The supposedly imminent death of the short story has been predicted for ages. In Africa, however, the form is alive and kicking. Some might disagree with me – after all, in most bookshops, the shelf space for African short story collections varies between the meagre and the non-existent. The naysayers might also remind us that our continent’s largest publishers release scarcely a handful of short story collections each year, and the ones that do come out are always written by big names guaranteed to garner decent sales.

Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews

But the golden age of the African short story is unfurling, by and large, far from mainstream publishers and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Digital disruption – the very thing that has made people worry so much about the future of bookstores – and books – is allowing new platforms and ways of sharing fiction to emerge.

Joining the well-established Kwani? (from Kenya) and the Cape Town-based Chimurenga  has been a new wave of publications featuring short fiction from the continent. While some are print – such as the pulp fiction zine Jungle Jim, and the elegant South African literary journal Prufrock – many have sprung up on the web. It makes sense: these outfits are typically run by volunteers on a shoestring, and with only hosting fees and maybe a few design tweaks to worry about, it is far cheaper to publish content online than in print. Of course an added bonus for online publications is that anyone with an internet connection can read them, giving them far wider reach than a journal with a small print run.

Nairobi
Nairobi
Image: Supplied

Since I founded the online literary journal AERODROME (thisisaerodrome.com) in 2013, our inbox has been deluged with short stories from all over Africa and beyond. Most of them – and frequently the best ones – come from Nigeria. I’m not sure how these writers find us – but I’m very thankful that they do: the West African nation is a literary powerhouse, currently producing some of the continent’s most vibrant and exciting writing – writing that’s often served up in short story form.

For time-pressed and attention-starved readers, a short story offers a brief and entertaining respite from reality, sucking up far less time than, say, a novel; and in many cases being available for free. For writers, it’s much less of a commitment to bash out a 4000-word story than to labour over a novel 20 times as long. The short story allows them to experiment, to capture snapshots or vignettes – and to hone their craft. Publication and prizes also offer exposure to potential publishers for bigger creative projects, as well as to new readers. In other words, short stories – while often sublime ends in themselves – are also a catalyst, the starting point of an author’s published oeuvre.

Lagos
Lagos
Image: Supplied

Dubbed “the African Booker”, the £10,000 Caine Prize is a case in point. Since 2000, many winners – and even shortlistees – of this annual African short story prize have gone on to become major published authors, with their subsequent novels for sale around the world. These include Helon Habila (2001), Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2003) and NoViolet Bulawayo (2011).

In an interview and a series of tweets, Binyavanga Wainaina, the Caine’s 2002 winner (and founder of Kwani?) lashed out at the prize in 2014; the politer of his opinions included the assertion that the London-based award “just isn’t our institution”. Whatever one’s view of it, it can’t be doubted that the Caine has turbo-charged the winners’ literary careers, generating huge amounts of attention for them at home and abroad – to the point that 2015’s winner, Okwiri Oduor, admitted to ignoring some media requests because the spotlight was “overwhelming”.

Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa
Image: Supplied

Another prize which has begun to gain significant traction is Short Story Day Africa (SSDA). Run by a small Cape Town-based team and reliant on small donations and help from the African literary community, SSDA invites story submissions around a specific theme (2016’s, for example, was “migrations”). This year it teamed up with the Goethe-Institut to host free story-writing workshops in seven African cities, including Yaoundé, Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam.

The best stories are compiled in a beautiful anthology – made possible thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. The SSDA and other initiatives – such as the Kampala-based Writivism (which also conducts workshops all over Africa and has an annual short story prize) – offer yet more inspiring evidence of what can be achieved through collaboration, hard work and passion for the written word. If these elements continue to coalesce, then the golden age of the African short story is set to become even brighter yet. 


STORYTIME:

Where to read Africa’s short fiction

AERODROME:
thisisaerodrome.com

The Caine Prize:
caineprize.com

Chimurenga:
chimurenga.co.za

Jaladaa:
jalada.org

Kwani?:
kwani.org

Prufrock:
prufrock.co.za

Saraba:
sarabamag.com

Short Story Day Africa:
shortstorydayafrica.org

Writivism:
writivism.org 


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