Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Two Dogs / Mercury

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Gillian Rennie

7. Gillian Rennie - pic by SAN KNOETZE1Joanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Gillian Rennie. Her story “Retrieval” was selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Gillian Rennie is now a teacher of writing and editing at Rhodes University, after decades in journalism. She believes she learns more than she teaches. As a teacher, she seeks light switches. As a writer, she turns observations into ink. As a reader, she favours the personal essay and longs for erotica that features mastectomy survivors. She holds a Mondi Magazine Award for her Fairlady profile of MaMbeki and was twice selected for the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology and on SLiPnet.

Your story “Retrieval” includes an imaginary friend. Did you consciously set out to do this?

Not at the beginning, no. What I set out to do was see if I could write a 3 000-word story as the competition rules required. But next time I looked there were two characters having two pretty different lives. This was potentially disconcerting but I persuaded myself to trust that these two women knew what was what and all I needed to do was continue turning up at the keyboard until they chose to enlighten me – which I did, until they did. Early one morning they told me one of them was imaginary. Which is a Russian doll of hilarity, really, because both of them are imaginary, really, aren’t they? Only don’t tell them that, they both think they’re real. The truth can be so destabilising, whoever you are.

It’s almost as if you, the writer, were having a conversation with yourself… is there any truth to this? As you stepped from the ordinary into the fantastical?

Of course – I have conversations with myself continuously! I have no idea what other wavelength to tune into for a decent soundtrack to this documentary movie I’ve been cast in.

Tell us more about your love of cats and poetry and how the two came together in the story.

At about the same time as the Short.Sharp.Stories call for entries was announced, a writing colleague suggested I enter another competition. That one called for African poetry collections of 50 pages or more. So I started trawling my poetry folder. Took out all the poems about cats (the internet having devalued the intellectual potential of cats as poetic subjects). Took out most of the poems about sex (not wanting the rest of the continent to get the wrong idea about us down here). That left about six pages – and a clear view of my poetic concerns. Obviously there was only one thing I could do: create a new folder and write a short story to put in it.

Will readers find your story more literary than commercial?

Wow, I’d be thrilled if they did.

That sounds smug – what’s wrong with commercial success?

Nothing. But writing well means different things to different writers. I like the idea of being a tiny bit literary. And I like the idea that some readers might regard some of my work as literary.

Ooh, defensive, are we?

For sure! It’s tough enough owning up to writing erotica. It shouldn’t be tough owning up to being literary as well.

OK then, what if you had to choose between commerce and literature?

I can’t. I write what I write but what happens beyond readers’ eyes if beyond me.

There you go again, having conversations with yourself.

As a journalist writing fiction, please comment on the idea that whether one works on fiction or non-fiction it’s all about story.

Ooh, this has been such a hard one to accept. I was schooled in outdated modes of reportage that were impossible to shake off so for decades. I was wedded to veracity, and to the journalistic striving for impartiality. If I recognised the truth of fiction, I left it there to play with itself while I got on with the facts of life. It couldn’t last, of course – something had to give and it wasn’t going to be the truth so it had to be me. Eventually I got it: we are all story. We are only story. That’s the truth.

What do you think of writing competitions?

They offer multiple challenges: to write anyway (if the topic’s unappetising), to keep writing (if you win), and to write again (if you don’t).

What’s next for you?

I’m always working on the current writing prompt from my weekly writing group and I’m always working on helping journalism students tell stories better. I’m also trying to dance more and care less.

…A perfect ending for the interview, thanks, Gillian.

Adults OnlyBook details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Wamuwi Mbao

Wamuwi MbaoJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Wamuwi Mbao. His story “The Ninth Wave” was selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Wamuwi Mbao, 27, is a literary critic and essayist. He lectures on postmodern alienation and contemporary South African fiction at the University of Stellenbosch. He is the project co-ordinator of the SLiP collective, which host open-mic poetry events and conducts weekend poetry workshops in the townships of the Western Cape. His reviews and articles have been published on SliPNet, Aerodrome and in the Daily Maverick, and he has had a number of short stories published

Your story “The Ninth Wave” is both sensual and sexual, and the sum of its parts adds up to more than a love affair between a man and a woman. In essence, what inspired the story?

The Ninth Wave is a story about the currents that pass between people in moments of desire, and about how those currents have the potential to express themselves as destructive energy. The title draws from a section of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King – specifically the coming of Arthur –

“Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame”

Which I thought beautifully captured the energy I was trying to convey in the story.

Indeed, your story has been likened to a prose poem. I found the rhythm mesmerising.  Did you intend it to be ‘poetic’ at all?

The idea of writing a story with a poetic undercurrent, a story where meaning takes shape in waves of meaning, began to seem really attractive. I was trying to write a story where the narrative flows. I hope I pulled that off.

The white/ black issue, can you comment on that? Was it an intended combination?

