Short Story 5: Alice Munro – Train

In 2013 my mom’s former London flatmate came to visit her in Ballito. She brought my sister and I each a book. I can’t remember what I got, but somehow my sister’s copy of Alice Munro’s Dear Life ended up in my possession.

Munro is a Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. She has written a fantastic number of stories and won several awards for them. She has even been featured in Canadian currency since 2014. Yet, the collection Dear Life has sat on my shelf since 2013, unread, mostly because I have a horrific book buying addiction and also because we were read one of her stories in one of my Creative Writing classes, supposed to be wowed by it, and I was like … wait, nothing happened in that story.

Aah, says the internet, that is the point. Her stories are more like the Russian style, where the plot is secondary and the minor shifts in the character(s) are what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. A lot like real life.

So the other day in my quest to be more literary and read more short stories I picked it up again, and randomly selected a story – Train. Some of my favourite memories of travelling are on trains – leaving Venice singing Kings of Leon Sex on Fire at the top of my lungs thinking there was no one else in my carriage only to receive a round of applause from down the carriage when I was done, taking the train from Vermont to New York listening to the incredible S-Town on my first solo trip to America, watching the fields pass by on the trains I took between Paris and Marnay-Sur-Seine last year, and also that time I looked over at my husband before he was my husband on a train in Turkey thinking ‘shit, I’m so in love with that guy. I’m going to have to ask him to marry me.’

Trains are infinitely better than other modes of transport because they give you a clear view of the outside world at eye-level. You’re not underground in the dark like the subway or the tube, you don’t have to concentrate on driving, you’re not too high up to see people walking in fields, preening their gardens, or waiting, hand in hand, on a platform. Trains allow you to watch people and a long train ride allows you to watch yourself.

So I picked up Dear Life and turned to page 175.

First line: This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve.

The first line of this story could encapsulate the whole story. It tells us of a man, Jackson, who should be staying on his train to head into a station where we assume someone is waiting for him. Instead, Jackson decides to jump off, and after that, his life is changed forever.

He lands safely and makes his way across a field until he’s spotted by Belle, a local landowner. Belle and Jackson strike up a friendship, beginning with him doing some work on her house, and eventually staying there long term. Like before, not much happened in the plot, which covered several years, but a lot changes in Jackson.

Late in the story, when he is no longer living with Belle, he hears the voice of someone he used to love and he doesn’t get up to see her. Instead, he listens to what she’s asking, studying the voice and its impact on him. It’s enough for him to hear it. He doesn’t want to go back into that old life or have to explain the choices he made or the person he is. He just hears it, and in his hearing, the reader realises how much about him has changed.

The subtle story has some perfect lines, for example:

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by the things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.

This section encapsulates the beauty of being in a train. Of having the ability to move through a scene which seems silent and perfect, and not ever knowing what the reality of that is like. It allows you to pour yourself into the scenery, fill it with your own emotional noise and feeling, and to still your mind a little.

This short story was like that too.

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Short Story 4: Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie

In September last year, I saw Ken Liu talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. He was serious, dressed in an overcoat (I might be projecting this), and his responses to the host were always long and detailed, but fascinating.

It was clear that this was a writer who thought a lot about a lot of things. It wasn’t just that he thought, it was that you could feel the emotion connected to the story he was telling, and to his writing. I can’t remember if he read a section from the Paper Menagerie, or just described it, but the imagery was vivid. It seemed like he was a writer who felt deeply, and someone who would definitely be worth reading.

After hearing his talk I went out to buy the collection, but on that day it had been sold out at the Fugard. A month later, I got a book voucher for my favourite bookstore, The Book Lounge, as part of my bachelorette gifts, and I knew exactly what I was going to buy.

The collection of short stories is called The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. It has a beautiful cover, and the list of accolades that Liu has accrued and achieved is detailed on the back and is extremely impressive, and when I searched for some podcasts featuring him I learned that he also writes Star Wars stories. He is a busy man, and he is extremely talented.

I picked up the collection one evening during the holidays while my husband was ill, and read him The Paper Menagerie. Filled with feeling and depth it is a truly magical story, one that will leave you thinking about it for weeks to come. You can read the whole story here, but I’d really recommend going and buying the collection because the other stories in it are incredible too.

