Dec 2014

Catching my breath, catching up…

I’ve just checked and the date of my last post was February 2014. That’s a whole 10 months ago. In my bio here :

it says I blog occasionally. Perhaps with this timeous piece before the end of 2014, that would be somewhat true.
A lot has been going on.

Back in February I was in the midst of Writivism 2014 – an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. I will reproduce the foreword I wrote for the anthology of Longlisted writers – not because most people skip it, but a) because it was quite a nerve-wracking endeavour and b) because I think I touch on an important matter. Besides, anyone who loves good fiction could do worse than sampling the amazing array of emerging African writers.

The world feels a whole lot different to 10 months ago. The atmosphere somewhat subdued even though tis the season to be jolly. Issues of identity plague us daily – the media doing a merry dance to the Islamophobia tune and driving normal, sane bog-standard Muslims, nuts.

But! I am alive, albeit subdued and grateful that I live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city where a good few million are Other. To add to my subdued state, I recently read an article on apartheid in publishing – written by a British woman; about the British publishing industry (Mslexia, Sept/Oct/Nov 2014). The mere word apartheid brought me out in hives and the article itself made me wonder why I bother.

So I’ve been dragging my feet work-wise: I’ve been sporadically editing my third novel and half-heartedly plotting a work of genre fiction. But good news for Maha fans – she’s back! Well, in my head at least. After swanning off with Shahzad I didn’t think she had anything else to say – but I was wrong. So feel free to hold thumbs and watch this space.

Another literary highlight was being invited to judge the YMWA short story award ( I was asked to write an article for the magazine advising the young aspiring writers: feel free to share.

The most overwhelming aspect of the year has been our house move. We have only moved about a mile from where we used to live – but packing up eleven years of our lives and leaving the home where our kids grew up was daunting. I filled boxes with dolls houses and action figures – along with my early drafts of Maha and mulled over the ups and downs of the decade and a bit.

I have come to realise that Moving House is not a single act. Yes, there is the actual move with 10-ton trucks, piles of boxes and mainlining Rescue Remedy. But settling down and settling in is a process. Right now, every time I start to feel settled, we add or subtract as we adjust the new space to meet our needs and I feel as though I’m back to square one. I am yet to work in my new home and for some unknown reason it feels like a huge hurdle to clear. I
must work in my new home and break the spell – even if it’s writing a page of tripe. I am hoping that the New Year will bring some equilibrium – and find my bottom firmly attached to my chair in my new workspace.

To all those celebrating this month: Merry Christmas / Happy Hanukkah and to everyone else – Happy Holidays. Wish you all a happy, healthy 2015 filled with peace love and every success in all you endeavour.

FOREWORD (Fire in the Night and Other Stories)

It has been an honour to edit the 14 stories longlisted for the 2014 Writivism Short Story competition. Kudos to the Centre for African Cultural Excellence who have provided platforms for our stories - long may it fulfil its commitment to nurturing the Arts in Africa.

As a child, I believed that everyone loved stories. Period. It didn’t matter where they were set, they simply needed to be captivating. Fast forward to the 21
􀇥􀇦 century and the internet is crammed with discussions on African Literature. Should our stories be issue-based or idyllic characterisations that fit the PR image of the continent? The website presented a collection of African Books, pointing out that the sun rising, or setting spectacularly behind an acacia tree, has come to represent Africa. All the covers mirrored this image.

While the world may be comfortable with images that present Otherness in ways that are easy to understand, we must not allow this Otherness to penetrate our writing. Bookshops in Africa need to assimilate our work into the mainstream, so that this Otherness does not affect the reader’s choice either. Ben Okri, in his recent BooksLive interview says, “Writings from Africans need to be perceived purely as writing and not prefixed with the continent.”

I am with Okri on pushing forward and losing the prefix.

Let us write what we will, giving voice to the poor and the privileged, the unbridled optimism and the depths of despair. The full range of human emotion and experience set against our vast and varied rural and urban terrain.

If a novel is a film, a Short Story is anything from a photograph to a YouTube clip. The essence of a Short Story has been described as a punch in the gut. This anthology more than satisfies the above criteria while exhibiting a diverse, multi-cultural Africa.

The stories open windows on lives we may not know, events we cannot understand - like Sseguja’s Walls and Borders, a disturbing tale of a Rwandan refugee searching for her home. Or Ugbede’s Day After Tomorrow and its grappling with the madness that is often associated with Africa.

Sadly, all Africans are au fait with varying degrees of corruption, and Ngasa’s Devils speaks boldly to us all. There is dissonance in the form of Mwale’s Fire in the Night and Bhamjee’s Lunatic, both discomfiting but beautifully written stories. Coming of age and defying tradition are entertainingly tackled by Atemnkeng’sMy Breasts. I am ashamed that I was aware of foot-binding in China yet had no idea Breast- Ironing pubescent girls was practised in the Cameroon.

Kiguwa raises questions of identity in The Wound of Shrinking with aesthetic grace, a grace that colours Musalia’s tale of magical realism Kawesa and Preen’s sad but satisfying The Gift.

Bamjee and Lawal approach idiosyncratic notions of Motherhood with aplomb in Out of the Blue and Dr Lawanson. Human relationships and bizarre families are reflected in Kasese’s Inside Outside and Njoku’s Survived By. Paquita’s Friday Night is a zany portrayal of Born Free angst in Cape Town.

I invite you to be entertained, amused and disturbed - to celebrate common humanity while getting acquainted with Africa. Let our book covers make room for the Kolanut Tree and the mighty Baobab. And let our stories be perceived as stories. Let us not be the Other in our land.

Sumayya Lee
London, May 2014 Author: The Story of Maha / Maha, Ever After