Sibongile Fisher is the winner of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize. The judges and readers alike were gripped by her dramatic story of family secrets and how two sisters are both bound and divided by them. We sat down with her to find out the inspiration behind her award-winning story as well as her experience of migration.
How did you come to writing? And why short stories?
SIBONGILE: I started off writing poetry in high school, round about the time my reality changed. I needed a way to let it all out, to bleed and poetry became that thing for me. A place where I could cough out whatever that was on my chest no with worries about whether or not I excused myself. I've never stopped writing since. With the joy of writing poetry came the love of reading. However the stories I was reading had little to do with my reality and so I started writing about the people I knew.
I have a bad memory, so for everyone who passed on in my family, I started writing how I remember them, short stories they told me, things they did or loved doing and moments that struck me, how they reacted to things and sometimes how they said certain phrases. I then stopped (for no particular reason). I continued writing and performing poetry but I had stopped writing stories.
In 2014 I had the opportunity to work on a short story for the Fundza Mentoring Young Writers Program. The experience really shaped my way of writing. Needless to say I started writing and I haven't stopped since.
Why short stories? Well there is something about the short story that keeps a writer energized, the limited word count yet the elaborate need for a story to be complete, to leave the reader full. The short story is like chocolate, you can have more than one a day and that is what I love about them.
The opening line of “A Door Ajar” is pretty shocking as is the story that unfolds - of a divided family and how they are bound to an ancient custom. Do you intend to shock with your writing?
SIBONGILE: I wouldn’t say I intend to shock, however I want to address the absurdity of some of the traditions and customs that happen behind closed doors, that we all know of but are unspoken of, the things that are known as family secrets. When writing, I find it hard to make beautiful that which reads as ugly or make ugly that which reads as beautiful. I try to keep my text as plain as possible so that it appears as it is. On the other hand, I have an ungovernable imagination that shocks me. Some of the things I dream of are weird and gory and scary and I love adding these to my writing. I think the shock element comes from the whole, “she didn’t just do that, did she?” which is very intentional. I love characters that push boundaries that go where humans are afraid to go, do unspeakable things and find these things normal. I am energized by such characters.
The opening line is based on a tradition that is rumoured to be practiced by members of the secret church.
How did “A Door Ajar” - the narrative, the story, the characters - come into being?
SIBONGILE: The story ended up completely different from how I had imagined it to be. I wanted to tell a speculative story that explored the practicality of myths and religious practices. When I decided to enter the competition, I attended the Flow workshop and knew that there was no going back so I had to write it. Using my initial sub-themes and the overall theme of Migrations I started writing. I wrote about the thing I knew most, my birthplace. I thought of the people there, the people I grew up with, my family and the families of my childhood friends.
I knew that I wanted to tell a story about women, so my characters had to be women. As I was writing, the characters shaped themselves, I wanted to keep them close to reality as possible. I wanted the reader to recognize their grandmother, their aunt, their sister and even their mother in one of the characters and because of this, I had to keep the story as close to reality as possible, with the elements of speculation of course. When reading the story, anyone who has had to ‘migrate’ from the rurals to the city will recognize the story and relate to it.
One of the story’s strengths for me was the way it explored the tension between tradition and modernity. Could you speak more about how you created this aspect of the story?
SIBONGILE: The theme was Migrations and there is a migration that happens in South Africa every year between November and January. A large number of the rural population leaves their homes to find work in the cities and during those months they travel back home for the holidays. I too partake in this migration when I visit my birthplace. It is as though there are two separate eras in which the City and the Rural Areas exist. In the rural areas traditions and customs have a strong hold and the people who live in there practice these traditions and customs religiously where as in the city, pop culture and modernity is forever evolving.
I wanted to explore these two worlds and see what would happen if they met under the same household so that is why I created two sisters born in the same place, one changed because she left for the city and another changed she stayed. I also spent a lot of time in Braamfontein in 2014/15 and I was intrigued by the transition that students make over the time that they first arrive in the city and when they have now comfortably become city dwellers. Their personality, interests, style, way of thinking and lifestyle changes and the contrasting shock and tension that must surely happen when they go back home fascinates me. I wanted this to be a central theme throughout the story as it is something that I struggle with. The constant push and pull between tradition and modernity.
Congratulations on your win! What did it mean to you to win the overall prize?
SIBONGILE: After giving birth to my son, I felt lost. I was not sure if I wanted to continue writing. I entered the competition as a gift to myself. I didn’t think I would win, let alone get long listed. The prize gave me a sense of confidence, in myself and in my writing. I am fired up to continue writing, to improve and better my writing. The prize meant that I was worth it, that my work was worth it. I still pinch myself hey. I, with no academic background in creative writing, with no long track record, won one of the most prestigious short story prizes in Africa. It is the stuff dreams are made of.
Are you working on any stories at the moment? Can we expect anything new from you in the near future?
SIBONGILE: Yes, I am working on two new stories and an essay… I am working on getting published more and hopefully winning more (lol). It hasn’t been easy writing as I am currently a full-time ‘new’ mom to a very curious and active toddler but these stories haunt me and I have to get them out, one way or another.
On Sibongile’s Bedside Table
Well, I was in between two books; Rachel’s Blue by Zakes Mda and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison when I came across Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and because I’ve been meaning to read the book for years now, the others had to be paused.
Migrations is available in all good bookstores in South Africa. They will be happy to order it for you if they don't have it on the shelves. It will be published in the US and UK in September, and will be available as an eBook in all African territories in April.
Sibongile "Gratitude" Fisher is a poet, emerging writer and drama facilitator from Johannesburg, South Africa. She holds a BCom in Marketing Management, a higher certificate in Performing Arts and wishes to pursue an MA in Creative Writing. She is the co-founder of The Raising Zion Foundation, an arts organisation that focuses on promoting literature, poetry and the performing arts in high schools.
She is also the winner of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for her short story “A Door Ajar”. Her short story “A Sea of Secrets” written for high school learners was published by Fundza under their mentorship program and appears in their It Takes Two! anthology. She enjoys a good laugh, homemade burgers and plans to see more of her work, especially short stories, published in 2017.
Interview by Efemia Chela a.k.a. @efemiachela