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Short Sharp Stories

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Die Laughing Teaser: Q&A with Raphael d’Abdon

 

Raphael d'AbdonRaphael d’Abdon was born in Udine (Friuli, Italy), and moved to South Africa in 2008. He holds an MA in Arts from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and a PhD in Linguistics and Literary Studies from the University of Udine, Italy. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of English Studies at the University of South Africa. In 2007 he compiled and translated into Italian Peo tsa rona – I nostri semi. Poeti sudafricani del post-apartheid, an anthology of South African spoken word poetry. In 2011 he translated into Italian (with Lorenzo Mari) Bless Me Father, the autobiography of Cape Town poet Mario d’Offizi, and in 2013 he compiled and edited the collection Marikana. A Moment in Time. He is the author of two poetry collections, sunnyside nightwalk, and salt water, and has performed in South Africa, Italy, Nigeria and the US. He lives in Pretoria, is a huge fan of Prince, and the wolf and spider are his spirit animals.

 

Your DIE LAUGHING story, ‘Don’t Give Up, Will!’ is a spirited exchange between slam poet Gabriel Dampton, aka Will the Anti-Capitalist Komrade, and editor Paul Kersey, Chief Editor of literary magazine The Capitalist.

 

Would you describe your story as satire?

I think of satire as an act that is essentially ironic and ‘light’, delivered in a colloquial and humorous tone. However, satire is also filled with political statements and counter-cultural arguments. The humour lies in its subtlety, in the interplay between the comical and the severe. In order to be effective, satire must be sharp, provocative, and piercing and must make its target feel uncomfortable, challenged, and exposed. If my story contains these elements, then we can say it is a satirical story. But this must be established by the reader.

 

The focus is less on the narrative, but rather on the exposé of mediocrity. How do you feel your piece fits in with this collection of humour?

I wanted to write a story in which the mediocrity of one character was confronted with the pomposity of the other. Both protagonists are, obviously, caricaturized, but I had no choice: for the story to work, I had to create two polarized individuals, who deep inside despise each other, but cannot say it openly. A gentle and polite correspondence between these two guys would have been the most boring story ever, and it wouldn’t have impressed the judges.

 

Will, the Anti-Capitalist Komrade, has a number of really funny lines: ‘You should see the girls snapping fingers and ululating after my punchlines. Damn, it feels good to be a poet, dear editor.’ Although Will’s poetry is full of fire (literally), does this poet in fact want the stamp of approval of the establishment? And what does that signify? 

Those lines  are ‘wack’ (as Will would say) J. Jokes aside: Will wants – of course – the approval of the establishment, an approval that, given his (lack of) talent, is unlikely to be granted any time soon. Will is one of those poets ‘on fire’ – I have met some – who, because they are popular in certain arenas, think they are ‘the shit’, and have the world of literature under their feet. Will genuinely thinks he is a poet of note, and that being published in Paul’s magazine will cement his legacy in the literary community. But Paul doesn’t give a damn about his (presumed) poetic achievements, and keeps telling him that he is not inspired by his poetry. Will’s ego is wounded, he wants to fix things by getting Paul’s final endorsement, but he doesn’t understand that the more he engages with this snobbish and sadistic editor, the more his ego will be smashed.

Will is a complex character: he is arrogant, tenacious and stubborn, but also shows ingenuity, and respect for his interlocutor. Paul’s attitude, on the other hand, is straightforward: he is just messing with Will, and has no intention whatsoever of validating his work. I think the tension in the story comes from the fact that Will is fighting a “quixotic” battle for recognition, while Paul observes him with a glacial gaze, and plays cat-and-mouse with him.

 

As we read more of Will’s lines:

Fuck the government

Fuck the system

Freedom Africa freedom!

…your piece takes on particular relevance at this time, with the current call for de-colonising universities. Can you comment on this?

Students’ protests are the most important cultural and political phenomenon of our time, and must be taken very seriously. There is nothing funny in militarized campuses and cops abusing and shooting innocent young people. Will is not just a fictional character: as I said before, he is also a caricature. I wrote this story before the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements gained momentum, but I have attended poetry sessions for 10 years, and these are the things young poets are have been talking about in these sessions, long before the protests escalated. Will is the parody of a bad poet, and therefore he expresses his political ideas superficially, and with scarce literary imagination. But the students’ movements are not superficial, far from it. If I had to portray a student in a story, he/she would be Will’s nemesis.

 

As for Editor Kersey, he suggests, scathingly, that identification with Will, the Anti-Capitalist Komrade’s poetry, will indeed signify ‘the death of poetry’. Is this a colonialist or Western view of what poetry should aspire to?

Will and Paul’s personalities are well-defined (I hope), but their identities are not. I did not offer specific indications on their age, ethnicity and background: I left their identities ‘open’, in order to give the readers the freedom to make them up by themselves. So, in my view Paul does not incarnate ‘Western views of poetry’ (whatever that means), in the same way that Will does not incarnate ‘African views on poetry’ (whatever that means). Paul is just tired of receiving Will’s bad poems, and tries desperately to get rid of him once and for all, with a definitive statement (the ‘death of poetry’ you refer to). Is he going to succeed? Who knows? After all, Will is determined to win’s Paul heart one day, and nothing seems to be able to stop him from doing so… Or maybe did he get the message and will finally ‘give up’? I think the ending leaves room for the reader’s imagination, and this is always a good element in a short story (in any story, for the matter).

