Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Mini-Dictatorships of Facebook

(This is another of my City Press Magazine columns)

Facebook is the Wild West. Cats on bikes. Women with big butts. Eggplant carved into the Venus de Milo. Almost anything is okay. But it’s also made up of many millions of tiny dictatorships. Your wall is your country. You get to set the rules, and, even better than your typical country, you get to choose the people you want living within your boundaries.

My policy, which is a bit fluid, is in most cases I’ll let you in, but the second you annoy me you get the axe. And what sort of things prompt me to dig around in my toolbox for a sharp implement? One is an inbox messages saying- “hi.”. Nothing else, just: “hi”. Sorry, I’m a busy person. State what you want from me or be on your way.

Any sort of –isms I don’t like. Sexism, racism, stupidism. You’re gone.  Also, I’m an SMS language snob. It likely stems more from the time it takes for me to decipher what the person has said- “I h8 sum 1 lyk dat”.  Ten minutes later I figure it out and, frankly, I feel cheated.  Those were ten minutes I would have preferred to have used doing something else.

I have some friends with serious dictatorial tendencies. I have a friend who will unfriend you if you post pictures of food. He’s not my friend anymore. I posted a plate of lasagne I made from scratch. I knew what the outcome would be. I didn’t care, when you’ve made lasagne that good, it’s a wild and heady experience and throwing caution to the wind is the least of what will likely ensue.

I have another friend who is a rabid atheist. He will not allow a hijab or crucifix to spend a second on his FB page. Another friend cannot tolerate the unscientific aspect of a horoscope. Don’t even mention them. Even your star sign, you will be chased from her Facebook country before you can say Capricorn.

I often wonder if the world would be better or worse if it was run like Facebook. I’m thinking maybe worse.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In Grace-land ( a short story)

The prison band played Graceland, the singer singing like Paul Simon except with a Setswana accent, while the green and white tent blew in the hot breeze almost in time with the beat, but not quite. MmaYaone wiped the snot from the nose of Baby Number Ten and got rid of it on the edge of her skirt. She was tired of sitting. She could feel a drop of sweat making its way down her back. The baby was niggly. MmaYaone suspected the singer was not pronouncing Memphis correctly. The speeches hadn’t even started yet, there was still a full programme to get through. She had no choice but to sit and wait it out. She wished it was over, but she knew it never would be, really. She knew they had a piece of her now, it was the price she had to pay, she knew there was always a price.  

Thabiso Nonyane’s head pounded. The bass guitar on Graceland seemed to originate from the sorest spot of his brain. He blamed it on the cheap wine, the only thing he could afford now with the president’s alcohol levy on top of alcohol levy that pushed his beloved Black Label out of his economic reach. So it was two boxes of red Harvest Time and a carton or two of Chibuku. He got sufficiently drunk, but now he was sure his head was contracting with each downbeat. He needed a bit of something to level things out or he’d never get through this day.  But the VIPs were keeping an eagle eye on him. He’d be lucky to slip out at lunch the way they watched him. All smiling with their teeth out like there weren’t any black flies around.  He’d just make a quick trip to the loo via the shebeen at the back of the compound, get a few sips of the homebrew MmaChompy always had on tap, with or without the president’s approval. That would sort him out.

Sgt General Malatsi looked around at her good work and she was proud. The poor desperate lady with the ten kids would have a new modern house thanks to her. She saw BTV had pitched up, so she ought to get some good national coverage, ought to help with her promotion. She was a shoo-in for that promotion. This would just make it certain, solid and certain. She tapped her foot to Graceland and smiled at the Minister. 

(Read the rest of the story at The Kalahari Review)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Yay for Alice Munro and The Short Story!!

This morning I woke and before even getting out of bed I read "Walker Brothers Cowboy" by Alice Munro, one of her stories I'd not read before. It was my little indulgence to celebrate her Nobel Prize win yesterday. A lovely way to start a work day.  It's a story, like so many of Munro's stories, about a family, told from the point of view of the daughter. It's mostly about the parents. The family has fallen on hard times as many had at the time it was set in the 1930s. From owning a fox farm, her father was now a door-to-door salesman. Her mother was not taking the fall well. A gentle sadness covers the story. Like so many human stories, it is about dreams lost, braver choices not taken.

The thing so lovely about Munro's stories is that they refuse to cheat with fireworks. She is always honest. She will not pull out a rabbit just because she can. Instead she waits patiently until she discovers the fireworks and rabbits in the simple everyday ups and downs in the ordinary lives of ordinary humans. That's what I always love about her stories, the honesty, the un-showiness. In her stories, she deals with the everyday things, the mundane, the work that must be done before the other things happen.

I was so happy to hear she'd won the Nobel Prize yesterday. Somehow I felt it as a win for me too. A win for everyone who writes and loves short stories. Simple honest short stories that let us understand more fully this experience of living, and loving, and being so fallibly human. Short stories are unique in their ability to capture the essence of a moment in time. They are not short novels. They are not a practice ground. Munro is a virtuoso in using the strengths of the short story to its very limits.

Congratulations, Ms Munro, and thank you. 

"A story is not like a road to follow … it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”- Alice Munro

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It's Difficult to be a Writer

I've had many jobs, more than most people I suspect. A partial list would include: bus girl, dishwasher, cook's helper, bartender, waitress, nursing assistant, clown, research assistant (on projects from viruses in ducks to follicle size in horses), flower seller, pre-school teacher, nanny, house cleaner, science teacher, business owner, primary school teacher...and the list continues. So I have a good idea about the ups and downs of most jobs. I've been a writer now for ten years and I can tell you unequivocally that writing is a tough gig.

First you have the writing itself. Trying to get that wonderful image in your head down on paper. It's never good enough. It needs re-writes and re-writes. Even once it's published you still want to get in there with the red pen. You always feel like you've failed the story in some way.

And then there are the gatekeepers. There are agents, editors, and publishers all standing ready to reject your work. And the rejection is based on all sorts of things you have no control over. Sometimes as simple as the person is just not keen on that type of story. The writing might be good, there might be a market but  that particular person just doesn't like that type of story.

And then let's say you get published. Now you have the reviewers. All coming with  their own histories and prejudices. Some untrained. Some with axes to grind.

After you've got through all of that, then you get your royalty statement. If there was ever a document that can destroy a person, a royalty statement is indeed one of them. A year of selling and your publisher has managed to sell 9 books, or worse 1. Yes, I've had royalty statements like that. And again, the royalty statement, the sales for your book, have little to do with how good the writing is. I have books that have sold in the 10,000's that are not as good as some that have sold in their 10's. It's about the market and probably more importantly, the marketing. If your publisher is not pushing your book, you won't make money, no matter how good the writing is.

The thing about writing that is so hard is that so much about your success has nothing to do with your writing. This can be frustrating. I'm used to jobs where if I put in my maximum effort I expect to do well. Writing doesn't work like that. Despite what anyone tells you, a lot is about luck. About things you can't control. It's a really tough job and you'll be bashing your head against a wall if you don't accept this early on.

So why do it?

I do it because I like it. I do it because it is one job that will never bore me because I will never reach my maximum potential. Each story I write pushes me closer and with each story I write the line that's marking my maximum potential moves that bit further. I like that. The other things, the ones I can't control,  I've tried to make a problematic peace with.