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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Arja Salafranca, editor of The Edge of Things, answers a few questions about life, the universe and short stories

Tiah Marie Beautement - 2011-06-15

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Title: The Edge of Things
Genre: Short stories
Arja Salafranca
Publisher: Dye Hard Press
ISBN: 9780620495066


Review by Janet van Eeden

The Edge of Things is an eclectic collection of short stories traversing a vast distance emotionally and intellectually. For example, Arja Salafranca’s moving story about a woman forced to live in a restrictive apparatus in “Iron Lung” is a million miles away stylistically from Aryan Kaganof’s tale of decadence and debauchery on a night out in Durban in “Same Difference.” As with all anthologies, some stories will resonate with each reader more than others.

Liesl Jobson’s “You Pay for The View: Twenty Tips for Super Pics” is a series of verbal snapshots of pivotal moments of a mother trying to find a connection with her children. It is written with poignancy and deep longing.

“Doubt” by Gillian Schutte is an examination of how passion can seep out of a marriage once the chase is over and when feelings of irrelevance grow due to being part of a couple.

Jenna Mervis’s “The Edge of Things” explores paranormal paranoia in a tangible way and examines the valid fear women feel on a daily basis.

Dan Wylie’s portrait of a dried-out academic determined to avoid all contact with real life is close to the bone in “Solitude”.

The eternal clash with “the other” is explored in Gail Dendy’s “The Intruders”.  

Perd Booysen’s “Sinners and Sinkholes” is a delightful modern-day Hermann Charles Bosmanesque tale of ghost towns and gullibility in the arid wasteland of the Karoo.

Another great pleasure is David wa Maahlamela’s excoriatingly honest examination of psyche and culture (with plenty of name-dropping) in “Bus from Cape Town”.

Angelina N Sithebe’s “Sepia” breaches the tremulous worlds of cancer sufferers and sangomas and makes surprising connections. 

The timeless clash between generations is given a new tweak by Tiah Beautement in “Cordelia, Age 26”.

Hans Pienaar’s “Telephoning the Enemy” harks back to the bad old days of apartheid when bombs destroyed more than buildings.

Beatrice Lamwaka has captured the indomitable spirit of a woman who has been victimised and yet manages to set new goals in “Trophy”.

“Mr Essop” is a story by Pravasan Pillay whose narrator remembers a lodger with rather strange habits.

Hamilton Wende recreates the tender memories of a first kiss with “The Company Christmas Party”.

Fred de Vries writes an uncomfortable story about a child molester in “Marking the Tissues” and highlights how lives can change just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jeanne Hromnik’s “Losses and Gains” sees a young African student challenge her professor’s take on the sacred cow of academia, JM Coetzee. When she finds herself in a mirror image situation of Disgrace she considers her options and finds she has many.

Jayne Bauling references the resilience of youth in “Bounce” while observing a fledgling fighting for survival.

A doctor remembers an extraordinary delivery of a child in Bernard Levinson’s touching story, “Tokai”.

There are also a few gems from consummate storytellers Karina Magdalena Szczurek, Jennifer Lean, Margie Orford and others. I won’t list them all. As in every anthology, some stories are enjoyed once and others lend themselves to rereading many times. This is the beauty of a collection such as this: there is something to appeal to all tastes. And, fortunately, the real star of The Edge of Things is the genre of the short story itself.


 Q&A with Arja Salafranca

How did this publication come about? Who decided on the topic and did you send out a brief to all writers?

The Edge of Things is a special edition of the literary journal Green Dragon, which has been published more or less annually since the early 2000s. I suggested that a call be put out for fiction, and that this particular edition would be a special one for the short story to give weight and precedence to this genre. It’s one that is close to my heart – I love reading and writing short stories. Also, I wanted to give local writers another outlet to publish short fiction. So, the concept was born.

How many stories did you receive in the end? Did you have full control over which stories were chosen? 

I received nearly 100 submissions in the end – give or take. I was surprised and pleased, although overwhelmed. It was a lot of reading and a lot of work! But I’m immensely pleased with the result – a rather thick, weighty, meaty, interesting book of short stories of varying lengths.

