SSDA response to allegations against "All Our Lives"

We have been approached for comment on allegations levelled at Tochukwu Okafor, winner of our 2017 SSDA award for his story in ID. We have worked with him for several years, both in our Flow Workshops, and during the editing process for two of our anthologies. Our team has supported his journey over the years and will continue to do so, as we believe him to be a person of great integrity and a writer of exceptional talent.

Short Story Day Africa does not countenance plagiarism. We ask all who submit work to us to provide a declaration avowing that their work is their own and original. We take these declarations on trust.

An essential element of our work and mission is to identify, nurture and develop young and novice writers from the continent. Each year we receive excellent stories from established authors who have been published multiple times. It would be easy to compile our anthologies from these submissions alone. But we believe it is vital to spot raw talent, pull it from the pile, develop and polish it. We are often the first to give gifted aspiring writers a platform, guidance, professional editing.

This means that we see almost every variety of novice error. Some are technical; others are extremely sensitive: for instance, we’ve had to help young, less experienced writers grapple with representations of sexual violence, hate speech, racial slurs, mental illness and more. We learn as much from this process as the authors.

No one on the SSDA reading panel, the judging panel or the editing team had read the initial work that inspired our author during his research. Having now read the materials under discussion, the consensus is that there has been no clear or deliberate lifting of phrases, sentences or passages, or an attempt to pass these off as the author’s own intellectual/creative work. When asked publicly about his influences, the author has openly named the works (both Khadivi’s and more indirectly, Otsuka’s) from which he took inspiration, with no attempt to dissemble. 

If we had read Khadivi’s piece, we would still have published the story, as the writing is clearly original, if not the opening structure. Mentoring editor Helen Moffett says, “I found the voice in this story authentic – I recognised it as the author’s own, having worked closely with him before. If I had known the story relied, especially at the start, on the structure of a short story on Russian mail-order brides by Laleh Khadivi (itself drawing from Julia Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic), I would have asked for an attribution. Better still, I would have suggested an epigraph from the influencing work, as a more elegant way of signalling intertextual influence. Future print editions of ID will indeed have such an attribution.”

SSDA does not throw its authors to the wolves, especially not when they have made an honest mistake, and one which we missed. We find “call-out” and shaming culture, all too easily whipped up online, both saddening and alarming. It’s easy to see how a twenty-three-year-old engineering student might have read Khadivi’s interpretation (Russian brides) of Otsuka’s work (Japanese brides) and been inspired to dream up a Nigerian alternative that involved young men. The use by all three authors of the rare first-person plural as a narrative voice also sets up an echo – but one that dissolves on closer reading.

This opens up the complex and tricky territory of intertextuality. What we’re all agreed on is that we need to offer our writers, especially the less experienced ones, more explicit training and open platforms for debate on intertextuality.

African writers need to know that sadly, they are held to higher standards than Western writers, for whom intertextuality in publishing is a matter of implicit cultural heritage. This can be popular: fan-fic, musicals based on Shakespearian tragedies, sequels to classics like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, or even Disney’s recycling of fairytales; or academic, as in the central theoretical understanding of the literary author as an individual Romantic voice (rather than a representative of communal voices, custodian of shared narratives, harvester of story seeds). 

These faultlines were shown in the controversy that arose some years ago over the world-renowned and prolific Zakes Mda’s use of historical materials in his award-winning novel Heart of Redness. The unpleasantness and heatedness of the debates surrounding the above and other similar accusations (such as the Krog-Watson controversy) have scarred the South African literary landscape; they make it hard to have candid discussion and honest debate about influence and inspiration, and how to interact with and interpret the works of others in ways that do not simply mimic Western models of literary theory and practice.

To this end, SSDA commits to providing more solid and explicit training on and discussion of plagiarism and intertextuality, in our sought-after Flow Workshops held around the continent; and in the editing structures and materials posted on our website (we are currently preparing these materials). So far, during editing, questions about influence have indeed been asked, but informally and in an ad hoc manner; we will now explicitly ask our authors about their sources of inspiration and influence. We also commit ourselves to learning more, from our authors and each other, and indeed the African publishing community, about these thorny questions, so that we can do better, and continue to move towards “best practice” models for our authors. We welcome constructive comments and suggestions from our peers on the continent and abroad.


Hotel Africa: Announcing the Winners of the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize

As we explained in our (long) shortlist announcement, choosing winners for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa award was almost impossible, and not just in the usual sense – how to choose between a crisp apple and a sensually scented orange – but in terms of the democratic voting system adopted by the judges, which led to the closest competition yet seen in SSDA’s history.

