Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, Ed. Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications and South Africa: Cassava Republic, 2015. [Released 2016]
Mermaids and pink lakes, dystopian futures, young love, and murder—these are just some of the themes in Short Story Day Africa’s collection Water: New Short Fiction From Africa. The online-based African story-telling platform, whose “survival ethos” subverts the idea of a single African story, released this collection of short fiction in 2015. Their annual prize competition collected 456 submissions from 13 countries on the theme of water. The final 21 are collected here, haunting, reflective, and poetic short pieces by authors from across Anglophone Africa and its diaspora showcasing the diversity of style, form, and narrative voice in African story-telling.
Beginning with its striking cover collage, Water does the work of dismantling what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described in a now-famous 2009 TED Talk as the danger of the single story, a distorted, one-dimensional view of Africa that sees the continent only through a prism of war, disease, poverty, starvation and corruption. In contrast, the cover collage (designed by editor Nick Mulgrew) pastes together thin strips of aquatic scenes—waves, sea life, a pier, fishermen, boats and ships—illustrating the variation of African landscapes and relations with water. As the introduction states, the collection is interested not only in water’s role as a border and source of conflict but as a source of unification, power, cleansing, and community.
Most surprising are the number of stories with dystopian and fantastical themes. Of several pieces that play with speculative and post-apocalyptic fiction, Dayo Ntwari’s “Mother’s Love” stands out as a futuristic West African world ruled by the Evangelical Realm. Deity worship is outlawed in favor of a ruling oligarchy of abusive pastors who persecute shape-shifters and build a wall against the ocean, the home of the Realm’s arch-enemy goddess Yemoja. A shape-shifting mother takes her young son on a hyperspeed train to visit the goddess and suckles at Yemoja’s breast. The goddess’ sores, festering in the environmental degradation of the underwater kingdom emptied of fish and polluted with waste, foreshadow of inevitable fate of this futuristic world. Cat Hellison’s “The Worme Bridge” and Christine Coates’ “How We Look Now” are similarly preoccupied with fantastical underwater creatures, invoking mermaids to explore the ways water sustains life even after death. Hellison’s piece, the first-prize winner, is a hauntingly dark exploration of a family curse and the construction of a different reality grounded in our own.
Efemia Chela’s “The Lake Retba Murder,” Alexis Teyie’s “Mama Boi,” and Thambo Jijana’s “Native Mayonnaise” all take up the conventions of detective fiction and oral story-telling. In terms of genre, this anthology highlights the African specificities of a form over-populated by escapist and exoticizing novels written by foreigners. The tightly controlled narratives wrap investigations of murder and rape within gendered middle class anxieties about an intergenerational affair, indoor plumbing, and a garden club. Rarely do these detective stories require the suspension of disbelief but rather a spirit of investigative inquiry that is, always, rewarded with satisfying closure on “whodunit?”
Water-related death is a prevalent theme, and Pede Hollist’s “The Tale of the Three Water Carriers” is an especially remarkable portrait of the frenetic excitement and danger of young informal water carriers in Sierra Leone. Three young boys capitalize on community water shortage to make a precarious income, a hustle that casts them both as freedom fighters and delinquent troublemakers. Development buzzwords are parodied in the boys’ search for mf’s (microfinancers / mudafakas) to fund their venture and the thinly-veiled extortion of corporate NGOs revealed when the boys die of cholera poisoning.
In this constellation of dystopia, fantasy, mermaids, murder, love, and scarcity, the last piece, Mary Okon Ononokpono’s “Inyang,” is a jewel of historical fiction tracing the importance of waterways to the slave trade. This travel backward in the anthology’s conclusion is jarring and perfectly indicative of SSDA’s project, which seeks to and does subvert the single narrative of the African story. Too often, scarcity and conflict are represented in terms of land and the faceless impoverished. Water’s great strength is its acknowledgement of a literary cartography of African fiction that includes and focalizes waterways and the various racial, socioeconomic, and gendered relations with water.
My principle critique of the collection is, paradoxically, also one of representation. While the collection expands a reader’s imagining of African encounters with water, its concentration of writers from South and southern Africa ironically contracts, or at least stagnates, the ability to sound the breadth and depth of African literary voices. Water features stories from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Kenya, but the presence of South and southern African (Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa) looms almost as loudly as the notable silences from Anglophone writers in east and north Africa (of which there are many). While it’s certainly not a prerequisite nor even possible to represent all 54 African nations in a collection of this size, the awarding of top prizes to three white authors calls editorial practices into question. Asked about this decision, SSDA founder Rachel Zadok defended the decision by reasoning, “[Just] read Water. You’ll find at least 10 other stories that could have won.” That’s true—the quality of all the pieces is superb. So why didn’t they?
While we can and should question editorial decision-making, the problem ultimately, like the issue of water itself, is one of pipelines. SSDA can only select stories from the pool they receive. The bottleneck is not with the number of African authors (there are many), but with their awareness of the increasingly new platforms open to them. A few stalwart African publishers faithfully produce small print runs for local readers, but for most of the history of modern publishing, African writers have had little to no access to global publishing houses. More recently, as publishing opportunities have opened up to authors like Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Imbolo Mbue, authors and readers alike complain about global publishers’ preferences for a certain kind of African story that traffics in glossing poverty, foreign vocabulary, and the bildungsroman for Western audiences.
As an innovative online and social media publishing platform, Short Story Day Africa (who received their seed funding from GoFundMe campaigns) is doing the work of expanding opportunities for publication for African authors, especially those writing in genre fiction and the short story. They hold an annual competition, writers’ workshops, and participate in Writivism, a yearly festival identifying, mentoring, and promoting young writers. They, along with a growing community of online African literary platforms, are active on Twitter and Facebook. They produce shimmering and innovative content like Water that challenges the single story narrative of what African literature is and can be. And as African writers become increasingly aware of these options, the breadth, depth, and number of collections like this will increase. As readers yearning for deeper and broader representation of authors from the entire continent, it’s urgent that we do our part as well—clicking, reading, sharing, and funding—so the tidemark of African fiction continues to rise.