I think stories are more interesting when they engage (rather than merely reflect) the true diversity of our nation. I wanted the story to speak to the sort of concerns an interracial couple might experience – the ways in which the experience of passion and the experience of desire are shaded in or coloured by identity.

The female protagonist seems more casual about sex than the more obsessive male narrator. Is this a comment on love and sex? I appreciate the fact, and enjoyed it too, that the tables are turned… 

She definitely has a more thought-out approach to sex, and that allows her to be free, ironically. The male narrator is bound to his ideas of what such an affair should involve, and that submerges him. Perhaps it’s saying that we’re at our most free when we surrender ourselves, rather than attempting to steer and control.

More broadly, what are your interests as a writer?

I’m deeply intrigued by how uncertainty shapes our lives: my narrators are usually marginal figures gripped by doubts, especially concerning the feelings of other people. My writing is also concerned with the notion we have that our lives are solely the result of what happens to us: it explores how our lives are in fact shaped equally by our omissions, our unachieved ambitions, the things we don’t do. It’s about tapping the diffuse, intangible things that nevertheless influence our actions.

And you’re already bringing home the accolades. Your story “The Bath” will be featured in The Best 20 of Twenty. How do you feel about that?

It’s quite humbling – being published alongside so many voices I admire and respect is staggering. I was genuinely flabbergasted, too, when the news came that I’d be in “Adults Only”, and that feeling of shock is still lingering. But it’s thrilling too – like being in an eisteddfod of literary talent and hearing your name being called up for a medal.

How do you fit in your writing and the work you do at SliPNet? Have you found a comfortable routine?

I don’t work to anything that might be called a routine – I find that I can’t summon inspiration – it arrives, as most muses do, of its own accord, and I work around that. With SLiPNet being such a dynamic literary workspace, I’m in contact with the exciting work of other South African writers all day, and that certainly keeps me on my toes. I write quite a lot of creative non-fiction, and my work can be found on SLiPNet. I’m still very much a new voice, though.               

A new voice, yet an assured and exciting voice. Thanks, Wamuwi.

Adults OnlyBook details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Alexander Matthews

Photo: Gabrielle Guy

Photo: Gabrielle Guy

Joanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Alexander Matthews. His story “Entropy” was selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Alexander Matthews is a freelance writer and the editor of AERODROME (, a showcase of words and people which features book reviews, extracts, interviews and original short stories and poetry. He has written for MONOCLE, House & Leisure, Marie Claire SA and The Times (South Africa), amongst other titles, and is contributing editor of the award-winning Business Day WANTED.

Matthews’s poetry and prose blog is The Marginal Obscura ( His short story, In Betty’s Bay, was included in The Ghost-eater and Other Stories, an anthology published by Umuzi in 2013.

Your story “Entropy”, of love and loss, reveals the relationship of a gay couple through to marriage. What inspired the tale?

The characters seemed to emerge by themselves, just as I was thinking about the concept of gay marriage and the potential impact it can have on people’s lives – both inside the union and beyond it. Of course equality is enshrined in law, but gay marriage does throw up some interesting – and sometimes difficult – scenarios, in which people from a variety of religious and social contexts can struggle to accept it.

Is it important to you to explore gay themes? Can you comment on SA being one of the first countries to acknowledge gay marriage?

It’s absolutely essential for gay lives to be written about. The more this happens, the more ignorance and prejudice can be eroded. There are still a lot of people who treat gays with fear and suspicion, considering them aberrant outsiders. While it can’t do it alone, literature can play a powerful role in deepening empathy and understanding about things affecting gay people. Literature can also provide a sense of comfort and connection to gays facing stigma and persecution or who are simply yearning for stories that they can relate to or be inspired by.

It was wonderful that South Africa was the first African country to recognise gay marriage, following on from its remarkable constitution being the first in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexuality. But while our constitution leads the way in equality, we still have much to do to ensure this translates into a society which genuinely allows all, gays included, to live and love freely and without persecution.

How did politics influence the story’s formation?

Politics is perhaps more tightly bound to the personal in South Africa than in many other countries. The political dimension to the story was something that happened organically; the character Amir emerged as clearly having a party political background. Why? That’s one of the mysteries of character development. Regardless, it was something I had fun with, particularly since opposition politicians seem to be rather under-represented in local fiction, and the specificity of Amir’s political background made the non-existent, in some way, hyper-real.

Yet “Entropy”, apart from the politics of it all, tells a universal tale of the love triangle which will appeal to a wide readership.

This story doesn’t try to portray gay people as unique or different – simply as human beings leading lives that are as complex (and perhaps sometimes even more so) than their straight counterparts. There is a tug between love, lust, responsibility and abandon; and the tensions between these impulses are indeed universal. But in the specificity encountered in the intersections between the story’s characters, I touch on the complexities stemming from homosexuality being considered taboo in some families and cultures. Amir, Luke and James are not defined by their sexuality or by their circumstances; but their milieu does still exert a powerful – and at times potentially corrosive – affect on their lives and relationships.

