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Short Story Day Africa

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Flow Workshop: Successful Applicants




The successful applicants for the 2016 Flow Workshops

hosted by

Short Story Day Africa & Goethe Institut


Johannesburg, South Africa

  • Sibongile Fisher
  • Sharon Tshipa
  • Ntsika Gogwana
  • Nobantu
  • Catherine Jarvis
  • Kgothatso Maditse
  • Mercy Dhliwayo
  • Mishka Hoosen
  • Maneo Mohale
  • Lerato Molisana
  • Cebelihle Mbuyisa
  • Noluthando Nojaja

» read more

Call for submissions from African writers for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Migrations Flow Workshops

Call for submissions from African writers for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Migrations Flow Workshops


Short Story Day Africa in partnership with the Goethe-Institut invite submissions to a series of free one-day workshops across the continent.

The seven Migrations Flow Workshops are designed to assist writers working on an entry to the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize.

Stories by African writers on the theme of Migrations are eligible for the R10,000 prize, and will be collected into an anthology, the fourth to be published by the Pan African project, which is based in Cape Town.

Space at the workshops is limited and writers wishing to attend should send a 200 word writing sample to by 1 June.

“The success of the three Water Flow Workshops held in southern Africa last year resulted in writers across the continent approaching us to hold workshops in their cities,” SSDA’s Rachel Zadok says. “We are delighted that our new partnership with the Goethe Institut has allowed us to responds to that call.”

The Migrations Flow Workshops will be held on 18 June, 2016 in Lagos (Nigeria), Windhoek, (Nigeria), Yaoundé (Nigeria), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa), and 25 June, 2016 in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

Short Story Day Africa
Feast, Famine and PotluckTerra IncognitaWater


Related stories:

About Short Story Day Africa

In the five years since inception, Short Story Day Africa has developed a survival ethos: to subvert and reclaim. Reclaim the place of the short story. Reclaim a space for non-conformist writing. Subvert ideas about what it means to be a writer in Africa. Subvert ideas about what makes a story African.

Using a variety of interventions, Short Story Day Africa brings together writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, teachers and school children from all over the globe to write, submit, read, workshop and discuss stories – and foster the love of reading and writing African fiction.

The Short Story Day Africa Prize and resulting anthology have become a highlight in the African literary calendar. Details of the prize can be found here.

Contact Rachel Zadok on +27 21 447 3731 for further details.

Book details

Cat Hellisen wins 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize

Short Story Day Africa Reveals the Cover for Water: New Short Fiction from Africa


The winner of the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction has been announced at the Ake Art & Book Festival in Nigeria by Prize judge Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.

All twenty-one stories on the longlist this year were blind-judged by the Prize’s esteemed judging panel – which consisted of Kenyan Billy Kahora and South African Mary Watson, alongside Ibrahim. The twenty-one stories were selected out of more than 450 entries, after having been blind-read and compiled by SSDA’s continent-wide group of readers.

In the end, it was South African author Cat Hellisen who won over the panel with her story “The Worme Bridge”, earning herself R10 000 in the process.

Of the story the judges said: “’The Worme Bridge’ stood out for us with its brave story and clear, distinctive voice; it’s a wonderfully dark exploration of the water theme. The story works effortlessly to construct an other kind of reality while grounding itself in the real world. The writing is compelling: the reader is drawn into this family and the strangeness that overtakes them. We found this a powerful piece of writing that continues to haunt the reader afterwards.”

Second place went to Alex Latimer for “A Fierce Symmetry”, which “wonderfully observes the theme of the competition, has an admirably sparse style, interesting content and a strong voice”; while third went to Mark Winkler for “Ink”, which was “imaginative and evocative”, and reveals its “unfamiliar world in a vivid yet delicate way.”

Latimer and Winkler win R2 000 and R1 000 respectively. All prize winners also win an online writing course from All About Writing.

A special mention was reserved for Fred Khumalo’s story “Water No Get Enemy”.

The winning stories, along with the rest of the 2015 longlist, will be compiled in Water: New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek. The collection features a number of Caine Prize-winning and –nominated authors, including Efemia Chela and Pede Hollist, as well as a host of exciting emerging writers and established favourites from throughout the African continent and diaspora.

