Efemia Chela is an Editor for Parrésia and Content Creator for Short Story Day Africa. After being grilled by Efemia last week, Helen Moffett had an opportunity for revenge. She picked her brain about her fingers-in-many-pies attitude to literature, her personal migrations and the experience of editing.
Tell us about your interesting and illustrious history of short story writing. OK, I’m going to start, with the fact that leaps to the top of any Google search of your name: that your story “Chicken” made you the youngest ever person to get on the shortlist for the Caine Prize. But you haven’t slowed down, and you’re still a baby (bear with me: I’m thirty – THEERRRTY – years older than you). Tell us all, and supply links to your published stories, please.
EFEMIA: You’re too kind. I’m only a wee writer, about 3 years into writing consistently and for publication. I’ve always wanted to write but reading too much good literature as a lonely teen convinced me for many years that I had nothing to contribute. Which is silly, if you are a young writer out there thinking that; don’t think that. There’s always more that needs to be written. Everything can be retold and approached in a different way by a new fascinating person...or artificial intelligence nowadays apparently.
I’m mostly anthologised but a couple of my stories are available, free to read online. "Chicken" was originally published in Feast, Famine and Potluck, the SSDA anthology, then in The Gonjon Pin. A flash fiction I wrote "Petty Blood Sport" was taken up by PEN America. Most recently "The Lake Retba Murder" has been republished in the October issue of New Internationalist. It was originally part of Water, last year's SSDA collection.
My newest story, "Mont De Venus" will be in Issue 88 of Wasafiri, coming out this December.
"He said it was to be goodbye. I didn’t know what that meant. For our petty blood sport to be over. No more bruises to pepper my pallid body" - "Petty Blood Sport"
In an interview with Nick Mulgrew, you confess that “there is an entire novel in the bottom of my handbag written on the back of receipts”. Is this true? Details, please.
EFEMIA: It is true. I am the most disorganised, scatterbrained writer in the the world. I have a notebook but it always seems to be half empty or not to hand. The receipts tend to get smoothed out and collated every three months or so and then get put into a Word doc. Then I work from a line that strikes me from the ravings and half-baked thoughts. From that a story emerges quite slowly. I really want to write a novel but at the speed I write I don’t think that will be before I turn 30.
Somewhere I read that you once wanted to be a literary translator. True or false? What languages do you speak? And seriously: editing entries for the Short Story Day Africa anthology (or any collection of works from the continent) teaches us (me, anyway) how vital it is to be multilingual or at the very least to have an ear for the the patterns, shapes and idioms of the languages that lie beneath the Englishes used. Your thoughts?
EFEMIA: Your intell is good! I speak French and English fluently and I’d like to be a literary translator of work that pushes the boundaries in terms of content and form. I salivate at the kind of stuff Deep Vellum is doing and finding le mot juste - what most people call nit-picking. Fingers crossed I will be busy with my Master’s next year.
It is handy, having lived in a couple of African countries because I know a bit more about what the local turn of phrase is in a couple of places. I can edit for what’s correct in that context instead of using “blanket editing” and ruining the distinctive flavour of a piece.
I think if you’re not multilingual you’re missing out on some of the best African fiction - much of which isn’t being written in English. A lot of people have slept on Scholastique Mukasonga, JMG Le Clézio (originally Mauritian, we’ll claim him), Mia Couto, Alain Mabanckou and Marlene Van Niekerk for that reason, until they got translated into English. And that process takes a couple of years or worse never happens.
"The guards in our gated community were paid off to pre-empt noise complaints, as were the local police. Our racist neighbours were invited in time for them to book a night away." - “Chicken”
This is probably a good place to ask you about your rolling stone childhood and education, and how that’s shaped your writing.
EFEMIA: My parents are very ambitious so we moved around a lot as a child and then I grew up to love travel too and so have upped and left a couple of countries myself. UK, Malawi, Zambia, Ghana, South Africa, France, Botswana, Japan are all places I’ve lived. Its shaped my writing because I like to write trans-national stories, and explore ideas of place and identity. People always ask where I’m from and ethnically I’m half-Zambian, half-Ghanaian but that doesn’t even begin to explain who I am. There’s a disconnect between who I am online, who I am on paper and who I am in real life. I think a lot of people feel the same way - I like to explore those kind of contradictions in my fiction.
Your favourite writers. No more than five. Okay, six.
EFEMIA: This is always the hardest question. But today, let’s see. I’ll go with Daniel Clowes, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Douglas Coupland, Chinua Achebe (we share the same birthday!) and Sylvia Plath.
The authors who have influenced you the most (if different from the above list).
