Category Archives: Short Story Collection

Tjieng Tjang Tjerries by Jolyn Phillips

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tjieng-tjang-tjerries

Tjieng, Tjang, Tjerries is a short story collection that lives up to its intriguing name. Yet all is not as it seems. The reader discovers in the title story from which language the phrase ‘tjieng, tjang, tjerries’, is derived; or do they? The stories have a large sprinkling of the colloquial variant of Afrikaans that is spoken by Cape ‘Coloured’ people.  If you know what this accent sounds like, it is difficult not to hear it in your head as you read.  Language is indeed akin to being a character in these interlinked stories.

The stories centre around colourful characters that live in Gansbaai, a small coastal town in between Hermanus and Agulhas, where the author grew up. Her intimate knowledge of the community is evident, as is her insight into what lies beneath the surface. Tough lives give people tough exteriors that belie the love they have for one another. Small triumphs seem to outweigh the hardship in families that experience violence and sorrow.

The sense of place is ever present; the fynbos, the ocean, the fishing boats, ‘kapstyl’  cottages and the weather. The writing appeals to the senses in the sound of “seagulls swearing and “the smell of fish guts”, the morning mist, ‘bak brood and moer koffie’. Most of all, the characters are real, flesh and blood people, depicted through their dialogue and relationships more than through their appearance.

There are thirteen stories, none of which are very long. The focus is mainly on different family relationships and how tragedy, secrets, alcohol and poverty affect their lives. Even though most of the stories are about different people, nevertheless, they seem interlinked through their proximity to each other. The matter-of-factness and humour inherent in the dialogue counters the sadness of the different events. The stories range from the death of a loved son to the ‘dronk verdriet’ of a runaway husband; from the girl that schoolteachers thought was stupid because she could not see, to the girl whose parents die and those who look after her, abuse her; to mention but a few. The one that pulls at my heartstrings the most is The Fisherman. It tells of Andrea, a young woman who did not want to be relegated to working in the fish factory because her calling was to be a fisherman like her Pappa, not a fish packer.

Quite a few of the stories are from the perspective of a child. The naivete of children who are exposed to much that they do not fully understand exposes the goings on of the adults. There is Mollie who is ‘n bietjie mal’ (a bit mad), Hennie who ‘murdered all his brain cells with the papsak’ (box wine) and Ouma, who loves funerals and gives funeral crashers ‘the stink eye’.

Trevor Noah said in an interview that Coloured in South Africa says more about a culture than it says about a race. I know this is a highly contested area as it speaks to identity; some reject the use of the word ‘Coloured’ while others use it with pride. These short stories celebrate the expressiveness of the language, a bearer of the culture, and are an absolute delight.

A Killing in the Sun by Dilman Dila

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A Killing in the Sun

This short story collection by Ugandan writer, Dilman Dila, is sheer entertainment with a thick seam of seriousness. Speculative fiction, in several of its forms, is deployed to shine a refreshing perspective on  age-old themes of corruption, power struggles, western exploitation and civil wars in Africa. Aliens, zombies, magical realism and futuristic technologies skitter through the stories, reminding us that despite the trappings, there is nothing new under the sun.

The Leafy Man  is eerily topical in a time of Zika fears and conflicting stories of unintended consequences of pesticide use; a whole village is decimated. Only Japia, traditional healer, holds the key and it lies with oranges.

The Healer is a story of two tribes that hate each other based on the usual arbitrary reasons. The Twa were enslaved by the Cuku but only Benge, the healer remained free. He hides himself using magic and the leaders of the Cuku visit him in secret. A boy goes missing and the hunt is on. Benge uses his juju,  and with the help of Acii, a young girl who can turn herself into a parrot or a  Marabou stork. This story conjures up genocides all over the world with its  exploitation of  superstitious beliefs and the power struggles between leaders.

Itanda Bridge is the scene of a disaster and the militia turn to Obil, a diver, to help them solve the riddle of how three vehicles had crashed off the bridge and disappeared. He is forced to help knowing he may die in the process. There is poignancy too when he contemplates what clothes to wear when he is plucked from his home. What lies beneath the water is startling.

A Killing in the Sun is the story of a court martial that cannot begin until the doctor arrives. Mande stands in the sun contemplating death though hoping for life as the reasons for his sentence flash through his mind. Civil war, rebel gangs and militia destroyed his life long before this moment arrives and all the while the sun beats down relentlessly.

In The Doctor’s Truck, a ghost occupies Okot’s truck and kills a child. A mob blames the doctor until a mzungu (white person) comes to his rescue and offers the assistance of an exorcist.

Lights on Water, a sad yet touching story in which a father tries to reach out to his daughter. She has been indoctrinated into believing that her skin colour, tawny brown instead of sooty black like everyone else, makes her an outcast. He has access to the natural world in his job as a painter who paints demons at the request of the Emperor and he smuggles her into his spaceship to show her the truth.

A Wife and a Slave reveals more indoctrination, this time an Emperor who wants all Africans to return to ‘what was supposed to be life in Africa before the Europeans came’. Sex was only allowed for procreation and wives had to treat their husbands as lord and master, bowing down before them and obeying their every command, except if they want sex. Any adherence to anything white whether music, books or names is regarded with suspicion, shows the African mind is still enslaved and requires re-education. A fugitive white escapee disrupts everything. Tyranny of one kind simply replaces tyranny of another; leaders have rules based on manipulations and mass brain-washing. 1984 meets Heart of Darkness? this is one of my favourites.