First Line: One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing.

The story describes a child’s relationship with his parents as he grows up in America in a multiracial family. He struggles to make friends, and so his mom crafts him a menagerie made of origami and breathes life into it. The creatures come alive and are his companions in a world that is not always easy to live in. His father is American, and his mom is Chinese. He describes her being picked by his dad from a catalogue, but the real story is far more complicated.

As he grows older, his relationship with his mother grows fraught, as he longs for a ‘normal’ American mother who speaks with him in English. He wants more than anything to fit in, and this comes at a high cost. His father tries to heal the relationship but is not successful. One day in an argument his mother responds that when she says love in English, she feels it in her mouth, but when she says it in Chinese she feels it in her heart. I think we all know the difference between saying and feeling love, and this just puts it so beautifully.

The story is so beautiful, vivid, and full of emotion. He uses images to connect times and spaces so skillfully. I had to pause at some points in order to be able to carry on because I was overwhelmed by the emotion of the character. It is a story that gets to the heart of love and the way we treat those closest to us, the easiest people to bully and belittle, but also the people who give us the most love, even when it seems we don’t deserve it.

I have been slowly reading through the rest of the collection, not because the stories are dense or difficult, but because the sheer force of feelings of each story means you need to sit a while between them. Sometimes days.

But you will want to pick them up again. Because they are powerful stories, and powerful stories feed you, even when they are sad. Perhaps especially so.

What would a world where women weren’t harassed look like?

This morning I finished reading Jessica Valenti’s Memoir Sex Object. The book is a collection of personal reflections on topics such as street harassment, abortion, drug use, sex, and child raising. Throughout, it explores the way that the world treats women, casting them as objects for men’s comment, pleasure, and enjoyment. It also explores the very powerful physical, psychological, and political effects this categorisation has. I found the book painful and difficult to read, not because of the writing but because of the content. Despite this difficulty, the book is important in that it raises important questions that we need to consider.

Valenti considers what it means for her to be raising a daughter in this world and the qualities that she would like her daughter to have. She wants her daughter to be brave, to still be the girl who wants the best part in the play when she’s older, and most of all she wants her not to have to endure the constant harassment, abuse, and assault that most women are exposed to on a daily basis. She wonders what it might be like if that was not the world that existed, and what women would believe about their own potential if we had the space to live our lives un-objectified.

It’s a powerful question that bears reflecting on in South Africa, where street harassment, domestic violence, sexual violence, abuse, and gender discrimination remain the norm. Sure, we have the laws that say it’s not allowed, and the Constitution says we all have the right to feel and be safe, but for most of us, those are just pieces of paper with good intentions.

Last year I spent three months out of the country on writing residencies. It was an amazing time, not least because I had uninterrupted time to write, and my meals were mostly cooked for me, which feels like #livingthedream. What I loved most about the residencies, that took place in two small towns, was my ability to walk alone, for long periods, on the road or in the wilderness, without being harassed. This simple pleasure, an hour long walk a day where I didn’t feel like I had to be afraid, where nobody said anything to me about how I looked or what I was doing alone, and where I could be in nature and consume the beauty of the natural world, was something that I treasured. It helped me sleep better. It helped me write better. It made me feel more human.

The first week back in South Africa after the first residency, I was sexually harassed by a man while walking down the street to visit some old work friends. When I ignored him, which is my instinctive reaction (sometimes my instinct is to keep walking with my middle finger in the air), he took the liberty of crossing the road in case it was a matter of his lewd suggestions being unheard rather than deliberately ignored. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was there, looking at me. It was only when a kind male stranger walked next to me and told him to go away that he stopped. But even this didn’t make me feel better – he didn’t stop because he realised it was vicious, destructive, or offensive to shout comments at me. He stopped because he believed I belonged to another man. I was still an object to him.

I’m at the age where I think about what it might mean to raise a little girl in this world and to be frank, it terrifies me. I wonder how I will tell her that she has the rights and power to do anything she puts her mind to, but simultaneously explain that she should also probably be hypervigilant when crossing the street at night or when choosing an intimate partner. I don’t know that this double-think double-living is psychologically tenable.

