New Writing from Africa (2009)

09 Apr 2009
New Writing from Africa

“WHAT are African writers thinking and writing about as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close?”

Winning stories selected by J.M. Coetzee

What’s on the minds of African writers? The South African Chapter of PEN International asked the question, and this volume of collected works holds the answer.

More than 800 pieces of new writing from across the continent flowed in once the call for entries was made for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award. This collection contains the 34 short stories eventually selected, including the prize-winners and those receiving honourable mentions from final judge JM Coetzee.

This is a contemporary African reading journey that will take you from Algeria to Zimbabwe, with stops along the way in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius, Botswana, Mozambique, and South Africa. The writers are young and old, established and unpublished; the subject matter as diverse as Africa itself. It is an African literary journey at this juncture, and it is one to be savoured.

New Writing from Africa 2009: Original Short Stories by African Writers
A book review by Karina Magdalena Szczurek
First published on ITCH

New Writing from Africa 2009 presents the 34 finalists of the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Award. 827 stories from all over Africa were entered for the short-story competition. They were first read by a team of preliminary readers which longlisted 195 titles. These went on to an editorial board consisting of Anthony Fleischer, Harry Garuba, Alistair King and Mary Watson, who in turn selected the finalists. Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee chose the winning entries and honourable mentions.

As one of the many preliminary readers, I had the pleasure of already reading some of the stories in this collection before the final results of the competition were known. It was mostly an exciting process. Thematically, the entries offered an amazing insight into the preoccupations of writers on the African continent. What dampened the enthusiasm almost throughout was the poor quality of the writing.

However, there was one gem among the stories I’d been assigned. After reading it, I knew in my bones that it would win. It was difficult to imagine that any other story could outshine it. I think I was just as happy as the winner Karen Jayes herself to hear that I was right. ‘Where He Will Leave His Shoes’ by this promising new writer is one of those rare treats that knock you off your feet before you know what’s happened. Jayes ventures into a worn-out topic – the master-servant relationship – and navigates us through it by an unknown path, her insights and allusions skilfully rendered. The story is intensely felt, beautifully written, and makes you hungry for more. One can only hope that Jayes has many more like it up her sleeve and that the publishers have already pounced. An entire collection by this author will be impatiently awaited.

The same applies to the runner-up story, ‘A Visit to Dr Mamba’ by Andrew Salomon. The ease and humour with which Salomon presents his plot and characters are a joy to witness. One’s attitude to tokoloshes will never be the same after this memorable read.

The two stories which shared the third place, Nadia Davids’ ‘The Visit’ and Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘Survival Mechanism’, come from more experienced writers who are no strangers to award-winning and impress once again with their skill, but fail to display their full potential. Davids tells a heart-wrenching story about a Muslim family torn apart by the calculated brutality of the apartheid security police in the late 1980s. Dovey’s entry sheds new light on the insecurities and dilemmas of everyday living in South Africa today. Both pieces could have done with a slight edit to bring out their best qualities.

A good edit could have also done wonders to some other stories. Ken Barris’ ‘The Life of Worm’ is overwritten but has a fascinating plot. A man obsessed with security around his house loses control when the threats he fears fail to materialise. With a tweak here and there and a strict clean-up job it could have been a great story with an even greater ending.

‘No Match for Fanie Smith’ by Graham Ellis not only has a clever title and an intriguing plot twist, but also manages to illustrate the absurdities of race laws during apartheid. It is the story about two coloured brothers of whom one can pass for white, and about the complications which arise when they both fall for the same woman. All it needs is a narrator who is slightly more in control of his story.

Bobby Jordan’s ‘Situation Orange’ skilfully captures the attitudes that made the atrocities at the Angolan border possible. A stronger distinction in tone between contempt and glorification could have made its purpose clearer.

Stylistically, ‘Spirit of Madala’ by Natasha Moodley is interesting to read, but I’m still not entirely sure what actually happens in the story.

Alex Smith’s ‘Soulmates’, Kirsten Miller’s ‘Only in Art’, Kyne Nislev ‘Bernstoff’s The Last Supper’, and the four honourable mentions (‘Snapshots’ by NoViolet Mkha Bulawayo, ‘In the Name of Peace’ by Naomi Nkealah, ‘Bluette’ by Isabella Morris, and ‘Pauline’s Ghost’ by Irene McCartney) show wonderful potential despite a few problem areas.

Apart from these and a handful of other stories, the rest of the collection fails to appeal to the general reader precisely because of the lack of in-depth editing. Naturally, during the course of such a competition itself, it would be unfair to impose editing on the entries. This would completely change the nature of the award and would make its execution nearly impossible. The process takes months as it is.

However, the award anthology, if it is to be a success with readers, cannot do without editing. As it is at present, apart from the stories mentioned above, it becomes a very tedious read. I struggled to keep going. Not because the other finalists were hopeless, but because they could have been so much better. In this sense the book actually fails its authors.

It is a tricky situation, but I can imagine that in the future the original entries could be made available online for anyone wanting to see why the judges reached their conclusions, but a properly edited book would offer the finalists a much better chance of displaying their talents to the general public. All published writers have this well-established safety net to fall back on and this is what very often brings out the best in their work. I think the finalists of such a prestigious literary award as the PEN/Studzinski deserve nothing less. Especially since the wealth of talent that these stories hold is striking even though a lot of it is still quite rough around the edges.

What the anthology captures is a wide spectrum of experiences from across Africa, reflecting a continent full of stories waiting to be told and authors eager to be heard. Topics focusing on gender and sexuality, military and political conflicts, xenophobia, and everyday hardships on the continent dominate. As it is, the narrative and stylistic methods at work do not do justice to the amalgam of possibilities. But the potential is there and it would be a pity not to do anything about it.

After skipping a year, the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award for 2011 should be launched later this year.

New Writing from Africa 2009: Original Short Stories by African Writers
Selected by the South African Centre of International PEN
Winning Stories Selected by J.M. Coetzee
Published by Johnson & KingJames Books, 2009

Karina Magdalena Szczurek is a writer and literary critic.