“Entropy”, written in clean and  straightforward prose, has a rhythm, if you like, of the everyday….

Life isn’t necessarily lyrical — it’s messy and complicated. And I suppose you don’t need highfalutin phrasing or ripe imagery to convey the complexity of ordinary lives. Perhaps less adorned prose can sometimes carry greater power; perhaps not. That’s something for the reader to decide.

Generally what are your interests as a writer?

I’m interested in people, in the tensions and connections between the individual and the broader social, cultural and political context they form a part of.

And of course, that quintessential question: what are currently working on?

No surprises there – I’m working on a novel.

Part of your day job so to speak though (whenever you do it!) is running your online literary magazine, Aerodrome. How is that going for you? Are you excited about SA writing?

Editing AERODROME is lots of hard work but a deeply rewarding experience. It’s thrilling to be publishing great poetry and short fiction — not just from SA, but from all over the world.

Thanks, Alex, for a provocative story, and for everything you do to promote fiction.

Adults Only

Book details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Efemia Chela

14. Efemia Chela Author PhotoJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Efemia Chela. Her story “Perigee” was selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Efemia Chela was born in Zambia in 1991, grew up in England, Ghana, Botswana and South Africa, studied at Rhodes University and the Institut D’Etudes Politiques in Aix-En-Provence, and now lives in Cape Town. Her short stories, Chicken and Feast, Famine And Potluck, were shortlisted for the 2013 Short Story Day Africa competition and 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing respectively. When she grows up she says she would like to be a midwife of great literature, a (better) writer, a translator, subtitler and graphic novelist. She is married to a film camera. They go everywhere together and have many square children. Follow Efemia on Twitter @efemiachela.

Are you a fan of erotica?

I’ve read a little bit of erotica like The Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin and some Hentai. But not much. Perhaps I should read more of the genre. I’d need recommendations.

I would recommend that you start with Adults Only, for a slice of SA erotica! To get straight to your story “Perigee”, you write about sexual experimentation, also sexual predation. Can you comment on this?

The story was inspired by the need to express the heady desire of youth but at the same time the impotence of youth. I think I left a lot of ambiguity in the story for who was the predator and who was being predated. In a lot of ways the story is about being blissfully destroyed consensually.

The preoccupation your characters have with sexual identity – is that a reflection of what’s happening in a youth culture? 

I think sexual orientation is, and has always been, a focus of young people who are finding and concretising who they are, as they are told adults are supposed to do. As to whether it’s more prevalent today, I think it is, because it’s more in the open. In privileged circles (like university) people are allowed to identify as pansexual or neutrois or what have you with less judgement.

With the (sadly) negative focus on lesbian love in the media, did you set out to be provocative?

I didn’t set out to be provocative but I would like to see more LGBTIQ characters in fiction. I think it’s a shame that there are so few lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, inter-sex and questioning characters in African fiction. I want to write about all kinds of people (particularly those who have previously been, or are, silenced or stigmatised). I also wanted to thicken the plot by having characters with fluid sexuality. So I did. Mainly I just wanted to show a complex relationship. Straight relationships and gay relationships hold the same value for me, so I find it no different to what I may have written about a heterosexual couple.

I love the cryptic title “Perigee”. Tell us more…

Pronounced peri-jee, I chose it because it’s a beautiful word. It refers to when the moon in the course of its orbit reaches the closest point to the Earth. Colloquially this occurrence is referred to as a supermoon, like the one we had in early August this year. The two heavenly bodies are close, linked and yet never actually touch, which relates to the state of the protagonist in the story and the characters around her. I think I also chose it because it is a little known word and, similarly, the protagonist is struggling to get know herself.

How have competitions such as these helped you?

Competitions have helped me because I needed a challenge. I also needed some guidance at first, like a theme or a word limit in order to contain my imagination, but still let it sing in a more accessible, ordered state. They’ve also raised my writer self-esteem a bit and, I imagine, my profile in the writing world.

Certainly your short-listing for the Caine Prize was a Coup!

I don’t have much of an oeuvre; I’m quite new to the writing game. My first short story “Chicken” is available to read on the Caine website (

As a young writer, what would you like to explore through your writing?

I’d like my writing to take a longer form and for me to be able sustain a great narrative and interesting characters for longer, like in the form of a novel. I like to explore themes of growing up (whatever that means), placelessness, the complexity of life in 21st Africa. I like to write about oddities, whether odd people or odd situations.

Currently I’m rewriting some rejected short stories and thinking of turning one into a novella.

I’d love to write more short stories and flash fiction. I have a soft spot for both forms. I’d like my-first-bound-published-put in-bookstore-work to be a graphic novel and then, who knows?

Thanks, Efemia, we look forward to more from you as you explore and experiment.

