Category Archives: fiction

Sabotage Reviews and the Saboteur Awards

Saboteur Awards 
 
 
 
Sabotage Reviews and the Saboteur Awards
 

by Richard T. Watson
(with James Webster and Claire Trévien)
 
 
 
Sabotage Reviews started off modestly as a blog in May 2010 with reviews mostly by Claire Trévien, and has developed into to a website with three editors and a small but dedicated team of regular reviewers. Early Sabotage focused on small-scale published poetry, but in the last two years we’ve tried to expand on this by reviewing short story collections, zines, anthologies and novellas as well as published and performance poetry. Claire wanted Sabotage to be about more than her own tastes, which lie firmly in the world of poetry pamphlets and magazines, and so James Webster and Richard T. Watson joined as Performance and Fiction Editors, with their own varied interests.
 
 
It’s still very much a labour of love dependent on the goodwill of strangers to send us their 500 to 1000 word reviews, of editors to come home from work and press ‘track changes’ and, of course, of publishers, organisers, authors and performers, to introduce us to, send us, and invite us into their worlds.
 

Our Saboteur Awards mark Sabotage’s birthday each year, but our third birthday is the first time we’ve held a party. It’s on May 29th and we’re really looking forward to it. We’ve experimented with different ways of choosing who wins, and this year – wanting readers and audiences (not just of Sabotage) to be able to have their say – we’ve opened the whole thing up to popular vote. The party’s going to be a big celebration of indie lit, with music, poetry and awards, as well as a book fair.
 
 
Over the course of the last three years, an increasing concern at the heart of the website has been to maintain a balance between encouragement and criticism. On the one hand, we believe in giving exposure to small scale endeavours, but don’t think that anyone benefits from blanket approval and, of course, each reviewer is entitled to their own opinion. A good example of that practice is Éireann Lorsung’s review of Colette Sensier’s Holdfire Press pamphlet which, while finding much to admire in the writing, also highlighted a worrying trend among Western writers to practice what she calls poetic tourism. The review was one of many of the new Holdfire Press pamphlets covered by different reviewers who brought their unique viewpoint to them.
 
 
Our growing team of fiction reviewers has covered, among others, Danish mini-sagas, demonic rock bands, lesbian steampunk, and a twelve-page story of a cockroach at the Gates of St Peter – a collection of real quality writing (and some howlers!) that Richard likes to think of as the Fiction stable. Not everything in our stable strictly counts as ‘fiction’ or prose, but this isn’t something that’s ever bothered us. Sabotage aims to give some exposure to the ephemeral, the self-published, the unspoken-for, and strict categories get in the way of that; so our ‘Fiction’ happily encompasses publications that include a variety of forms which might otherwise not get reviewed because they don’t fit into an easily-described box.
 
 
For example, US-based Armchair/Shotgun has short fiction alongside poetry and visual artwork – and Richard’s particularly proud that A/S #2 went on to win the second of our Saboteur Awards. For sheer baffled disgust, our review of the Swedish Anger Mode is worth reading in full. That said, one of our favourite reviews has been Tori Truslow’s review of Steam-Powered II: The Lesbian Steampunk Anthology, if only for that airship comparison.
 
 
The performance side of Sabotage is one that folds very neatly into our envelope of ‘Reviews of the Ephemeral’. Because of the nature of spoken word, there are aspects of a performance or a certain poetry night that will not and cannot be recreated; nuances to one reading that change by the next, or things that went unfortunately and hilariously wrong. It’s one of the real pleasures of editing for Sabotage that we manage to catch and preserve some of these individual moments and serve them up to a wider audience (such as the ridiculous exchange between poet Paul Askew and his mother or the time a champagne bottle spontaneously popped during a performance by Amy Acre). And due to the kind of ‘crowd-sourced’ nature of open mic and slam events many of the spoken word artists we’ve ended up reviewing are people who have simply turned up on the off-chance of a reading and whose performances otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Instead, they’ve been caught in our reviewers’ crosshairs, suddenly receiving a barrage of critique or praise that was unexpected and has almost always been appreciated.
 