Is it very difficult to find a distinct set of criteria with which to judge stories? Did you have any specific guidelines when you made your decisions about which stories to include? How long did this part of the process take?

My criteria were that each story had to move me in some way, or resonate at some deeper level. I didn’t have to “enjoy” each story – after all, some stories, some films, some plays and so on are so harrowing or gruesome that “enjoy” isn’t quite the word you’d use. You read or go to movies or watch plays in order to have your vision on the world widened in some way, and I hope some of these stories widen the worlds of those reading them.

My guidelines: I didn’t want to be prescriptive at all. I didn’t set a theme or a fixed length, except to put a roughly 7 000 words limit on the stories, and that was done reluctantly. I love long stories and firmly believe some stories need that extra room to move and grow. Similarly, I also find pleasure in small gems of stories of two to three pages. The important thing was to let the story dictate the length, to give writers room to move within the parameters of the story.

The process took a long time – initially I put out a call at the end of 2009, and had read and selected by the middle of 2010, with a few exceptions. Then there was the editing of each story, and finally preparation for publication, all of which takes time, of course.

Where did your inspiration for your story “Iron Lung” come from?   

“Iron Lung” began many years ago when I read a news report of a woman in the US who had spent decades in an iron lung. I was fascinated – and horrified. How do you live in an iron lung? What makes you go on? And what is the effect on the people around you who care for you, your family? I carried this fascination around for years. I ordered books off abe.com on people who had lived in iron lungs – second-hand books from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s – and read about these people’s lives. I did research on the net. I started to get a sense of what life might be like in an iron lung. I started writing. The mother and daughter, central figures in the story, appeared and told their stories. The story was written. I laid it aside for a while. One day I visited the medical museum at Wits and saw actual iron lungs – cold, forbidding, almost coffin-like. I shuddered, but it was time to revisit my story, make adjustments, and edit. A writer friend, Andie Miller, helped tremendously with the editing, and so the story was born again.   


I asked some of the contributing authors what inspired their stories and what the short story genre means to them.

Aryan Kaganof: The inspiration for “Same Difference” came from the Abyss. I enjoy writing short stories because it's faster.

Pravasan Pillay: The story is a homage to the South African writer Ahmed Essop. Essop has written numerous collections of well-crafted short stories, but he has never received any significant attention for them. My story is a riff on "Mr Moonreddy", one the stories found in Essop's The Hajji and Other Stories. "Mr Moonreddy" is a strange, disturbing little narrative about a self-hating Tamil waiter and, unusually for its time, approached the theme of racial self-hatred from an existential angle. I read it about 15 years ago and I have always wanted to re-create the engine that made the story tick. My story isn't as open-ended as "Mr Moonreddy", but it does feature similar thematic elements. I viewed the writing of the story as a technical exercise. I'm not interested in any of the themes explored in it. I just wanted to express my admiration of a well-written story by an under-appreciated South African writer.

I don't enjoy the writing process, generally speaking. I considered lying and saying something like, "I love creating a small, temporary world" or "It allows one the space to be more experimental." But in the end I thought I'd be honest. I write slowly, and more often than not it’s a hair-pulling experience. I enjoy whiskey. Writing is a chore.

Jenna Mervis: Inspiration for “The Edge of Things” was inspired by mountain adventures with my dogs in places deemed unsafe for a single white woman. I think in South Africa, women in particular are genetically wired for self-preservation. They arm themselves in fear. It makes sense. It's very effective. A bit like the iron lung that Arja writes about, only in this case an invisible chamber of self, at times a physical restraint too. But at what cost? What about freedom of movement? What about the room to explore mountains as dogs do, with joyous abandon? How long will women live on the edge of life before they throw caution to the wind and leap off into living?

I enjoy the freedom of this genre to explore a particular thought or emotion without having to build a world of words to support it. Even in this distilled form, a back story is intimated in subtle ways. It’s already there – and as a writer I am freed up to really journey into the essence of the thought. In a way, short stories are poetic histology (or histopathology, depending how deep and dark one delves into the human condition!).