I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where women could go on a walk every day for the sheer pleasure of it, and what women would be capable of doing if they were really free.

Short Story 3: Lauren Beukes, Confirm/Ignore

This week the internet is excited about a short story on the New Yorker called Cat Person. I read it, loved it, and will probably write about it soon.

In a strange coincidence, this morning I picked up Lauren Beukes’ latest collection Slipping and flicked through looking for a short story to read. I landed on ‘Confirm/Ignore’ a story about the worlds we build for ourselves and about ourselves online.

 

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Find out more at http://laurenbeukes.com/

 

First line: Yellow is my favourite color. That’s what I’d like you to believe. (Okay, I added two lines, but it was necessary for you to get what the point of the story was).

The story is narrated by one character, who from the start of the story reveals to us that they are not what they seem. They describe their interests, religious beliefs, favourite authors and films, and they share friends with the person they’re talking to. Of course, as we all know from being online, what people share there isn’t a reflection of who they really are, or sometimes who they are at all.

Like Cat Person Beukes’ short story asks us to examine what we’re consuming and producing online without being didactic. It explores the lies we tell to build the relationships and persona that we want online, sometimes without being deliberately deceitful, and other times on purpose. It doesn’t say ‘HEY LOOK HERE THIS CHARACTER IS LYING’, but from those first two sentences we know they are.

Slipping is a mixed collection of stories and essays and ‘other writing’ from Beukes. She’s a celebrated South African writer, with four novels, a bunch of graphic fiction, and two other non-fiction books under her belt. In three short pages, she managed to capture something we can all relate to and to remind me to check my friends list on Facebook to make sure those are my real ‘friends’.

I also really enjoyed Slipping the story, about a sort of cyborg Olympics gone one AI step too far. Like I did, you can get the collection at the amazing Book Lounge.

Short story 2: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cell One

Lucky I started ahead of time because it’s already more than two weeks since my birthday, and I haven’t gotten around to reading any more short stories. I did, however, read Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat which absolutely blew my mind, and was over 600 pages long. So, I don’t feel too bad.

Second story – one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you haven’t read any of her books you are SO lucky, because now you have the chance and I’m jealous!!

I read Americanah first, at a very tough time in my life, and particular sentences have stuck with me to this day. I then read Half of a Yellow Sun about the Biafran war in Nigeria (an epic, you miss the characters, both love and despise them, it’s truly phenomenal) and Purple Hibiscus (a family drama that is powerful and painful). I’ve watched her talks on feminism, the importance of African writers writing for themselves, and have critiqued her engagements with gender. She is an imaginative, creative, and skilled writer. Reading her books is like diving into another world, being immersed in it, and having to come up for air but wishing you could breathe under water.

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So, when I visited the library last week, paid all the fines that I’d incurred by taking so long to read Agaat, and my eyes landed upon her collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck, of course I picked it up.

The shout on the cover says ‘She makes storytelling seem as easy as birdsong.’ The book contains twelve stories, and as with Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, I started with the first one, Cell One.

First sentence: The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbour Osita who climbed in through the dining room window and stole our TV, our VCR, and the Purple Rain and Thriller videotapes my father had brought back from America.

The sentence made me laugh, because it sounded like I was talking to a fellow South African (after all, we’ve all been robbed before). The sentence implied a sense of the inevitability of being robbed, even by ones neighbour, which for some reason made me smile. But this sentence works much harder than that. It tells us that the family who is being robbed is wealthy (they own a TV and VCR, they’ve been to America), they are living in Nigeria but not untouched by American culture (MJ and Prince), and they know their neighbours by name. The sentence also tells us that by the end of this story, they will be robbed again. It creates a world and a plot in just a few words.

The story is set in the University town of Nsukka, a name I recognised from Half of a Yellow Sun which is also set there. The families in this neighbourhood are academics, but as the story progresses young men and boys in the community become caught up in ‘cults’ (what we would call gangs) and so the robbing and crime increase. It’s a story that considers the futility of retaliation, and the confusion of belonging.

