Arresting, memorable and innovative – that is how LSE’s Matt Birkinshaw describes the new collection of short stories entitled Water: New Short Fiction from Africa.
A diverse collection of 21 pieces of short fiction in English, Water features work from across the continent with a concentration in South, and southern Africa. The book presents work submitted to Short Story Day Africa by new and more established writers from South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. From failed taxidermy to the Angola war, love in rural Zambia and America to madness in middle-class Kenya and Nigeria; stories are varied with diversity of style, form and narrative voice. Recurrent themes are witchcraft, dysfunctional relationships, dystopian corporatised futures, middle class anxiety, and murder.
For water in the sense of water supply, Pede Hollist’s The Tale of the Three Water Carriers is one of the highlights of the book. Hollist describes the visceral excitement, dangerous and ‘strain’ labour of young informal water suppliers in Sierra Leone. The underemployed young men hustling to make a precarious living from community water shortage are described as both heroes continuing the freedom struggle and the lumpen troublemakers that have brought the country down. The love and care that has gone into the collection and construction of the water carts are described in rich detail, and the buzzwords beloved of development actors are satirised in the protagonists search for mf’s (microfinanciers / mudafukas) to fund their nascent enterprise.
Water features stories from Nigeria, Rwanda and Kenya, however, South (and southern) Africa looms large throughout. The anthology opens with a beautifully written account of the attempted amateur reconstruction of a tiger skeleton. The detailed, and disgusting, account of the boiling of the carcass allows the narrator to approach family life, the epistemological colonial mission (often conducted by gentleman enthusiasts), and the wastefulness of consumer society. Water is present as the medium for the noxious double boiling to remove the flesh and cartilage from the skeleton. The carefully worded description and lack of obvious conclusion leaves the process itself as a symbol. The story brings to mind Marx’s aphorism ‘you can’t demolish a tiger claw by claw’. Given the long left traditions of the freedom struggle in South Africa, and the progressive socialist ideals embodied in the Freedom Charter, this seems apposite given the ongoing – and very much unfinished – negotiated transition from apartheid, which has failed to deliver ‘a better life for all’ and seen inequality rise back to the levels of 1972.
Cat Hellinson’s The Worme Bridge which places the reader in an Afrikaans-speaking family setting in a deeply troubled South Africa shows water sustaining life even after death. More twisted Afrikaans-tinged magical realism is given in How We Look Now by Christine Coates which again disturbingly blurs the borders of fantasy and reality in a tale that obliquely references the violent and gendered fallout of South Africa’s post-apartheid transition. One of the strongest evocations of contemporary South Africa is Native Mayonnaise. Here the reader is introduced to township life in post-Marikana South Africa through a coached police report after a riotous late night party. On 16 August 2012, at platinum mines owned by London-based Lonmin, police acting in close concert with management and senior ANC leaders fired on workers on a wildcat strike, killing 34 and injuring 112. Marikana has been seen as a watershed moment in post-94 South Africa politics, and compared to the 1976 uprisings. In Native Mayonnaise, the protagonist has lost his job at the mines and descended into heavy drinking following the violent death of his son. The community garden through which he meets his accuser, which residents attempt to create despite lack of water to the township reflects attempts to create a better society despite overwhelming socio-economic challenges, stemming from macro-economic policy choices. The casual rape threats towards the end of the story are almost smothered under the Hakuna Matata refrain: ‘keep smiling’.
Oasis and Ink, again both from South Africa, both plunge the reader into dystopian water scarce futures. The securitised European setting in Oasis plays on the Green Zones observable from army compounds, to shopping malls, to gated communities. In the current climate of post-Brexit racism, and given Europe’s current concern with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, this is a very topical setting. It is also one which would be only too familiar to anyone aware of South Africa’s own complicated relationship with migration and xenophobia, as well as its securitised and segregated landscape. Ink takes a refreshingly innovative approach by obliquely weaving the seemingly tedious search for dried up rivers into the background of a story which is constructed around a DIY Rorschach blot assessment. The narrator, an unhappy geography graduate, is seemingly trapped in exploitative and frustrating professional and personal situations, tensions which are echoed by the water-scarce setting.
Water is an arresting and memorable collection of innovative short fiction from Africa with eye towards social issues. Water nerds might prefer to have seen a less imaginative volume with greater focus on the many tales that revolve around water in a more literal sense, its acquisition and absence – there are certainly many stories to tell here. From India for example, Pipe Politics, Waterscapes, All Quiet in Vikaspuri, Trickster City among others explore this mundane and occasionally absurd terrain… Refreshing, imaginative and arresting, Water is easy to ‘dip’ into and one story will leave you keen to start the next. Copies can be ordered through the New Internationalist website, as well as usual suppliers. Keep an eye out this time next year for an anthology from this year’s festival.
Water: New Short Fiction From Africa. Edited by Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek. Short Story Day Africa. New Internationalist. Cassava Republic. 2015
Matt Birkinshaw is a doctoral researcher at LSE. Follow him on Twitter @MB1381.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.