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Short Story Day Africa’s Rachel Zadok: Ours is a global platform for African stories

As part of the Made in Africa II series, TIA’s Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire spoke to Short Story Day Africa founder Rachel Zadok about what informs their strategy for promoting African literature and what that strategy is

Do you define Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) as a publisher, or a prize or more of a workshop organiser? What of the various things that SSDA does defines it most in your vision?

We define SSDA as a platform that promotes African writing, and the various elements of the project tie into that vision. We wanted to create a global platform for African stories that was free of the pressure to write the tropes the media trots out as our stories. At first, we published stories by established writers on our website, but as we grew, we realized that emerging writers also wanted a place for their work. The idea behind a competition that resulted in an annual anthology was to create a publishing platform where both established and emerging African writers could pen any story they wanted. The workshops are part of the Kids project; the next generation of African writers.

Why did you start SSDA? When did it start and how was it started?

I created SSDA because I saw an opportunity to spotlight African fiction using a movement that had started in the UK: National Short Story Day. I began with a focus on southern Africa in 2011, but then decided to expand because writers from the north wanted in.

Let us talk about your own writing. You have two published titles of your own. You were nominated for the Whitebread First Novel Award and your writing has been praised for its merit. What happens to it now that you run SSDA on a full-time basis?

Gem Squash Tokoloshe was nominated for several literary prizes, among them the Whitbread First Novel Award, and Sister-Sister, my second novel, was also nominated for three literary prizes. I’m very proud of both of them. I do wish I had more time to work on my own writing, and SSDA has swamped that out a bit. That said, after three years of hard work, SSDA is up and running and the work is less. Not little, but less, so I hope to have more time for my own writing. Also, the very talented writer, editor and book designer, Nick Mulgrew, has joined our team, and Hands On Books run by the dynamic Colleen Higgs is now our publisher. We’ve been blessed with the support of the African writing community, without whom I wouldn’t have time to brush my teeth, never mind write.

Short Story Day Africa's Terra Incognito & Follow The Road launch in Cape Town. Photo: Short Story Day Africa
Short Story Day Africa’s Terra Incognito & Follow The Road launch in Cape Town. Photo: Short Story Day Africa

Do you hope to publish short story collections outside your annual prizes? Like, put out a call for individual authors to send you individual collections of short stories?

No. Mainly because there are several publishers already doing that and they support us, so it would feel a little like encroaching on their territory.

In a previous interview with short story writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, he informed me that whereas there are many prizes for novels, and individual short stories, there are no prizes for collections of short stories. Is SSDA considering such a prize in the future, however far that future maybe?

Find me a sponsor, and I will consider it.

The 2014 Caine Prize had a lot of SSDA written all over it. Two winners of the 2013 SSDA Famine, Feast and Potluck competition ended up on the shortlist (Okwiri Oduor and Efemia Chela) and one of them (Okwiri) won the prize. How did you feel? Did this encourage you in the sense that you are doing something right?

No matter what the criticism directed at Caine and Lizzy Attree, they have been supportive of SSDA and African fiction. So yes, we felt that we had done something right. Both our shortlisted writers break the mould in style and form, and explored the personal, which is what writers in other Europe and America are free to do without being told, as our writers and Diane Awerbuck were, that their stories weren’t African fiction. They’re African, they’re writing about their lives and concerns. Who was it that decided African writers have to write issues driven stories to be considered African? I believe that humanity is documented by writers in the personal, not the global.

Rachel Zadok. Photo: Short Story Day Africa
Rachel Zadok. Photo: Short Story Day Africa

In 2014, the theme for your competition was speculative fiction. There is a focus on African speculative fiction in recent days. Why is this? Is it just a phase? Why did SSDA choose speculative fiction as the year’s theme?

SSDA chose spec fic for a reason you might not expect. When I asked several talented spec fic writers I know why they hadn’t entered last year for Feast, Famine & Potluck, they said they thought the competition, along with many other African prizes including Caine, was for literary writers only. So we decided to get their attention and make this year Spec Fic. Next year, writers in all genres will know our competition is open to all writers in all genres. And no, I don’t believe African Spec fic is a phase. Speculative fiction has been around for generations, and will continue to be around because it allows writers to talk about issues without political labels. It’s especially popular in countries where there are government watch dogs looking out for subversive political work.

Are there any hopes of organising the International Chain Story Challenge in future, as you did in 2012?

The Chain Story Challenge was fun for the writers, but a logistical nightmare for us, and the readers weren’t that involved. So it ended up not being a good promotion tool for African fiction. Without readers, what’s the point?

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