 
We’ve had the pleasure of covering a whole host of different events, but favourites include our Edinburgh Fringe coverage and Koel Mukherjee’s review of Carmina’s Poetry Tease, which exemplified our attempts to capture the spirit and feel of an event.
 
 
What we hope to achieve with these awards is a balance similar to the balance of the site’s coverage as a whole; the winners will be decided by popular vote, but there will also be a critical counterpart in the form of a review or interview to go along with the results. We want to celebrate the exciting things that are going on in underground literature, while at the same time encouraging greater quality by highlighting these excellent endeavours.
 
 
 
Visit Sabotage Reviews.

You can view the Saboteur Awards shortlist with a link to the voting page here.
 
 
 
Sabotage Reviews

Julia Webb reviews Padrika Tarrant’s The Knife Drawer

 
 
 
The Knife Drawer
by Padrika Tarrant
Salt Publishing, 2011
ISBN 9781844717255
Fiction
 

 
I had looked at The Knife Drawer several times in our local bookshop, as it is a very desirable looking thing, but I had been somewhat put off by the blurb which describes it as “a darkly comic tale” and by the fact that someone had described it to me as fantasy – I admit to being unfairly prejudiced against both genres despite having read very good examples of both! However last year I was lucky enough to hear Padrika Tarrant read at a local event, and it was her mesmerising reading that compelled me to buy the book. I needn’t have worried though, this is inspiring writing from the outset. I was so completely drawn into Tarrant’s sinister make-believe world that I forgot that what I was reading was fantasy.
 
It is hard to review a book like this without giving too much away about the plot. But I will say that it starts with a dead body, and so begins our stay with a hugely dysfunctional little family that has very little contact with the outside world. If you can suspend belief that no one from social services or at least a health visitor would have been sent round to check on the children, then you can fully immerse yourself in their odd and uncomfortably insular world. There is an overlap here between fantasy and reality. There probably are families that are this weird in real life, but there are other elements of the book that are definitely in the fantastical realm. Fantasy verging on reality is the most apt description that I can think of and this is what gives it its edge – that coupled with Tarrant’s surreal and completely original imagination. Fiction demands a higher level of believability than poetry – or maybe it is that the writer has to work harder to sustain the world and ideas that they are creating over three hundred pages or so, and this is where I find some fantasy writers lacking. Tarrant however has pulled this off seemingly effortlessly – to convince a sceptic like me that mice can save babies and that cutlery can come to life is no tall order (except in poetry), but convinced I was.

This is a story of obsession, favouritism, and a world in which the animals garner far greater sympathy from the reader than the humans. It is a story of many voices: not all of them human. A story of family, dysfunction and how we can endure in the direst of circumstances (that makes it sound like a misery memoir, which it most definitely is not). It involves mice and people and birds and cutlery. It exposes the weaknesses of the human condition in all its awful glory. And yet despite the story’s darkness and moments of horror there are enduring bonds of love and kinship and a spark of hope that shines through everything.

If I was a psychoanalyst I might be slightly worried about Tarrant’s psyche; as a critic I think she is a literary genius and I am very much hoping that there is more work to come. Tarrant is definitely a creative force to be reckoned with. The Knife Drawer is an example of magical realism at its finest (and darkest). There are few, if any, endearing characters in this book – so don’t pick it up if what you want is a light cheery read or a happy ever after ending. It is, however, a perfect example of how fantasy can be literary. This is bright, fresh, intelligent, imaginative, painterly poetic writing that left me reeling. If you have any aspirations as a writer yourself you will probably find yourself wondering as I did where on earth these ideas come from and wishing you could come up with something so original yourself. One thing is for sure – I will never look at cutlery in the same light again.
 
The book is imbued with mysticism. It intertwines a fairy tale surrealism with modern life concerns in a slightly unhinged yet enthralling way. You can’t help but be sucked into the disturbing world that Tarrant has created. There were moments where I wanted to throttle some of her characters, or at least give them a good shake. But such is the power of her writing that if something did befall one them I was immediately both horrified and saddened. The technical quality of the writing is superb – the content may appear mad at times but Tarrant retains a masterful control of her subject matter and her words. This is a very well written novel, and I could not fault her writing (although it was let down slightly by a couple of typos and a mistitled chapter that had escaped the copy editor’s eye). Her language is vivid and poetic:
 

The sunrise flickers against the sky in shades of gore as the night is eaten away, scavenged clean by the circling rooks.  The light is painful against window and roof-tile, for if there was any scrap of mercy in this old cold earth, the sun would not have risen again. (p337)
 
 
There were hints of other writers too, whether intentionally or not: Kafka, Hesse, Lessing, Murakami, and other influences were at play too – Tarrant is a fan of the animator Jan Svankmajer and his dark humour’s influence is very evident here. It also put me in mind of some of the more surreal modern poets – Simic, Popa, Ivory and perhaps Petit.