Hans Pienaar: My story “Telephoning the Enemy” is based on one of the first scoops I got as a junior reporter for Beeld newspaper. I discovered that a man had been phoning the relatives of the victims of the Church Street bomb in 1983 and telling them that apartheid was to blame for the deaths. What was intriguing was the reaction of the people who were phoned: most came up with racist invective that was unpublishable in the paper. I reimagined four of them and what went on in their minds, and then tried to get into the mind of the man who phoned – imagining him as a non-political person.

Short stories need a lot less long-distance planning, yet they need more creative moves than novels. One can play around with words a lot more, as they are more resonant.

Jayne Bauling: The inspiration: “Bounce” was unplanned. Blobbing on the couch one evening, thinking about how frantic parent birds are in the face of any threat to their young, led on to how a person might feel a little more relevant in the world if they could save a life, any life, even a baby bird’s.

Short stories: I’m fairly new to short stories, but love the challenge, finding the kernel and shaving off everything superfluous, refining to the point where neither the addition nor the subtraction of a single word can enhance the story.

Jeanne Hromnik: My inspiration for the story came from a public lecture that irritated me and a friend's analysis of Disgrace that distressed me.

I enjoy writing short stories because they give form to experience and force you to shape and control it.

Tiah Beautement: “Cordelia, Age 26” sprang from the mind-boggling comments section on the Mail & Guardian website. I thought about the many strong older women I've encountered in my life and wondered what they would think of all this.

I moved to South Africa in August 2008 with a three-year-old and a baby who would not sleep. (She was fifteen and half months old the first time she slept through.) Trying to write another novel seemed an impossibility while dealing with sleep deprivation and culture shock. But it hurt not to write. Thus, I turned to short stories. Their small size was a good fit to my chaotic life. Now I am hooked. They allow me to play with a variety of personalities and voices. The literary version of wearing thousands of different hats.

Gillian Schutte: My story is called “Doubt”. I had read Italo Calvino’s “Mr Palomar” and found it inspiring, infinitely entertaining and thought-provoking. I think it provoked the idea to try a similar type of storytelling. I wondered how to create a Mr Palomar character, but a contemporary female version with contemporary problematics and observations.  It was not about trying to match the sheer genius of Calvino, which is about as impossible as climbing Mount Palomar itself, but just being stimulated to develop a character through whom to create inner dialogues as a catalyst for intellectual, physical, spiritual and philosophical discourse around issues that affect the feminine today –  as well as to explore notions of truth, subjectivity and the nature of being. “Doubt” is one of the stories written in the context of a series of short stories entitled Fractured Lens (which is an almost complete work in progress). Like Calvino’s Mr Palomar series, I too write in triads and utilise first-, second – and third-person narratives. “Doubt” intercuts the first person into a third person narrative – a play on subjectivity and external versus internal observation. Mr Palomar’s name is a play on observation – one world observing another – and he is named after the powerful telescope and observatory on Mount Palomar.  I needed a similar device for observation, but not on such a grand scale, so I made my character a writer and filmmaker. She has the ability to focus her view outwards and make observations about the world around her (through a lens), but also bring her focus inwards in self-reflexive writing and thinking. I’ve based my stories on stories told to me by my many female friends and obviously my own observations and contemplations. This particular story deals with my character’s disillusionment around marriage and her grappling with her desire for passionate contact with someone outside of the marriage. But it also questions self and  spirituality and whether her more esoteric belief system is, in fact, a mere crutch.  She finds herself stranded in an existential sea of nothingness and contemplates her reality through a jaded yet healthily reflexive mind’s eye:

Perhaps I have reached enlightenment after all, she considers, since it has just occurred to her that enlightenment might very well be a big disappointment to those who believe themselves to be seekers of the truth, because in the end it probably consisted of nothingness. There would be no nectar bliss, no endless happiness and no infinite sense of love – and if there were it would be pure wishful thinking stemming from imaginative projection, because, she thinks, true enlightenment is surely absent of the experience of enlightenment.