Adults Only

Book details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Chantelle Gray van Heerden

6. Chantelle GrayJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Chantelle Gray van Heerden. Her story “The Most Tender Place” was selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Chantelle Gray van Heerden is a full-time PhD student in her final year. Her research is in the field of Translation Studies and investigates the politics, ethics and aesthetics of translation from a Deleuzo-Guattarian perspective. Previously she worked as a freelancer who did almost anything and everything that involved writing, and before that she co-owned a vegan restaurant in Muizenberg. When she finds time between chapters, she writes – short stories mostly, but also children’s literature, translations and book reviews. Her short stories “Margie Says” (first runner up) and “When Princess Diana Comes” (honourable mention) were published in The Darker Times Anthology. She is an avid reader of any good literature and philosophy, and supports veganism and the liberation of animals. In her spare time she turns feral and returns to the mountains where she runs for hours.

Your story “The Most Tender Place” is hard-hitting. It takes the S&M fantasy to the extreme. It is disturbing yet at the same time strangely erotic. What was your intention?

Human sexuality has always interested me, but not so much in itself as where it bifurcates; i.e. where it becomes ‘unusual’. I am interested in why some people express their sexuality in different ways and how; what feeds these needs and why they are labelled as ‘different’. I also often wonder why it is that some people fear that which does not conform to the norm so much whilst others are able to embrace it – to embrace their own capacity to be different and feel different. I am interested in what those kinds of experiences allow for and what is possible when they can be held in a moment. And sometimes even a moment of lust.

Was the hard-hitting piece at all response to what one might consider the ‘softer’ erotica out there?

Yes, definitely. For a number of reasons. First of all, the erotica out there still adapts, obeys, screams, dresses, feels, fucks too much according to what men like and what women think men like and think they like because that’s what men like. And it bothers me that women don’t resist this more, that they don’t revolt in more visible ways. Also, conventions of heteronormativity and conformity to sexual behaviour/s prefigured by these conventions not only censor people in very specific ways, but also preclude the accidental – the chance collision of pain and love and chaos and beauty that lies beyond the oftentimes binary boundaries we draw around ourselves. So I guess I wanted to present a moment that required trust in chance and which explores different ways in which all the vulnerability, ugliness, desire, confusion and love of one person lies in the power of someone else and how, sometimes, the most intense pleasure can only be found in pain.

There is an underlying sense of great ‘sexual need’ in the story. The protagonist becomes willing to take this need to a more and more dangerous place. Can you comment on this?

The great sexual need is a complex intersection of different aspects. First, and probably most obvious in the story, is that the protagonist has been rejected by the person she believes she loves. So the need is obviously informed by a desire to be needed and wanted. But also I wanted to bring across the idea that women have healthy sexual needs and desires, and that it isn’t necessarily men who always want sex, or sex of a particular kind. Then I think there is another element which is often overlooked in sexual behaviour, and that is that the protagonist’s satisfaction comes from what is termed ‘deviant’ behaviour. This is something that I think too many people are made to feel guilty for. And what is deviant for one person may seem quite natural to another. I would say that the protagonist becomes more reckless because she’s lost her sense of home and belonging, so in a way the story is also about that.

What do you imagine a reader’s response might be to the story?

I think they’re going to think I’m super weird, with Medusa-like razors and ropes for hair! But what I hope is that the story makes them re-examine their own prejudices against ‘deviant’ sexual behaviours (and maybe even explore a couple of scenarios, if only conceptually). And that it makes them very, VERY horny!

Is there an overarching theme to your work?

I am interested in what happens at the edge (this can be interpreted very broadly), but also about power dynamics and specifically about how these play out in the fucked-upness of people; why people allow certain things or fall prey to substance abuse or use substances to manipulate others; how sociopaths are able to create such large lives that consist of spectre more than anything else; why some people feel powerless, intimidated and vulnerable from the outset. The fluxes between these and how they are shaped by other, larger structural arrangements and relations, that’s what I write about.

So what’s next for you, Chantelle?

I have a completed children’s book that has been sent off to the publishers (I’m holding thumbs) and one that I’m working on in between things. Other than that I’m writing, rewriting and editing my ten best short stories and entering them into competitions. Working and reworking them is the most important thing to me at this stage; well, that and getting my name out there slowly.

Thanks, Chantelle. I’m really looking forward to reading more of what promises to be powerful and evocative work.

Adults Only

Adults Only is available in stores for R190.

Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Book details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Alex Smith

12. Alex SmithJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Alex Smith. Her story “The Big Toad” was Highly Commended by the competition judges.

Alex Smith is the author of Algeria’s WayFour Drunk BeautiesAgency Blue and Drinking From The Dragon’s Well. Her writing has been shortlisted for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award and the Caine Prize for African Writing, and has won a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and a Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. Her new novel Devilskein & Dearlove has just hit the book stores in South Africa. She lives in Cape Town with her partner Andrew, their book-loving baby boy and their dogs.