Even after close reading I am a little unsure whether this is just an excellent, slightly warped, highly imaginative work of art or if there is some bigger philosophical message that Tarrant is trying to convey, perhaps a metaphor for family life and modern times. It is also a fantastic analogy of organised religion. What I am convinced of is that it is a work of a wholly original mind. I have certainly never read anything remotely like it and fully expect never to read anything like it again. I would urge you (yes urge you!) to read it for yourself. 
 
 
 
Order The Knife Drawer (Salt Publishing, 2011).
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Padrika Tarrant was born in 1974. Emerging blinking from an honours degree in sculpture, she found herself unhealthily fixated with scissors and the animator Jan Svankmajer. She won an Arts Council Escalator award in 2005 and has been working more seriously since then. The Knife Drawer is her second full length book; Broken Things, a collection of shorts, was published by Salt (2007). Padrika quite likes sushi, although she tends to pick the fish out. She hates the smell of money.
 
Visit Padrika’s website.
 
 
 

 
 
 
*
 
  
 
Julia Webb is a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA. She has been published in journals such as Other Poetry and Poetry News, she has been shortlisted in several major competitions and her prose poem ‘Lent’ was the winner of the 2011 National Poetry Society Stanza Competition. Julia teaches creative writing and writes reviews for Ink, Sweat and Tears. 
 
Visit Julia’s website.
 
 
 

Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath


 
 
“This engrossing debut novel depicts Sylvia Plath’s feverish artistic process in the bitter aftermath of her failed marriage to Ted Hughes—the excruciating yet astoundingly productive period during which she wrote Ariel, her defining last collection of poems.
 
In December 1962, shortly before her suicide, Plath moved with her two children to London from the Hughses’ home in Devon. Focusing on the weeks after their arrival, but weaving back through the years of Plath’s marriage, Kate Moses imagines the poet juggling the demands of motherhood and muse, shielding her life from her own mother, and by turns cherishing and demonising her relationship with Hughes. Richly imagined yet meticulously faithful to the actual events of Plath’s life, Wintering locates within the isolation and terror of Plath’s despair remarkable moments of exhilaration and fragile hope.”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
“Kate Moses, against all odds, has produced an admirably just and unexaggerated work of psychological empathy. She succeeds in making her readers feel what it must have been like to be Sylvia Plath while sympathising at the same time with Ted Hughes and his perplexed response to his wife’s desperate needs. Everyone who seeks a valid, impartial explanation for Plath’s suicide should read this book.”
 
– Anne Stevenson, author of Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath 
 
 
 
“Kate Moses knows everything on record about Sylvia Plath, but her novelist’s imagination takes us into those crevices of Plath’s mind where no one else has ever penetrated. No other version of those mysterious nine months before Sylvia Plath’s suicide goes so far to restore to life the poet, the woman, whom I knew.”
 
– Peter Davidson, author of The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston,
   from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955–1960 

 
 
“The poems of Ariel that swarmed from Sylvia Plath as her marriage collapsed form the point of departure in this beautiful novel, which is exquisitely attuned to the strange half-life of the nerves produced by shattered intimacy.” 
 
– Diane Middlebrook, author of Anne Sexton: A Biography and
   Her Husband, on the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
“She knows, too, something about the movement of the poems as a body, how they rise like a startled flock, flying as one, wheeling, spreading chaotically across the sky, finally alighting in the same tree. She knows the story she wants them to tell. It is her story. It is where she wills herself to go; it is an incantation. She’s giving shape to her life, past and future, with these poems. Like the arrangement of cards in a Tarot deck as they are turned up, it is not just the poems but their relation to each other that matters. She knows where she wants to begin.
 
