‘Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ’ by B. Kojo Laing

In the summer of 1997, I resigned in a temper from my job as a sub-editing, proof-reading, writing, picture-editing, chain-smoking dogsbody at the London-based magazine Africa Business. I had learned a lot, but it was time to move on. I had a few hundred quid in my bank account when I walked into Black Star travel agency and asked for the cheapest return flight to West Africa. I was offered Lagos, Burkina Faso or Accra. I chose Accra and spent the next twelve months based there, travelling up and down Lake Volta, taking tro-tros into Burkina Faso and further north to Niger’s capital, Niamey. I wrote for all sorts of magazines, I did an appalling interview with Nadine Gordimer, I met Bernardine Evaristo for the first time, and I fell in love with one of Robert Mugabe’s nephews. I also started reading Ghanaian writers like Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah and B. Kojo Laing. The B is for Bernard. It is also for Brilliant.

I am reluctant to provide a summary of ‘Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ’. I will, however, give you the first few sentences:

When the small quick lorry was being lowered from the skies, it was discovered that it had golden wood, and many seedless guavas for the hungry. As the lorry descended the many layers of cool air, the rich got ready to buy it, and the poor to resent it. The wise among the crowd below opened their mouths in wonder, and closed them only to eat. They ate looking up while the sceptical looked down. And so the lorry had chosen to come down to this town that shamed the city with its cleanliness. The wheels were already revolving and, when they shone, most of them claimed they were the mirrors of God. The lorry was quick but the descent was slow. So many wanted to touch it.
Laing has been described as an Afrofuturist, and his work as African magical realism. I’m not entirely sure what either of those terms means and instinctively I dislike them. What I do know is that Laing writes with a freedom that resists categorisation. If I was pushed, I’d probably say he writes jazz – say Sun Ra meets Thelonius Monk meets Manu Dibango. He lets loose his imagination and his knowledge and trusts his instinct to produce stories. He writes tight sentences that can veer in the most unexpected direction. He is political, he is poetic, he is funny and he is fearless. As of last year, he is also dead. It is curious that, in his lifetime, he did not gain more critical attention. I think he’s one of the best.
From The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes, Heinemann Africa Writers Series, 1992. Also included in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, Vintage, 2016

‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’ by Amos Tutuola

I’m ashamed that I only came to the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola a decade ago. My friend Eleanor Crook, a sculptor and ferocious reader, was surprised that I had never read or even heard of his 1946 novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It was acquired by T.S. Eliot and published by Faber in 1952. The following year Gallimard published the French translation by Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau. When I read it in English, I felt tremendously satisfied. I also found myself feeling frustrated that his work wasn’t better known beyond Nigeria’s borders. And just as Picasso took so much inspiration from artists across the African continent, I wondered how many European writers had failed to acknowledge Tutuola’s influence.

‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’ is – like nearly all of his short stories – a very tight number, covering a lot of time in a little space. The first three paragraphs span the harmonious childhood friendship of two girls, Dola and Babi, through to their marriage to two brothers. As their lives progress, so their relationship is tested. What happens in the second half of the story is so unexpected it makes me gasp every time I read it. I confess to feeling an evil pleasure at this point and a desire for the most gruesome ending. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that Tutuola’s stories push me right out of my comfort zone. I’m not even sure I like them. Yet, whenever I read one, days later I am still questioning my attitudes to life and death, to right and wrong, to peace and violence. Equally, I am aware that his characters stay with me, chatting away inside my head, for days on end. The delayed effect comes, I think, from Tutuola’s spare and acute prose and his understated approach to narrative.

From The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 2014. Originally published by Faber in 1990

‘I Did It’ by M John Harrison

I was sitting in a bedsit in east London in 2001 when I was introduced to the work of M. John Harrison. The bedsit belonged to Julian Richards, who also took me to my first Forced Entertainment show. So, yes, reader: of course I married him.

Now, I could have chosen a dozen M. John Harrison stories for this anthology, but that would make me look like a stalker and might embarrass him. I have picked ‘I Did It’ because the last sentence of the opening paragraph is one of my favourite sentences in print. I’d like to own it and frame it beneath glass so no else can ever touch it. It is: “Axe in the face.” Even taken out of context like this, it thrills me. “Axe in the face.” Like crunching on cubes of ice when you are close to the equator. “Axe in the face.” Harrison’s ear for dialogue is so bang on it’s uncanny. His observations of white, middle-class Londoners – both men and women – are so sharp, they hurt. I’m still laughing as I read, yet again, the conversation between Alex and Nicola.