Adam El Shalakany, Winner of the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize.

Adam El Shalakany, Winner of the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize.

Having so many closely matched and high-quality stories is an excellent outcome, of course; but it did make choosing a shortlist and the winners a far more onerous task than usual. We broke the deadlock by pressganging an additional judge into providing three extra votes, and this is how, by a whisker, Adam El Shalakany’s “Happy City Hotel” took the winner’s place, nudging Noel Cheruto’s “Mr Thompson” into second place, while Lester Walbrugh’s “The Space(s) Between Us” was established as holder of the third spot. We congratulate these authors sincerely and enthusiastically while once again noting that this competition was the tightest we’ve yet seen; if this had been a horse race, we would have had to call for a photo finish.

Noel Cheruto, 1st Runner-up for the 2018 SSDA Prize, and Lester Walbrugh, 2nd Runner-up for the 2018 SSDA Prize

Noel Cheruto, 1st Runner-up for the 2018 SSDA Prize, and Lester Walbrugh, 2nd Runner-up for the 2018 SSDA Prize

 We are especially delighted to have the length of the continent represented by the top three stories. Given our commitment to featuring literature from all over Africa, which has to be juggled with practical and financial constraints that mean we can only accept submissions in English, we are very pleased that the winning story is our first ever winner from Egypt (and North Africa, in fact). It’s hard to explain the charm of this story, which features a small and shabby hotel in Cairo, and a cast of strangely endearing characters, but everyone who read it said it made them “happy”; which, given that it features very ordinary people living somewhat melancholy lives, is testament to how deeply it resonates with the reader.

Noel Cheruto represents Kenya with her moving story of the dashed dreams of a hotel worker who silently confesses all to a guest. This rich and subtle piece, in which wit and compassion are skilfully blended, was extremely popular with the judging panel. And South Africa’s Lester Walbrugh, who was shortlisted in last year’s anthology, provides one of the most original and haunting versions of a “romantic getaway” at a fancy hotel you’ll ever read.

The following stories are particularly highly commended (they all featured in the photo finish): “Why Don’t You Live in the North?” by Wamuwi Mbao, “Slow Road to the Winburg Hotel” by Paul Morris, “Outside Riad Dahab” by Chourouq Nasri, and “The Snore Monitor” by Chido Muchemwa. Mbao’s story is a subtle meditation on the landmarks, both inner and outer, that colonial histories leave, while Morris’s is a deceptively simple account of a journey to a hotel that has a double twist at the end. “Outside Riad Dahab”, a particularly moving account of contact between outsiders and insiders, describes the interaction between a privileged hotel guest and the homeless man who camps outside the building. And “The Snore Monitor”, in which a young Zimbabwean woman has a most unusual job in a South African hotel, also explores the theme of fleeting contact between wealthy tourists and those who are obliged to care for them.

We heartily congratulate the winner and runners-up once again, and close with the truism that the real winner is African literature, with this exceptionally fine selection of stories.

Hotel Africa: New Short Fiction is now available as an ebook in Africa. Click here to buy your copy!

Coming soon in paperback!

A word from mentoring ed, Helen Moffett. And a gift from SSDA!

It’s the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, and that makes us think of Short Story Day Africa’s roots, and how it’s bloomed and transmuted since its beginnings. It was prompted by a UK magazine editor’s request that writer and SSDA founder Rachel Zadok set up a national short story event in South Africa. At first, the efforts of a small handful of volunteers were restricted to South, then Southern Africa – but within two years, SSDA was getting requests – and offers – from a variety of voices across the continent. Our needs for a short story platform – one that offered publishing, editing, news, debate, training – were very different to those of writers in the northern hemisphere.

Yet there are traces of our beginnings not only in the name of the organisation, a registered non-profit, but in the number of stories chosen each year for our annual SSDA anthology – in case you ever wondered why we publish a longlist of twenty-one stories.

There are several things that make us different in the often tenuous but always exciting and febrile world of African indie publishing, but to celebrate this shortest day, our winter solstice, I’m going to write about something warming. One of the rare things we’ve always been able to offer our authors and contributors is in-depth editing. And this has gone from being something implicit to something we’re focusing on more overtly and formally, with our Editing Mentorship programme now in its third year.