The first poem is “Morning Song”; its first word is “love”.”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Kate Moses was born in San Francisco in 1962 to a British father and an American mother and grew up in various parts of the United States before returning to California to attend college. She subsequently worked as an editor in publishing and as literary director at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. In 1997, she became one of the two founding editors of Salon.com’s Mothers Who Think website, which led to the American Book Award-winning anthology Mothers Who Think, coedited with Camille Peri. which in turn inspired the nationally bestselling, American Book Award-winning anthology Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood (Villard 1999, Washington Square Press 2000) and Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves (HarperCollins 2005, 2006). In 2003, her first novel, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath (St. Martin’s Press, Anchor Books 2003) was published to international acclaim. Translated into thirteen languages, Wintering received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and a Prix des Lectrices de Elle in France. Her latest book is Cakewalk, A Memoir (The Dial Press, May 2010), the result of a lifelong love of sugar and stories. 
 
Kate is a contributor to several anthologies, including Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave edited by Ellen Sussman, The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath edited Anita Plath Helle, and The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors edited by Laura Miller. She has been a MacDowell Fellow, an Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts, and the recipient of an Everett Helm Research Fellowship from the Lilly Library at Indiana University. She lives in San Francisco with her family — journalist and Salon.com founder, Gary Kamiya, and their two children. 
 
 
 
Order Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath.
 
Visit Kate’s website.
 
 
 
*

Hazel Frankel’s Illuminating Love

  
 
 
Hazel Frankel is a painter, calligrapher and teacher who lives in Johannesburg. Her first novel, Counting Sleeping Beauties (Jacana, 2009) was short-listed for the European Union Literary Award and the Telegraph UK, First Book Award. A poetry collection, Drawing from Memory, was published by Cinnamon Press (2007), and in Memoirs: Our Stories, Our Lives (2010), she gathers together the stories of the journeys of immigrants who left Europe before World War II. She is currently completing a doctorate in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom.
 
 
 

 
 
  
Hazel Frankel’s multilayered new book takes you on a search for meaning at the heart of an apparently comfortable life in suburban Johannesburg. It’s simultaneously an evocation of the Highveld, of hadedahs and sprinklers and night-time meals under the Milky Way, of traditional Jewish food like taygl and cheesecake … and an exploration of the heritage of violence.
 
Cally, a calligrapher – or soferet in the Jewish tradition – wields her pens and brushes, her paints and inks, to work a transforming magic. She is busy with three projects: an anniversary gift for her husband Jake, a ketubah – an illuminated legal document that records a couple’s wedding vows – for her new friend Aaron and his bride, and she’s inscribing a series of poems inherited from her Lithuanian grandmother, Judith, who escaped the Holocaust.
 
As Judith’s exquisite poems reveal her story, of lost love and homeland, of horror, courage and of change and new beginnings, Cally faces the impact of the violence of the past in her own life – of Jake’s years as a conscript in the South African Defence Force. While she painstakingly captures hope and promise within the gilded ketubah, her marriage unravels. Forced into the understanding that there are times when even the most treasured traditions can fail you, she carries Judith’s wisdom with her into her present.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
from ‘The Judith Poems’
 
 
 
Pesach.
Warmer weather.
Sugar, eggs, meal,
ginger, syrup.
 
She rolled out the mixture,
length by length,
cut it up and made rings,
the dough sticking to everything,
left to rise under a dish cloth,
in a warm place,
plunged them into bubbling syrup
with zest of one orange, grated.
 
Room redolent, gingery sweet
she opened the pot;
steam enveloped her,
froth bubbled;
fork by fork she lifted the rings,
left them to cool:
 
Rose’s teyglach,
once-a-year temptation
from her golden hands.
 
Golden teyglach,
once-a-year temptation
from Rose’s golden hands.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Every Shabbos,
beneath the crown of the Torah scroll,
beneath the eye of the silver lion,
my father murmured ancient blessings,
as the choir croaked like crows,
except for my father, kissing the fringes
in our tent of his talis,
raising his rough chin,
where a tiny cotton ball caught his blood;
except for my father whose heart
beat my answers, whose song
flew from the siddur like doves.
 
