Today’s Spark – where writers talk about what set an idea for a story alight – is a little different. I asked three of the writers, established novelists Siphiwo Mahala and Yewande Omotoso and fresh-faced talent, Liam Kruger to write about what inspired their tales in the short story collection, BLOODY SATISFIED. The answers range from hilariously subverting stereotypes to the problem of evil step-mothers and just trying to look cool in bars.
Siphiwo Mahala is a champion for South African literature in his job as the head of Books And Publishing at the Department of Arts & Culture. He’s also a very fine writer. His novel, When a Man Cries about the provocative issue of circumcision rituals was translated into isiXhosa as Yakhal’ Indoda. His book of short stories, African Delights is smart, playful and full of wonderful insight into human nature.
‘Robbed by a Mad White Man’ by Siphiwo Mahala
“Robbed by a mad white man?” exclaimed a friend. He could not believe that I would even consider giving such a bizarre title to a story. Like many South Africans, my friend has learned to tread carefully around the question of race!
Given our divided past, writing about race tends to be quite a risky business. On the one hand one might be judged as being an apologist, and on the other, as racist. I was interested in neither. Mine was to interrogate some popular social stereotypes using my first-hand experience.
I drew on a story that dates as far back as 2002, when I first came to Johannesburg as a country bumpkin from Grahamstown, pulling a massive suitcase behind me at the Johannesburg Park Station. I had heard a lot of stories about the station, notorious for initiating new-comers to the fast city life. Many a visitor had parted ways with their luggage, wallets and other valuables on arrival, courtesy of street urchins who have a sharp eye for country bumpkins.
After more than ten years of living in Johannesburg, to my disappointment, I have been robbed only once. The robbery took place a few months after my arrival. It did not happen in some dingy corner at Park Station or in the dodgy streets of Hillbrow. It happened right on University campus and in broad daylight. I reached for my wallet, took out some notes and handed them over to my robber. Of course, I had no idea that I was being robbed at the time.
It was probably due to my own preconceptions that I didn’t suspect that I was being robbed. I should have known better than to believe a concocted story told to me by a ‘University student’ that he’d ‘run out of fuel on the freeway’. A twinge of suspicion was only raised in me when he uttered the words, “God bless you.” I wondered why he would bring God in on a transaction that involved only the two of us. I watched him as he walked away triumphantly, leaving me R40 poorer.
I shared this story for the first time at a festival last year amidst guffaws from the audience. I realised then that as a black person, revealing that you have been robbed by a white man won’t earn you any sympathies. As I started writing my entry for “short Sharp Stories”, the story assumed its own form, putting a white man in the middle of Soweto and involving police who are as prejudiced as many of us.
My current writing takes a similar form where I flip the coin, exploring the life of a city man who goes back to live in the rural areas. It is also a story of redemption and self-discovery.
Yewande Omotoso is a writer with nerve and energy who is also a trained architect. I think it shows in the careful construction of her writing. Her debut novel Bomboy (Modjaji Books) was shortlisted for several major prizes and won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. She also writes short stories and her poem ‘The Rain’ was shortlisted for the 2012 Sol Plaatjie European Union Poetry Awards.
‘To Die For’ by Yewande Omotoso
‘What if’ is always an interesting place to give birth to a story. Although I worry that if my friends knew just how much I speculated…what if friend so and so died and then I started having acrobat sex with her widower? What if I took my cell phone (this one I’m holding now) and flung it at the guy on stage, the one playing the violin? What if, with no provocation, I spat on so and so…like that.
Sometimes I speculate, risking irreverence, about very personal and sad things. In real life my mother died. Many years after I asked myself, what if my mother died and my father remarried and the woman he shacked up with was an absolute cow. What if I felt pressed in by this woman’s presence in my life and I wanted to kill myself. To Die For became that story. Beyond ‘what if’ I have to cut tether and tell a story, unburdened by the close resemblance between reality and story, the worry that my real-life step-mother might be put off and my family concerned for my mental health. The story isn’t really a vehicle to vent my deep-seated hitherto unexpressed painfully true feelings – ‘what if’ is more like a nervous tick…a sometimes gratifying parallel-universe condition.
To Die For is less about a girl mourning her mother and more about someone who wants to die but doesn’t have the wherewithal to do it herself. She doesn’t want to be remembered as someone who took her own life, doesn’t want the pain of that on her father’s heart. Instead she feels that if only death would come “naturally” she would co-operate. And when death doesn’t come she goes looking for it – where’s a killer, a terminal diagnosis, a reckless driver when you need one?
And now, after To Die For, I’m busy hyper-editing a novel about two octogenarian neighbours who hate each other.
Liam Kruger is doing his MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, where he’s ‘busy working on putting a novel together.’ He confesses he likes cities, and he likes whiskey. His short fiction and poetry have been published in in Mahala, Jungle Jim, New Contrast, and in AfroSF, a new anthology of African science fiction.
‘The Simple Art’ by Liam Kruger
I discovered Raymond Chandler, and I stopped reading crime fiction. Which is to say, I discovered Chandler, fell in love, read everything of his I could find, and found that I could no longer bear any kind of crime novel that wasn’t Chandler’s.
I dismissed contemporary crime fiction as the domain of moderately-trained monkeys and retirees – and since I was at university, I turned to Borges, and De Quincey, and Camus and Auden and whoever else would make me look fancy reading alone in bars.
I was, therefore, in the difficult position of needing to write a contemporary crime story without any understanding of what contemporary crime fiction looked like, if I wanted anything published in the Bloody Satisfied anthology – which I did, because this, too, would make me look fancy in bars. Some bars. A bar.
Assuming that the underlying whodunit formula couldn’t be too hard to copy, I looked for modern writers to emulate. A kind stranger pointed me to Ruth Rendell’s short stories, which proved to be stylish and excellent and impossible to backwards-engineer; I looked at, and discarded in turn, Orford, Leonard, Reichs, Rankin, finding much of interest but nothing I could reproduce in a hurry.
Because I was in a hurry. It was a week before the story was due; I needed a familiarity with contemporary police work, I needed an understanding of Cape Town’s crime patterns, I needed to read shelves of novels. What I had was De Quincey, Borges, and a familiarity with Cape Town’s bars. I stole from all three, and wrote ‘The Simple Art.’
It gets its conceit from De Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,’ structure from Borges’ murder mystery, ‘Death and the Compass,’ and setting from a place in the city bowl that I go to too often.
It gets its four – maybe five – deaths from anxiety about the exhausting ubiquity of murder narratives, in fiction and elsewhere, which has equipped folk an inbuilt shorthand for responding to the way people die – the homophobic hate crime, the xenophobic attack, the gang-related killing. It’s an anxiety that wasn’t there for Chandler, I don’t think – which meant I could try and write it without fear of sounding like another watered-down imitator. As much fear, anyway.
I couldn’t hope to copy Chandler’s style – but I’m still a little in love with him, some days, so the title borrows from his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’
Everything else I’ve stolen whole cloth.
I’m currently working on my first novel, which deals with memory, and magic, and snappy one-liners.
BLOODY SATISFIED is the first of the Short Sharp Stories Awards anthologies, edited by local crime doyenne, Joanne Hichens. The 2013 collection, a National Arts Festival initiative, celebrates crime fiction and thriller stories of twenty-four emerging and established South African writers.
It’s also an excellent taster to find new writers you like, and a perfect holiday gift, IMHO.
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