By ARJA SALAFRANCA
Talk Of The Town by Fred Khumalo
Awake Asleep Awake by Jo-Ann Bekker
If You Keep Digging by Keletso Mopai
Sometimes regarded as the Cinderella of the literary world, short stories are said to be gaining popularity in this world of micro attention spans and quick reads spun into busy days. And, perhaps as evidence, I hold three collections published recently, sign of health of the genre, or so I choose to believe. And although each volume is wildly different from the others, all offer portraits of South African lives in various stages of growth and crises.
Fred Khumalo’s Talk Of The Town is a densely layered collection of short fiction, many shot through with wry humour. There are many gems in this collection and This Bus Is Not Full is one such. It wittily tells the story of Vusi, taking a bus home. He lives in the US, where he is a grad student in Harvard. He’s been aching to witness an “authentic fight” and eagerly listens in to the belligerent tones of the African Americans he is sharing his ride with. This amusing story, full of conversational detail, takes an unexpected turn, however. Vusi reappears in another story, Learning To Love, in which he tries to find a girlfriend and decode dating, American-style. Khumalo also tackles pertinent issues of xenophobia in Beds Are Burning. Meanwhile the long and excellent story, Queenface, is the gripping and horrifying story of Zimbabwe land grabs and the kidnapping of a group of farm workers.
Through a series of vignettes and flash fictions we follow the main protagonist, Ripple, Rip for short, in Jo-Ann Bekker’s Awake Asleep Awake. Rip’s stories are interspersed with stories of other female characters. From childhood to young adulthood, marrying, being a journalist and parenting, Rip moves between Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, and the Eastern Cape. Bekker’s own journalist background informs the stories which reach back into the apartheid 1980s and shine a light on the impossible choices faced then. Fallacies, Amnesia and What Nombuyiselo Said are powerful examples of these stories. And then there is the brilliant The Good Housekeeping Magazine Quiz – which is the chilling story of a woman’s husband meeting his young love, a story that is told through the device of a magazine quiz.
Keletso Mopai’s If You Keep Digging is mostly a compendium of young adult experiences mostly set in the Limpopo township of Lenyenye. Her topics range from incest abuse to dating, to dealing with albinism, to coming out gay. Mopai’s inventiveness plays with the genre, with some stories written in a powerful and not often used second person “you” point of view and in one story, the narrator even recounts events from the beyond. The highlights included two inter-linked stories, Monkeys and In Papa’s Name. Both are centred on young boy’s lives – one the privileged Afrikaans farmer’s son, the other a poverty-stricken township child. Mopai skilfully and sensitively imagines the lives of both in a tour de force of imagination and story-telling. This is an accomplished debut from a writer to watch.