Every Shabbos, twisting his strings,
I whispered my wishes through the webbing,
my fingers coiled in his fingers,
my fingers touching him through the fringes,
leaning into the warmth of linen and wool,
where the silken ladder swayed with his shoulders,
where his kite lifted me up from the dark pew,
a small girl who didn’t understand the patterns,
a small girl enclosed in a coven of men.
 
Every Shabbos,
blind to the holes,
I knotted a cradle with the strands,
until his voice unraveled into emptiness,
until my silence echoed in his silence:
his talis still tents his body,
his ladder still reaches to me.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
For us, home was one bad czar after another,
hatred and extreme weather
congenial bedfellows; counting Nicholases and Alexanders,
we had no way of measuring who was worst:
Alexander II was assassinated,
Alexander III sent in his Cossacks.
 
We lost everything more than once;
changing borders kept us moving,
forced removals confined us in the Pale,
six provinces,
Suwalki, Kovno, Vilna,
Grodna, Vitebsk, Minsk;
tiny villages,
Rakeshik Kupershik, Krok, Telze;
changing names,
chopping off a brother’s limb,
adopting a neighbour’s son,
we saved boys from conscription;
sixty roubles could buy a ticket
away from the coal stove to another world.
For us it was one long winter after the other:
cabbage and rotten potatoes,
no herring, only brine,
beets like babushkas,
wine dregs rancid in barrels;
we huddled and shared
maternal melody, meagre meals,
father’s blessing,
burning belief.
Nights of sabres, nights of steel,
nights of running, nights with nowhere to run,
nights of weeping
as the vodka drinkers hurled
glasses at the wall
curses at the wall
babies at the wall;
bones on the cobbles,
blood in the mud,
our mother’s softness
bound in burlap,
our father’s beard
flecked with grey,
hacked away –
one kaddish after another for us
as our lives, our land,
our babies, our hopes
bled away.
 
 
 
 
from Illuminating Love (Jacana, 2011).
 
Visit Jacana’s website.
 
 
 
*
 
 

Gillian Schutte’s After just now

  
 
Gillian Schutte is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wits University. She loves nothing more than to read literary theory and create fabulist and absurdist storytelling around philosophical constructs. Her writing rejects the protocols of realism in favour of postmodern precepts and narrative practices. She writes from the seam of the intellectual and the arcane and her work is often fused with gender concerns and sexuality, which she writes about frankly and revealingly.
 
Gillian has directed and produced many documentaries and children’s television programmes. Her interest lies in the personal narrative documentary and social justice and human rights. Her choice of film style is cinéma vérité and her narratives are usually quirky and gritty – much like her writing. Her collection of 14 poems was published by Botsotso publishers in an anthology called 5 (Five South African Poets) for which she received a favourable review in NELM. She is currently working on turning her first novel – After just now (Ludic Press, 2011) – into a film script.
 
 
 

  
 
 
Lila, her husband Lunga, and Tau (their little boy) are driving through the Karoo when they are involved in an accident. Lunga goes through the windscreen, Tau lands safely in his car seat and Lila suffers a severe head injury. Lila moves in and out of consciousness and as she does so we move with her in a journey to find her name, and who she is. By turns laugh-aloud funny and unbearably poignant Gillian Schutte constructs (or deconstructs, destructs and reconstructs) Lila’s story from flashes of history as she falls through time to meet her eighteenth century ancestors and becomes embroiled in their reality. For more recent life story she is given her diary to read when she finds herself in a white hospital room from which she struggles to escape. And all the while, as she surfaces and sinks, Lila the writer, the wife, the mother, the daughter, meets characters from fiction and biography who help or hinder her in her quest to find herself, to keep her son safe and to put her husband back together again.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
“I can only give a small indication of the complexity and texture of this finely crafted novel. Despite its intricacy it’s easy to read and it doesn’t take long to suspend disbelief and follow wherever we are led next. Add to this the fact that it’s wonderfully witty (in an advanced Jasper Ffordish kind of way!) and you have a book that you’ll devour in one sitting and then return to over and over again  – for the sheer pleasure of it.”
 
