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.