Maybe he liked the ottoman’s colour or its shape. I could never tell. But he loved to sit on it, with his back straighter than straight and his hands on his knees. One day I asked him why he liked it so much and he gave me the same look he gave me when my mathematics average fell into the shameful percentages he called la parfum de la moyenne. He said, “You would not understand. You have never been home.”
I said, “But, Daddy, this is home.”
And he said, simply, dismissing me, “That is why you would not understand.”
– From Sofa, So Good, Sort Of (or, John Muafangejo)
Short stories, for me, have always been mediums for adventurous and unorthodox storytelling. Despite their brevity, they can be dizzyingly complex. They allow writers to push and stretch language, play around with plot, fiddle with a story’s form and structure, and beta test ideas for pace and voice.
The form has not always received its dues. People often say short stories do not have the literary heft of a novel and look at short story writers as cadet novelists. But, quite frankly, nobody considers a sprinter to be a marathon runner in training. Sprinters need power, agility, and fast-twitch muscles. They need speed. Long distance runners need to be lean to lap up the miles. They need endurance. The mental fortitude and fidelity to physical maintenance and improvement needed to pursue either discipline is the same, though. So is the potential for any race—short, middle, or long distance—to deliver intrigue and entertainment.
The same goes for the short story. It is a different kind of beast, but its ability to deliver a reading experience akin to a novel is uncanny. And, sometimes, what is considered to be bold and ambitious in novels is often found to have been tried in a short story somewhere already.
Short stories slap different. The really good ones have tremors that can be felt long after their conclusions. When they are collected in an anthology they are a smorgasbord of voices and stories, both fugacious and lasting.
Writing a short story is taxing. The core story has to be snatched from the swirling mass of ideas in one sitting because the magic of the story is ethereal and fleeting. Once captured, then the editing starts. Working and revising the story until it is just right. From the first sentence, the idea is pure fire or hot garbage. There is no middle ground, no fifth or sixth lap to catch-up to the front of the pack. There is no waffling with word counts, or hoping to save the work in the middle since the whole story is the middle. In that way, I have found the craft for short story writing to be focused, exothermic, and predatory—it hunts down its idea single-mindedly and relentlessly, and when it finds it it explodes on the page.
Writing a short story is one thing, though. Trying to get it published is another. Submission and rejection go together like, well, submission and rejection. Literary magazines are always inundated with short stories and choosing the writing that resonates with a particular publication, or issue, or theme is challenging. For the short story writer, submitting a short story for consideration is like being an over-the-hill prizefighter waiting for that one lucky break, that one fight that will pull you from the undercard to the big time. More often than not, you spend your time in the crowded and tense locker room with other hopeful sluggers, wondering if this is the day you impress a scout in the stands.
In the past year, I have been fortunate to have my short stories published in various literary magazines. Yog’hurt (or, Just Breath) wound up in Litro Magazine (UK). Figures Of Preach got an amen in AFREADA (UK). The Neighbourhood Watch found a home in The Johannesburg Review of Books (RSA). Crunchy, Green Apples (or, Omo) sailed into The Amistad (US). Suikerbossie climbed into The Kalahari Review (BW). From The Lost City Of Hurtlantis To The Streets Of Helldorado (or, Franco) was chosen by American Chordata (US) for its ninth edition. And Dankie Botswana (or, Semper Fi) hitched a ride into Doek!’s inaugural issue in Namibia.
Each short story, pulled from a tentative collection, tells a different tale. And each one demanded a customised approach to the craft. I do not have favourites, each story is its own milestone, its own struggle, its own child. For the longest time now, I have eagerly awaited the publication of my latest—and longest—piece: Sofa, So Good, Sort Of (or, John Muafangejo), a story of migration, memory, love, loss, and furniture published in Azure, a US-based literary magazine.
This piece’s selection for publication is a personal milestone: it shall be anthologised in Azure’s print anthology in 2020, a first for me. But that aside, it is also my longest and my most experimental. It jumps across time and uses an unnamed narrator and primary characters. Its settings are unapologetically local. And its structure is determined by particular objects: an ottoman, an armchair, a Chesterfield sofa, and a camelback, and a lino-cut print from one of my favourite artists: John Muafangejo.
Since this piece was selected by Azure, I have awaited the day I could say that it is no longer forthcoming, but that it is here and ready to be read.
Finally, it is.
More than a personal achievement, though, this serves as further proof that continental African stories – with our slang, our struggles, our quirks, our sense of humour, our streets, and our – can connect with audiences anywhere.
Artwork by: Evgenia Barsheva