– Maire Fisher
 
 
 
“An effortlessly poetic narrative that is playfully subversive, resonant and topical within the South African context. The writer’s joy of narrative and love of palimpsest is palpable in this daring and sometimes terrifyingly fast storytelling. Her writing performs the fluid multiplicity of feminine sexuality in the style of ‘writing from the body’ (écriture feminine).”
 
– Professor Deidre Byrne, Unisa
 
 
 
“Exuberant, poignant, grotesque, visceral and deliciously sexy.”
 
 – Narene Stevens, Bluestockings Salon
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Excerpt
 
 
Hettie has brought me one of her dresses to wear. She has had to take the scissors and cut off half a metre from the bottom. She cannot believe I am a de Waal because I am so short. I tell her about my tiny grandmother who married the son of one of their descendants in the future.
 
She stares into my eyes and says, ‘I don’t know where you came from, but you crashed into our ox-wagon when we had just arrived back from the Cape of Good Hope. Now I do not think you are really very well. Let me give you some remedies.’
 
She throws some odd-looking brown acrid slime down my throat. I feel light-headed. I need to get to my son.
 
Hettie tells me I must wear a bonnet when we go for supper. We walk through some weighty hessian curtains into the centre of the house. There is a table made out of heavy wood, some equally heavy chairs and two candles that smell like sheep fat burning in the centre.
 
The young Xhosa woman waits to dish up the food for Hettie and Hendrik as well as the nine children who have suddenly filled the room. The noise is unbearable. I see my son with his golden dreadlocks holding onto his mother’s legs as she begins to dish up. Hettie turns to him and hisses spitefully. He recoils backwards in terror.
 
I get up and shout, ‘How dare you treat my child like that! What is your problem, woman?’
 
She stares at me aghast. ‘But he is just a little bastar … What is the matter with you?’
 
Hendrik ignores it all and reads solemnly from a huge dusty bible.
 
I say to Hettie, ‘What year is this?’
 
She tells me it is 1790.
 
I say to her, ‘Hettie Venster! I know who you are.’
 
She says, ‘Thank God, because no one else seems to care.’
 
I can see she is weary, drawn and unhappy. She looks like a woman who harbours a secret. She shows no interest in her children or her husband, who sits at the table and looks at the Xhosa girl. He smells terrible. I can smell him from where I am sitting. I get up and move to the other side of the table. My son is staring at me with large almond-shaped brown-black eyes. I try to say something to him. He takes his thumb out of his mouth and puts his index finger to his lips, cautioning me to stay silent. I want to hug and kiss him. My heart starts to bleed until there is a crimson red stain on the tablecloth. Hettie clicks her tongue and wipes it up.
 
Later I creep outside to pee in the dust. I see Hendrik disappear into an outhouse. I see Hettie huddled at the dining room table with a candle glowing. She is reading a heavy leatherbound book. Her fingers trace the words slowly and she mouths every word in Dutch. I realise we have all been speaking Dutch since we met. I feel for this woman. She seems so intense, so detached. If she were from my time she may have been a literary professor or a writer. She has the writer’s brow with the single hard line slightly to the side of the centre of her forehead. While I am watching her she begins to wail softly under her breath. She cries out, ‘Jesus.’
 
I call out to her, ‘Hettie, are you all right?’
 
She turns to me, wild-eyed, and says, ‘Jesus is my lover. He is a beautiful man on a white horse. He comes to me nightly and one day he will take me away with him. I am the whore of Jesus.’
 
 
 
*
  
  
  
from After just now (Ludic Press, 2011).
 
Order After just now at info@ludicpress.com for the pre-launch
special of R120 (excluding postage).
 
 
 
Visit Gillian’s blog.
 
Visit Handheld Films.
 
Visit Media for Justice.
 
 
 
*
 
 

Arja Salafranca’s The Thin Line

  
 
 
Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. She has published two collections of poetry, A life Stripped of Illusions, and The Fire in Which we Burn. Her poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso). She received the 2010 Dalro Award for poetry and has twice received the Sanlam Award, for fiction and poetry. She selected stories for The Edge of Things, an anthology of South African short fiction, published by Dye Hard Press in 2011. She edits the Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing at Wits University. She blogs at http://arjasalafranca.blogspot.com and is a member of SA Pen. 
 
