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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Spark: Makhosazana Xaba’s Short Story Collection Running & Other Stories

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.


Makhosazana Xaba has a long history working as a women’s health specialist in local and international NGOs, has published a ton of academic work on gender, health and development, has a book of poetry, These Hands. She has her MA in Creative Writing from Wits University, has been a fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and won the Deon Hofmeyr Award for Creative Writing. She brings all this experience to bear, along with her poet’s sense of language and the lifelong activist’s sense of mischief …

In this week’s The Spark, she talks about what inspired some of the stories in the collection.

The Spark on Running & Other Stories by Makhosazana Xaba

I like to break rules. I like to play. Writing fiction is a way of playing. I write away from home, often in coffee shops and bookstores in order to avoid my home that is full of domestic distractions and beckoning bookshelves. I do not have a writing room, yet.

A short story has few characters, I was told in my creative writing class. Then I thought; what would it mean to bend that rule just a little? That was the starting point of Running, which gave my collection of short stories its title. I wanted the main character to be surrounded by a buzz of numerous other characters, be in conversation with them somehow, be one of them. I wanted to have a sense of congregation.

Having been to innumerable conferences all over the world, and played different roles, I decided on a conference venue as a setting – familiar ground. We are, after all, advised to write about what we know. Once I had decided that I knew I would immediately have to work with dialogue – a challenge that excited me, that idea of conference participants speaking, their voices juxtaposed against the presenter’s formal voice and that of the narrator, my main character. And hey, this was new territory – I had never read a short story set inside a conference venue.

What would it mean to play with the time frame, moving between different historical time periods within one story? That was my second challenge. I had read numerous short stories that do this but I, had not done it. Another thing I know  a lot about because I have been an activist for most of my adult life is the challenge of living and actively addressing multi-layered and interconnected issues, be they racism, sexism, class, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity and phobias of all kinds, to name a few. In Running the conference participants and the main character face some of those interconnected issues and for the main character, the personal is, truly political.

The idea behind Inside was to capture the eroticism embedded inside attraction and desire – that often tension-filled, maybe-I-should-run-away-but-I-am-determined-to-be-calm impersonated feeling, of the pre-dating phase. I needed both characters to be women. When I submitted it for the book that was tagged as “erotic” I was not sure it would be accepted as it was not so “full-on”. It was first published in Open: An Erotic Anthology by South African Women Writers. As one young friend of mine once told me, “At first I hated that story because nothing happened, but when I read it again, months later, I could see just how much, in fact, happened.”

The idea behind The Weekend – the very first short story I ever wrote – was, what if I locked two characters in a room over a few hours, what would they be doing and why? What if what they were doing is something controversial and emotional?

How could I present a sense of community, a geographical community, through a short story? What would it mean to squeeze the whole community into one story? That was the burning question behind People of the Valley. Many South Africans of the pre-television era enjoy radio. I had not read a short story that did more than just mention that so and so was listening to the radio. I wanted to use the radio as a centre of the community. And again this was familiar ground for me because I trained as a radio journalist and worked for Radio Freedom while in exile in Lusaka. Once I had decided on how the radio would be the focal point of the community’s story, I searched for a topic. I did not want the usual current affairs topics. I wanted a topic that would shake the community; get it talking, shouting, screaming, walking and, maybe running.

There are innumerable South African stories that speak of absent fathers. I wanted to write one such story from a perspective beyond the absence, after the reconnection while acknowledging the essence of the psychological impact of the absence. Room for My Shoes became my contribution to the absent fathers pool of stories.

Njabulo Ndebele’s Rediscovery of the Ordinary was a recommended book when I did my MA. When I was writing Prayers and The Trip one of my fingers was on the pulse of Ndebele’s words. So in Prayers, I wanted the challenge of a teenage narrator’s voice. How could a teenager tell a story of national relevance? In The Trip I was motivated by the desire to tell an ordinary story set around long distance driving. I have driven on the N3 from Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg for decades and the road seemed like a interesting setting for a story.

I wrote the Odds of Dakar in response to a call for submissions that encouraged writers to mix fiction and non-fiction. I loved the idea behind Home Away: 24 Hours 24 cities 24 Writers, which also asked writers to set their stories in several cities around the world. After offering Hanoi, Havana and Dakar, three cities to the editor Louis Greenberg, he picked Dakar.

I had the greatest fun when I wrote the two retellings of Can Temba’s short story, The Suit. The first story, The Suit Continued: The Other Side which is the last one in the book, was inspired by Siphiwo Mahala’s story, The Suit Continued. Once the story was done and Matilda had told her version, it was as if Philemon’s lover was screaming in my head: what about my story? That’s how the octogenarian character was born. While I enjoyed the playfulness, these two stories were also the most challenging to write.

There is something attractive about knowing the rules and then deciding, picking the one to break, whichever way. Writing short stories is fun, a kind of game. Who says no to play?

More on Makhosazana Xaba 

Buy Running & Other Stories on Loot

Buy Running & Other Stories from Exclus1ves

(African author? Want to write a guest blog post for The Spark? Check out the guidelines and more info here)


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 16th, 2014 @15:01 #

    Fascinating interview. Oh, please write those stories set in Hanoi and Havana!


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