from Things that Never Happen, Night Shade Books, 2003. Originally published in A Book of Two Halves, editor Nicholas Royle, Gollancz, 1996

‘Guts’ by Chuck Palahniuk

I think it was Mike Harrison who nudged me in Palahniuk’s direction. He’d read ‘grow and grow and grow‘, a short story I wrote for Barbara Campbell’s durational performance 1001 nights cast. In an email, he’d said something about it having traces of splatterpunk and suggested I might like ‘Guts’. He was right: I love it. It’s outrageous. “Grody to the max,” to borrow from Moon Zappa in the 1982 hit single, ‘Valley Girl’. And I like it even more having discovered, via Wikipedia, that over 70 people have fainted in response to it. Although I don’t know whether they fainted in response to the subject of the story or because they obeyed the commands of the first four sentences:
Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.
From here, my fifth story should probably be taken from Harry Mathews’ Singular Pleasures, but I think one reference to masturbating is enough for this anthology. Less is more etc.
Available online here and forms part of Haunted (Doubleday, 2005) but originally published in Playboy, March 2004

‘At the end of the day’ by Barbara Campbell using prompts and endings by several other writers

This brilliant project was developed by Australian artist Barbara Campbell. Each sunset for 1001 nights, from 21 June 2005 to 17 March 2008, she performed a new story, streamed live into the ether. The stories were written by writers across the world. Each sunrise, Campbell would send a single prompt to a single writer, who would have a few hours to create a story that could not exceed 1001 words. The prompts were lifted from daily newspaper stories about events in the Middle East. If you read the very first story, performed in Paris shortly before 10pm, you will discover the tragedy at the root of this extraordinary project.

I learned a lot while writing for this, and was astonished by the results that were produced from simple prompts and a ticking clock. I was also lucky to encounter a number of writers I have come to admire deeply, including, among many others, Tony White.

Available online here. Originally read live as the 1001st story for Campbell’s durational performance, 1001 nights cast. All of the stories are available online here. If you open the Index of story writers, you can see which stories they wrote and you simply need to key in the number of each story at the end of the URL, for example https://1001.net.au/story/1001/

‘Into the War’ by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin

This is an understated story. It is also such a brilliant insight into war, I experience a little shock each time I read it. The narrator is recalling his adolescence in the summer of 1940 in an Italian city. Italo Calvino would have been seventeen years old that year. “It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything.” The boy goes to the beach with his friend, Jerry Ostero, and a girl “with blondish hair and a long neck”, who “was Fascist in her opinions”. After the beach, they part. When they meet again, it is early evening. The war has begun. There is no sudden drama and no exaggeration of violence. The writing continues in steady rhythm, observations are made as matters of fact. French planes fly over, sirens are heard, and the rural poor, now displaced inside their own country, arrive in town. But the nature of people continues, the same as ever. Everything changes but everything stays the same. I love this story because it echoes my experience and understanding of war. It is Calvino at his best.

From Into the War, Penguin Classics, 2011. First published in Italy as L’entrata in guerra, Einaudi, Turin, 1954

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated by Daniel Hahn

I am cheating a little with this one. It was published as a novella, not a short story, but at 57 pages of well-spaced text, I think it can be squeezed in. And I simply couldn’t write this list without including Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, a singular Brazilian writer, who died this year.  I would not have heard of her were it not for Wasafiri Magazine, who invited me to review this fantastic little book in 2014. So I’m going to cheat again by giving you the first and last paragraphs of that review:
Maria Bráulio Munhoz is a widow and an aunt. She lives in a spotless ninth-floor São Paulo apartment where she is waited on by her maid, Maria Preta. Her life is one of order and routine. Every day, she has soup for lunch followed by something sweet. Then she rings a silver bell and her maid appears carrying a finger bowl, ‘the crystal dish with the rose petal floating in the scented water’. Yet beneath the surface of this highly privileged but boring bourgeois existence lies layer upon layer of deception. What makes this intelligent book so riveting and so impressive is that the deception shifts continually, almost imperceptibly, from one character to another, like the tide turning on a beach.
Some reviewers have said that they read Family Heirlooms in a couple of hours. Beautifully translated by Daniel Hahn, it is a smooth and enjoyable read. But it took me several days of reading and re-reading, seeking out the signs in the text that, earlier, had been flown over in such hurried excitement. While the ruby, or fake ruby, works beautifully as a metaphor for the flawed characters and their excruciating relationships with one another, Tavares pushes the parallels much further than a lesser writer would dare. Folding them in on themselves, again and again, she squeezes every last drop of her characters’ hypocrisy, snobbishness and self-delusion onto the page. It’s thrilling and tragic and incredibly more-ish. By the end, the significance of the ruby, like everything else, has shifted. Uncanny absences and moments of silence come out of the shadows, and the book seems to change shape. The reader, to twist Tavares’ own words, has been ‘inoculated with doses of fantasy’.
Published by Frisch & Co, 2016. Originally published in Brazil as Jóias da Família, 1990. Republished by Companhia das Letras, 2007)