 
 
 

  
 
 
The stories in The Thin Line hook the reader from the first one, and reel you in on that thin line. You will be haunted by the carefully drawn characters: by Corinna trapped in her huge teenage body, by Cleo in love with a married man after all these years, and poor skinny Mark, as he sees his lover teeter away from him. Salafranca is an accomplished, award-winning writer, this long-awaited collection is a box of jewels.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
“These stories chart a new direction in South African fiction, where each line, each page – each story unfolds subtly, reaching deeper and more intimately into the tender spaces that exist in all our lives between love and doubt. Reading them kept me up late at night, wanting to know more about the characters’ lives. I was enthralled by the clarity and compassion of her insights; and moved by her obvious love for our fragile country and the fierce power of our unrelinquished hopes.”
 
– Hamilton Wende
 
 
 
“Salafranca’s style in this collection is best described as cinematic. Each story plays out like a camera lingering on minutiae which, brought together, tell the reader a great deal about the characters and situations which form the subject matter.”
 
– Tanya Farber, The Star
 
 
 
“Searingly honest, sometimes painfully so, for both writer and reader, these stories will pop up in your head to haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.”
 
– Kate Turkington, Joburg.co.za 
 
 
 
“There is a strong awareness of the structure of the short story and an implicit response to the tradition of the story.”
 
– Joan Hambidge, Die Burger
 
 
 
“Salafranca creates an almost other-worldly dimension as she takes the reader on a visceral journey into the lives of her characters. The stories range from explorations of modern relationships which do not have rules or traditions to guide their frail journeys, to examinations of characters from the past whose stories are shaped by the historical anomalies in which they found themselves. Whether you read about young South Africans debating their choices of staying in this country or looking for a less complicated future abroad, or whether you read about German Jews who have surnames imposed on them to make them more convenient to the regime in the 18th century, one thing is certain: Arja Salafranca is a short story writer at the pinnacle of her craft.”
 
– Janet van Eeden, Wordsetc and LitNet
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Couple on the beach
 
 
A middle-aged woman sits on the edge of the lagoon and watches a couple take photographs of each other. It is the beginning of a new year. It is low tide, and the waters of the lagoon have receded, leaving a vast expanse of wet beige sand. The couple stand in it with bare feet splayed, toes squelching into the coarse grains, taking photos with their expensive cameras.
 
It is nearly the end of their holiday together, and they are using up their film before they leave Knysna. They make an odd couple, as they take photos. The woman is wearing a smart jacket on this summer evening, it is too smart for this seaside town, too smart for this season, and too warm, too. The middle-aged woman wonders why she wears it, when her feet are bare and her jeans rolled up to reveal pinkly white legs. She can’t be cold. Although there is a breeze blowing, it is not a cold night, the day was warm, and the heat remains trapped as the sun goes slowly down. Perhaps it is to cover her body, perhaps she has gained weight and wants to hide behind her big black jacket. The middle-aged woman smokes a cigarette as she sits on the cement boulder and watches the couple. She knows all about gaining weight and hiding behind big clothes.
 
She has done it too. It is only now that she is older that she can afford to be freer, that she can wear anything and not be self-conscious and concerned that others, men, are looking at her, appraising her. She knows she is getting past the age of appraisal. She has read of the liberation that comes from middle-age – the loss of youth, menopause – she welcomes it.
 
Her hair is still mainly auburn, but lately she has been seeing the flash of silver streaks in it. They dart in and out between the dark strands, as though playing hide and seek, daring to be found.
 
The male part of the couple is tall and thin, as opposed to the female, who is shorter, slightly overweight, her gloriously auburn hair long and flying in the dusk’s breeze. He is skinny and awkward in his body, as awkward as the woman is in hers. He is uncomfortable in the casual T-shirt he’s wearing, and the middle-aged woman wonders why he wears it. Perhaps his partner, or whatever that girl is to him, asked him to wear it. The middle-aged woman has a feeling that he would be uncomfortable no matter what he wore. He is that kind of person, awkward in his body, in his life, hanging after this partner like a puppy dog eager to please her, compliant, pliant and soft, willing to do whatever it is that would make her like him, fall in love with him, something beyond this cold dismissive need of hers.
 
