The Spark: Risk

risk cover

The Spark is a series of guest blogs to highlight new African fiction – this week it’s Cape Town writer, Jason Staggie, who was focusing on screenplays when an encounter on a plane sparked off an idea for a novel about an ultimate dare game that spirals out of control, that would fit right in with the kind of transgressive works he loves from Tarantino to Chuck Palahniuk.

(Writers, if you want to write a guest blog for The Spark, please check out the guidelines here).

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Jason Staggie: Risk

People should smile more.

I find that this simple act coupled with long lingering eye contact has a very good effect on air hostesses whether they are Namibian, Chinese or any other nationality for that matter. Their job requires them to smile for the length of the flight so why not give some of that back to them? I know they probably come across guys like me all the time. Flirtatious little bastards who irritate them to no end with subtle pick-up lines for the duration of the flight. Truth to be told I’m not flattering them because I want to join the overrated club that is the Mile High. All I want is for my glass to be filled promptly with minimal effort on my part to wear the mask of sobriety.

I’m sitting in the aisle seat. Johannesburg to Hong Kong: 13 hours. I’ve been in my majestic home town of Cape Town for a month. I’m hungover and now on the long trek back to Korea. I’m so hungover that I puked twice before I got onto the plane and I fear I’m going to have to go again soon. I feel a familiar uneasiness in my stomach which is my cue for my first toilet run of the flight.

I return to my seat with the temporary glow of one who has just ejected poison from his body. An elderly, greying white man is sitting in the window seat. I curse my luck for a few seconds but I know that once we’re in the air I’ll probably be able to get one of the air hostesses to move me.

I sit down and we take off. The trolley comes around and we both get a J and B. I’m not into the Fight Club notion of the single serving friend. I may have a lot of friends but I’m always willing to pick at another mind. We may not become close, but there is generally something to learn from every little conversation.

– You’re from Cape Town, right?

– Yeah. Where you from?

Turns out the guy is from the Free State but is now living in New Zealand. His reason for being on the flight is that he returned to South Africa to sell two of his houses. He starts by complimenting me on hailing from the best city in South Africa. “The one that has fewer of “Them”. “Them” that are running the country into the ground at the moment. He goes on listing more nonsensical things that “They” do.

For a few seconds I cannot believe what I’m hearing. Is this guy telling me all this because I’m lighter and because my hair is less curly? Is he telling me this because I come from Cape Town where half the population is mixed race and thus was given the rather absurd moniker of Coloured by the even more absurd Apartheid regime? So, because I’m apparently “half and half” I will automatically side with him?

I realize that he sees me as somewhat of an ally and I feel re-invigorated from my hungover induced lethargy.

I press the button on my armrest to summon Yin. (I am now on first names basis with the 2 air hostess covering the section.) I ask politely for 2 more J and B’s and a couple of Heinekens which she retrieves for us dutifully and with a bit of pep in her step.

If there’s one thing that my travels or perhaps just the years have taught me is that although my spontaneous nature can be ever so attractive and exciting, it can also be a hindrance. In this case I’m willing to sit it out and listen to this guy’s point of view.

He goes on to tell me his family moved to South Africa from Kenya in the 60’s, after “They” took power in Kenya. He starts listing all the ills that have befallen Kenya since the colonialists were sent on their merry way.

– Do you know what you are? I ask, after his rant relents.

My eyes flare up but not in anger. Rather because I am passionately going to tell it like it is. Truth needs a bit of a spectacle because more often than not it gets overshadowed by lies.

– A coward if ever there was one, is the one sitting next to me. You are a coward. You’re probably forty years older than me yet I don’t run from things. You are a coward and you are scared. You don’t fear the crime or the AIDS as much as you fear our country, actually progressing. That would hurt more than anything else in the world wouldn’t it? You make me sick.

The seatbelt sign is not on so I make my way to the toilet. I literally get sick but not because of the conversation. Rather because the hangover still lingers. I’m keen for more banter. I want to talk about the potential of my people, of my Africa. I want this ignorant old man to arrive in New Zealand and question his beliefs.

I’m excited as I walk back to my seat. I have the better part of 12 hours to attempt to destroy 60 odd years of ignorance. When I return he’s gone. At least I now have all the seats to myself. I settle in for a long flight, a very long flight.

I started writing RISK two days later.

I felt like I had the transgressive tales, but meeting this guy simply made me use all his assumptions and utilise it in an extreme way in the novel.

What if instead of talking to people like this, there was a game that forced one to act and do something about the situation? A game that is so seductive and so crazy that it forces players to ask fundamental questions about their role as the youth in Africa. I called this game RISK.

The old man’s continued usage of the words “they” or “them” also planted a seed. His absolute misunderstanding of black people in South Africa propelled me to write from a black person’s perspective and create the character of Nelson.

In Nelson, I wanted to give readers an insight into a new breed of black youth: rich, bored and with no recollection of ever living in a township, yet seemingly struggling with the same issues that his poorer countrymen are facing.

RISK deals with serious issues and is a risqué novel, but at its heart it knows exactly what its saying, and although extreme, it gives a very good indication of what the youth in South Africa is feeling.

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