AiW Guest: Susanna Sacks.
AiW note: This review is the third in a series of posts on the release of two new anniversary collections from feminist press Modjaji Books – the short story anthology published last year, Fool’s Gold, and the forthcoming poetry anthology, The Only Magic We Know, marking the years since the press was founded to provide an independent publishing platform for diverse, serious writing emerging from southern African women’s voices.
The series began two weeks ago, with Modjaji founder Colleen Higgs’ “Words on the Times…“, an AiW Q&A set that offers space to share our common interests and experiences under the measures necessitated by the pandemic. Higgs discusses the threats to South Africa’s creative industries, the challenges of working under uncertainty, and her own writing practice in the joy of laughter and (digital) community. Last week, we published our second in the series, an in-depth conversation between Susanna Sacks and Higgs, ranging over the achievements and challenges, highs and lows she faces as a publisher, both now and over the course of Modjaji’s history, as well as her hopes for the future. Here, Susanna reviews Fool’s Gold (2019), edited by Arja Salafranca…
In 2007, writer and literary advocate Colleen Higgs founded Modjaji Books as a platform for southern African women’s writing. In a moment when South African literature was flourishing, prizes and reviews continued to highlight work by men. Modjaji sought to provide “an independent outlet for serious writing by women.” With over a hundred and fifty titles published in thirteen years, Modjaji’s work has had a major influence on the past decade of South African literature. Last week, in our conversation for AiW about her work, Higgs spoke about Modjaji’s recent anniversary anthologies, Fool’s Gold: Selected Modjaji Short Stories and The Only Magic We Know: Selected Modjaji Poems, 2004-2019. These collections, as Higgs said, “share what the press has achieved and accomplished” by showcasing the strength of Modjaji’s writers.
Fool’s Gold draws together works from each of the dozen collections and anthologies of short stories that Modjaji has published. In doing so, the collection highlights the power of the form: what editor Arja Salafranca describes as “both paragraph and love affair, […] these varied pieces hold up a mirror to our lives and the places we live in” (11). Distinguished by their diverse themes, structures, and voices, the short stories of Fool’s Gold are bound together by their concern for women’s experiences. They take pleasure in the small moments that magnify the spectacular, drawing light to life’s neglected corners.
In the opening story, Wame Molefhe’s “Botswana Rain,” a childhood lover’s suicide reveals the enduring trauma of secret lives and homophobia. Colleen Higgs’s “Spying,” conversely, considers how mundane occurrences – a chance meeting with a distant acquaintance – can conjure memories of long-healed heartbreaks. While some stories, like Reneilwe Malatji’s “Vicious Cycle” on absent fathers, highlight specific sociopolitical issues, they never succumb to didacticism. Instead, the collection is woven through with attention to local spaces, literary form, and the everyday. It thus highlights how seemingly small moments ground broad, collective experiences.
Many of the stories examine global concerns through particularly South African lenses. In “Stains Like a Map,” for instance, Jayne Bauling uses the familiar foam mattress to address issues of migration and xenophobia. A young couple purchases the bed early in their marriage, and it quickly comes to reflect their life together: “Us-shaped dents and hollows appeared. Mostly I liked them”; the birth of a son leaves “the ghosts of stains” on the bed. As the family moves illicitly from Mozambique to South Africa, the mattress moves with them. It compresses to cross the Kruger into South Africa, “beginning to break in places” as their tragedies unfold, before falling apart entirely on the return trip. The basic household object becomes a map of the family’s hopes and losses. Like many stories in Fool’s Gold, “Stains Like a Map” evokes broader political concerns without subordinating the story to its political message. The two instead work together to deepen each miniature world.
Not all is tragic, though. Lauri Kubuitsile’s “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” exemplifies the collection’s commitment to unexpected yet heartfelt discussions of community lives. The story begins with the death of McPhineas Lata, “the perennial bachelor who made a vocation of troubling married women” (59). Lata’s “troubling” had, it turned out, been essential to the community’s function: “The husbands were in a predicament. […] Memories would likely swirl and twirl in their wives’ mind, […] until McPhineas Lata became an untouchable super-sex hero with whom they could never compare” (61). The married men contrive to determine what made Lata so popular with their wives. The result is a surprisingly whimsical story of spirit (dis)possession mixing with the joy of experimentation.
These works mark lives led beyond the worlds we see on the literary shortlist: the titular story, Tinashe Chidyausika’s “Fool’s Gold,” recounts a day in the life of a porter relying on the informal economy to survive. Many other stories offer surprising angles on the familiar: Alex Smith’s “The Dream of Cats Is All About Mice” illustrates the value of companionship – but the relationship in which the protagonist finds is not among his community but in fleeting interactions with an independent streetcat. These surprises weave the collection into a tender yet critical examination of the contemporary short story.
Together, the stories in Fool’s Gold chart a decade of South African literary production. The texts all share close attention to their genre, with more than a few offering experimental takes on the form itself. Jo-Ann Bekker’s “The Good Housekeeping Magazine Quiz” uses the format of the ‘magazine quiz,’ with its many roads taken and not, to explore the impact of infidelity on a marriage. And Sandra Hill’s “Southbound” uses multiple perspectives to ask how limitations upon women’s lives shaped her family’s history. In each case, the form responds to experiences beyond linear expression, inviting speculation rather than certainty.
The collection brings together works by emerging and established artists which, through their diverse topics and forms, offer a vivid account of the press’s commitment to forward-thinking expression. The collection thus highlights as well the power of the short story, which, as Salafranca writes, “can evoke a world, a moment or a bright epiphany, that lingers and reverberates long after the initial reading.” These stories address complex concerns in condensed spaces. Fool’s Gold thus offers brief reprieves from our collective stress, drawing the reader into moments and worlds beyond the immediate. To echo Higgs’s comment on the significance of the “deep, clear thinking” that writers can offer: “In times of anxiety, it’s a relief to know books will still be there.” The collected stories in Fool’s Gold re-establish literature’s persistent strength in uncertain times: as Salafranca writes in “The Thin Line,” “words grow up and reverberate,” and the stories take on new meanings as they twine together.
Susanna Sacks is Assistant Professor of English at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Susanna studies contemporary poetry and performance in southern Africa. Her current projects examine the influence of digital media and transnational institutions on literary form.
Susanna will be reviewing the second of the Modjaji anniversary collections next week, The Only Magic We Know, a forthcoming selection of poetry published over the years by the press, compiled by Marike Beyers.
For more Modjaji anniversary posts from us, you can catch the first, Colleen Higgs’s Words on the Times Q&A, here.
The second post in the series, Susanna’s in-depth conversation with Higgs, can be read here: entitled ‘Honoring the writers’, this interview explores the history, reach, and influence of the press, as well as introducing the two anthologies we are reviewing.
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