Category Archives: short stories

Andrea Ashworth’s Somewhere Else, or Even Here

 
 
 
Somewhere Else, or Even Here
A. J. Ashworth

ISBN 9781844718801
Salt Publishing
(November 2011)
 
 
We love stories. We crave them. Whether it’s watching films, reading books, going to the theatre or listening to gossip – we need them. And we need to be surrounded by them. Writers, being curiously obsessive creatures, are hooked on them. So hooked that they want to make their own stories – for as much of the time as possible – and for the stories they make to have meaning, for themselves and others.

I wanted to make stories from quite a young age. My first such memory was of sitting in my bedroom at about the age of six or so and making a book of poems. I still have it. It’s a little dog-eared now but it’s surviving. It has a cut-out of a rose stuck on the front and is rather inventively called ‘My book of poems’. Inside are a scattering of poems, in various colours of felt tip, about the seaside or flowers in a window box. And there’s an interesting type of binding which has somehow lasted more than thirty years – staples (now rusted).
 
I didn’t have to design or bind my short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here – thankfully my publishers Salt did that. I just had to worry about what was inside – the stories themselves.
 
Writing them was an intriguing, and, at times, difficult process. When I started out on the collection, about four years ago, I had no overall plan for it, no unifying subject or theme. I just wrote one story at a time and kept going. Each story was unplanned too. For me, there’s nothing better than feeling as if I’m in new, unknown territory when I’m writing – it’s like being an explorer. Only, you’re not discovering new continents or planets, you’re discovering something else – something new that you yourself are writing into existence.
 
The stories are all quite different – from child narrators to the elderly; failing relationships to failing health. And there are certain themes which have emerged in the collection too, such as astronomy, loss and hope. There’s a darkness to many of the stories, but, as with yin and yang, where there’s darkness there’s light. It’s strange how, as the writer, you don’t always see everything that the stories you’ve created contain. It’s like being blind to yourself. Which, I suppose, to a greater or lesser degree, we all are.
  
So what about the inspiration behind the stories? Well, sometimes there didn’t seem to be any obvious trigger at all. Stories such as ‘Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’ or ‘Overnight Miracles’ began after the first sentences dropped into my head, seemingly from nowhere. ‘Gulls’, about a girl on a beach who is lured away to a cave by a boy, just started with the words “A stick scraping over sand”, and from this I got the idea of a girl writing her name in the sand and a boy coming up to talk to her. It was only when I sat down to write it that the story began to open out in front of me, like a path revealing itself, one piece at a time.
 
‘Overnight Miracles’ was the same. This tells the story of a bereaved woman who starts performing magic rituals in a desperate bid to try to bring her dead husband back to life. With this one I just had the sentence “We are in the blackest part of night now”, and from this I somehow knew that this woman was in bed and aware of something lying next to her in the dark – a presence that she could only feel but not see.
 
‘Bone Fire’ had a more obvious genesis: this story of a troubled boy who drags a bonfire into the basement of his school was inspired by a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. On the day I went there was an exhibition of photographs showing groups of children standing in front of some rickety bonfires they’d made. I jotted down my impressions of the exhibition in a notebook and when I later sat down to write, I wondered about what might happen if one of the boys decided to carry out an act of destruction using such a bonfire. The story was the result of those ponderings.
 
One aspect of writing the collection which really fascinated me was the effects gained from using different points of view. ‘Zero Gravity’ features a gang of girls, so it seemed logical to use first person plural (we) for most of the story, but to shift this to first person when one of the girls breaks free and begins to narrate the story herself. I enjoyed the feeling of writing in second person (you) as this gives a sense of dislocation, of separation, of being outside of things – something which can help to create an almost otherworldly atmosphere, giving stories a different kind of charge.
 
I loved going through the process of putting a collection together, especially when I didn’t even have the bones of a plan to hang the stories onto. It was a great surprise when my manuscript was chosen as one of three winners of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize last year – something which I didn’t expect to happen but which I’m so glad has. I am going to continue to write more stories in the months and years ahead. New stories, slightly off-kilter stories, the kinds of stories that will hopefully give me that thrill of discovery again. It’s that feeling of being somewhere else that I want – that sense of being in another place. The thought that, while the landscape may seem somewhat familiar, it’s really no place that I’ve ever visited before.
 
 
 
Order Somewhere Else, or Even Here here, here or here.
 
Visit Andrea’s blog.
 
 
 
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A. J. Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. Her short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and was published by them in November 2011. Her stories have been published widely, in the likes of The Warwick Review, Horizon Review, Tears in the Fence and Under the Radar. They have also been listed in competitions such as The Willesden Herald International Short Story Competition, the Fish Short Story Prize and the Short Fiction Competition.
 
 
 

Cassandra Parkin on New World Fairy Tales

 
 
 
New World Fairy Tales
Cassandra Parkin
ISBN 9781844718818
Salt Publishing
(December 2011)

  
  
Like most writers, my childhood was soaked in fairy tales. Even before I could read properly I spent hours poring over the illustrations of my Ladybird editions of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin and reciting the text from memory. Slightly older, I was fixated on my mother’s hardback edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham and very little expurgated.
  
