Talking African fiction with the organisers of Short Story Day Africa

There is a quiet revolution taking place within African writing. The past decade has seen the launch of new competitions, indie publishers, publications and mentorship programmes, all united in the will to bring fresh, emerging writing into the world. In the past, new and established writers were forced to seek affirmation through publication overseas and acknowledgement in international competitions. While those channels are still relevant, it is critical that African writers have the opportunity to be affirmed and uplifted on our own continent. Short Story Day Africa is one of these champions of local fiction on the continent, and happens to be the first place to publish one of my stories. I spoke to founder Rachel Zadok, and co-organiser Tiah Beautement. 

1. First off, tell us a bit about SSDA for those who don't know about it.

Rachel: SSDA began as a platform to showcase African short stories, but has evolved into a platform to enhance the skills of both African writers and editors while showcasing their work in slick, beautifully edited anthologies. We run a number of initiatives that assist writers in honing both story and editing skills. The Short Story Day Africa Prize is what we're most known for now, a R10 000 prize for a short story centered around a theme, this year Migrations. The resulting anthologies serve as a creative writing workshop, as we spend three months working with writers to get the best version of the story out of them. We're part of a collective of African publishing initiatives trying to build something sustainable on the continent, rather than move talent away.

Tiah: Short Story Day Africa is a platform for African fiction. We are best known for The Short Story Day Africa Prize: an annual short story contest where the longlisted stories are turned into an anthology. We also organize workshops when funds allow, run #WriterPrompt, a free mini workshops online twice a month, publish an interview of an African writer once a week and, via our social media, alert our followers to publishing opportunities, writing tips and articles pertaining to the writing world.

2. How long has SSDA been running for, and how has it evolved over the years? 

Tiah: Rachel Zadok founded Short Story Day Africa in 2011. It began as a day to celebrate the short story. I officially came on board in 2012. Over the years the programme has broaden its scope dramatically. I once told somebody that it feels like chasing after a kid riding downhill on roller skates. It still feels like that.   

3. How is SSDA funded, and what does the funding go towards?  

Rachel: We have a number of sponsors and funders, a detailed list is on our website here:

We sell our anthologies and have publishing partnerships with publishers on the continent and in Europe and the US. In the past we've also presold the anthology as part of a crowd funding campaign, but we're relooking that as our postal service isn't all that reliable and we don’t want to make our name mud because books aren't delivered.

Mainly we rely on the philanthropy of people who love African writing and love what we're doing with the anthologies. The work we're putting out is incredible, there is so much talent on the continent and all we've done is provided a space for it. If you're reading this and you're feeling the love, please go to our website and become a patron of African fiction.

Funding goes towards prize money, paying editors, printing costs, typesetting costs, cover design, plus the more boring admin costs which include project management, website, accounting etc etc (we're a registered non-profit so have to submit proper financial reports). This year we're moving our submissions online, so that costs but will save on man hours. We're also looking at running a few workshops at some of the festivals on the continent, but that's still in the planning stages.

Tiah: Short Story Day Africa is primarily funded by writers and readers of African literature from around the globe. We also have amazing sponsors and some funding applications are starting to come through. Originally the funds primarily went to paying for the prizes and an editor to work with Rachel in order to put our longlisted writers through a mini bootcamp. At the time we were also doing a children's contest, and we had the good fortune of having editors donate their time to work with me in order to get the children's anthology in shape. All of which meant Rachel and I were working for free, along with finding ourselves sinking our own funds into the project.

Giving our time and money away for free is not sustainable, especially as running the project now amounts to a full time job. Gradually we've started to compensate ourselves, while also increasing the prize money, paying more of the SSDA costs via our funds (rather than our personal accounts), expand the support we provide for African writers and, this year, we're now adding in two less-experienced editors to be upskilled by an established editor. In short, we're now putting two editors through a mini-boot camp along with our longlisted writers. A fantastic project, but it takes money to make it happen.

4. What role do you think SSDA plays in African literature?

 Rachel: SSDA was formed at the beginning of a continent wide publishing trend that was born from social media. Voices that had been cut off from mainstream publishing found readers online without having to go through the traditional gatekeepers in the West. Early on, SSDA realised that we could take those voices and push them further as a collective. South Africa has a robust publishing industry, with some very talented people, and we just went to them with our hands out and asked them for help taking those voices to a global audience. And they did help, and so we succeeded. What I love about SSDA is that we don't dictate the African story, and we're not here to publish with media trends. We use the collective to identify the best work then work our butts off to get that work read while simultaneously passing skills from one set of talented people to another. It's a pretty socialist idea, but there are no gulags, only short boot camps that set writers free.