Follow Alex at and on Twitter @africa_alex.

Your story “The Big Toad”, Highly Commended as ‘an imaginative tour de force’, is a delight. What inspired you to write this hilarious Madam and Eve take?

Andrew and I love taking our two-year-old son Elias to the library, in particular the Cape Town library, which has a most wonderful collection, for Elias and for us. So usually Elias (who has his own library card) selects his 7 books and then we also choose some, always one or two from the art books section. One weekend, we got a brilliant book about Frida, and in it was a quote something along the lines of: “Surrealism is when you look in the cupboard and expect to see linen, but find a lion instead.” We had just heard about the Adults Only story competition and I thought I’d like to try it, and when I saw this quote I had the idea of doing something surreal, along the lines of what you might see if you looked in the cupboard…

I reckon your story just had to be a winner as in the cupboard are those quintessential SA brands such as Joko and Jungle Oats. Do those items conjure up ‘home’ for you?

Pretty much, yes, they conjure up my kitchen cupboard and since they are household names, I assumed they would be in kitchen cupboards around the country. And there is a peculiar fondness one has for favourite brands, like the oats brand and the tea brand. And also those brands are advertised in such a squeaky clean, prim-almost, fashion, the perfect advert world they exist in doesn’t at all reflect the ‘kitchen sink drama’ of the households the products actually inhabit. I rather enjoyed being smutty with them, using magic realism to reflect some dirty realism, if you will!

And it seems that the ‘doek’ has not gone out of fashion either… did you think that it might be ‘Old SA’ to write about a madam and maid?

Their relationship is a reality of South Africa today. It’s not like there are no maids, nanny’s, au pairs, ironing ladies, gardeners in the ‘New SA’ or most other parts of the world for that matter. It’s a social reality the world over (has been for a couple of millenniums probably) – the worker in a domestic situation; the worker who sees into the heart (and cupboards) of his or her boss’s home, knows so much, can get so close and yet, at the end of the workday, is still an employee like anyone else. Yet, in all work situations, special relationships can form; not all workers hate their jobs and their bosses (though a fair number do, and understandably so); rare friendships can grow in the workplace.

Your characters certainly have plenty common ground! How did the story evolve?

I just had fun with taking Frida’s surreal lion and turning him into something a little more saucy. And I was laughing as I wrote about it. Since having a baby, life has become far more domestic. I mean I used to have nothing in my fridge but ice blocks, but now we have a proper home with Jungle Oats, toaster bread and laundry detergent and all that. So I thought well, instead of opening linen cupboards for my surreal lion, I’d go to the pantry and play with the idea there.

The final frontier of common ground is a very natural delight with sex (which neither would have admitted until the arrival of the surreal).

Generally, what are your interests as a writer? What themes do you like to explore?

Usually themes don’t excite me into writing. It’s a concept, a place, a character, a particular injustice… so in this story it was the concept of Frida’s interpretation of ‘surreal’. In my new novel Devilskein&Dearlove the whole thing evolved from an obsession with keys and the doors they might unlock. It’s out in July in the UK and in SA (with Penguin Random House/ Umuzi) – it’s a YA fantasy.

Was there a reason you’ve tackled more YA?

My novel that got the Sanlam award, Agency Blue was YA. Some of my fondest reading memories are those of fantasy novels, like The Never Ending Story read as a teenager. I started writing Devilskein & Dearlove about two and half years ago when I was pregnant with my son and I really was driven to wanting to write a story that he might love reading someday when he becomes an independent reader of novels.

Can you give us a taste?

“Six secret doors. Infinite magical worlds… When thirteen-year-old Erin Dearlove has to move in with her aunt on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street, she struggles to adapt to her new life, harbouring a dark secret. But her friendship with their upstairs neighbour, Mr Devilskein, soon helps her to adjust. Like Erin, Mr Devilskein has something to hide: he is the keeper of six mysterious doors…” It’s a tale of friendship, adventure and magic.

As is “The Big Toad” which makes it such a popular choice amongst readers. Thanks for a delightful (and sexy) read, Alex.

Adults OnlyAdults Only is available in stores for R190.

Find this book with BOOK Finder!

The Short.Sharp.Stories Awards is sponsored by the National Arts Festival.

Book details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Ken Barris

16. Ken BarrisJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Ken Barris. His story “Louka In Autumn” was Highly Commended by the competition judges.

Ken Barris is a lecturer, writer, researcher and critic working at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. His publications include peer-reviewed articles, two collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and six novels. His work has been translated into Turkish, Danish, French, German and Slovenian, and has appeared in just under thirty anthologies. He has won various literary awards, including the AA Life/Ad Donker Award, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, M-Net Book Prize, Thomas Pringle Award and the 2013 University of Johannesburg Prize for his novel Life Underwater. He has twice been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for Writing in Africa and the Herman Charles Bosman Award respectively, and for the Commonwealth Prize. His latest novel Sunderland, a collaboration with Michael Cope, appeared in 2014. His novel What Kind of Child (2006) is possibly still available, but with difficulty. You can find him at

Your story “Louka in Autumn” is a meander of love and loss, tinged with melancholy. What sparked the story?

