Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Flash fiction

100 Papers: A collection of prose poems and flash fiction by Liesl Jobson
Botsotso Publishing, 2008

“A pale pink slug emerges from between Josie’s teeth onto the dental floss that is wrapped so tightly around her thumbs that they bulge like purple grapes. ... When she pulls the floss between them, it snags... When she gets it right, the floss slides down without bumping her gums, the slugs are a pale creamy colour.”

So opens one of prose poems in “The Air of Words” in Liesl Jobson’s debut collection, comprised mainly of flash fiction and some prose poems. This piece is short, yet powerful, its images stay with you, from pale slugs of teeth detritus that turn pink with the blood coming from gums, to the larger issue of why Josie, the central figure in this drama of the flossing teeth, cannot eat and cannot say certain things.

And such is the power of many of the prose poems in 100 Papers. Another memorable one being the delightfully named “Sun-Dried Tomatoes” in which “droopy carrots” on a clothesline, along with “tomatoes and peppers flapping in the breeze” recall in a few, quick sentences what it means to have a mother who plants “father’s socks and shirts in the vegetable patch”. A witty poem that goes deep with its vegetable metaphors.

Another equally clever and moving prose poem is “Under my SAPS heart” where a kindly captain at Diepkloof’s Alien Investigations Unit recovers the narrator’s heart from a defunct fountain. “So pale, so under-developed it could only be a white girl’s heart”. In a few witty paragraphs we learn that the captain washes the heart of detritus before replacing the item: “The State will not be held responsible for such silliness in future.”

On the other extreme is “Button” in which marital abuse is highlighted in a few, deft strokes, in three paragraphs to be precise. Short, but memorable.

Meanwhile “Clutter” delights with its descriptions of items left in a large ceramic jar near the kitchen sink. Each item is representative of some person in the narrator’s life: a gift from an ex-husband, children’s milk teeth, a student “taught badly”. But the listing of all these items has a purpose in itself, as absolution may be obtained in the end. This is one of the most powerful prose poems in the collection, talking as it does of the universal problem of clutter that litters our lives and psyches, growing even as we try to move beyond the mounds of it.

With origins that stretch back in time to the days of Aesop’s Fables and Ovid, practitioners of the flash fiction form have included writers such as Anton Chekhov, O Henry, Ray Bradbury, Amy Hempel and Grace Paley. Yet, it’s only since the early 1990s that flash fiction has become so popular. Some say the growth of the internet has helped to spread its popularity: readers online are looking for a “quick fix”, not a lengthy, meandering story. Whatever the reasons, flash fiction has taken off in a big way. WW Norton in the US published the volume Flash Fiction in June 1992, and Tom Hazuka, one of the editors, says “initial response was overwhelmingly positive”. To date it has sold 22 000 copies and is in its fifth printing.

To my knowledge this is the first collection of flash fiction by a South African author. Anne Schuster was a pioneer in that she published Woman Flashing in 2005, a collection of flash fiction by women writers, but 100 Papers marks not only Jobson’s debut, but the debut of a collection flash fiction by a single author. What exactly is flash fiction? Experts – and readers and writers differ. At the launch of her collection in Johannesburg this past July, Jobson said that flash fiction was a highly poetic genre and described it as a “tricky beast”. Some publications call for flash fiction and set a word limit of 1 500. Most flash fiction pieces are from anything from less than 400 words for micro fiction, to up to 1 000 words long. Even the name itself is not fixed: it’s called anything from micro fiction, to flash fiction, postcard fiction, sudden fiction and so on. Says Camille Renshaw: “Readers discover something brief and intimate in a very short space of time. Meanwhile Randall Brown says “Great flash pieces have that ‘centerlight pop’.”

Jobson’s flash fiction world is largely a domestic one, with a few recurring themes, the divorced mother, whose children live with their father, infidelity and its effects, love and its rewards, and the milieu of families, which are not always cosy.

“Pickle” is one such story that takes a look at a divorced mother whose ex-husband has custody of the children. Seeing them only on alternate weekends, the mother tries, “she is trying to get it right. She really is, but it’s a big job looking after her children... There’s a lot of catching up to do for the other twelve days, the lost time. That’s the hard part.” This mother has a secret; she likes to finish cartons of ice-cream, leaving the healthy vegetables bought for herself and the kids to go mouldy. “The mother is tired, permanently blah. She hasn’t slept in weeks, maybe years.” This is a sensitively-wrought portrait of a mother, doing her best, trying to be a mother for two days out of every fortnight, sending jolly text messages to convey her love on the days she doesn’t see her children. An excellent piece.

“My Mother’s Diary” is a touching look at the narrator’s mother, writing as a young girl in 1970, interwoven with the daughter’s memories of girlhood from that time. It’s not as easy time for the ten year old with enormous breasts, called ‘Tits Tessa’ by the pre-pubescent male classmates, and meanwhile the police come regularly looking for her mother’s lover Koos, not white, in an apartheid South Africa. Jail, and then years later, Tessa releases her mother’s memory and ashes to the wind in poignant prose.

In “Duet” the unnamed narrator finds herself in a psychiatric ward after a man puts a gun to her head. “...I heard a click. Not the click of a trigger. I never heard that... The gunman’s finger played with the safety catch of his glock: flick-flick-flicking, like playing with a ballpoint.” What follows is a description of life in a mental ward where “a linen basket on castors” talks, there’s blood everywhere as a fellow patient tries to carve a heart on the narrator’s arm. This gripping story takes you right within the madness and confines of such a ward.

But there are lighter moment as well in this collection, as well as a bit of erotica. “Christmas Eve Picnic, Pretoria” offers a small moment in the life of two women lovers. It’s an imagining of the picnic to come, words are charged with sexual meaning and a delicious playfulness. “You place a round of Brie, pale as your breast, beside a salad of herbs...hanepoot grapes, fat as your nipple.” The real present comes after the picnic of course, and after love-making.

Or there’s “The Virtue of the Potted Fern”. The opening line, as always, sets the scene for what’s to come: “It’s not easy to organise a bookshelf that’s been moved from the guest room to your bedroom because your South African relatives are coming to stay.” You must be ruthless as you keep the I-Ching away from the Children of Heaven, and don’t put the Healing Back Pain next to The Story of O. Working in the dark, “Like the rules for entertaining foreign in-laws, they do not exist.” Instead perhaps put a potted fern by the bed, surely a quieter option.

Returning to Randall Brown’s assertion that good flash fiction has that “centerlight pop”, do Jobson’s pieces have that pop? I believe that many do. For my money, some work better than others, and I felt some resonated more than others, but each reader will have their favourite.

Research sources:
www.english.ucdavis.edu/spark/issue3/thflash.htm (for Tom Hazuka’s comments)
www.pifmagazine.com/SID/313 (for Camille Renshaw’s comments)
www.smokelong.com/features/012605.asp (for Randall Brown’s comments)

First published in New Contrast, 2008

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