The cash prizes for the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction are generously sponsored by Worldreader, Books LIVE, ANT ProHelvetia and All About Writing.

The 2015 winners:

  • “The Worme Bridge” by Cat Hellisen, R 10 000
  • “A Fierce Symmetry” by Alex Latimer, R 2 000
  • “Ink” by Mark Winkler, R1 000

The 2015 shortlist:

  • “A Fierce Symmetry” by Alex Latimer
  • “Water No Get Enemy” by Fred Khumalo
  • “Finding Mermaids” by Chido Muchemwa
  • “The Worme Bridge” by Cat Hellisen
  • “Traces” by Megan Ross
  • “Ink” by Mark Winkler
Feast, Famine and PotluckTerra Incognita

The full longlist for the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction 2015 – and the list of stories to be published in Water: New Short Fiction From Africa – is as follows:

  • Alex Latimer, “A Fierce Symmetry” (South Africa)
  • Donald Molosi, “Beetroot Salad” (Botswana)
  • Wairimu Muriithi, “Love Like Blue” (Kenya)
  • Christine Coates, “How We Look Now” (South Africa)
  • Mark Mngomezulu, “Urgency” (Swaziland)
  • Cat Hellisen, “The Worme Bridge” (South Africa)
  • Louis Ogbere, “Were” (Nigeria)
  • Efemia Chela, “The Lake Retba Murder” (Ghana/Zambia)
  • Louis Greenberg, “Oasis” (South Africa)
  • Chido Muchemwa, “Finding Mermaids” (Zimbabwe)
  • Wesley Macheso, “This Land Is Mine” (Malawi)
  • Siyanda Mohutsiwa, “And Then We Disappeared Into Some Guy’s Car” (Botswana)
  • Alexis Teyie, “Mama Boi” (Kenya)
  • Mary Okon Ononokpono, “Inyang” (Nigeria/UK)
  • Dayo Ntwari, “Mother’s Love” (Rwanda)
  • Thabo Jijana, “Native Mayonnaise” (South Africa)
  • Pede Hollist, “The Tale of the Three Water Carriers” (Sierra Leone)
  • Fred Khumalo, “Water Get No Enemy” (South Africa)
  • Megan Ross, “Traces” (South Africa)
  • Florence Onyango, “Nyar Nam” (Kenya)
  • Mark Winkler, “Ink” (South Africa)

2015 Shortlist Announced!


Short Story Day Africa is pleased to announce the shortlist for the R10 000 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.

This year over 450 entries were received for the Prize from over two dozen countries, from writers both living on the African continent and in the African diaspora. Once whittled down according to submissions guidelines, each story was stripped of all identifying elements and sent to two readers. A selection of 60 stories was then whittled down by the SSDA team to a longlist of 21. All longlisters stories will be collected in Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, Short Story Day Africa’s third anthology.

The esteemed judging panel for this year’s Prize consisted of South African Mary Watson, Kenyan Billy Kahora and Nigerian Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. The three judges blind-read and judged all the longlisted stories and, between the three of them, they selected a shortlist of six.

The shortlist is as follows:

  • “A Fierce Symmetry” by Alex Latimer
  • “Water No Get Enemy” by Fred Khumalo
  • “Finding Mermaids” by Chido Muchemwa
  • “The Worme Bridge” by Cat Hellisen
  • “Traces” by Megan Ross
  • “Ink” by Mark Winkler

The winners will be announced at the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria in November. The grand prize winner is set to win R10 000. Prizes are sponsored by Worldreader, Books Live, ANT ProHelvetia and All About Writing.

Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, edited by Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek, will be released worldwide on 1 January 2016 in partnership with Hands On Books, Cassava Republic and New Internationalist.

Both of SSDA’s previous anthologies have received critical acclaim, with two stories from Feast, Famine & Potluck shortlisted for The Caine Prize for African Writing – with one, “My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor, going on to win the prize – while Terra Incognita received wide critical praise, including an excellent review from the L.A. Review of Books.

