Demystifying the Short Story

The short story is perhaps the simplest form of literary fiction to read, but not the easiest to write. VS Pritchett, the most prolific British short story writer defines a short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Today the short story is packaged for literary magazines, usually quarterly, biannual or annual targeting the classy literary–conscious reader.

The short story is perhaps the simplest form of literary fiction to read, but not the easiest to write. VS Pritchett, the most prolific British short story writer defines a short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”

Today the short story is packaged for literary magazines, usually quarterly, biannual or annual targeting the classy literary–conscious reader. There are very few literary magazines in Africa. In Kenya, the Kwani literary journal has substantially tried to reclaim the lost glory of post-colonial East African literature, but for most of the rest of east Africa, Taban Lo Liyong’s words, “East Africa is a literary desert”  still ring loud, except for some sprinkling of fairly acclaimed writers mainly in Kenya and Uganda.

The other forum for short stories is the short story collection either by a number of writers with a common purpose or origin or all by one writer. In Rwanda, the Sunday Times publishes short stories in its fiction pages although not many writers have taken this opportunity to sharpen their craft. Thus, the proper need to understand and appreciate the mechanics of a short story

In principle, a short story should be one that can be read in one sitting. A short story is not a short novel. A novel prides itself in portraying life in its different facets wholly but a short story must portray brevity and unity of impression. A novel has the luxury of time to construct a complex plot up to a climax while a short story begins as close to the conclusion as possible, and should grab the reader from the very first line.

How long should short story be? It can be as short as three words or as long as 20,000 words, Earnest Hemingway, the famous travel writer once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) but most publishers and literary magazine look at the 3,000 to 10,000 words bracket.

Rwanda may not be a prolific source of short stories, though there has been an explosion of autobiographical writing since the 1994 genocide. But the short story genre has flirted successfully with Rwanda before.

In 2003, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, a young Kenyan lady wrote a story titled Weight of Whispers narrated by an aristocratic Rwandan refugee in the aftermath of the 1994 massacres in Nairobi. Yvonne who had never stepped in Rwanda got materials for her story by interacting with Rwanda refugees on Nairobi’s streets. The story eventually won her the most prestigious short story prize in Africa, the Caine Prize for African Writing worth $15,000.

A short story collection by a Nigerian priest, Uwen Akpan, “Say You’re One of Them’” features a story ”My Parents Bedroom,” about a Rwandan girl, Monique of mixed Hutu and Tutsi lineage who witnesses the most horrific sight any child could ever see. In the face of an encroaching bloodbath, “Say you’re one of them” is a command from a desperate parent during the 1994 genocide.

The story was one of five short stories chosen as finalists for The Caine Prize for African Writing 2007 and is available oin the New Yorker, a prestigious literary magazine. Say You’re One of Them – the collection – also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) 2009.

The short story is good fodder for aspiring novelist because it instills discipline into a writer, helps a writer to avoid flowery, flamboyant language and focus on ‘showing, not telling.” Many short story writers like Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie have grown into highly acclaimed novelists.

Other writers comfortably dabble between the two. However, the short story writer’s aim is to bring his intelligence and literary skill to show how things out there really are and how he sees those things in a manner than no one else sees but everyone else easily identifies with.

Aspiring Rwanda short story writers can be encouraged by the fact that a phalange of online literary magazines seek for new short stories from emerging writers where occasionally good can bring acclaim.

The masters of the short story are the likes of Anton Chekov, Guy, O. Henry, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry or Anton Chekov’s “The Lady with the Dog” can be pointers to anybody who seriously would like to understand the mechanics of a short story. Both and many other short stories unlike full length books are available on the internet and in local bookshops like Ikirezi.

Otherwise, the New Yorker magazine is the one of the best sources of excellent short stories on the web which one can access freely.

kelviod@yahoo.com

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