Yet the world is full of seekers who profess to experience godhead in a myriad of packages, mostly with a resale value, she thinks. Even the most well-meaning guru is merely selling the illusion of freedom through meditation and if one has to set the intention to acquire a state of bliss rather than simply being a state of bliss then it is really no different to buying a new car.

I consciously and subversively placed my female character in situations not traditionally thought of as feminine roles. For instance, in many stories it is often the woman who is trying to salvage a marriage and often the victim of a husband trading them in for someone younger. My character is the one contemplating leaving the marriage instead. In other stories she comes to terms with her own misogyny and grapples with the inner panoptical and its masculine prison warden when she observes overweight women in bikinis on the beach. She questions the ethics of living off other people’s stories, describes in finite detail a pile of human shit she has stood in while filming in a squatter camp, which leads on to her pondering the many facets of scatology as well as where all the shit in South Africa’s multifarious informal settlements ends up – calculating the amount of shit that is produced in a two square kilometre zone that carries over 20 000 people with no toilet facilities. There is a mixture of humour and philosophical scrutiny in the stories and it is clear that even at her most serious moments Gabriella (the name of the character when she is not “she” or “I’) often has her tongue firmly in her cheek. The name Gabriella is a play on the meaning of her name, which is “God-given might”. In this story she questions her relationship with a patriarchal God and decides she does not like him at all.

I adjusted “Doubt” to work as a stand-alone story and it was selected for this anthology.

I love working in the short story format because that is the way my mind is wired. I cannot see the point in dragging a story out over too many pages. I find the short story a space in which to be playful and to the point – which I’m sure presents a different challenge to writing in the long format. I enjoy reading short stories, but also the long format. I’ve attempted the long format myself in my Novella After Just Now (to be self-published by Ludic Press next month). But even then I found myself weaving together different narratives that essentially were different short stories that interconnected – so I guess you could say that some writers are just meant to work in the short format and are even passionate about it. I am.

Hamilton Wende: I was inspired to write “The Company Christmas Party” by memories of real company Christmas parties that were held at Germiston Lake in my childhood in the 1960s. I wrote the original story in the early 1990s just as it was beginning to be possible for us not to have to feel obligated to write about the apartheid situation. So in many ways it was a groundbreaking and liberating experience for me as a writer.

I like writing short stories because they allow me to take up ideas and run with them, focus on the story or incident in so many different ways that it would be impossible to either fit into the current novel I might be working on or alternatively not have time to write an entire novel about. Life is short and short stories give us the chance to experience so many different facets of experience.

Rosamund Handler: Inspiration for “Clueless” came from a man I know who once showed me his ID and told me about his German boss.

Short stories are the lifeblood of writers, attempting to capture significant moments in the human experience, and, if good enough, enabling the reader to experience them as well.

Beatrice Lamwaka: My story “Trophy” was inspired by the armed conflict in northern Uganda which took more than two decades. I am intrigued by how people survive in such a situation and still manage to keep a positive energy I like to create realistic characters on paper and make them have their own life. It sort of makes me feel like a god. I am happy to know that my stories live without me and they can travel wherever they are welcomed. That is what I want from my work and I hope they will live longer than I do.

Perd Booysens (aka Anton Krueger): I've been working with a group in Johannesburg on developing a Gothic Afrikaans TV series and the initial idea for "Sinners and Sinkholes" began as a way of exploring one possible back story to the project. It was also an experiment in collaborative writing (with Pravasan Pillay).

I have no idea why I enjoy writing short stories.