The full longlist for the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction 2015 – and the list of stories to be published in Water: New Short Fiction From Africa – is as follows:

  • Alex Latimer, “A Fierce Symmetry” (South Africa)
  • Donald Molosi, “Beetroot Salad” (Botswana)
  • Wairimu Muriithi, “Love Like Blue” (Kenya)
  • Christine Coates, “How We Look Now” (South Africa)
  • Mark Mngomezulu, “Urgency” (Swaziland)
  • Cat Hellisen, “The Worme Bridge” (South Africa)
  • Louis Ogbere, “Were” (Nigeria)
  • Efemia Chela, “The Lake Retba Murder” (Ghana/Zambia)
  • Louis Greenberg, “Oasis” (South Africa)
  • Chido Muchemwa, “Finding Mermaids” (Zimbabwe)
  • Wesley Macheso, “This Land Is Mine” (Malawi)
  • Siyanda Mohutsiwa, “And Then We Disappeared Into Some Guy’s Car” (Botswana)
  • Alexis Teyie, “Mama Boi” (Kenya)
  • Mary Okon Ononokpono, “Inyang” (Nigeria/UK)
  • Dayo Ntwari, “Mother’s Love” (Rwanda)
  • Thabo Jijana, “Native Mayonnaise” (South Africa)
  • Pede Hollist, “The Tale of the Three Water Carriers” (Sierra Leone)
  • Fred Khumalo, “Water Get No Enemy” (South Africa)
  • Megan Ross, “Traces” (South Africa)
  • Florence Onyango, “Nyar Nam” (Kenya)
  • Mark Winkler, “Ink” (South Africa)


#WriterWednesday #Writetips

You may have noticed we’ve been featuring African writers in our #WriterWednesday slot. We’ve been collecting their editing and writing tips for you, too. Here’s a round up of editing tips from the writers we interviewed in May and June. Click on their names to read the full interviews on the Short Story Day Africa website.


Tendai Huchu

1. Leave completed manuscript in the fridge-freezer for as long as possible.
2. Procrastinate – it helps.
3. Get a beta reader you trust.
4. Retrieve hacksaw and scalpel from toolbox, collect manuscript from fridge and proceed to hack away.
5. Call Batman.


Henrietta Rose-Innes

1. I write exclusively on screen, but towards the later stages of a piece I find it helps to print it out. I like to print work in different formats for reading over – recently I’ve been setting pages so as to mimic the size, font and layout of a printed book spread. It helps me to see the little mistakes or problems, which leap out at me differently when things are rearranged.

2. Also, I quite often print out a section of a work in progress, physically cut it up and rearrange the bits on my floor. This helps me to visualise the architecture of the piece and to solve bigger structural problems. This is useful if, like me, you can struggle with overarching structure, or if you are a visual thinker.


Iain S Thomas

1. There’s a saying in the legal system, a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. The same is true for editing – get someone else to edit your work. Even if you disagree with what they’ve done, seeing their changes will make you sure of what you’ve done.

2. There is a natural music to language, read your work out aloud constantly.

3. Grammar is the science and art of knowing when and how to breathe. Use your poetic license and any punctuation you want to make the most beautiful sentences possible, without ever making them jarring and horrible to the eye. But never use an ellipses. Ever…

4. Writing and editing are two completely different acts, never edit as your write and don’t write as you edit. First, write crazy, whatever you want, like a maniac. But then always edit like a cold-hearted serial killer. As Mark Twain said, “Kill all your darlings.”


 Lauri Kubuitsile

1. The best editing tip I have is read your work out loud.  It really helps. I even read entire novels out loud.

2.  I’m sure we’ve all heard this before, don’t be precious. Slash what must be slashed. If it is very painful, cut and paste that wonderful bit of writing somewhere else. Maybe someday it will find a new home. It likely won’t, but it helps the heart to save it somewhere.


Water Flow Writer Workshop – Gabarone – Saturday 4 July 2015



Writers working on entries for the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize, or wanting to begin drafting an entry for the prize, are invited to attend a one day workshop hosted by multi-awardwinning author, Lauri Kubuitsile.

The workshop will take place on Saturday 4 July 2015 in Gaborone. The workshop is FREE and refreshments will be provided (the cake at the hotel is to die for). Space is limited, so please email A.S.A.P if you wish to attend.