The narrator’s brother becomes a part of this criminal world, with severe consequences, and finds himself arrested after staying out past a curfew. The story explores the family’s reaction to this. Their denial, their smugness, their helplessness, their relief when in the end he is returned to them.

Though the focus of the story is the family, Adichie also explores the theme of the treatment of prisoners by police in a situation where police are lawless themselves. She doesn’t preach to us about it, but you are unable to read about it without thinking about how unjust and inhumane it is, particularly when an elderly man is arrested because the police can’t find his son who has committed the crime. We read about police roadblocks, the normality of bribes, and the ability to almost live a normal life within this. It felt so familiar to me as a South African reader, and as a South African who lives a good, financially secure life amidst broader societal collapse.

I suppose what I took from this story is the idea that thinking yourself different / separate / other than the society you live in is just a farce, but also, that people always have the possibility to surprise you.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection.

 

Short Story 1: Kazuo Ishiguro, Crooner

It seemed like a good idea to start my short story reading project with the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Kazuo Ishiguro. If I’m going to learn anything from reading short stories, a Nobel Prize is probably a good place to start.

It also seemed like a good idea to start my project two weeks early to make up for the times that I’m probably going to be stuck into a novel, or writing a novel, and so will find reading more difficult to do. So here it is,

Ishiguro is a Japanese writer who has grown up predominantly in the UK. He has written seven novels, four plays, lyrics for songs, and a number of short stories. I enjoyed Never Let Me Go (both the book and the movie), and so when I was browsing in the library the other day his short story collection, Nocturnes, caught my eye. The collection is subtitled: five stories of music and nightfall. I began at the beginning with Crooner.

I’d like to keep a track of all the first lines of the stories I read in this project, because whenever I’ve been to talks on short stories they always say ‘hook them with the first line.’

First line: The morning I spotted Tony Gardner sitting among the tourists, spring was just arriving here in Venice. 

Crooner is the story of a ‘freelance’ or ‘gypsy’ musician, Janeck, who plays his guitar on the plazas of Venice. There he meets one of his musical icons, Tony Gardner, who has played an important role in the protagonist’s life because of his mother’s appreciation of his music. They strike up a conversation, and soon Janeck finds himself on a gondola, in a romantic effort to impress the Gardner’s wife. Immediately, we sense that something is amiss, and that the night time serenade is not as simple or romantic as it should be, but it is only at the end that we find out why.

The story is laced with melancholy, from Janeck about his past life in a communist country, the scenes about his mother are short but impress upon the reader the impact of a soviet life, and for the elderly singer, Gardner, who despite fame does not seem to have happiness.

The story moves between past and present, and the pacing of the story mirrors the lapping water on which the gondola travels. Just as you think you are reaching the explanation, so the writing pulls away and you are drawn with it away from understanding why Gardner is there.

When it comes the explanation is hard to swallow.  The reader’s concern stops following our narrator and leaves the gondola with the elderly singer. I wanted to know what happened to him as he stepped out onto the uneven streets of Venice, and thereafter.

For me, the ending came too soon, and the resolution didn’t satisfy me. Janeck tells us briefly what happened to the singer, but only on a surface level. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how fame allows you to see the famous and their lives – almost as photographs rather than movies. There isn’t enough depth. Perhaps it’s a reflection on a love song – that you never hear the after part of a declaration of undying love. Is it undying? Or is it just transitory?

I suppose that’s what short stories are supposed to do – dip you into the life of another person and leave you wondering about what happened to them.

The Peculiars has been long-listed for the Etisalat Prize

I received the absolute best news yesterday. The Peculiars is one of 9 books (6 South African, 3 Nigerian) to be long listed for the Etisalat prize for Literature. I am extremely honoured to have been considered and humbled to have been long listed alongside writers whom I respect and whose writing I enjoy so much.

The long list includes the following 9 books:

  • The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo (Pan Macmillan, South Africa)
  • Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Toure (BlackBird Books, imprint of Jacana Media, South Africa)
  • The Peculiars by Jen Thorpe (Penguin Random House, South Africa)
  • Dub Steps by Andrew Miller (Jacana Media, South Africa)

I wish everyone the best of luck and congratulations!