I’m not sure. Sometimes my writing begins with a clear idea, while sometimes I begin writing – perhaps there is a vague feeling or a stray image that carries a bit of gravity or charge, and off I go. “Louka in Autumn” began this way. I know that’s not a clear answer, but I don’t know where my writing comes from or how it originates.

Do you really not know where your stories come from? Or do you simply prefer not to talk about it?

No, it’s not because I prefer not talking about it – more that I wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. I can tell you the immediate trigger for a story sometimes. For example, I was sitting in a restaurant when a woman with dense red lipstick drinking orange juice through a straw caught my eye. She was pale, naturally pale, not from shock or illness. I had a pad and pen with me, and the colour combination sparked off a story. But I can’t really explain how a chain of associations suddenly appeared in the right sequence as I wrote. I couldn’t foresee the end while at the beginning, or until some way through the middle. I just wrote until it was completed, and it emerged from some unconscious place, albeit guided by certain choices made en route. And then sometimes a novel lives with me for years in embryonic form, as I gradually tease out its shape, and its people, and the interaction of its formal components. And I can sometimes pin the source down to this or that experience, but everyone has experiences without necessarily being able or willing to write about them. I don’t see an external experience, or even consuming interest in a topic, as sufficient explanation of how writing comes about.

In general do you enjoy writing the short story?

Very much. It is a more spontaneous and limited project compared to a novel, and the ratio of unpredictable to planned material can be much higher. I also like the element of implication, the greater role of the unsaid, simply because you don’t have space to say it. I’ve responded to your question in more general terms, but it certainly applies to “Louka in Autumn”.

Is writing a compulsion for you?

It used to be in the dim past. I couldn’t stop myself, I would write in a hole at the bottom of a lake if I had to. Now I’m far more distractible. About ten years ago, cooking became the centre of the universe. For much of this year I’ve been obsessed with photography. In fact, work on my current novel has been completely derailed for about five weeks because of it. But sadly, I think I’m most alive when I’m doing something that I’m not supposed to be doing.

So in this case, to get back to your story “Louka In Autumn” how did you interpret the brief?  As with other stories in this collection, there is no ‘physical’ sex scene in the story.

There is sex in the story, in memory – but it is sex that leaves the narrator out, trapped in his longing for a relationship that left him behind. So sex is felt through its absence, as the tangible negative. I thought of “erotic” as different to “sexual” – a broader quality that includes desire, fulfilled or not, loss, entanglement in the world of dreaming as opposed to the world of hard reality.

In your opinion, what makes good ‘sex’ writing?

I think an original angle is helpful, the right balance of distance and closeness, probably a sense of humour, and certainly the clarity not to perpetuate the usual morass of clichés. An ability to play across the grain.

Do we have a responsibility as writers to explore the themes of sex and sexuality, especially when there seems to be so much abuse about, and sex can be the ultimate power game?

I think it would take a bigger mind or a more abstract one than mine to comment on sex and sexuality in this country. Each person and each relationship is a continent, an island, an archipelago, a mudslide, or sometimes a non-event. I shy away from the idea of writers having a responsibility to explore this or that. We had enough of that in the apartheid years, narrowly conceived as it was. I think writers have a responsibility to be as serious or frivolous as their talent demands. Preferably both, not necessarily at once.

So what are your broader interests as a writer?

I have diverse interests: politics, human relationships or their failure, the struggle to be human in a dysfunctional society, things that fit together absurdly, and how people and animals merge into and out of each other.

Lastly, I’d like to ask, as a multi-award winning author, what for you, is the value of competitions? 

Publicity! Writing has to compete with a much brighter and more varied world of stimulus than ever before, attention spans are said to be getting shorter, and in South Africa we have a small reading public, one that has access to a selection of the world’s best writing. So I think competitions are tremendously important for the publishing industry, simply to compete for public attention, and to raise the profile not only of individual writers, but of writing itself. I don’t think the best writer on any given day is necessarily selected, and we live in a competition-obsessed culture, ripe with the pungent fruits of MasterChef, Idols, Survivor, and so on. But I still think competitions add genuine value to cultural production and propagation.

I’m glad you say this, as it is certainly one way to ensure a publishing platform for writers, and a way to keep short stories as an art form in the public eye. Thanks, Ken, for sharing your experience, and your story “Louka in Autumn”.

Adults Only

Book details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Arja Salafranca

Arja SalafrancaJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Arja Salafranca.

Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions, which received the Sanlam Award for poetry and The Fire in which we Burn; a third is forthcoming in 2014. Her debut collection of short fiction is titled The Thin Line, and long-listed for the Wole Soyinka Award in 2012. She has participated in a number of writers conferences, edited two anthologies of fiction and non-fiction, and has received awards for her poetry and fiction. She is the lifestyle and arts editor at The Sunday Independent. Find her online at

So… a collection of sexy stories… what’s your take?

Sex is everywhere around us – seemingly – on television and billboards, online and elsewhere – and yet, you don’t find much of it in literary terms, it’s something only partially explored in SA writing – and so I think this volume will be a welcome addition to the literary canon.

Your story “Post-dated Sex” focuses on love between two women – it’s tender and moving. What sparked the story? Did you have in mind a message when you wrote it?

The story was sparked by a number of things – the long-distance relationship I have with my partner, who lives in Pretoria, and I live in Johannesburg. While it’s “just” a highway that separates us, the demands of our jobs, the vicissitudes of traffic and other issues – means that sometimes time together has to be compressed into weekends, into having, if you like “post-dated sex”. Much of a long-distance relationship revolves around making plans and fitting things into a short space of time. My partner and I were talking about this one day – as we do, often. That was a seed – as was taking a walk through the golf estate where she lives; walking is like meditation. The sun was setting, the sky was golden and it was all slightly melancholic as I’d be leaving to go home for the week soon. The story came together then – as I thought of a game that couples could play, of memory, which forms part of the story. There was no “message” per se – just a desire to explore this idea, to produce a story that was sensuous to read.

Was it a choice to explore a lesbian relationship through the writing?

That’s the way I live out my sexuality – so it was a natural way for me to explore this topic.

Getting back to the sensuousness, and your mention of memory, this is the aspect that makes the story so tender – this shared history between two people, as opposed to immediate and overt sexuality. Can you comment on this?

I prefer suggestion and memory as opposed to overtly writing about sexuality, certainly, somehow, at this point. I used to write much more overtly about sex and sexuality. I had a story published called “White Camisole”, commissioned for a volume of erotic South African writing in the 1990s, when I was in my twenties, and then published in BodyPlay/LyfSpel, edited by Rachelle Greeff, which was much more explicit, as were the other pieces I did in my twenties.

I’m certainly not against overtly “sexual” writing, and there’s a power to that – but I do believe in leaving a lot to the imagination, to letting the reader in turn “tell” the story through their own imagining of it. But I do think there is a power and a beauty to that as well. This story leant itself to suggestion, as the story is also so driven by the suggestions of the actual stories told in the piece, so I think it naturally wrote itself in that way. Another story might very well demand a different, perhaps more overt telling, depending on the subject matter.

Staying with the prose, and what I understand to be a poetic quality to it, how influenced are you by the rhythms of poetry?

Well, I think that comes out in my writing as I’m a poet (as well as a fiction and non-fiction writer), and have been told often that my stories have a lyrical, poetic tone and feeling to them. This isn’t intentional at all – it just seems to come out naturally in my writing. I suppose the poetry sometimes flows into my writing – and I do like going beyond the ordinary and obvious, of finding poetry in everyday life, and I think that just naturally enters my writing – even the non-fiction at times, such as my travel writing.

Now a biggie: What’s the future of the Short Story in SA? 

It’s not as vigorously promoted as in the US or UK, for example, and there aren’t as many places to publish here as there are in those countries, which is a pity. But our readership is smaller, we have to remember that. There also aren’t as many competitions. And local publishers bring out very few volumes or anthologies – as generally short stories don’t sell as much as other genres. So the short story is still a bit of a Cinderella here. But there is hope – no matter what, there are yearly anthologies and competitions to fill the gap, such as the Short.Sharp.Awards, so short stories are never entirely off the radar of course, as well as publishers who are willing to take on collections, such as Modjaji Books, or the work done by the Short Story Day Africa team. And a handful of print literary journals remain that publish stories as well as increasingly, online journals and platforms. So the short story is certainly alive in this country, and there are both practitioners and lovers of the genre who write, and read short stories voraciously, and seek to keep them alive, and interest in them stoked and nurtured. But, it would be good to see more magazines and even newspapers publishing short stories or extracts. At the moment, You magazine regularly publish short fiction. And the Books SA online site sometimes carried short fiction in its monthly mix. I also wish radio would broadcast short stories – as they once did.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were adapted to stage or TV productions? Many short stories have become successful films – look at Raymond Carver’s fictions as dramatised in Short Cuts, or the film of E. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. So, there is more that could be done to publicise the beauty of short fiction, and promote it. And I haven’t even begun to talk about how ideal short stories are for mobile devices and e-readers, ideal for reading in short spurts such as waiting in a doctor’s room or commuting on the Gautrain, for example. As South African fiction in the forms of novels has been increasingly taken up by local readers, I’m hopeful that short stories, and the cousin, the novella, aren’t far behind in a chance at popularity.

Thanks, Arja, for a beautiful story, and also for much food for thought in this interview, and particularly for holding the banner high for the Short Story.