The prize is worth R10 000, and selected stories will be published in an anthology and entered in the Caine Prize for African Writing.



New Internationalist to publish WATER

Short Story Day Africa is pleased to announce that New Internationalist is now a publishing partner.


New Internationalist has bought World English rights – excluding Africa – for Short Story Day Africa’s WATER anthology. New Internationalist will be publishing WATER in the UK, Europe and North America, widening the reach of our stories. Modjaji Books, SSDA’s publishing partner in Southern Africa, brokered the deal. Both publishers are part of the Alliance of Independent Publishers.


Preorder your #Water anthology by heading over to Thundafund: or contact us via email  should you have issues with their payment system.


He giggled as he thought about how every day would be Not-Bakery-Day.

The sun rose in the exact way that it shouldn’t that morning. The colours that bled across the horizon were all wrong, almost in the same way of a double-cooked soufflé. I mean, it was like nature needed to put that sunrise back in the oven for a while. So it would come out better second time around. It would still be slightly off, but not wrong.

Jack squinted at the sunlight and tasted the air. Yep. Something was off. And it smelled foul – like danger and death had interbred with the colours in a frenzied orgy through the night. “And on this day of all days”, he spat out, to no-one in particular. It was Not-Bakery-Day. He went into town twice a week. Tuesdays for the basket of fresh bread, pastries, fruits and juices packed for him, and Thursdays for the booze and the wimin. Today was not Tuesday.

He had to warn them. He was a prophet, after all. It was his duty. A broad, twisted smile crept onto his face as the realisation hit him. He would be the Herald to Pineville. People would throw themselves at his feet and beg him to protect them. He would live like a king until Death arrived. He giggled as he thought about how every day would be Not-Bakery-Day.

“Every! Day! Every! Day!” The words became a chant as he began to skip toward Pineville, kicking up the dust and fallen leaves beneath his feet. He grew excited as he allowed himself to tap into the destruction. It would be catastrophic.

So this was how it was going end. He had better get his popcorn ready.




Dalene Titus’s flash fiction, Not Bakery Day, was selected as our favourite from our 2nd #WriterPrompt event held in May. We asked her about her writing.



SSDA: Why the apocalypse theme?

DALENE: The apocalypse theme was mostly inspired by the character. I thought that portraying imminent world death through the eyes of someone who could profit by it, instead of fear it, would be an interesting twist. Also, I don’t necessarily enjoy standard run-of-the-mill plot lines. My writing varies in tone and style, and I try make it as original as possible at all times.


SSDA: You studied Speech and Drama – do you have any interest in script writing?

DALENE: It was my love for words that brought my love for the stage. I was privileged enough to attend one of John Kani’s lectures back in the day. He described actors as, “Reading something so beautiful and profound that they simply have to share it with the world.”

My interest in writing was side-lined a bit after the stage took its strange-yet-magical grip on me – but yes, script writitng is definitely on the bucket list.


SSDA: A favourite YouTube clip amongst writers is Dylan Moran’s rejection clip, Bernard’s LetterHow do you deal with the dreaded, no?


Some will, some won’t – so what? Someone’s waiting.

I don’t think a “no” is necessarily a bad thing – it usually comes along with some invaluable advice/constructive criticism that you can use to develop your skills. In the end, “no’s” are almost as important as that final “yes.” If it doesn’t grow you, it doesn’t change you. And if it doesn’t change you to be better, there’s no use in doing it. Besides, it makes the “yes’s” that much sweeter.


SSDA: Tell us about your writing process.

DALENE: I’m a big supporter of Ernest Hemmingway’s style of writing.

“Writing,” he says, “Is easy. All you have to do is sit at your typewriter and bleed.”

I think at the end of the day there are two styles to writing – the first is to plan your work and work your plan. The second is to just, you know, bleed. I usually type until my fingers hurt and then leave it for a couple of days before I edit. Seems to work the best for me. Everyone has their own styles, however, and with all things creative – you kind of just have to do what works for you.


SSDA:  What writing advice do you wish you knew earlier?

DALENE: Letter to my younger self in terms of writing:

Read. Read. Read some more. Question everything. Read Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” and study the Hero’s Journey in depth. Also, find a group of similar minded friends and make sure one of them is an editor or at least studying editing. Be the grammar Nazi. Read your work (sic). Edit it doesn’t sound like work anymore (sic).