 

Are you indeed sending up both the wannabe-poet as was well as the stuffy editor?

Oh, yes, I abhor both characters. But the job of the writer is not to identify with his characters or to sympathize with them. His job is to invent characters that will stimulate a positive or negative reaction in the reader. If you create a character that leaves the reader indifferent, you have failed.

Will and Paul are the type of people I try to stay away from within the poetry community: on one side, the egomaniac with a superiority complex, who believes that because he stood out in a slam and has 10 likes for his poetry performance on youtube, he has made it; on the other side, the pretentious ‘poetry expert’ with a tweed jacket and a tobacco pipe, who also has a superiority complex, but for reasons that are the opposite of Will’s. People like these do exist, but fortunately for me and for South African poetry, they are a tiny minority.

 

How did your experience as a lecturer of English and as an editor influence the writing of your story?

As an editor, researcher and teacher, I am often exposed to poor poems written and/or recited by ‘poets’ who hold very high opinions of themselves. As a poet, generally I am not inspired by the South African ‘slam poetry’, which is the one embraced by Will. In this sense, this story is a bit autobiographical (like all stories). That said, the poems performed in slam events are usually better than Will’s, and the relationship between poets and editors is not as confrontational as the one between him and Paul. In this story I wanted to push the interaction between a fed-up editor and a self-important poet to the extreme. When I sat down to write it, I had the two characters in mind, but not the plot. The story unfolded, in epistolary form, out of an imaginary conversation between them.

 

As an Italian-South African, as a permanent resident, though not a citizen, how would you describe your identity? And how does this affect your positioning in the literary world? 

I was raised in Udine, a small town in the North Eastern province of Friuli (Italy), and now I live in Tshwane. I consider myself both an Italian and a South African, but even before that, I consider myself a Friulian and, first and foremost, an Udinese. I pledge allegiance only to my native land, my sense of belonging lies there. With regards to the Italian and South African literary communities, my position is that of an ‘external observer’, even if I am active in both. Writers are – in the first instance – observers, and living simultaneously in-between and inside these two ‘worlds’ allows me to scrutinise them from a certain distance, with disenchanted eyes. Being a migrant is a difficult position when you have to apply for a visa, or find a job, but is a privileged position for a writer.

 

In your opinion, as ‘external observer’,  what do we need to focus on to in order to strengthen our literary future? 

I have only one piece of advice for South African writers: let’s read more, and particularly, let’s read more each other’s works. We must read the classics of South African and African literature, but also the new stuff. When a South African writer publishes something new (a novel, a short story, a poem, etc.), I feel it my duty to read what he/she has written: it keeps me in touch with what is happening in my community, I know who is writing what, and where our literature is headed for. There are so many talented writers in this corner of the earth, in each literary genre, and I don’t think we are doing enough to support each other. We need more interactions: physical interactions in festivals, round tables, writers’ associations, and so on; but also ‘virtual’ interactions, in literary projects like this one, and through the books we write. We must buy each other’s books, write reviews, interviews, responses, articles, essays… in other words: engage critically with each other, and grow together. If we will do that, our literary future is going to be bright, I have no doubt about it.

 

As writing teacher, any tips on writing the short story?

I am kind of… new to short stories writing, at least in English (I have published some short stories in Italian). This was the first short story I wrote in English, and I was very surprised to see my name shortlisted for the prize, and published in the anthology alongside literary giants such as Fred Khumalo, Kobus Moolman, etc.

Like a poem and a novel, a short story places its attention on one or more characters in specific times and places. However, it differs from a poem because it gives the writer a certain freedom to indulge in details, and its language doesn’t necessarily have to be stripped to the bone; and it also differs from a novel, because it cannot indulge extensively on these details, and has to give authenticity and profundity to the characters in a few pages. If you want to excel at something, you have to know the history of it. In other words, you have to study the works of the masters.

I am inspired by many short story writers: Mark Twain, Bukowski, Mahfouz, Poe, Borges, Pearl Buck, Moravia… the list is endless… but my all-time favourite are two Russians, Chekov and Gogol: they are the champions of the genre, in my humble opinion. I also learned a lot from South African writers such as Can Themba, Herman Charles Bosman, Alex La Guma, Eskia Mphahlele, and – more recently – Makhosazana Xaba, Zukiswa Wanner, Siphiwo Mahala, Kagiso Molope, and Aryan Kaganof, among others.

From the two Russians I learned that for a short story to stimulate the reader’s imagination, it has to leave room for further scenarios. When I think about my story, I ask myself: “What was the tone of Paul’s previous letter to Will? Was it as nasty as this one, or was it more accommodating? What pushes Will to submit again and again to The Capitalist? What will he do after the umpteenth negative response? Will he stay strong against adversities and try again? Or will he give up on his dream?… If the reader asks him/herself these and other questions, then I have done a good job as a short story writer.

 

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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