like a whore,” she told me. “I’ll go to my death with dignity.”
She was much heavier than Matty, though at least she was able to help me more. After a bunch of heaving and swearing we got her on to the trolley, and I started the final trek down, the trolley practically racing me so that I had to run to keep up with it and Ma, so that they didn’t career off into the pavement and send Ma rolling downhill like a giant dead tuna.
I pulled the trolley to a stop near the bank, tearing open the puffy skin on my palms, and hobbled over to Ma to help her down to the water’s edge. My new toe was paining me, crushed up in my shoe. Luckily we’d talked it all through before, the three of us, and Ma went to the water like a woman going to John the Baptist, who was a friend of Jesus and also had to drown him first.
It didn’t take long, though she thrashed a fair bit while Matty held her under.
During their struggle, I kicked off my shoes and sat on the bridge, my bottom getting soaked through with early dew, and my legs dangling over the edge of the water, as I leaned between the railings and watched. My toe shimmered in the starlight, silvery pale and new. I pressed my knees together hard, and felt the skin give slightly, the blood and veins underneath calling out to each other, moving toward a joining.
Matty’s head bobbed up, and his needle teeth shone as he smiled.
“Done?” I asked him. In my pocket, I closed my fingers around the box of cigarettes and pulled it out to slowly unwrap the thin plastic, to fold the silver paper and choose my virgin straw. I tapped it with one fingernail, waiting. A moment later, Ma’s head came up alongside Matty’s. She was staying in the river, there’d be no three days of rebirth for her. It was better this way. Better to let your dead go than to try hang on to them.
I took the yellow lighter from my pocket and thought about how quickly the Worme house would burn. By the time the fire department came, I’d be gone. They’d have no idea where to find me. I slipped Ma’s cigarette between my lips and closed my eyes. The fire sparked and even through my closed lids I could see the warm redness of it. I breathed in the smoke from my final cigarette. It tasted like acceptance of growing up.
Drowning would hurt, I knew. But first, I had a house to burn down.
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Author photo credit: Credit Nerine and Thomas Dorman