Dalene Titus is a part time writer and full time dreamer. She can be found most days with her head in the clouds or doodling on her notepad. Because she always has a notepad. And a book. She is also a lover of Dramatic Arts and will be moving to Cape Town to host workshops, talks and immerse herself in community work. You know, with her notepad. And her book. And her head full of dreams.

Henrietta Rose-Innes on the relationship between humans and non-humans, writing and home.

“I want to write my patch of the world into existence, and trust that others around me are writing theirs. Otherwise, I fear these unique locales will vanish from our literary map.”

Green Lion - front cover cropped

Award-winning author Henrietta Rose-Innes is back in South Africa for the launch of her new book, Green Lion. SSDA’s Rachel Zadok caught up with her and asked her about animals, insects, being human, writing and how being far from home affects one’s view. 

RZ: You’re currently living in a pod in Norwich, doing a PHD  at the University of East Anglia. I’ve always felt that some distance between a writer and their home enables them to see home more clearly, or if not more clearly, than at least from a different perspective. Have you found this to be true? And, if so, how does home look from Norwich?

HENRIETTA: I don’t feel so far away – especially as Green Lion is so immersed in Cape Town-ness, and I am currently so immersed in promoting the book. I have a  lot of contact with South African friends and colleagues, and have already paid two working visits home, with another planned for September (for the Open Book Festival). So I suppose I’m experimenting with being a literary soutpiel, with feet in both worlds. But I do have another two years of study to go, and I’m sure things will shift in that time. My work has been very bounded by the geography of home, so far, and maybe now I’d like to experiment with being a South African eye abroad. That would be a new departure for me, and a challenge.

“For me, each book needs a long time to come into focus”

RZ: Green Lion, your fourth novel, has just been released in South Africa. The novel took you four years to write. Nineveh, your previous work, took five. What do you think is gained by a writer spending that amount of time crafting a work in an industry that wants a new work produced every two years?

HENRIETTA: I’m not under that kind of pressure – certainly not the pressure experienced by a best-selling or mass-market writer, or someone under very strict contract. Honestly, I don’t know if I would manage at all if I had to produce on a very tight schedule. For me, each book needs a long time to come into focus – it’s always hard for me to say exactly how long each one takes to write, because each has its genesis in a period of vague exploratory messing about, in which I may wander in many directions. I feel my writing benefits and grows richer with the leisurely pace – it allows time for layers of meaning to accrue. I’m not the kind of writer who has all of those complexities worked out from the start.

Of course, towards the end of the process, everything speeds up. By the time I have to hand in last corrections, I’m a hyper, sleep-deprived wreck. I do also like to revise and revise and revise, so it’s important for me to have time for that built in at the end stages. My publisher is endlessly patient about this  … and it still doesn’t prevent the final frenzy. Maybe I’m just lazy and have very bad time management. But I’m ok with that.


RZ: In your previous novel, insects invade human spaces, nature is lush and powerful, pushing against the encroachment of humanity. The message seems to be that nature will take back. Four years on, Green Lion reads like a tribute to a lost kingdom, a shrinking kingdom of animals driven to extinction. Animals are ever present in their absence. Have you, since writing Nineveh, lost faith in the human race and our ability to avert mass extinction?

HENRIETTA: It’s not that I’ve changed my mind, although of course in the intervening years prognostications about climate change and species loss have indeed become more and more dire. In a way, I see Nineveh and Green Lion as companion pieces: they both examine relationships between the human and the non-human , but they take different approaches. Nineveh is about how the natural world is both irrepressible and deeply intertwined with human lives, whether we like it or not – although not always in expected or appealing ways. Green Lion, on the other hand, looks at the other extreme of the human experience with nature: how we are growing more removed from the wild, and more alone and lonely in our human-ness; and how, as this happens, we mythologise and perhaps fetishise these creatures that no longer share our spaces. I think both of these processes are true and ongoing; it’s part of the complexity and contradiction of ecology.

