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.
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!
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