Sunday, July 11, 2010

Arja Salafranca: Embracing short fiction

Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A life stripped of illusions, winner of the 1994 Sanlam Award, and The Fire in Which we Burn, which was published by Dye Hard Press. Her collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was recently published by Modjaji Books. She edits the Sunday Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of the 2009/2010 Dalro Award for her poem, 'Steak', published in New Coin. You can visit her blog here.

DH: Short fiction has been referred to as a sort of poor relation of the novel. What are your thoughts on that, and why do you prefer short fiction over the novel?
AS: I think short fiction is certainly the “poor relation” to the novel, but only in the way it is perceived by the majority of publishers, readers and booksellers. The majority, not all, otherwise we would have no collections by single authors out there at all! It’s been all a bit of a catch 22 – with stories not selling in significant volumes, publishers seem to have cut back on publishing collections by single authors in the last ten, fifteen years. In addition, magazines from the late 1980s onward stopped publishing short fiction, which they used to do quite regularly. So stories became quite marginalised, off the radar as a genre. Instead, in this country, we saw interest in South African novels peaking, as well as in nonfiction works.

There has been a rise in the number of short fiction collections and anthologies published in SA recently – do you think the tide is turning?
Yes, thankfully the tide is turning, albeit slowly. I wrote a piece for The Star in 2008, titled The short story renaissance in which I asked a number of writers, booksellers and publishers for their views. The assumption, generally, was that there was a bit of a shift. For a start, some magazine had began publishing stories again, or running competitions for short stories, bringing them back into the public eye. This year we’ve seen a “flood” of short stories – I call it a flood, because compared to the amount being published in previous years, this is a delightful amount. There was Home Away, an anthology edited by Louis Greenberg, which has done very well; Modjaji Books has published two volumes of stories, my own, as well as Meg Vandermerve’s This Place I call Home, and The Bed Book of Short Stories, David Medalie has a collection out, Ivan Vladislavic’s early short stories have been reissued, and Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Homing has just been released. Usually we see a single volume every couple of years by a single author, so I think stories are receiving more prominence now. They are being published again – and that’s the first step to getting readers.

There’s still a long way to go, of course – we need to demand their prominence as readers and writers. We need to ask more magazines to publish them; we need to buy more collections, ask booksellers to stock them, or shop online. We need to read and buy short story collections – for lovers of short stories that’s not a huge ask, of course. But some readers are a little afraid of reading short fiction, whether it’s because it’s not a familiar read, as poetry isn’t, or whether that “quick fix” offered by stories isn’t seen as satisfactory. We need to write stories that draw readers in, and very importantly, as writers, we need to read short stories and read widely. As I said before, if you can’t find volumes of stories in your bookshop, go online, there are collections and anthologies out there that don’t make it to our South African shelves. Go explore.

We tend to refer more to short fiction these days rather than short stories. Why is that?

I’m not quite sure. I still use these terms in interchangeably, but the terms “short stories” may be regarded as limiting, a short story must be X no of words etc, whereas short fiction is more open, it can be anything, just not a novel, I suppose.

What short fiction writers have influenced you and why? Are you more influenced by contemporary short fiction writers than by more classic writers of the genre, such as Hemingway, Chekhov, DH Lawrence or Katherine Mansfield?
I’m definitely influenced by more contemporary writers. Although I wrote some short stories starting at eleven, and into my teens, I really fell in love with short stories in my first year at university. I was studying African and English literature and both introduced me to a wide variety of South African writers – from Pauline Smith to Nadine Gordimer. I read all of Gordimer’s short fiction, I read Margaret Atwood. I love the US writer Lorrie Moore’s witty, sharp, clever short fiction, she remains one of my favourites. I read a wide variety of short fiction – from local stories published in local journals and some of the local anthologies that have been brought out over the years, from Oshun’s three volumes of short fiction by women writers, to those collected from the Caine Prize published by Jacana yearly, to that great American series, The Best American series...they publish volumes of stories every years, chosen from American magazines. There’s also the Best American travel, essays and other genres, which I read. I love anthologies, that’s how I often get introduced to other writers, and then search out their individual collections.

What is the inspiration for your short fiction? Most of it seems autobiographical, and they also touch on issues that are relevant to contemporary South Africa, such as immigration and crime.
I do plumb my own autobiography – and I’m not alone here. Simone de Beauvoir famously used her own life as the basis for so much of her fiction and she in turn defended herself by referring to War and Peace and Tolstoy’s reliance on real-life characters.

I sometimes start with an image or a faint story I have heard and transform that into fiction. Sometimes I take episodes of my life, situations, happenings and they become short fiction. Sometimes the stories are wholly imagined: ‘A man sits in a Johannesburg Park’ about emigration, began with the image of a man sitting on bench in a park taking his dog for a run the day before he is to leave the country with his family, which is an entirely imagined piece.

