There is one week left to submit your story to one of Africa’s premier short fiction anthologies – Short Story Day Africa.
Thank you to Tiah for taking the time out to have a chat. 😀
Cat: What about Short Story Day Africa and its aims do you think makes it an important feature for African writers?
Tiah: Short Story Day Africa is run on the continent with the love and support of African writers. This is something Africa owns, not something given to the continent from somewhere else. We are promoting our writers and stories while pushing each other to improve and raise up our game without trying to please an off-continent audience. This is about self-respect.
This is hugely important to me, as a mother of two children. I still remember watching my eldest’s first pre-primary concert. All the music they played was from artists overseas. I thought about what situations like this tell our children – if you want to be respected for what you do you need to leave. Which is bullsh-t.
When my children are adults, if they want to travel, that’s fine (so long as they pay for it). The world is an interesting place. But I don’t want them feeling they must go overseas in order for their skills to be respected. I want them to see that there are brilliant things happening right where they were raised. Short Story Day Africa is my way of proving that.
Cat: What’s been the most exciting development you’ve seen since you’ve been on board with the project?
Tiah: Short Story Day Africa is an exciting development in itself.
I’ve was a participant in SSDA from its first year, back in 2011, when it didn’t even have a contest and Rachel Zadok was both its creator and its only official team member. In 2012 I became team member number two, we ran the first contests and the project morphed into a child with rollerskates. We are now a team of three, chasing this kid zooming downhill and showing no signs of slowing down. The project evolves, bends and expands, both in response to what people want and what our resources allow. The fact that we’ve not only managed to keep this runaway child alive, but also flourish, is both an amazing and thrilling achievement.
Cat: SSDA is a grassroots approach to short story writing – tell us a little about the workshops, the editing, the submissions to awards etc that SSDA does to polish its new and emerging writers.
Tiah: Writers that make our longlist – stories that will be published in our anthology – get put through a mini-boot camp. This is typically an experience reserved for writers who have a novel or a collection being published. But being paired with an editor is how a writer truly learns to take their writing to the next level. Our editors create a conversation between themselves and writers, pointing out plot holes, unnecessary description, sections that drag, where dialogue sounds the same. They go back and forth until everyone is satisfied. It’s like being a runner and finding a coach to train for the big race.
As to workshops on the ground, we do have a history of encouraging writers, in the spirit of SSDA, to host workshops in their local area, especially where youth is concerned. This year we’ve changed it up. For starters, we now hold #WriterPrompt. Twice a month a prompt is given and writers can post a story of up to 200 words. A member of the SSDA team moderates, while giving constructive feedback and encouragement. Participants are further encouraged to comment and provide thoughts on each other’s work. This year we’ve also been highly fortunate to have special funding ProHelvetia and the Swiss Arts Council to participate in SDC Regional Cultural Programme. This enabled us to have writers from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Botswana attend a course run by established writers in their own country.
While courses and workshops carry different themes, the overlying message is to craft your work with rewrites. As somebody who has read stacks and stacks of submissions, the biggest thing holding the majority of writers back is that they send in first drafts. Yes, they fix their punctuation and grammar. But this amounts to putting a first draft in a clean dress. These first drafts – clean dress or otherwise – don’t get published. I also suspect that rather than take the rejected story and try to make it better, the writers are moving on to write completely new stories. A pile of first drafts don’t create a ladder to publishing dreams. Which is why, on places like #WriterPrompt, we encourage writers to keep editing the first story they post for that prompt, rather than posting numerous stories over the two week period.
Cat: How do we tell stories and use language in a different way from Western story-telling?
Tiah: This is difficult to answer because Africa, as you know, is a massive place with many cultures, languages and influences. So while there are different approaches to telling a story, and some of these reflect a tradition the writer has grown up in, I can’t make a blanket statement.
Which I suppose is the point. It is not so much that African story-telling is different than Western story-telling, than it is about an African writer being able to tell stories without having to conform to a Western-reader-check-list. African stories might be about poverty, sex or vampires, but in a manner based on being in Africa rather than exploring Africa through a series of limited microscope lenses. Which means writers submitting to SSDA are not obliged to write their stories for an assumed Western reader. A writer in the United States wouldn’t be expected to explain to readers what caddy-corner means or the phrase ‘look two; go one.’ So yes, an American reader of a South African tale might initially get the wrong idea when they read about a taxi stopping at a robot. But if African readers can figure out Western stories, Western readers should be able to do the same. Having to write for outside readers changes the flow of a story and ‘others’ the characters and place.
Cat: There is no one Africa, and yet the international world sees us as the “dark continent” – an illiterate starving mass of indistinguishable faces. This is very disheartening for writers in Africa who are often expected to write a kind of “poverty-aids-orphan porn” to show the “real” Africa. If you were to highlight the sheer variety of stories that we tell, could you pick four writers and their stories to share with us?
Tiah: I’m not sure where to begin. There is so much out there that we can, easily, post on FB and twitter a daily #amreading – a previously published story from one of the many organisations putting out new content. Nor do we have any trouble filling in our #WriterWednesday slot, where we feature an African writer on our social media along with conducting an interview. There is so much talent and stories out there that it is rather amazing how people can remain oblivious.
From our anthologies, however:
Feast Famine and Potluck produced two Caine Prize shortlisters: ‘Chicken’ by Efemia Chela which has a character contemplating selling her ovaries and ‘My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (who won) where the main character calls up her dead father to remember his face.
Terra Incognita was won by Diane Awerbuck. She describes her story ‘Leatherman’ as Tokoloshe porn. Mary Okon Ononokpong wrote ‘Editöngö, which is a creepy tale of a spirit that is continuously reborn.
Tiah Marie Beautement is the author of two novels: award nominated This Day (2014, Modjaji) and Moons Don’t Go To Venus (2006, Bateleur). Her numerous short stories can be found scattered across the internet and various anthologies. Her day jobs include: running writing courses for youth and adults, a book reviewer for The Sunday Times and is a member of the Short Story Day Africa team.
Find Tiah via her blog – http://tiahbeautement.bookslive.co.za/blog/ – or on twitter: @ms_tiahmarie