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Short Sharp Stories

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Die Laughing Teaser: Q&A with Stephen Symons

Stephen SymonsStephen Symons is a practising graphic designer and poet. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies (UCT). Stephen’s PhD research focuses on how former South African Defence Force (SADF) conscripts (1980-1990) navigate memories of induction into the SADF and whiteness in post post-apartheid society. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. His poetry, essays and short-fiction have been published in journals, magazines and various anthologies, locally and internationally, including Prufrock, Carapace, Stanzas, New Contrast, uHlanga, Aerodrome, Poetry Potion, The Kalahari Review, LitNet, Badilisha Poetry, Wavescape, Patricia Schonstein’s Africa anthology series and the Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Incredible Journey. His unpublished collection, Spioenkop, was listed as a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize for Poetry (US) in 2015. More recently a selection of his poems has been selected for a special edition of Re-Markings, a refereed international bi-annual journal of English. Stephen’s debut collection of poetry, Questions for the Sea, was published this year by uHlanga Poetry Press. He lives in Oranjezicht with his wife and two children.

How would you describe humour SA-style?

South African humour is unique – it’s a rough diamond coated in the fine dust of the land. It has a way of rattling established dogmas in a way few outside South Africa can understand, of traversing cultural fences and poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of both the establishment and individuals.

How do you see your voluptuous tale of intrigue, lust and avarice fitting in with the theme?
Well, the story is in a sense bookended by death and laughter. There’s the rather literal conclusion, where a central character chokes to death on an olive pit in a fit of hysterical laughter, and of course there’s the death of the protagonist’s wife in the opening paragraph, so I’d like to think the humourous overtones of my tale in the presence of death fit into the theme of the anthology.

Your last story, in INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, was a dystopian escape from a South Africa gone horribly wrong. This time you’ve gone back into the past. Was this a conscious choice?
I’m naturally drawn to both the past and future, and to a lesser extent the present. In the case of ‘The Seduction of Ozzie Stone’ the narrative is framed by a formative historical moment that is possibly uncomfortable to some contemporary political sensitivities. Unlike ‘Red Dust’, this story is nowhere near as politically or historically provocative, but it attempts to capture a Cape Town that’s as foreign as the dystopian landscape of my previous story ‘Red Dust’.

What prompted you to set your story just prior to the 1952 tercentenary Jan van Riebeeck Festival and how did you manage to evoke the period so evocatively?
I did a fair amount of research, and visited the actual locations of the story, in addition to tracking down photos, posters and brochures of the festival. I managed to find an academic paper that examined the political terrain of the festival, which offered an interesting perspective, in contrast to dominant Nationalist discourses of the time. I’m also fascinated by the role of memory, so there’s always the notion that memories linked to authoritarian regimes are often bizarrely remembered with a profound sense of nostalgia, at least by those it privileged and protected.

How did you managed to focus almost entirely on character and story without being sanctimonious or moralistic about the past?
I purposively avoided politically correct or revisionist tropes, attempting rather to tell the story through the immediate experiences of the characters. The story takes place at the height of an exclusively white celebration, in a country high on nationalist fervour, at a time that was oblivious to the country’s future struggles and subsequent liberation.

You evoke the painting you describe so sensually. Do you have an art background or was your (or your characters?) appreciation of the Dutch Masters the power of the imagination at play?
I’ve taught and lectured History of Art and Design at secondary and tertiary level, so yes, my knowledge in that area more than likely aided the descriptive process. There’s also the obvious historical imprint of Dutch culture in Cape Town and a tenuous link between the central character’s passion for the painting and the feverish atmosphere of the festival.

As a writer, how do you jump from different writing styles, from poetry, to writing a PhD, to short stories? Is this taxing or does it come easily for you?
I find writing hard work; and if it succeeds, the rewards are short and sweet. Naturally, one has to respect the literal frameworks of the different disciplines, but I do believe there’s the inevitable spillage and overlap, and when it does occur it can be quite refreshing, and even a joy.

When you write a short story, what is it you focus on?

I would say historical period, character development, mood and a tight plot – but not necessarily in that order. Of course, I guess you’re on the right track if a reader finds your story memorable. 

Is there a future for the South African short story?

I’d like to think there’s a very bright future for the genre in South Africa. Neil Gaiman’s quote,“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner” sums up my feelings about the short story form in a South African context. In the case of a short story those ‘tiny windows’ are naturally smaller and more targeted, letting in less light than a novel, but prompting narratives that assume unique and equally exciting guises.


Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 9.00.45 AMBook Details:
Editor Joanne Hichens
Foreword Evita Bezuidenhout
ISBN / EAN 9780994680518
Publication date July 2016
Buy the book here!




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