I do touch on crime and emigration – as these are facts of life in our country. Crime often leads to emigration, unfortunately, too. I don’t consciously set out to depict the ways in which crime has impacted on us, or the way emigration has crept into all our lives in various ways, but it enters as most of my stories are set in this country. It’s part of us, if we choose to live here.

Anais Nin was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, resulting in some very in-depth character studies in her fiction. Has psychoanalysis had an influence in your own work?
I majored in psychology, as well as African Literature as part of my undergraduate degree at Wits. For a very brief time I even considered taking it further, becoming a psychologist. I am still interested in what motivates people, in their foibles, in their scars and in why so often people remain mired in patterns they can't break out of. I’m more interested in motivations and dramas, and tend to read more widely and watch more TV and movies in which the characters drive the storyline rather than plot, so people are certainly an interest. I think that interest is naturally part of my writing. As for whether the practice of therapy has directly influenced my work, I’m not sure. I’m writing a series of novellas for my MA in Creative Writing at Wits university and one of these may be a study of the therapeutic relationship, so perhaps that will be an influence.

You are also a poet, and have had two collections of poems published. To what degree does your poetry inform your short fiction and vice versa?
Does it inform my fiction? I’m not sure. I’m very drawn to short forms – I love essays, for example, I love reading short stories, of course. But I do love longer works: novels, biographies, nonfiction works, for example. My fiction gives me the space to explore themes that poetry can't; similarly some experiences or subjects are expressed as poems, they can't be stories or anything else. I’m not sure that each influence each other, but everything in life influences everything else, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the influence, but it’s there.

What are your views on the situation of poetry publishing in South Africa?
It’s in the doldrums as far as publishing collections goes. It’s “easy” enough to have poems published in literary journals, but it’s hard to get a volume published these days. Same old catch 22 – publishers aren’t publishing, readers aren’t buying. And so we go back to publishers not publishing ... there are some exceptions. Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books is leading the way and is publishing a vast amount of poetry collections. Then Leon de Kock’s Bodyhood has just been brought out by Umuzi. But, at the moment, it’s a huge struggle to get poetry out there. Another prominent poet, who has had a number of collections published and is widely known and well regarded, can't get local publishers to look at her latest volume. I find that unbelievably sad and tragic.

You are also very focused on creative nonfiction, another genre that seems to be marginalised in SA. What is creative nonfiction, and why do you think it is marginalised?
Creative nonfiction uses techniques of fiction to tell a story – but it goes beyond that. In trying to describe this, I return often to Jo Anne Beard’s piece 'Werner', originally published in the US journal Tin House. It’s about Werner, an ordinary man, who returns to his apartment building after work and wakes in the middle of the night to find that the building is on fire. Beard’s piece is a fast-moving, dripping account of that incident. It reads like a thriller. It’s an alive, moving piece of writing – and that’s what creative nonfiction sets out to do. It’s not about dry boring facts presented in a dry boring way.

For another “definition” here’s Lee Gutkind’s description of it. Gutkind is considered the “guru” of the form. In 1973 he was the first to teach it in an American university, and started up the journal Creative Nonfiction twenty years later in 1993.

He writes in the forward essay to In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction: “Of course I am a creative nonfiction writer, 'creative' being indicative of the style in which nonfiction is written so as to make it more dramatic and compelling. We embrace many of the techniques of the fiction writer, including dialogue, description, plot, intimacy and specificity of detail, characterisation, point of view; except, because it is nonfiction – and this is the difference – it is true.”

It has been said that fiction in South Africa tends to be dominated by women – do you agree with this, and if so, why is this?
I don’t think that it is dominated by women – we have some fine male writers producing novels. I think that’s a misconception: what we have now are more women writing and having novels published.

What contemporary South African writers do you admire and why?
I look forward to new short story collections by Nadine Gordimer. I’ve recently started reading the Afrikaans writer Ingrid Winterbach in translation, and I admire Damon Galgut’s spare, bleak vision. On the nonfiction front I love what Ndumiso Ngcobo achieved in his sharp essays in his book, Some of my Best Friends are White, and Don Pinnock’s travel and nature-related essays are a real treat and deserve wide readership.

What are your thoughts on ebooks? It’s an approach to publishing that South Africans seem to be resisting.

And no wonder! The speed of our internet as well as the reliability or lack of are real factors in preventing this uptake. Also there is this perception that ebooks aren’t real – you’re not published till you’re between the covers so to speak. Overseas this perception is changing and I think we might catch up.

How do you see short fiction going in the future?

I hope that the short story renaissance discussed earlier really does take off and that we see more and more collections and anthologies appearing. I hope more magazines and Sunday supplements embrace the form and start publishing fiction as part of their offerings (as they do in England) and I hope that the genre achieves more prominence and gains in readership. I’d love to start a short story festival in South Africa and introduce even more readers to the delights of the form - which can be as satisfactory to read as a novel or a nonfiction work.
The Thin Line is available at bookstores countrywide in SA. You can also buy a copy online from, Loot, Exclusive Books and Amazon.