I think it’s impossible to overestimate the debt we owe to these stories, or the number of times and ways we retell them. They’re some of the very first narratives we learn; they tell us the things we human beings need to know to understand each other, in ways that have meaning whether you’re four or ninety. They deal with the very bones of life – birth and death, love and jealousy, sex and violence … They’re dark and bloody and sexy and visceral, and in interviewing their tellers and recording their voices, the Grimm brothers undertook one of the greatest acts of cultural preservation of the last five centuries.
 
But there’s no getting away from it – almost everything about them is weird. They’re heavy on action, but oddly light on explanation. A whole bunch of stuff happens; why it happens is up to you. Why does Chicken Licken believe Foxy Loxy when he tells her the King lives in a hole in the ground? Why does the Princess love her golden ball so much that she’ll kiss a frog to get it back, and what on earth did he do to end up a frog in the first place? Why, exactly, are seven adult men, all with dwarfism, living together in an isolated cottage with no female company? How could a teenage girl mistake a large carnivorous predator for her grandmother? Why are all the princesses beautiful and all the witches ugly? Why does Death want a Godson? How can pigs build houses, and why do they share a common language with wolves? Why does Cinderella hide away from the Prince? What the hell is going on?
 
The easy answer is “Well, they’re all metaphors, aren’t they?”, and of course, in many ways, they all are. But I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to re-tell some of the original narratives as modern, believable, adult stories – tales where real people with real lives really do fall in love with a masked stranger, or climb the beanstalk and rob the giant, or discover a beautiful prisoner trapped in a tower by a witch. I wanted to find the real-life equivalents of Godfather Death and the Wicked Stepsisters and the many, many Big Bad Wolves, and tell their stories for modern audiences. The result was New World Fairy Tales.
 
The most exciting part of writing the collection was exploring how much – or, more accurately, how little – I had to change to make the tales work in a contemporary setting. While some elements (Jack’s beanstalk) found their place as symbols, others (seven workmates with dwarfism) work surprisingly well with no amendments at all. Names, puns and modern colloquialisms felt as though they’d been expressly designed for some of the animal stories. Even elements which seem, at first glance, to belong entirely to the world of Faerie – such as the power of knowing someone’s true name – turn out to be surprisingly true. I found out one afternoon that there really is a fabric so light and delicate that a small garment made from it could feasibly be compressed into a walnut shell. It’s made from the filament tufts used by molluscs to attach themselves to rocks, and it’s fabulously expensive.
 
The decision to place New World Fairy Tales in America came very early on. If you’re British, America is as close to the original landscape of Grimm’s Fairy Tales as you’ll ever get. I don’t mean this in a flowery oh-my-gosh-your-country-is-so-amazing way (although it is). I just mean that if you stand in Britain, look out across the ocean, and then compare the two landscapes – America and Fairyland – they come out very similar. America contains all possible spaces and places; mountains and deserts and plains and oceans, great cities and curtain-twitching suburbs and tiny, isolated rural hamlets. It’s composed of many kingdoms, loosely federated, each with their own distinctive culture and autonomous power. Getting there requires a long and arduous journey, and when you arrive at the border, it’s weirdly difficult to get in. Its population is at once more devout and more violent than we are; when we visit, we tread softly and are cautious with what we say, and to whom we say it. Even if we’ve never been before, it looks strangely familiar – after all, we’ve been there so often in our dreams. Its citizens speak our language, but also … don’t.
 
Oh, the language, my goodness, the language. When I look back on the start of the New World Fairy Tales project, my main emotion is utter bafflement at myself – “Hey, I know! I’ll write an entire short-story collection in a language I don’t actually speak, set in a country I’ve never lived in!” What was I thinking? How much more arrogant could a writer possibly be? But there was never any question for me that these fairy tales belonged in the New World. Learning to reproduce what I hope are convincing American voices was a humbling and wonderful journey. I spent hours emailing and chatting to my unbelievably kind and patient Stateside friends, trying to learn the rhythms and cadences of American speech. I read, and listened, and talked, and questioned, and then read and talked and listened and questioned some more (seriously guys, thank you for everything you did and for all the stupid questions you answered). Even at the final proof stage I was still frantically combing through my manuscript for rogue instances of Brit-speak. I’m sure there are still places where, despite my best efforts, my roots are showing.
 
Choosing which stories to include in my submission to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize was a bit of a balancing act. I wanted to reflect the wild diversity of the Grimm brothers’ original collection – to include not just the romances, but also the horrors and the comedies and the mysteries, and the tales that are frankly too strange to be categorised. And all in only forty-five thousand words! Since Salt’s list includes some of the most scarily talented short-story writers of our time, I almost didn’t submit at all … Eight months after the announcement of the 2011 prize-winners, I still can’t quite believe I’m one of them.
 
 
 
Order New World Fairy Tales here or here.
 
Visit Cassandra’s blog.
 
 
 
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Cassandra Parkin has a Master’s degree in English Literature from York University, and has been writing fiction all her life – mostly as Christmas and birthday presents for friends and family. She is married with two children, has so far resisted her clear destiny to become a mad old cat lady, and lives in a small but perfectly-formed village in East Yorkshire. New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011) is her first published book.
 
 

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.
 
 
 
 
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“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
 
 
 
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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.
 
 
 
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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.
 
 
 
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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?”
 
 
 
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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.
 
 

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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.
 
 
 
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The Thin Line (Modjaji Books, 2011)  is available from Loot, Kalahari, Exclusive Books and Amazon.
 
Visit Arja’s blog.