AROUND 10% of Africa is facing famine in the next year or two. Cattle farmers in Namibia and Zimbabwe are under strain as their beasts die of thirst. Maize harvests are radically reduced. Inflation and unemployment are increasing. Angola hands out food parcels to those most in need. Food security is under threat everywhere in Africa and mass migration is a very real possibility.
This is not a scenario in one of the speculative fiction stories in Water. This is now. This is real.
Into this potential wasteland, the Short Story Day Africa competition pours a collection of its best stories about water.
Some are, predictably, speculative against the backdrop of our current drought.
What would life be like if water became hot property? And though the appearance of such stories is predictable during a natural catastrophe, the stories are not. Each offers a surprising new twist on an imagined dry future.
Of the speculative stories, “The Tale of the Three Water Carriers” by Pede Hollist of Sierra Leone felt the closest to the reaches of my own imagination, capturing the idea of “live fast, die young” in a hyper-real way and exposing, almost incidentally, how heroism manifests itself in lives doomed to poverty and early exits.
Another of the speculative pieces, “Ink”, by Mark Winkler, won third prize in the competition. It is subtle and wistful — somewhat removed from Hollist’s fairly action-packed piece — and is powerfully poetic and fluid.
Not all the stories in this collection are about a glum, water-less future, however. That water is ubiquitous, that it moves through our lives in ways that we are hardly aware of, is captured in myriad forms in these stories. Water as memory, as madness, as death, as life; water for boiling bones and water for transformation — these ideas and others are all present.
What must be said though is that the theme of water is almost beside the point while you are reading. The quality of the fiction in this collection is of the highest level and in a world that is somewhat starved for African fiction, this serves to highlight that it is not because there is none.
Each of these stories coheres easily so that theme and character provide a unified effect, fulfilling the reader’s desire for a satisfying and textured reading experience within the space of a few pages.
This is not easy to pull off. Short-story writing is often considered, by readers, to be the runt of the fiction family — it shows in sales numbers — but connoisseurs will know how unfair that is and that short stories are perfect for the demanding reader with time pressure. A good short story can provide all the satisfaction of an immersive novel, only much faster.
Water does this 21 times (though four of the stories did not engage me as deeply as all the others, they were not bad). Added to this is the supreme joy of reading a collection in which the writers have a real sense of how the poetry of language can be applied to even the most action-driven piece. These are not stories told from the urgency of simply communicating something, but stories that rise from a richness of language and thought.
The Short Story Day Africa competition, now in its third year, is run blindly —judges don’t know the names of the entrants. This is the simplest way to find and nurture new voices without bias, and it works. Every story in this anthology deserves inclusion, not because it fulfils a basic short story checklist, but because it moves beyond checklists. The voices — from 14 African countries — are an unusual mix of fresh and mature and many arrive, surprisingly, at subtle profundity without contortion.
It also means that the anthology achieves an evenness I have not seen for a long while in any collection. Collections are, almost by nature, patchy.
The editors can be commended for providing not only a platform for African voices, but a deeply satisfying reading experience. When overseas friends ask for recommendations for African books, point them to Water. There are far more outstanding African writers than the handful represented in the press in the US and the UK.
Edited by Nick Mulgrew & Karina Szczurek
Short Story Day Africa