EFEMIA: Martin Amis, he sneers, his whole oeuvre sneers. He creates these awful, morally reprehensible characters and doesn’t shy away from their dirty little crevices. He excavates them, lays them out and it makes for fascinating, revelatory reading. From him I learnt truth and filth.
Georges Perec. He’s perhaps the most well-known of the Oulipo, a group of writers who write under self-imposed constraints. Maybe his most well known work in translation is La Disparition, or A Void a post-modern mystery novel about a private detective, without a single "e" in it. He’s didn't write for accessibility. He wrote for beauty, intricacy and to entertain himself, which was selfish but turned into a gift for the readers. He cared tenderly for his work, his craft and detail - I like to think I picked that up from him.
One more, Elena Ferrante, the newest person to influence me. I think she’s freed me from thinking that any topic can be trivial in fiction. Often writers want to write about these colossal ideas. But those ideas are no more important than say the discomfort of what it’s like to pick up a call while on the loo and have to stand around awkwardly waiting until the call is over so you can flush without embarrassing yourself. Her focus is narrow: Neapolitan working class women but she does it exceptionally, with nuance, without shame. I have learnt bravery in subject choice from her.
I know this is predictable, but I always want to know: what are you reading at the moment? What’s stacked up on your bedside table/e-reader?
EFEMIA: Patience by Daniel Clowes. I love a good graphic novel and I’ve been waiting to savour this one for a while. I’ve just finished Kim Gordon’s Girl In a Band, which is out of character for me. I never read non-fiction but I’m getting into memoir nowadays, especially of my heroes and she is one of them.
Ali Smith’s How To Be Both and A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James await me as does this lovely book called Africa Writes Back by James Currey. The latter surveys the African Writers Series and the history of it.
Which reminds me, how do you feel about e-readers?
EFEMIA: This is an official open call for anyone to feel free to buy me a Kindle with an Amazon gift certificate too. (laughs) I think they’re really handy for traveling. I have books stranded all over the world that haunt me because I’ve had to leave them behind. So a Kindle would be great to carry around my perennial favourites and new things I want to pick up.
That said, I don’t think I’ll ever stop buying “real” books. Reading’s a nice timeout from screen time. Plus I find folding the pages and the marking up of hard copy books therapeutic. The different typography, the pretty covers on my shelf, falling asleep with pages on my face.
So both preferably. Does that make me a medium whore?
"He understood the physics of her. Her body and how she liked to be tossed, folded and bent on the bed. In sex he was gloriously tethered to her lurid kinetics." - "The Lake Retba Murder"
How did you get involved with Short Story Day Africa?
EFEMIA: I won 3rd place, (if that’s winning) of Feast, Famine and Potluck, the 2013 competition and that kind of launched my writing career. And then I got more involved in writing and the Cape Town literary scene and seeing Rachel Zadok around.
One day I plucked up the courage to ask if I could work for her and she said yes. I was always interested in how such a small group of really passionate people could get so much work and such great work done and I wanted to be a part of that.
Along with Bongani Kona, you’re one of the editors for the 2017 SSDA anthology, Migrations. This year, SSDA is running an editing fellowship programme, with me as the mentor. What makes you interested in editing? How do you handle the tension between being an editor and a writer (believe me, I really REALLY want to know if you have answers to this one). Or don’t you feel that tension?
EFEMIA: I think it’s a way for me to assert a kind of order in a very disordered world. You know, Brexit happened and the Great Barrier Reef is nearly dead but we’ve fixed the plot hole in page 31 about the parallel universe and the nuclear squirrel. I think it comes down to me really liking helping people and this is being the only way I know how to.
I struggle very hard with balancing the writer and editor sides of my personality. Sometimes part of me wants to rewrite the whole piece. But that would be pointless. I don’t want to erase the writer, I respect their work and vision. Editing is a lot like being a sounding board. I’m really just there to make the writer find in themselves something that was always there, that they didn’t know was and then use it to improve the story.
Through the mentorship I’m learning to hear the story in the author’s voice, slip into their mind. It’s helping me become a better editor and bodysnatcher. I’m also learning more about rigour - check, check and check again. The buck stops with you.
Efemia Chela was born in Zambia in 1991. She studied at Rhodes University, South Africa and Institut D’Etudes Politiques in Aix-En-Provence, France.
She enjoys eating pizza, reading graphic novels and watching black and white films. Her first published story, ‘Chicken’ was nominated for The 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing. Efemia’s subsequent stories and poems have been published in places like Brittle Paper, Jalada, Short.Sharp.Stories: Adults Only, Prufrock and PEN Passages: Africa. Efemia is currently a fellow of the inaugural Short Story Day Africa / Worldreader Editing Mentorship Programme and continues to write fiction whenever she can find a moment on the train and a working pen.