Green Lions are the wild things that we will have to live without, or know only in artificial or symbolic forms. The novel is about our reactions to this loss. Nineveh, on the other hand, is about acknowledging the messy, thriving urban wilderness we actually live in now. Ideally I would love people to read both books: Nineveh is a more optimistic vision, and a jauntier read; Green Lion is bleaker, but perhaps a  more intimate and emotional story.


RZ: Publishing territories like the UK and USA seem only interested in African stories if they’re told by Africans in the diaspora, i.e.  have some bearing on being English or American, or in genre writers who’ve left their roots behind and write from a global perspective, or narratives that fit the western media’s view of Africa. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about those things. Tell us about the markets into which your books have sold, non-English speaking markets, and why you feel that these markets offer some hope to African literary writers like yourself?

HENRIETTA: I haven’t yet attracted a publisher in the big English-language markets, although I remain hopeful that this will happen. But recently, and encouragingly, some of my books are being picked up for translation in European-language markets. (French via a Swiss publisher; Spanish via a Mexican publisher.) My sense is that there are serious, educated readers out there who are very interested in African writing and want greater access to it in translation. It’s wonderful to be able to find these readers, and if my books are successful in translation, it may open a side-door to bigger English audiences.

Also, I should mention that European institutions, such as residencies and competitions, have been very generous to me over the years, substantially funding my career. I think this is probably true for most African writers with any kind of international profile.

RZ: What makes your perspective uniquely African? i.e. Call yourself an African writer? Why?

HENRIETTA: My interest is in specific locations – so far, mostly in and around Cape Town – because that is where my eyes are focused as a writer, and where my particular powers of observation are best put to use. I think this is one way of conceptualising “Africa”, or any place: as a vast constellation of small, personal, shifting and overlapping territories. It is a pragmatic approach. I am attached to these landscapes in front of me, these rocks and buildings and beings, rather than to a larger, more abstract identity. Of course, some writers do have bigger ambitions, and succeed in writing on a national or even continental scale; but that’s not my talent. I want to write my patch of the world into existence, and trust that others around me are writing theirs. Otherwise, I fear these unique locales will vanish from our literary map.


Currently on Henrietta’s Bedside Table:

Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons. Beautiful writing by two poets about “familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside”. Very relevant to my current writing and to my thesis.

The Peregrine by JA Baker. Having waxed lyrical (like everyone else) about Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, I’ve been told and told again to read this slim classic of nature writing.

The Blue Fox by Sjon. A strange and intense fable set in a 19th-century Icelandic winter landscape.

101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavic. These stories by one of our finest writers are simply essential reading.

David Grossman’s Be My Knife. Picked up on a whim. Grossman seems a really interesting, often political Israeli writer; but this is a touching story of hopeless love. Not my usual cup of tea, but something about the blurb touched my heart. It may make me sad.

It Might Get Loud – the translation of Ingrid Winterbach’s much-awarded Die aanspraak van lewende wesens, which I would read in Afrikaans if wasn’t such a lazy rat.

All these books are available from your local independent bookstore, on the shelves or to order. Keep bookstores alive. Read reviews online, buy from the local.


HenriettaHenrietta Rose-Innes is writer from Cape Town, currently based in Norwich, UK, studying towards a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her fourth novel, Green Lion, has just been published by Penguin Random House SA (Umuzi).

Her 2011 novel Nineveh was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award, and in 2015 (in French translation, as Ninive) it won the François Sommer Literary Prize. Her short novel Shark’s Egg (2000) was shortlisted for the 2001 M-Net Book Prize.

Her short stories have appeared in various international publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Her story ‘Poison’ was awarded the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing (for which she was shortlisted in 2007) as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award.

Her work has been published in a number of languages, including French, Spanish and German. Green Lion is due to be published in Spanish at the end of the year.

SSDA corners best-selling author Iain S. Thomas

“I’ve always believed in a meritocracy, if the work’s good, it should speak for itself and I shouldn’t have to beg you or impress you with my sparkling personality to get you to see that, which isn’t to say I’m not a nice person, it’s just what I believe.”


Photo by Pavel Tcholakov


Iain S. Thomas is a rare writer; a wordsmith that can not only pay the bills but lives well off his work. He is hugely successful in pretty much every publishing territory, from Asia to the USA, yet no publisher in South Africa signed him. Seems they missed a trick.  We spoke to Iain to find out what it takes to be a BIG in Japan, Korea, Canada, America, Australia etc., etc.,etc….