Adults Only

Book details

» read article

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Dudumalingani Mqombothi

4. MqombothiJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Dudumalingani Mqombothi. His story “The Streetwalkers” was Highly Commended by the competition judges.

Dudumalingani Mqombothi is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the Zikhovane village in the former Transkei. He currently lives in Cape Town, and is working in the film industry as a director and writer. He has been published in the literary journals Chimurenga Chronic and the Prufrock Magazine. He also writes about art, culture, music and film for the Mail and Guardian and Africa is a Country. He writes both fiction and non-fiction, and is working on a non-fiction account of a family drama. He blogs at and is on Twitter @dudumalingani.

Your story “The Streetwalkers” focuses on an interesting parallel – the prostitute streetwalker, and the narrator trying to find his father, also by walking the streets. Do both these characters turn to sex to forget? To escape reality?

No, not initially at least. The narrator turns to the prostitute for sex because he wants sex. It is also a comment on how the city lures the naïve into its evilness. For the narrator, more than escapism, it is about dominance. This is why he is also reluctant to fall in love with her and insists on seeing her as a prostitute.

There is a sense of alienation that runs through the story, a sense of underlying angst. Is it really a social comment as it were, on the fact that sex – which brings people together – can at times also be a very lonely and sometimes empty experience?

For the prostitute, having sex with people for money is her job, one that perhaps is thrust on her because of poverty, it offers no emotional satisfaction at all. At first, when she begins to have sex with the narrator, there is nothing special about it. In fact, to her, he is just another customer. It is only with time that she begins to feel safe in his arms. She finds refuge in being with the narrator and not in the sex itself, though having sex with him, because it involves emotions, is escapism from having emotionless sex with other men. Generally, my story is inspired by how people in the city hide their demons from each other yet somehow in their secretive brokenness they need each other.

It’s clear that setting is important to you as a writer…

Fiction that happens in a vacuum does not interest me. Themed stories often suffer from this; the entire story becomes about the theme, when in fact themes emanate from stories and not the other way round. The setting is also not merely present in the narrative, it influences the characters, both in how they interact and respond to the world, and the people they are and the people they ultimately become.

The meandering of the narrator through Cape Town, and Hout Bay, is thought-provoking. Was it an intention to touch on our history?

Characters that exist independent of their surroundings make no sense to me, regardless whether these surroundings are fictional or not. It happens here that the narrator’s commentary on District Six, City Centre, City Hall, Hout Bay, is real and not fictionalised. It is first the world he exists in, and second a commentary on history. To an extent, as well, the displacement of District Six and the big divide in society of Hout Bay are two things that exist everywhere in the story, in the fact that he is looking for his father and the poverty that has driven the prostitute to find herself working the streets.

Here’s a tough question: Why are there so many reports of sexual abuse in this country? Does it go back to absent fathers? That not enough men set an example to be respectful to women? Can you comment on this?

The problem is not absent fathers. The problem is how boy and girl children are raised, both by fathers and mothers. There is a culture that dictates that boys should be encouraged from an early age to avoid behaviors, interests and personality traits that are considered feminine. In most societies, children are socialized from birth to ‘perform’ either a masculine or feminine role (depending on their sex). Boys are told that they are strong. Girls are told that they are weak. Indirectly, the dominance of boys over girls is encouraged.

Do SA men tend to objectify women? Is there clear reason for this?

Yes, they do and there should not be any doubt about that. The reasons? One, being raised in a macho environment that openly teaches young boys that girls are their objects; and two, when these young men become adults, refusing to involve them in the conversation so they can change their behaviour. Instead, those who want to correct this gather by themselves and preach to the converted.

On a final note, the judges noted “The Streetwalkers” as an unusual story and one that the reader might find unexpected in this anthology…

I read the submission guidelines and thought, naturally, to write something that was subversive or at least trying to be. The thought that I would ever write anything that fits into submission guidelines is terrifying!

And that’s exactly what drew us to your story – the originality and distinctive ‘Voice’. Thanks, Dudumalingani.

Adults Only

Adults Only is available in stores for R190.

Find this book with BOOK Finder!

The Short.Sharp.Stories Awards is sponsored by the National Arts Festival.

Book details

» read article

Melissa Siebert And Joanne Hichens Book Launch

You are invited to join Melissa Siebert and Joanne Hichens in conversation as they discuss Garden of Dreams (Siebert) and Adults Only (Hichens). This joint launch will be hosted by Wordsworth Books at Mugg & Bean at Longbeach Mall.


Date: Wednesday, 20th August
Time: 18h00 for 18h30
Venue: Mugg & Bean Longbeach Mall, Buller Louw Drive, Sunnydale, Cape Town

Wine and Snacks will be served

RSVP (021) 785-5311

More information available at

Melissa Siebert - Garden of Dreams HR

Adults Only


» read article