But she won’t let him go yet, she needs him, although she does not like him. She needs him and that is her weakness, that’s what makes her hate him, and hate a part of herself too. The middle-aged woman can see this as she smokes into the pale blue dusk, and watches the lagoon recede from this couple. She watches the roar of the sea at the heads, as it foams and dashes, as though the seas were a caged wild animal wanting to get into this quiet piece of solitude, preferring the domestic peace of the lagoon to the endless, deep, unfathomable sea. Her boyfriend keeps wanting to take her on the sea, perhaps on a small yacht, time and time again she refuses. She is afraid of the sea.
 
She smokes on the cement barricade, clutching the cigarette in her finger, looking at the beauty spot on her little finger that a man once found so attractive years ago, a dark mark on the fleshy folds of her baby finer. She watches couples take photos as the sky darkens and fish burns in a house nearby.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Patterns
 
 
I dreamed about you again last night. You were warm and funny as you helped me with some problem I had. It was so real, it felt just like old times. Except, back then, you did not like to help me with my problems, preferring to stay out of whatever would disturb the stasis.
 
I wondered then about the patterns in our lives and what brings us to the decisions we make, the people we choose to know. Whether we do it consciously or whether the reason is hidden somewhere back in our brains, somewhere that’s not easy to find.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Schmalz
 
 
In 1781, Emperor Josef II announced an Edict of Toleration for the Jews which established the requirement for hereditary family names. Jews were required to assume German-sounding surnames.
 

Shlomo comes in and says, “Here, you’re a Schmalz.”
 
Thrusts a piece of paper at me – not that I can read it – and says, “Look, says it there. You’re a Schmalz. So if you need to tell anyone, not that you will, you tell them Schmalz.”
 
Schmalz. Grease. Chicken fat. Schmalz! “That’s not what Dora and her family got!” I go outside, the piece of paper with the scribbles in my hand. “They’re Goldfarbers! How did they end up with gold in their name and we’re just grease?”
 
Shlomo looks up at me, scratches his chin, runs his hand meditatively around his greying beard. He’s scraping some kind of shit off his good leather shoes; he carries on scraping in the weak sunlight, and ignores me. He’s hoping I’ll shut up, go away; runs a stick through the shit.
 
I hold the piece of paper under his nose, “How did we become Schmalz and Dora is a Goldfarber and Rosa and her family are now Diamond?”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
A man sits in a Johannesburg park
 
 
A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer’s afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his spaniel’s collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps she will even go for a swim again. The man will then take her home and turn the hosepipe on her, washing off the slime of the river water. The man’s name is Andrew Barker, a good ordinary enough name, a solid name that is easy to pronounce, easy to give over the phone. It’s an afternoon late in the week. The man is alone. His wife and children are packing, and this is the dog’s last run in his company. Tomorrow he takes her into six-month quarantine.
 
It’s hot, midsummer and Andrew’s face is red as he sits and waits for Lucy to finish bounding through trees and river. He sits, waiting, quite tired all of a sudden. He’s escaping the claustrophobia of the house, now almost emptied of furniture. His wife and children packing suitcases, still busy throwing out black plastic bags of rubbish, and still anguishing over what should not be thrown away. And Lucy, running through the litter of lives being packed up, tongue lolling to one side, excited, excitable.
 
 

*
 
 
 
Desire, with borders
 
 
It was a type of desire.
 
It was a desire without love, a desire with borders.
 
If you shut your eyes it could be any man, no names, just a man, fulfilling what a man is supposed to do. It was a hot February night in Johannesburg and the windows couldn’t be opened wide or the cat would get out. She didn’t want the cat to get out, her female tabby was a shy frightened thing, easily terrorised by the Toms in the neighbourhood.
 
And instead of a man with no name, he had a name. An exboyfriend, an ex-boyfriend who was now in the process of becoming involved with another woman, yet here they were, naked on her bed, hot, but still close enough for him to roll on top of her, to kiss her, to awaken something.
 
 
 
*
  
   
The Thin Line (Modjaji Books, 2011)  is available from Loot, Kalahari, Exclusive Books and Amazon.
 
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