I perch on the edge of the bath and trace our names onto the steamy tiles above the taps. Thuli + Sindi 4 eva. A distraction to stop me looking at my sisi, sponging warm water onto Loveday's shoulders.
All day Loveday paced, up and down, face hard, lips sealed against the voice of her fear, but when night came, it flooded out hope. No point waiting for a boy who will never come. Is she crying still? I can't tell if tears run down her broken face or if it's steam condensed on her cheeks. I reach out to trace a liquid heart onto her forehead, but she looks at me with lipstick eyes and I draw back, afraid to touch her. But I may as well have run my hands over her body, because she tells her story anyway.
"Funny thing about my real ouledi, she didn't call us by our names either. We were her numbers. I was number three, three of four kids, and B'ro was the boy. I was small, maybe six, when my toppie fell into a stamp mould at the plant. When they phoned, I was hiding in the stairwell, sucking on a cigarette Queen was holding. I remember the tune of Ma's cell, and the filter squeezed flat between Queen's thumb and finger. It was the colour of mustard."
She reaches out and grabs the rim of the bath, as if steeling herself against the memory. The movement is sudden, unexpected, and before I know what's happening, her fingers have brushed my leg and the familiar hospital tang of antiseptic and copper invades my nostrils and I'm dragging my restless feet along polished tiles in the corridor outside my toppie's room, with the lurch of my ma's grief in the pit of my stomach. The rubber soles of my shoes go squeak-squeak. There's a sharp, white glare when the door swings open, releasing a grim-faced nurse. Before it shuts, I get a smeary glimpse of red and white and Ma's good floral print dress and a line of legs.
I pull back, but Loveday's stories have been buried too long and rush at me with the force of a truck. We collide head-on.
We're in a taxi, just me and Ma, going to fetch the toppie's things from the hospital because I'm the only one brave enough to hold Ma's hand. There is nothing left of him but a shattered watch and blue overalls dyed purple by his blood. I take the watch home. Ma takes a cough.
Then I'm standing next to Queen, waving at the taxi that's come to take Ma and her cough back to the hospital. After the taxi drives off, we go back into the house and I catch a glimpse of me and Queen in the hall mirror. Queen's taller and her hair is longer, and we're both thinner than we used to be.
Then it's night, a short time later. Queen looks the same, but her clothes are different. I'm at the top of the stairs, listening to Queen tell the rent man to come back later when Ma will be here. Ma is not coming back. I know, even though no one has said so. Get your things, Queen tells me. We pack what we can carry into plastic bags. The toddler stands in the cot, crying, her arms stretched towards me. Bye, bye, have a good life, I say. Queen kisses her on the head but I'm scared to touch her in case I can't let go. We leave the front door open and slip a note under the neighbour's door.
She's got a chance of getting fostered, says Queen, but us lot will end up in a home. That's worse than the street.
"Maybe you should get out, the water's getting cold," Sindi touches Loveday's cheek, my cheek. I cling to her voice, a safe island in the flood of Loveday's stories.
"Nights was a dark place, not just out there, but in here." Loveday taps her head. "I used to sleep with my hand wrapped around the neck of a broken bottle. 'Stab for the eyes,' Queen said, 'don't wait for a reason.'"
Sindi slips away from me. I try to grab on to the drip, drip, drip of the tap, the song of the leaking cistern, but these sounds can't protect me from Loveday's whispers.
"Queen had these two books. Ma's books. Romance rubbish full of kissing, but Queen said we should learn reading so one day, when we get off the streets, we can make good. She almost finished grade seven, so she tried to teach us, but we didn't want to learn. Not then. Most times, she just read to us."
She sucks me down, down, down into a warm day at the beginning of spring … B'ro leads us through gates painted green into a park where there are flowers and benches and a sculpture of two squat iron men with helmets riding a motorbike with wings. A security guard warns us not to touch the art and stay away from the gallery, but he doesn't bug us if we lie on the grass at the far end of the park, away from the larneys.