SSDA: You have a published poetry collection, I Wrote This for You and a novel, Intentional Dissonance. How does your writing approach differ between the two forms?

IAIN: I also have another collection of poetry called 25 Love Poems For The NSA and there are two follow ups to I Wrote This For You; I Wrote This For You: Just The Words and I Wrote This For You And Only You. There are also two other books coming out shortly called How To Be Happy: Not A Self-Help Book and 300 Things I Hope For You. Those are all with my publisher in Canada, Central Avenue, and then there’s a book that’ll be out towards the end of the year with Ulysses Press in California currently called I Am Incomplete Without You.

I write a novel as if I was writing a lot of poems around the same subject, which is probably not the best approach but it’s the one that makes sense to me and I think every writer has to use what works for them.

With poetry, each and every day, I have to come up with something new to say, a new idea about something or a way of seeing something that I haven’t thought of before. That might sound exhausting but writing a novel is much harder for me, and far more intimidating, because you have to keep returning to the same idea and keep it exciting over a period of months, if not years. But we weren’t put here to do easy things, and I am working on a new one.

Regardless of whether I’m writing poetry or a novel, it’s a job, my books pay all my bills and I treat my process with the respect that it deserves, so I wake up at the same time every morning, go to work at my standing desk and don’t stop until I’ve written a few thousand words. The only concession I allow myself is that I work on whatever I’m most excited about first, whether that’s a book, a poem, an article or anything else.


SSDA: We’ve read that your work focuses on ‘non-traditional media in all its forms’. Please tell us more about this.

IAIN: I’m always trying to find new ways to tell stories, or ways to write things that haven’t been done before.

As an example, I wrote a never-ending sentence for a monument to jazz musicians in New Town, Johannesburg – the sentence has no beginning or end. My book, 25 Love Poems For The NSA, is written using the words the NSA flags and tracks in email communication. For Intentional Dissonance, I signed limited edition copies of the eBook using my voice, by converting the cover image into sound, then recorded myself reading different parts of the book over it, then I converted all of that together back into an image. How To Be Happy: Not A Self-Help Book is about someone failing to write a self-help book and I Wrote This For You is a blog about a pronoun effectively. I Am Incomplete Without You is a book the reader writes themselves.

Basically, if it’s weird, if it hasn’t been done before, if it’s different or if it’s new, I want to do it.


SSDA: A book the reader writes themselves? Tell us more.

IAIN: It’s a completely new collection of poetry from me that’s phrased and written in a way that encourages a response. It’s in the very early developmental stages so that’s all I’m really comfortable saying about it right now. I am working closely with my publisher in California on it and I hope I can reveal more details soon.


“ It’s basically a giant, incredibly long game of exquisite corpse.”


SSDA: Chinua Achebe wrote all of his work by hand, as did many other writers of his generation. Does writing by hand still play a roll in your work? How and why?

IAIN: As I’ve said before, I write with a pencil because it takes me longer to get to the end of the sentence. So I get to think about what I’m writing more. I speed type if I’m sitting in front of a computer. I write a lot of prose by hand before it gets near the computer, and then it gets edited, brutally, for hours, if not days. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get a beautiful sentence out of it.


SSDA: What themes are do you find yourself exploring?

IAIN: I struggle with depression and have for most of my life so most of what I write is written because I just want to tell someone else how I’m feeling, and see if they’ve ever felt the same, or I’m writing the things I would tell myself if I could step outside myself, and make myself feel ok.


SSDA:  Tell us about your blog I Wrote This For Youwhich has received high praise. How did it start? What is your overall purpose of keeping it going? How does it fit into your overall creative process?

IAIN: It’s basically a giant, incredibly long game of exquisite corpse. I started I Wrote This For You in 2007 as an online project with a friend of mine, Jon, who was living in Japan at the time. We only knew each other from our online interactions, we liked the same music and hung out on similar websites and chat rooms. We’ve been working together for nearly ten years now and have never actually met in real life, although I’m sure he’s wonderful. He sends me pictures and I write poetry or prose or stories around those pictures. Whatever I write has to contain the word, “you,” in it somewhere and there are a few other rules I set myself. The end product can be anything from a sentence to a few hundred words. At some point, the blog blew up and we became incredibly popular.