Fred de Vries: I never like to read where exactly writers/songwriters get their inspiration for a particular story/song from, because it takes away the magic. So I won't tell you what exact event inspired me to write “Marking the Tissues”, but I do want to say that it was inspired by the idea of innocent things taking a dramatic, unexpected wrong turn, which will affect the protagonist for the rest of his life. I always loved Bonfire of the Vanities, where the main character gets into serious trouble after driving (not completely innocently, I admit) through a bad NYC neighbourhood and knocking a pedestrian over. I also love a film I once saw (forgotten the title) where someone goes to a basketball game in LA and decides to take a different route home and then his car breaks down, in gangland ... So in a way it's a comment on innocence and the wicked ways of our society where certain taboos are just beyond discussion. A child molester is by definition a pervert, the lowest of the lowest in the chain of criminals – even if he's innocent.

I like the short story format because I'm basically a journalist, used to squeezing lots of information, characters and detail into a few thousand words. And sometimes as a journalist you think, wow, this would be such a great short story, if I could tweak it a bit ... So that's what one does, tweaking reality a bit, in a few thousand words.

Gail Dendy: My “inspiration” (if you can call it that) for “The Intruders” is political, but I broadened this piece to create a philosophical allegory. The story deals with minorities and majorities, but actually its main thrust is a sort of “pride and prejudice” gone wrong. In other words, the story is filled with misunderstandings, preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices either within a group, or between groups. There's quite a bit of humour in this work, especially when the reader finds out that his/her own assumptions or preconceptions are being played with.

I'm rather new to writing short stories, as previously I've focused on poetry and a little bit of playwriting. I love the challenge of prose. I love short works, as it's such a challenge to try to say a great deal within a fairly small format.

Silke Heiss: “Don't Take Me For Free” derived from a “Black Box Exercise” - these are writing exercises my husband, Paul Mason, invented with his writing groups over more than a decade. They entail taking five differently coloured piles of cards from a black box and randomly choosing one card from each pile. You end up with being given (1) a character; (2) a setting; (3) a time; (4) a theme; and (5) an incident, which you have to weave into a story. Just about all my published short stories were black box exercises I created after a mental and nervous breakdown by way of “keeping fit” as a writer.

For the actual content of the story I used selected raw material from my immediate life - noting the employment of especially black and coloured women in fairly heavy-duty jobs previously considered male domains; my interest in Maria Montessori's writings after my son was born; a futile and obsessive love affair; experiences gained from marriage; and, not least, the bitter experience of a life forever on the economic margins of society, which included my self-working as a clown as well as being a market researcher at a race course! But I wouldn't say that the character Vonny is anything like me - she's not nearly as longsuffering as I am! Nor as old. Furthermore, her obsessive love affair ends up consolingly resolved, which mine did not.

At the deepest level, however, the story reflects my thinking about the forces of Eros and Thanatos - the mysterious sweeper is my version of the rather repulsive red-haired old performer in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice; Azar is to an extent my equivalent of Mann's beguiling youth, Tadzio, in the same story. But in my story these forces are less tragically separated; my protagonist is not as brooding as Mann's Aschenbach - in a way her plucky femaleness, her economic needs, and in particular her natural ability to conceive and give life animate her with distractions, provide her with a literal emblem of hope and, paradoxically, the simultaneous ability to expect death, that is to say, to live just about each moment as if it were her last.

I haven't written a short story for several years now - but they did tide me over a very rough patch in my life when I was too down in the dumps to write poetry, and too scattered in my energies and lacking in confidence to embark on any novels. They functioned for me as a kind of exercise regimen, like daily stretches or something – there is something soothingly mundane about the genre. At a deep level, however, I don't enjoy writing short stories any more than any other genre. To be honest, I am surprised that my stories have been published and some have even received positive feedback. I always felt unsure about them ...

Jennifer Lean: The inspiration for this story, “The End”, was to nudge us all into remembering that so many people suffer from acute loneliness, especially when they have finished with parenthood and their careers. Also, I was hoping to create an awareness that it is often the most humble of people who are remarkable - my character Cecelia is one such. Her demands from life are so modest and her need to give so selfless.

I enjoy writing not for the creation of an entertaining/gripping plot, but as an invitation to the reader to look beneath the skin of life to what is truly of value deep down beneath the surface show. I enjoy leading the reader into the consciousness of my characters in order to encounter universal issues about life - love, loss, fears, faith, etc.