‘Mrs Calder and the Hyena’ by Marjorie Ann Watts

I met this author at a party in the burning heat that seemed to melt London this summer. I found myself hoping that I might be like her when I reach my eighties or nineties. A few weeks later, I read this book of short stories. I enjoyed them so much, I felt irritated that she had not received more attention from the literary world. This is a most peculiar and most tender collection. I read this opening story with certain amazement. It is such an unexpected little gem, I want everyone to read it. I also want to hear Watts read it. That would be a proper treat.

From Are they funny, are they dead? CB editions, 2010)

‘The Furnished Room’ by Barbara Neuwirth

This book was recommended to me emphatically by Eleanor Crook, who I’ve already mentioned above. This story is five pages short. I don’t want to say very much about it, in part because it has helped me peel back another route into Book Three. I might say that this is a story about the city, about loneliness, and about objects – to borrow from Peter Schwenger (well, Virgil really), the tears of things. I will give you one line only: “And she was to live in this room, alone and lonely, an intruder among the memories of others who had lived here before her.” Thank you so much Barbara Neuwirth.

From The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy: 1890-2000 edited and translated by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2003

‘Preparation for a Collie’ by Joy Williams

There is a part of me that would quite like to be Joy Williams. She lives in the middle of nowhere with her large, strange dogs and she drives a battered car. I may have read that in the The Paris Review or I may have imagined it while reading The Visiting Privilege. I came across the book in 2015 whilst on a US tour with my first book, In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. I was in the bookshop at the University of North Carolina. The staff in the shop were lovely, and I felt welcome to sit down and start reading this book. I was drawn to it because of the cover, with its fuzzy image of a German Shepherd dog. And perhaps I cannot forget this particular story because it also has a dog in it – and it is brutal. Williams’ stories are always shot through with humour though, no matter how unpleasant the tale. For the last three years, I have not been able to get this image out of my head: “David wraps his legs around his father’s chest and pees all over him. Their clothing turns dark as though, together, they’d been shot.” Oh, Joy!

From The Visiting Privilege, Knopf, 2015. Originally published in Taking Care by Joy Williams, Random House, 1972

‘Perform Small Tasks’ by Diane Williams

I could have picked any one of the forty stories from this collection. Her writing is so energetic, always surprising, and militantly singular. When I start reading one of her stories – no matter how many times I’ve read it before – I often find myself thinking “Ah, yes, I’ve got this one sewn up! I get it! I’ll not be conquered this time!” What a fool I am. Williams has this knack to outwit her readers. I don’t believe it’s intentional, but simply who the writer, Diane Williams, is. Her sharp eye on life. Her ability to tunnel into the mundane, to slip through the cracks, and pull out endless treasures. I’m with Jonathan Franzen, who said: “Diane Williams is one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde.” Keep ’em coming, Diane!

from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, CB editions, 2016

‘The Necessary Strength’ by David Constantine

So I’ve saved what I believe to be the very best until very end. I should get down on my knees to type this final entry. It was almost impossible for me to pick just one of David Constantine’s flawless stories, published beautifully, always with stunning covers, by Comma Press. Thanks to Mike Harrison‘s recommending – possibly via one of his addictive blog posts – I bought a copy of The Shieling. I was blown away. I went out and bought Under the Dam as a present for someone else, but promptly read it myself, cover to cover. A year or so later, I was given Tea at the Midland and, oh my goodness me, like the previous collections, it is unbelievably brilliant. With every one of his stories, when I reach the end I go straight back to the beginning. His work is always deeply pleasurable and immensely satisfying, and you can never quite pin down how he’s pulled it off. His work is mysterious, genuine, technically perfect and aesthetically awesome.

So why did I choose this one? Well, it was a tight contest between this and ‘Memorial’, which is in The Shieling, and which I adore and have read at least a dozen times. Both stories pop into my head all the time. I came down in favour of this one because it is linked to my enduring fascination with horses. As a little teaser, I give you the opening two sentences: ‘That horse makes me nervous,’ Judith said. ‘I don’t like him being here.’

from Under the Dam and Other Stories, Comma Press, 2005