Local award-winning writer Arja Salafranca has been brewing a collection of short stories over the years, and recently it came together in its collected form as The Thin Line. Luckily for the reader, not an ounce of pretentiousness got thrown into the pot along the way, and the result is a subtle yet gently haunting literary experience.
Salafranca's style in this collection is best described as cinematic. Each story plays out like a camera lingering on minutiae which, brought together, tell the reader a great deal about the characters and situations which form the subject matter.
"The earliest story was written when I was 18," she says, "and though I have written and published a number of short stories since then, there has been a lot of culling and pruning of my material."
The most striking - and refreshing - aspect of this collection is that it bears no trace of the albatross that many South African writers find tethered to their neck: the burden of our past, the issue of "representation", and the pitfalls of stereotyping and political correctness.
Salafranca casts all that aside in favour of an unashamed microcosmos of experiences. There is no attempt to be "definitively" South African.
"As a short story writer, I don't have a responsibility to show how awful society is or can be," she says. "But if someone changes how they think for having read it, then that is simply the beauty of writing."
She says local writers should never tell themselves that they need to send out a message. The mission, instead, is to move someone.
"If politics or a comment on society or the law comes into my stories, it is by the way," she explains.
And that is precisely why the collection makes for such thought-provoking reading: one is able to delve into the subtle detail of atmosphere, character and feeling without being bashed over the head with didactics.
Even in a story such as "A Car is a Weapon", Salafranca deals with the issue of fake drivers' licences, but at the heart of the story is the characters and the moral dilemmas that are thrown up, and Salafranca avoids lacing the text with her own opinion on the issue.
In terms of the process of her writing, she is often inspired by a photograph or an image in her mind. From there, the story develops a life of its own.
"When I start writing a story, I have an image in my mind. I usually know how it's going to end, but not how I'm going to get there."
Judging from the nature of each story, it appears that that image in her mind is usually the main character in clear focus, with a blurred background which slowly comes into sharp focus itself as the plot moves forward.
"The characters come through the story but it's not a conscious thing," she says.
In A Man Sits in a Johannesburg Park, for example, the story opens with a cinematic description of a man and his dog: "A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer's afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his spaniel's collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps the dog will even go for a swim again."
From here, the story gently rolls open to reveal a dilemma about emigration, and as this happens, the image of the man on the park bench acquires more meaning.This story, as well as the others, depict what Salafranca describes as the way in which we experience other people in our daily lives.
"You arrive in someone's daily life as you meet them for coffee, for example," she says, "and then after an hour or two you are apart and encountering someone else. You don't first come across their background information. You meet them during a slice of your life and it is a slice of their life too."
In terms of the publishing process, she says it is challenging for an unknown writer to get a collection of short stories published as there is "an assumption that you should get your novel out first".
But, she says, when booksellers say that short stories do not sell, the downfall is in the marketing.
"We have to throw short stories at the public the way we threw South African literature at the public a short while back. We were shown how great it was to read about ourselves."
She says she has heard it takes most people approximately three weeks to finish a book.
"Why not spend those three weeks with a short story book?" she asks, adding that in our busy lives, there is the advantage of dipping in and out of different stories.
If you agree with that philosophy, or are tempted to do so, The Thin Line is an essential read.
Published in The Star and Pretoria News, October 28 2010.