I struggled to get any attention for it back home, here in South Africa, and eventually found a publisher in Canada. Since then, we’ve sold more than 100 000 copies and it’s been translated into Chinese and Korean.

I still struggle to get anything done with it in South Africa and while it’s available at Barnes & Noble, across North America, and I’ve done incredibly successful reading tours in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, you wouldn’t be able to buy one of my books at an Exclusive Books here. Sometimes I feel like the reverse Rodriguez and this is one of the reasons my wife and I have decided to immigrate to America.

I Wrote This For You eats everything it touches. I have to be careful not to feed it all of my ideas, which means I don’t work on it as often as I used to. It’s my first child so I’ll always love it but I don’t want to be a one trick pony. Since my initial success with it, a whole lot of “Letters I Wrote And Things I Never Said To You” books, which all try to be I Wrote This For You through linguistic gymnastics, have come out and if other people are doing the same thing as me, I should do something else.


SSDA: You’ve had meteoric success internationally, but on home ground you’re practically unknown. South African publishers have been unresponsive to your work. Why do you think that is? And what, in your opinion, needs to change in SA publishing?

IAIN: I think I Wrote This For You is hard to put in a box, which is a double-edged sword. I wanted to write and create something that was incredibly different and I succeeded, but it also meant that it became something that was hard to explain or contextualise, and I think that made people uncomfortable. I only started considering what I was writing as poetry when my Canadian publisher told me it was the #1 bestselling book of poetry on iTunes and Amazon across the planet – and it’s only really called that so the people who work in bookstores know which shelves to put it on. I guess it’s poetry but I never set out to write poetry.

Regardless, it’s hard for me to talk about why South African publishers were unresponsive to it, as I don’t know their reasons. There does seem to be a bit of a club where if you play the game, know the right people and say the right things, you get ahead, which, admittedly may just be my perception or my lack of will to network. I’ve always believed in a meritocracy, if the work’s good, it should speak for itself and I shouldn’t have to beg you or impress you with my sparkling personality to get you to see that, which isn’t to say I’m not a nice person, it’s just what I believe.

I ardently pursued getting a South African publisher and a South African distributor, and I would love the money the books have made to have stayed in the country. I gave up because nothing was happening and the vast majority of my readership is overseas anyway and in the end, Central Avenue, my publisher in Canada, were the ones to take a chance on us, and have been quite handsomely rewarded for it. They’re small but they care about us and I have an excellent relationship with them.

Over here, I’m pretty sure the only place you can buy my books in a store is at The Book Lounge in Cape Town and I don’t think anyone’s going to be calling me to sit on a poetry panel anytime soon. But overseas, my books were promoted across North America as part of their National Poetry Month in April. School teachers share the books with their classes. I get the most amazing letters and correspondence from across the planet, and I have a manic, mind-blowing following in Asia. So it’s a soul-numbing experience, telling my mother she needs to buy my books off Amazon, or walking into South African books stores, seeing books of poetry by overseas writers on the shelves, that appear constantly next me on Amazon and other platforms, and knowing that mine simply aren’t available over here.

In terms of what needs to change, I don’t know. Maybe publishers need to start being more comfortable with things that make them uncomfortable or start taking more risks. It’s also worth saying that there are stories coming out of South Africa and Africa that haven’t been told and that need to be told, maybe mine just isn’t meant to be one of them right now. Maybe the real focus should be on them. I’m a white South African male who was born in the 80’s and if I was any more privileged, I’d be made of ivory tusks and silver spoons. I know many people would kill to have my problems. I’ll be ok.


SSDA: Thank you for being such a willing and insightful participant.  We look forward to the launch of  I Wrote This For You And Only You at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on Tuesday the 23rd of June. 



Iain S. Thomas is the South African born #1 bestselling author of several books of poetry and novels. He writes regularly for The Huffington Post on poetry, creativity and life. He will be reading selected work from his new book, I Wrote This For You And Only You at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on Tuesday the 23rd of June.