Jump-cut to a different day, but the place is the same. Queen is reading a kissing story out loud. We've stolen strawberries and polony and we're pretending we're just normal kids having a picnic. The strawberries are sour and burn the ulcers in my mouth. I look up and spot a larney talking to the guard and pointing at us. We leave, but all the time we're gone, we talk about when it'll be safe to go back.
Next time, Ma Wilma's sitting on a bench, crumbling bread between her fat fingers for the pigeons. She offers us Coke and sandwiches, but we never take anything from her. Street kids disappear all the time. There are stories. Then one day she pulls a book from her bag. Book can't hurt you, girlie.
From Sister-sister, a novel by Rachel Zadok
To deal with the most difficult subject first. Rachel Zadok is one of the founders of Short Story Day Africa. For some years now, SSDA have run a fiction competition that results in published, themed anthologies of short stories by Africans. In 2014, the SSDA anthology was Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa.
Of the nineteen stories, thirteen are by people with European-sounding names. Only roughly a third would appear to be by black people. Given that most people would expect the ratio to be the other way around—at least—how did that happen?
"We started as a southern African project. Basically, when we published our first anthology, our reach on social media wasn't much further than the South African writing community. I noticed that none of the speculative fiction community entered at all. They said that it was a literary prize, so they didn't think it was for them. They really don't get invited to literary prizes. That was why we did Terra Incognita as the next one—so that they would know they were welcome.
"First of all, the stories were read and selected by readers, and not by an editorial board. They were read blind—nobody knew what country they were from and nobody saw the authors' names; so it was a little bit difficult to know we were going to get that result. And once the stories were picked, it would have been a little hard to go back and say we're not taking a story because of the author's background. For the next anthologies, we are now taking steps to make sure selections are a bit more representative of Africa as whole, as it's not meant to be a South African collection.
"Short Story Day Africa started in 2011, and started publishing in 2013. A woman named Daneet Stevens, editor at Mslexia, contacted me and said they were doing this national short story day in the UK. She asked me: 'Do you want to do it in South Africa? It's on the shortest day of the year.' And I said to her: 'Your shortest day isn't like our shortest day, not gonna work. On the 21st of December everyone in South Africa is lying on the beach, no one is going to come to anything.'"
So, instead of an event like in the UK, the idea of Short Story Day became to get more African writing actually in print or online. "We have this vast continent of people reading," says Rachel, "so let's start publishing writing that African writers want to write and that readers here want to read. Let's create this platform. And we basically judge it blind and we give it to the readers of Africa to decide how they respond.
"Basically, we would get volunteer readers, and we would send each story to two readers. They would rate it with a rating system. You look for things: if a reader in Botswana says 'Wow. This story is amazing. I'm giving it a ten out of ten,' and a reader in SA says 'No. That's a two.' And you go, 'That's interesting. I wonder what they've seen.' And you send it to a reader from a third country to get a fresh perspective. Then you give it to the editor, and in a back-and-forth over three months, they work on the script and overhauling the story. They get like a master class in fiction writing.
"I sincerely think that the model we've created seems to be working. Now we have people entering from Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, and the Gambia. We've never had entries from these places before, and now we have more than one."
And indeed, the next SSDA anthology, Water, has twenty-one stories, fifteen of which appear to be written by black people from all over Africa, including South Africa. Rachel talks about the struggle to find black speculative fiction writers in South Africa. I had the same problem for this series. Basically, I have been able to find about five black writers who were not expats, and have been able to interview only three. When asked why that might be, Rachel chuckles ruefully and shakes her head.
"That's a question that you might ask about a lot of things in South Africa. It may well be something to do with privilege. White people inherit privilege here, still. It might be something cultural. Until recently, science fiction was seen as being about white people, for white people, not just here, but worldwide. And the publishing here doesn't help. The submission guidelines really do say, please, no science fiction."
Rachel's own writing is literary speculative fiction. Her first novel, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, published in 2005, was shortlisted for the (then) Whitbread Book Awards First Novel Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and long-listed for the IMPAC Award. The first half of the novel tells the story of Faith, a child in rural South Africa, whose mother has a nervous breakdown. The family, though white, is steeped in African traditional belief. The second half of the novel has Faith returning to the farm as an adult, after apartheid. She turns to African tradition for healing.