Tiah: Africa needs to have more awards that are rooted in the African continent rather than dependent on the overseas' views of our literature and writing. Each year we get bigger and better, showcasing that African writing is perfectly capable of excellence at telling their own stories in their own voices.

This is also why we keep our social media running year long and doing interviews with both established writers and the up and coming talent– because African writing is at an exciting place now. We want to shine a spotlight on the breadth of our literary offerings while, like any other writers around the globe, continue to raise up our game.

5. What excites you most about the current literary landscape? 

Rachel: Everybody who is part of trying to make a workable publishing industry. I love indie publishers who are unafraid to publish work that would give western publishers palpitations. Cassava Republic and Modjaji Books are my top two, and Bibi, Emma and Colleen are just the most inspiring people in the industry currently. Online journals top of my list are Saraba Magazine and The Jalada Collective, who are doing things that make my mouth hang open with admiration. Then Writivism is running mentorship programmes that make me cry with joy.  I love the spec fic community that is finding its feet and planting them firmly in African soil, look up Omenana AfroSF anthologies, Bloody Parchment – if you join the African Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook you'll discover a brave new world.

Tiah: I read an article where a writer quipped something along the lines that African writing right now is like France in the 1920s. There is so much happening, from JALADA, to Writivism, to KWANI and all the indie publishers springing up and making their mark. Look at the Etisalat prize, their coveted shortlist of three titles has included books from indie publishers such as Modjaji and Jacana - African fiction written, edited and published in Africa and succeeding. Thus, it is a huge privilege to be part of this dynamic African writing scene.

6. Both of you are acclaimed novelists in your own right, tell us about your most recently published books?

Rachel: My second novel, Sister-sister, was published in 2013. It's a story of betrayal and the search for redemption. The blurb reads: In childhood Thuli and Sindi are inseparable, pinkie-linked by a magic no one else can understand. Then a strange man comes knocking, bringing news from a hometown they didn't know existed. His arrival sets into motion events that will lead them into the darkest places, on a search from salvation where the all-too-familiar and the extraordinary merge, blurring the boundaries between dream and reality.

Tiah: My second novel, This Day, was picked up by Modjaji, a publisher I've had huge respect for since they began in 2008. The story follows Ella through a single day of her life. Its focus is after the tragedy. How Ella is trying to learn to live within her imperfect life and keep going. We all have problems. Ella's and her husband's might not be ours. Nor do they always deal with things well. Her husband's chronic depression, for example, is being handled atrociously. But life doesn't come with a guidebook. The hope was to write a sombre story where characters could still laugh, who picked themselves up and tried again. Ella is somebody I cheered for, and I hope readers do too.

7. What are your favourite new African releases for 2016? 

Rachel: I'm looking forward to Yewande Omotoso's new book. I'm currently reading Dutch Courage, Paige Nick's latest. Honestly though, my head has been stuck in funding proposals and reports for months, so I'm a bit behind on my reading. I'm still excited about 2015's new releases.

Tiah: I'm still reading a number of 2015 titles, such as Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, which I adored. But from the few 2016 tiles I've read, I can say I enjoyed Yewande Omotoso's second novel The Woman Next Door, Mahtem Shiferraw's poetry collection Fuchsia and Nick Mulgrew's short story collection Stations. I'm also looking forward to reading Lauri Kubuitsile's The Scattering and Paige Nick's Dutch Courage, which have been recently released.

8. Your themes for each year's competition are incredibly evocative. What drew you to the theme 'migrations' this year? 

Rachel: We table the ideas at a board meeting, everyone throws their idea in and we discuss each one. Migrations was tabled by our deputy chair, Nick Mulgrew, and we loved it unanimously. We're trying for themes that are topical yet open to broad and interesting interpretations.

Tiah: The theme this year was a group decision by our entire board. I'm sure everyone has their own reasons. I am rather attracted to a quote from Ali Smith's How to be Both, "We're all migrants of our own existence now."

9. What advice do you have for emerging African writers?

Rachel: Write every day, but live more than you write.

Tiah: Rewrite. Talent only gets you so far. The real beauty comes from being willing to push yourself beyond a few drafts.

10. What inspires you about the short story format?  

Rachel: Ag, to be honest, good writing inspires me in any form. I love a great short story, but no more than I love a great novel or a great poem. Great writing inspires. End of. The short story lends itself to the resources of our project, and enables us to bring twenty-one writers to your attention each year.

Tiah: Short stories push writers to sharpen the craft. Novels have enough girth to allow writers to get away with gratuitous styles. Shorts have no room for such frivolities. Yet, shorts also create a safe space to try out new genres and ideas. A place to play without the extended commitment a novel demands. 

Want to submit your short story to the annual SSDA prize? You're in luck! Submissions open on 1 June 2016.