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Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A purse of kisses (#69 Albert Camus)

If tonight was my last on earth and I was granted one final book to take to bed, my choice would be The Stranger, sometimes called The Outsider, occasionally translated as The Foreigner.

I am perturbed about my bed; it is reluctant to inspire me. Perhaps it has too many blankets weighing down its soul—there are three to be exact: a cheap fleece from Woolworths, an Italian throw woven with roses, and from the mountains in Morocco, a saddle-cloth fringed in silver sequins which jangle during sleep. A certain publisher has called for short-stories around the theme of ‘Bed’. This mule bed of mine will not rouse me to a single word, but over coffee last Friday, I mentioned the call for bed-stories to a friend, a writer from another country, but resident in South Africa. She has been here for a few years. Ah, she says, intrigued, she may very well have a story for the anthology. What I discover is that she is often faced with exclusionary rules in competitions and anthologies—stories are allowed from South African citizens only, not from foreigners. This bed-anthology could be an interesting opportunity though, please email me the information, she asks. When I return home, without reading the submission guidelines, I send off the brief. Soon she responds, disappointed; the anthology is for citizens only. How could I have missed that, I wondered? It’s because I take it so for granted. Surely a woman who contributes to our community, who lives here, surely her story should not be excluded? What of a migrant worker or a refugee who has made this country home? There is some arbitrariness in this judgment of what is fit to be included. I have no grudge against the bed-anthology (other than my lack of a cooperative bed), but exclusion concerns me and I don’t understand it. I struggle, but find no real meaning in borders, or passports, or identity books, or birth certificates or death certificates or even marriage certificates (now you belong to this side of the line, now you are permitted to pay tax in this land, now you are numbered, now you are born, now you are dead, now you are sworn to love one person without respite). It’s all made up. In two empires time those numbers, those certificates, those bloody borders will all be dust. Only stories will remain—not the rulers or the rules only the attempts to make sense of them.

It is unclear to me why The Outsider is the book I’d read last before all others. It is not only that it is slim (and I am inordinately fond of authors who can say many things with few pages), but something about this man, this character, this book, makes me want to take it to bed. There mule! I have contrived you into blog, but now for the kiss. Actually, in this case Camus doesn’t kiss:

I was staring at the ground. He took a step towards me and stopped, as if he didn’t dare come any closer. He was looking up at the sky through the bars. ‘You’re mistaken, my son,’ he said, ‘there is more that could be asked of you. And it may well be asked of you.’ ‘And what is that?’ ‘You could be asked to see.’ ‘To see what?’

The priest looked all around him and replied in a voice which suddenly sounded extremely weary, ‘I know how the suffering oozes from these stones. I’ve never looked at them without a feeling of anguish. But deep in my heart I know that even the most wretched among you have looked at them and seen a divine face emerging from the darkness. It is the face which you are being asked to see.’

I woke up a bit. I told him that I’d been looking at these walls for months. There wasn’t anything or anyone in the world I knew better. Maybe, a long time ago, I had looked for a face in them. But that face was the colour of the sun and burning with desire: it was Marie’s face. I’d looked for it in vain. Now it was all over. And in any case, I’d never seen anything emerging from any oozing stones.

The chaplain looked at me almost sadly. By now I had my back right up against the wall and my forehead was bathed in light. He said a few words which I didn’t hear and then asked me very quickly if I’d let him kiss me. ‘No,’ I said. He turned and walked over to the wall and ran his hand slowly across it. ‘Do you really love this earth as much as that?’ he murmured. I didn’t answer.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    July 25th, 2008 @14:29 #
     
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    Hi Alex
    Re the citizenship/Bed/short story submission issue. Lauri Kubuitsile,the editor/compiler of the collection and I were trying to encourage local writers - by local we mean southern african, rather than south african. It was perhaps a rather clumsy rule, but it was intended to give women who may otherwise be excluded a chance to submit a story. We didn't intend to exclude women who work and live and contribute here in Southern Africa. The weird thing is though once you start trying to clarify what you mean it does start excluding people, in this case also men and so on. Please ask your friend to write modjaj@gmail.com and to communicate her wish to submit a story and her grounds for believing that she is eligible and I am sure Lauri will accept her story. It is the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of it that we would aim to achieve. Be nice to get a story from you too.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    July 25th, 2008 @16:11 #
     
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    Hi Collen, thank you very much for this response -- I'm sure my friend (also a member of the Book SA community) will be delighted. It's tremendous that you are investing time and money, encouraging local writers and creating opportunities.

