Alongside the most recent Mavis Gallant collection, I’ve been reading a variety of short stories, including a collection of African writers, Opening Spaces, edited by Yvonne Vera.
The collection dates to 1999 and includes both well-known and emerging writers:
The Girl Who Can – Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)
Deciduous Gazettes – Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe)
The Enigma – Lindsey Collen (Mauritius)
The Red Velvet Dress – Farida Karodia (South Africa)
Uncle Bunty Norma Kitson (South Africa)
The Betrayal – Veronique Tadjo (Cote D’Ivoire)
The Museum – Leila Aboulela (Sudan)
The Power of a Plate of Rice – Ifeoma Okoye (Nigeria)
Stress – Lilia Momple (Mozambique)
A State of Outrage – Sindiwe Magona (South Africa)
Crocodile Tails – Chiedze Musengezi (Zimbabwe)
Night Thoughts – Monde Sifuniso (Zambia)
The Barrel of a Pen – Gugu Ndlova (Zimbabwe)
A Perfect Wife – Anna Dao (Mali)
The Home-Coming Milly Jaffa (Namibia)
A variety of lengths, styles and voices ensure that the anthology will satisfy a variety of readers. We peek into the working life of a teacher, in “Stress”, a student’s life (Marie in “The Enigma”), and an activist’s life (in “A State of Outrage”).
Most of the stories are set in Africa but, when not, as with Leila Aboulela’s “The Museum”, the focus remains on Africa. “She should not be here, there was nothing for her here. She wanted to see minarets, boats fragile on the Nile, people. People like her father.”
This does not, however, presume that readers will share the storytellers’ familiarity. One story has, in fact, twenty-six footnotes, which explain elements of tradition which readers might not understand. (This doesn’t affect readability; in fact, “A Perfect Wife” was one of my favourite stories.)
For the most part, the language is straightforward, with only a few figurative snippets. “Her mother, Mariam Coulibaly, everybody agreed, was a kind, afable and helpful woman, whose tongue was like a needle used to patch conflicts between members of her family as well as problems with its neighbours.”
Some recurring themes include marriage (polygamy and inequality), the importance of self-expression (writing and language), and a sense of not belonging (whether outwardly or inwardly).
For those looking for a way into African fiction, this could serve as an excellent starting point, particularly as, by now, several of these writers have established careers and bodies of narrative to explore.
Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live turned out to be an excellent starting point for me with Peter Orner. Even though I thought I was only going to read a collection of bookish pieces. Instead, I found myself searching the ‘O’s in the branch library stacks and bringing home a copy of Esther Stories.
The stories in this collection are divided into four sections, sometimes because those in a section are overtly linked, other times because they are more subtly linked (thematically). Those who have enjoyed collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House will particularly enjoy the last two sections, linked by characters and setting.
Often the stories are told in a reflective voice. “And he remembers remembering this.” (“On a Bridge over the Homochitto”) Sometimes this contributes to a wistfulness. “The boy stares out at the vast and tries to see what his father sees.” (“MIchigan City, Indiana”)
Several characters are lonely. “Never a louder silence than when you stand in a room where someone lived for many years alone.” (“Pile of Clothes”)
Sometimes unexpectedly, even with a long-ago loss. “Barry and Diane Swanson lost a child nine years ago. The story is simple.” (“Papa Gino’s”)
But the story is not simple.
Not at all. Is it ever?
Which is something that readers are left to wonder as these very ordinary events unfold (with a few exceptions – sometimes something truly extraordinary happens).
The imagery is simple, too, but striking. This the kind of figurative language which leaves no doubt as to its root in reality. “It was just that there were times in the day – even when he was working side by side with people – when he’d feel the silence build to a low whine, as if a mosquito were trapped and slowly dying in his ear.” (“Thursday Nights at the Gopher Hole”)
This is largely due to the use of language, which is straightforward, as though drawn directly from speech and thought. This passage from “Sitting Theodore” is respresentative: “Fran and Mrs. Gold’s house on Cedar Valley Road was what my mom called a ‘forget knocking, barge in the back door’ kind of house. A house where you didn’t wipe your feet, and where you simply merged into the chaos: Mrs. Gold’s cooking spatter, Fran’s case files all over the place, Theodore’s play shoes, Mrs. Gold’s salsa music.”
This passage conveys so much, not least of which is that there are other “forget knocking, barge in the back door” houses, otherwise there’d be no need for such a phrase and, yet, somehow the acknowledgement carries a certain kind of distinction all the same. Even the style changes there, settling into snippets, quicker observations. Like the words themselves are just part of the clutter. In little piles at the end of the passage.
One of my favourite descriptions is from “Birth of a Son-in-Law”: “Either way, all that counts is that Arthur’s got two bum knees and glasses thick as dictionaries.” And one of the aspects of Peter Orners’s writing which I love is that I remember the whole story just from the title (even though there are a lot of stories in this collection, too many for me to list its contents as I usually do).
Some of the desciptions in John Metcalf’s stories, collected in Standing Stones, are evocative too.
Straight away, in “Single Gents Only”, we meet the narrator’s mother who is “wearing a hat that looked like a pink felt Christmas pudding”.
The narrator is off to school and this story is just one which has a bookish side to it, whether because the main character is a student or a writer.
“Yes, I have thought myself a pilgrim, the books my milestones,” observes the narrator of “The Years in Exile”.
The narrator of “Girl in Gingham” is bookish too: “A librarian lady. Very bright. Very good looking. It all looks very promising.”
In this story, I was interested to note that this “librarian lady” was throughly and credibly developed (although this is only a first date, so neither readers nor characters get to know her very well).
At some point, attending an event at the IFOA, someone mentioned that they found his female characters were not as sympathetically drawn as his male characters. (This was off-stage chatter; I did not know the other attendees and couldn’t comment as I hadn’t read his fiction.)
Although the focus is on the male characters and their experiences (often frustrating, even despairing, some within marriage), the female characters appear to have their own (possibly fulfilling, possibly not) inner and outer lives, even when the men in their lives are largely unaware of them.
Take, for instance, Martha in “Polly Ongle”, who is observed by her husband, not entirely sympathetically, but in a way which suits the disgruntled middle-aged narrator’s perspective:
“Exhausted by her daily labours at the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Resources and then further exhausted by homework consultations, and the general wear and tear of motherhood, Martha was red-eyed with fatigue by nine-thirty. Any sexual activity past that hour bordered on necrophilia.”
Settings are uncomplicated but sometimes whisper in the direction of theme, as when one character (who conceals the parts of his identity which he recognises could be problematic for those in his life who only know him in a certain context) is travelling by train and observes the “narrow garden strips behind the houses looking as if receding water had left there a tide-line of haphazard junk”
Sensory detail is simply expressed as well, as when Paul is reflecting on his wife as a married man. “He lay on his side of the bed listening to the throaty pigeons fluttering and treading behind the fretwork gingerbread which framed the dormer window and rose to one of the twin turrets which were the real reason for his having bought the house.”
The thrum and the flutter both suit and contrast beautifully with the dreams that a younger Paul must have had about those twin turrets.
Even though this is an older collection, from 2004, and the stories often take place in the past which adds to the sense of distance between readers and characters, I enjoyed this well enough to seek out other stories by John Metcalf.
Contents: Single Gents Only, Private Parts, The Eastmill Reception Centre, Gentle as Flowers Make the Stones, The Years in Exile, Girl in Gingham, Polly Ongle, The Nipples of Venus
What short stories have you been reading? Or, do you have a collection creeping towards the top of your TBR?