In The Yellow People,  meet a serial killer with a difference; Dunningan encounters an old man with no thumbs dressed in a strange yellow costume buying insecticide and he fears he will be found out.Societies with weak law and order and high levels of corruption are  a magnet to the evil of this world which is why he lives here.

Okello’s Honeymoon, a tale of two men who fall in love with zombies, thus risking their very existence. This is a warning tale regarding womanly wiles disguised in other-worldly attire.

A Bloodline of Blades – a man’s gift is his music, as an assassin by trade it was the only way to attract a wife and he wanted to pass this gift on to his son. His son is ashamed of this and aspires only to be an assassin and rejects his father’s gift. This story is really about loyalty and family bonds as both father and son secretly try to save each other.

The beauty of these stories is that each in their own way shows a human side, of people who love, hate, fear and yearn. Dila’s wonderful imagination lifts this collection into  an alien yet familiar space, where the ‘other’ is lampooned in a fantastical way.

Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo

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affluenza

The currency of these short stories is money and status as depicted by the fifty rand note that graces the cover; an inspired choice. Dip your toe into the psyche of South Africa today where the pull of glamour and glitz allure the characters into bad decisions. The settings range from urban to rural, covering themes such as land grabs, corruption of tradition and cheating men, all served with fat dollops of Niq Mhlongo’s characteristic wit and cynicism.

As with any short story collection, some stories are meatier than others. My usual frustration with this format is that when the story ends, I feel as if I am getting to know the characters and there is more to find out. The same is true of these 11 stories, some more than others. Two of the stories are a little weak but, of the other 9, it is difficult to pick a favourite.

The Warning Sign is a stark and violent stab at the ever pertinent land issue, in which an ex-Zimbabwean farmer spouts his racism and hatred to the land committee that threatens to grab his land. On a lighter note, Four Blocks Away is set in Washington DC where a gumboot dancer is on a cultural exchange; the woman he has been hoping to bed for months is in town but her rule of “no glove, no love”, sends him into the streets wearing nothing but his hospital gown and boxers, trying to get hold of condoms. The consequences are hilarious as he faces up to American police bigotry. Hilarious yet infuriating in its depiction of prejudice.

Another favourite of mine in this collection is Catching the Sun, where the Maja family who live in a village near Phalaborwa, receive unexpected visitors with unwelcome news from the Eastern Cape. They fling insults at their Xhosa visitors in very colourful language and make unreasonable demands. Superstition, cultural traditions and greed fuel their actions in this tragic tale.

My Name is Peaches, Affluenza and The Baby Shower respectively deal with how the superficiality of modern life and the shallow aspirations of many lead to heartbreak, death and destruction. These stories are laced with poignancy in their depiction of human weakness. The writer is never afraid to show his characters in the worst possible light nor does he sugarcoat their actions.

The different range of voices that Mhlongo represents through excellent dialogue makes every story unique; from the rural man who speaks in idiom to the high-flying couple who call each other ‘babe’. Every story touches in one way or another on serious issues of our times yet this is not experienced as dark and depressing. Look into the mirror of Affluenza, go globe-trotting with Niq Mhlongo and see for yourself.

 

 

Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman

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fairytales for lost children

Imagine if your cultural identity is wrapped up in being part of a Somalian Muslim large family which is not only patriarchal but also conservative. You are dispossessed of your country of origin and seek refuge in Kenya. In Kenya, you are not very welcome and constantly have to hide from the police. Finally you land up in London where you are more welcome but still not part of the mainstream. Add to this being gay, lesbian or trans and you are further on the periphery with nowhere to call home. Most of the stories in this collection describe a version of such lives.

Each one has a unique protagonist with a unique set of circumstances. A further dimension is added in that several of the protagonists also suffer from mental illness in the form of psychosis. In Your Silence Will Not Protect You, the voices in the protagonists head stop once he distances himself from his family. In Earthling, a cathartic moment helps Zaytun towards wholeness.

There is tenderness, anguish, pride, revenge and courage in abundance; all the emotions that exist in relationships are wonderfully portrayed. The writer does not shy away from describing sexual encounters very explicitly until the lust and tenderness and sweat virtually drips from the pages.

In one of my favourites, the title story, Fairytales for Lost Children, the boy is learning “Ingriis” living in Kenya. The school has a wonderful black teacher who subverts all the fairytales so they learn of Jomo and the Beanstalk and Kohl Black and the Seven Street Boys! so inventive. Sadly the teacher does not last long. This story ends a little in the air with the reader wondering if the worst really did happen.

At the beginning of each story there are beautiful drawings sometimes displaying the titles in Arabic. They do not illustrate the story so much as convey the mood and tone. Here is an example of one of them.

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The language changes depending on the character, some use english slang, some are aggressive and macho, some reflective. A feature that seems prevalent in writers of African origin is a wonderful use of metaphor. In describing the effect of a tranquiliser, the protagonist says it dilutes the voices “until they were faint crackles: a transistor radio still picking up signals but at a low volume.” In, If I Were a Dance, Anas says of his ex-lover ‘if his ego were bottled a drop would poison a scorpion.” This story is heart-wrenching as Anas and Narciso dance out their relationship in front of an audience.

I often avoid short stories because I can get frustrated with their abrupt endings. In this collection, they seem sufficient unto themselves. Every story has something different to offer as each describes, in one way or another, how they have been displaced and outcast as much in terms of nationality as sexuality. It seems impossible to cast oneself away from the family and/or culture that is deeply loved and to find what truly embodies home. Nevertheless these stories show ways of doing just this.