    (Although, since it has come up, I have to say if I was a man I'd feel a little excluded and I'd find it hard to feel it was fair if there was an anthology open only to male writers... in fact I might be outraged...I just don't like excluding people and I know that the intentions behind the anthology are very good and also that anthologies of 'women writers' and other disadvantaged, formerly disadvanted, and perceived as disadvanted people, are very common. The intentions are always good as are the opportunities given, but sometimes I wonder if they aren't perpetuating stereotypes and aggrevating exlusionary thinking. [I really do not mean to drag your Bed anthology into this again, and I repeat, it is wonderful that you are investing in local writers, but I find it interesting that the recent women's anthologies from South Africa have positioned women twisted,'Open' and in 'Bed' (however freely those are intepreted)!

    A quick google for the exact phrase 'anthlogy of women writers' delivers 1 220 000 pages; a google for the exact phrase 'anthology of male writers' returns 235 000 pages, a million less. That quick google search for men's anthologies throws up anthologies of 'Gifted Black Male Writers', 'Men behind bars', 'Gay Male Writers', 'Black Gay Male Writers'.

    All little boxes, I supposed convenient for marketing and publicity and library/book store classifications. And to be fair, interesting too, but I find one thing I like about fiction writing is the aspect of getting into somebody else's shoes and surely, good writers should be able to break out of the boxes and do that? Fiction shouldn't be reduced (that is a sweeping statement of course because it isn't) to a straight-jacket of politically correct anthologies. If a talented straight black man wanted to write the story of a gay white women, why shouldn't he? Likewise if a white middle-class woman wanted to write the story of a black prisoner, she should be free to do so too. People will say, well she is free ... free, perhaps but it may never be published (particularly in this country).

    I am a foolish idealist, perhaps, but I think the era of the disadvanted anthology should end, and people, should be sufficiently empowered to stand up equal and together. And writers should be free to place themselves in any human shoes...oh dear, I've definitely been drinking too much green tea today.

    I think I've said too much, already. Actually
    I've been working on a bed story, but it might be too short and after all that you might not want it! I'll send it for consideration though.

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  • <a href="http://thoughtsfrombotswana.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Lauri</a>
    Lauri
    July 25th, 2008 @20:53 #
     
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    As Colleen has said, there was a reason behind the rule regarding citizens and I think that she has explained it quite well. I remember a discussion about writing residents instead, but then that would exclude Southern African citizens living outside of the continent.

    There are submission guidelines. For example, the word count. People want to submit stories that are 1000 or 2000 words, though the rules say explicitly 3000-5000. I just feel once the submission guidelines are out there, it is unfair to other writers to make exceptions- any exceptions; and I've been sticking to that.

    As a writer if I know for example that the Caine is for African writers, I would not be happy to see an American win it because the judges decided, after the fact, to change the rules or make an exception. It is unfair.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    July 26th, 2008 @14:46 #
     
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    Hi Lauri, it’s great to get feedback from you and thank you for clarifying the rules. I understand the need and motivation for such submission guidelines. You are right, taken to extremes it would appear absurd if the Caine prize was won by an American!

    Alas, my bed story is only two thousand and some words long, so it’s not worth sending it for consideration for the anthology – it doesn’t seem to want another eight hundred words.

    Since this is all taking place within the frame of Camus’ kiss, willing as I am to acquiesce, I can’t resist adding this quote from The Stranger:

    "Willing as I was, I just couldn’t accept such an absolute certainty…The fact that the [death] sentence had been read at eight o'clock at night and not at five o'clock, and the fact that it might have been completely different,... the fact that it had been handed down in the name of some vague notion called the French (or German, or Chinese) people--all of it seemed to detract from the seriousness of such a decision".

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