My encounter with the Southern African short story

By Tanaka Chidora

I was introduced to the idea of the existence of a Southern African literary tradition (which I call the Southern African short story tradition) by Memory Chirere way back in 2008.   

was carrying out a research on how selected authors (Anton Chekhov and Charles Mungoshi) fulfilled or deviated from Edgar Allan Poe’s philosophy of short story writing. Then Memory said to me, “Do you know that there is actually a philosophy of writing that many pioneer short story writers from Southern Africa have followed? Read Honwana, Ndebele and Mungoshi and tell me what you discover.”

So I read Luis Bernado Honwana’s We Killed Mangy Dog and Other Stories (1964), then went on to read Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools and Other Stories (1983), before rounding off my exploration by reading Charles Mungoshi’s Some Kinds of Wounds (this one was banned by the colonial government and later published by Mambo Press in 1980) and Coming of the Dry Season (1972).

What I discovered was that many of the short stories in these collections follow a particular style. The short stories have a certain inconclusiveness, an opening out, something which transcends character consciousness and reaches out to the reader in an epiphany-like way.

The style of writing is sensitive because it feels deeply into the character, the weather, the earth and the birds and animals. For instance, compare the following descriptions by Honwana and Mungoshi respectively:

Honwana: Mangy dog had blue eyes that had no shine in them at all, they were enormous and always filled with tears that trickled down his muzzle. They frightened me, those eyes, so big, looking at me like someone asking for something without wanting to say it

Mungoshi: One by one, our chickens began to come out of the cold. There is something in a cold chicken’s voice which asks for something you don’t know how to give, something more than corn.

 If you read these descriptions closely, the writers are one with the creatures they are describing, almost struggling to feel what they are feeling.

 The three writers I have listed above also make their points cumulatively, a style that we see in, for instance, We Need New Names (NoViolet Bulawayo), Mukoma’s Marriage and Other Stories (Emmanuel Sigauke) or Kombi Stories (Spiwe Mahachi-Harper). So while the stories can be read singly, the reading experience becomes even richer and more meaningful if the stories are read in relation to each other.

Also, what is common among the collections I have listed above is that they were written during the colonial period which demanded that the writer be muffled and subtle. Thus, the Southern African short story usually brings poetry to prose, simplicity, ambiguity and understatement. Characters say or do simple things but which elicit many associations.

For instance, ‘The Race’ in Fools and Other Stories is a story about a young boy who, against the vagaries of weather, decides to indulge in a race with other boys of his age in order to prove something that even he cannot articulate in words or thought.

Likewise, ‘We Killed Mangy Dog’ in We Killed Mangy Dog and other Stories is a story about the relentless presence of the mangy dog in spaces that the narrator and other boys of his age frequent.

This develops in the young boys an incessant urge to kill the dog. The reason for killing it is something the narrator cannot articulate very well.

The same incessant desire to kill is demonstrated in Mungoshi’s ‘The Crow’ in Coming of the Dry Season. The narrator does not know why they want to kill the crow, and especially why they want to kill it on that particular day and not during those days when it steals from their fields.

In fact, he does not know why they want to kill it when all along they had avoided killing it because of its colour – black – which is a very frightening colour and safe to leave alone. Suddenly, the epiphany moment hits me: these three stories are not just narrations of the whimsical adventures of young boys!

 Something more than sheer will is driving these boys in their ‘adventures.’ That race in the midst of the rain, those numerous attempts to exterminate a hapless dog, that blind and insane drive to kill the crow – all of these acts are being driven by something that is not sheer will. Fear.

We start to fear as well. We fear that something terrible is going to happen to these young boys in the course of the stories because their insane desire to complete heinous and dangerous acts is not normal.

But nothing happens, at least substantially, except that this fear gives us an insight into social relationships in the colonial contexts from which the stories emerged. The victim of colonialism is not only the colonised subject (the crow, the mangy dog). Even the coloniser is a victim.

The coloniser is a victim of fear, especially fear of the Other whose incessant presence is like that of the crow, or the mangy dog. The boys blindly drive themselves to execute frightening tasks because this fear is driving them.

Instead of something actually happening, in the sense of Poe’s philosophy of ‘incidents’ or ‘events’, fear become the internal incident which drives these central child characters in the three short stories I have cited as examples.   

So the stories do not have clear resolutions. We are not even certain whether a revelation occurs to the central characters or whether the central characters achieve any peak of awareness.

The stories seem to be building up to something only to subvert that climactic moment. Thus, they are anti-climactic. We can hardly suppose that henceforth, the directions of the characters’ lives will be altered.

Still, one can find the points of the stories if one cares to look: some suggestiveness characteristic of the Southern African short story, a suggestiveness that expresses the elusiveness of certainties, something that outlasts the story’s ending and multiplies significances.

If no apparent revelation has occurred to the character, it has occurred to us the readers, an insight that outlives the story, an opening out into greater awareness of our condition so that we become aware that this is not just a story for the story’s sake.

That was how I first experienced the Southern African short story, all thanks to Memory Chirere!

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