Rachel: "At the time of its writing, I was in the UK. I'd decided to run away to the UK and write. I mean, I didn't run away trying to exile myself from SA. I was in advertising and I wanted to move away from my life and become a writer, so I ended up in London. I was on my way to Chile, when I met my now husband. He tried to move with me, but said, 'No, I can't move to Chile. Come with me instead.' So that's how I ended up in London.
"At that time, one of the things I was interrogating was kind of unpacking my own belief systems? Even though, as a South African, I did not necessarily grow up in a home that was racist, I felt that there still was a lot to unpack as a white South African with an innate racism that is bred into you by your society. It was there and Gem Squash Tokoloshe was about unpacking that, understanding what parts of you are racist, and that you need to pull them out.
"I also liked playing with the idea of a farm novel, which has a huge history in South African literature, and interrogating the idea of an isolated child, a child who believes in magic. So it was about interrogating that part of myself growing up, and the fairies who don't exist, though they kind of exist for that little girl. For me it was a fable about belief systems, like interrogating superstition, faith, belief. That's why both Sister-sister (the second novel) and GST have elements of how do we come to believe the things we believe in?
"Part of the work that South Africans need to do now is to interrogate our racism. Institutional racism became part of us. Even though I never considered myself that kind of racist, I knew it was a part of me.
"Gem Squash Tokoloshe was, in part, about exploring belief and how it comes about as a child. I think some people have said that it is about white tears and it is one of the novels making excuses for the way we were. It was kind of interrogating how you end up that way and how you begin to unpack those things."
Rachel is amusing about the madness that overcame her when the book was nominated for so many prizes. "I remember getting all dressed up for a Daily Mail photoshoot. I was being made to pose like a model and talk about fashion, and I remember thinking: 'Why am I doing this for The Daily Mail? What has this got to do with my writing?'"
Her next novel, Sister-sister, deals with a magical bond between two twin sisters. As with her first novel, traditional beliefs are at the core of this story, nodding in tribute to Ben Okri's The Famished Road. Twins are given great significance in many African cultures and in novels such as Kintu by Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi.
Rachel: "That's basically why I selected the twins. There is so much mythology around twins in Africa. I wanted to explore superstition and the impact that it has had on the fight against HIV/AIDS, my concerns around what was going on with SA at the time around HIV education and superstitions about AIDS, with Mbeki's administration. It was a tricky thing to navigate and it was terrifying. So, for a time, I wanted to make the twins white. But that didn't work and they wouldn't go away so I had to write them. That's why it's nice to play with speculative fiction. You can navigate a political no-go zone in the country.
"One of the reasons it took me so long to write that book was because it was about the Other, what is considered Other in this country, and for me, I didn't see it that way, that the people I share a country with are the Other. I feel like I've been raised in a culture that is shared, things cross over. In my personal identity, all of these things are a part of my life.
"Also, I'd moved back to South Africa to have a child. In the first year I was home, twelve children went missing. Every time I put on the radio there was another child that had been murdered, or raped, or disappeared and been found. In the book, a lot of the children that go missing, and that's based on that. Dora, the little girl who washes up out of a storm water drain, is based on a news story. There was a little girl who washed up, even though her name wasn't Dora.
"I wrote a background for the twins and it basically mixed a lot of races that have historically been part of SA—a Chinese sailor, a Khoisan great-grandmother. I made the father of the twins white. I didn't want to say something particular about being black in South Africa. I wanted to say something about the national sorrow of having this happening to our children. So it was something that really obsessed me."
Rachel is very ambitious for Short Story Day Africa and for African publishing as a whole. She recently got back the rights to Gem Squash Tokoloshe and is busy reformatting it as an e-book for Kindle and many other formats. She sees a key problem for African writing being African publishing and distribution, and she feels Short Story Day Africa has a part to play.
"A secret ambition that Nick (Nick Mulgrew, the editor of the Water SSDA anthology) and I have, is to raise enough capital to pull the 'Caine Prize' status back onto the continent, to publish African fiction on the continent. We want to publish what African writers want to be writing, for African audiences. I can never understand why publishers in the West say that some African writers are too African for them."
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