Here we use the anthology editing process to train and mentor young up-and-coming editors working in and for anglophone African publishing outfits. I’ve been the Editing Mentor for the last three years, this year with the stalwart support of experienced and award-winning author Karen Jennings, and it’s been enormously satisfying to see Editing Fellows Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe/South Africa), Efemia Chela (Zambia/South Africa), Otieno Owino (Kenya), Nebila Abdulmelik (Ethiopia), Anne Moraa (Kenya), Ope Adedeji (Nigeria) and Agazit Abate (Ethiopia) develop their editing skills and go on, in many cases, to take these to indie publishing houses and platforms across the continent, as well as other creative and academic projects (some of which are deliciously subversive). We’re so proud of them. But working with gifted young editors is only part of what makes this such a rewarding process. The long-lasting joy, for me anyway, comes from working with the writers.

Editing, it must be said, is not for the faint-hearted. It involves erasing one’s own voice to honour the voice of the story (which itself is not always quite the same thing as the author’s voice). Yet it also involves the courage to stand one’s ground, the diplomacy to negotiate that ground, an ability to see the broader picture, to envisage all the potential ripples spreading out – and in many African countries, this means considering not just literary merits but the political and moral implications of a piece of writing.

In an interaction that by default is hierarchical and “critical”, the editor (especially if she’s a white South African, like me) constantly has to reach for the touchstone of decolonial thinking and practice. Working across the continent means holding my own (often embarrassing) ignorance of the context and history shaping an author’s story in balance with the specific and specialist editing experience and information I can offer. How do we both honour this process? This can only be done by building a relationship, no matter how fleeting. I have to earn the author’s trust, and if I had to boil it down to one principle, it’s taking the author’s words absolutely seriously. No indifferent editor is a good editor. You have to care about the story almost as much as its creator does.

This sounds all very serious. I’m writing this today, as icy winds tug at my doors and the sky darkens, to tell you that editing – and especially editing the SSDA anthologies – is also fun. Huge fun. So much fun, you can’t imagine. That fleeting relationship with your author might be brief, but it’s often deep and intense. It becomes playful and serious. There is pushback and feelings get hurt. It involves coaxing and laughter and amazing trust and mutual respect. The magic is that these interactions are with people you have never met, and may never meet. When that mutual energy crackles across the vastness and multiplicity of the African continent, it’s truly special.

The first time Bongani Kona and I ever worked on a story by the dazzlingly talented Tochukwu Okafor (for the Migrations SSDA anthology), he wrote of the “pleasant horror” with which he opened the file to see a sea of red cyber-ink. (The following year, he was the winner for his story in the ID anthology, and now he’s shortlisted for the Caine Prize, and we are so thrilled for him, we’re floating like balloons.) So sometimes these short and intense relationships stretch ahead into the future, and our paths recross in interesting and constructive ways. We write references for fellowships and Creative Writing MA programmes, for writer’s residencies, jobs in publishing – and celebrate when writers get these. We’re asked for advice, and we’re given advice. We see authors we’ve published, sometimes for the first time, go on to light up the sky.

And sometimes, our authors reflect on the editing process, and sometimes the relationships are honest and durable enough – even after only a few weeks – for them to tease us. As we’ve wound up the editing for our current anthology, Hotel Africa, Cameroon author Nkiacha Atemnkeng grew a little restive when we asked him to rework to tight deadlines – and I was then a day late in returning final edits I’d promised him. He made my day when he penned me this ode as a result:

Helen the charmer

A chiseller. A butcher!

Vulture picking at meat

Killing my darlings

Story’s a torrid red mess

Beautiful horror. Pain.

Pleasure. Lessons. Finesse.

Morphs into solace mood

Such a lovely charmer!

Where’s the story?

I don’t have it yet

Hectic, but the story...

My Helen the charmer

I'm the African king cobra

Swaying, left, right, left,

To the tune of the flute

Of my snake charmer.

This is an emblem of the many wonderful interactions I’ve had with a range of fascinating and talented writers from dozens of different African countries in the last few years. So this mid-winter day, I have a warm glow: thank you to every author who’s ever entrusted me with their work, and especially those of you whose only connection with me is through a modem, most especially the SSDA authors. You keep me humble and you give me joy. And in Nkiacha’s case, a great big belly-laugh.

Helen Moffett


A Gift from SSDA

For the next five days (from 22 June – 26 June) ID: New Short Fiction from Africa will be available for free* from Amazon!

Click here to go Amazon and get your copy!

Or, if Amazon is giving you a hard time, click here.

*Gift is available as an ebook from Amazon in African territories only.

If you enjoy the gift, please return to Amazon and leave us a review or rating.

Short Story Day Africa is a non-profit organisation that relies on donations from readers, writers and businesses. If you’d like to help, click here.