Book review:Twisted tales, fresh ideas

2017-03-19 06:07
Young author Phumlani Pikoli. Picture: Supplied

Young author Phumlani Pikoli. Picture: Supplied

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Phumlani S Langa 

Phumlani Pikoli, the laid-back 29-year-old author of the crisp, experimental and beautifully weird book of short stories – The Fatuous State of Severity – tells me his life story in just a few sentences.

He was born in Zimbabwe to exiled parents. “We moved around the country for a while until the folks settled in Pretoria, where my two siblings and I grew up. We went to former Model C schools and grew up in the burbs.

“I dropped out of the University of Cape Town in my second year to pursue writing as a profession and stumbled into journalism.”

The content of his collection of stories opens a portal into the lives of some extremely vivid characters in warped situations.

Grimy comics and twisted tales touch on issues of race, sexuality, childhood and the stinging inconvenience of fate.

In Birth Pains, the protagonist, a teacher, falls down the stairs in the same spot every day and is always aided by a pupil, who collects the teeth she loses – to make a necklace.

The teacher replaces her teeth, only to fall again the next day. The child turns out to be an evil entity that takes pleasure in tormenting her teacher.

Without giving more away, let’s just say that Birth Pains is a strange and brief ghost story.

What’s up with the creepy content?

“I’m not 100% sure, to be honest. I guess I’m really fascinated by impolite conversation in polite company and will kinda push it in that direction.

"I also get bored really easily and like the ‘other’ idea that anything in the world can happen at any time. So yeah, why not try to talk about your wildest fears, fantasies, ambitions and feelings masked by the absurd,” Pikoli says.

In his fiction debut, his sense of dialogue is particularly strong, and his character work is immaculate.

His imagery progresses fluidly from stories such as My Beautiful Little Boy, in which a black kid brother slowly gets to grips with the construct of race, to Revenge, in which a man on a park bench is attacked by talking squirrels.

So why did he choose to self-publish?

“Often we ask ourselves why self-publish and not approach actual publishers who can get you wider distribution, cheaper printing costs and the marketing power needed to ensure one gains access to the institutional backing needed [so that your product can be] regarded as literature?

"I feel what is actually being asked is, why make it harder for yourself?”

Tapping into the experience he gained while making and selling music in high school, Pikoli learnt the value of networking.

He also developed a wary outlook on the establishment and its record labels, publishing houses and the like.

As with many self-published works, editing is a slight issue in this collection – a few errors here and there make it hard to figure out whether or not they were purposefully added as a stylistic choice.

After all, this is a joyfully scruffy book, punctuated by illustrations and comics by top local artists, including Pola Maneli and Nas Hoosen.

How does he handle the collaborations with editors and illustrators?

“I speak to people whose thoughts and writing I enjoy and wonder how they might be able to help me best express mine. Then I send them the stories that I think they’d be able to help me illustrate best,” he says.

The structure of the book is sometimes shaky and lacks cohesion, and the gritty illustrations are at times perplexing, but they add to the comfortably random feel of the book.

Self-publishing is not a simple thing, and Pikoli can be forgiven for these small oversights.

This morbid and jarring collection is, at heart, a well-executed piece of literature.

Adding audio and visual aspects to his project is a simple and smart approach that he explains as being “a chance to reach greater audiences”.

He is a fan of the idea of being able to access one idea through a variety of channels.

The half-hour film that comes with the book shows behind-the-scenes footage of the illustrations being created, the author’s thoughts and people reading and engaging with the stories.

Pikoli is certainly a writer to keep an eye on.

Looking to the future, he says he wants to “try to make more lucrative decisions so that I don’t have to ever consider jeopardising the integrity of whatever it is I’m trying to do – which is to start a digital production company and publishing house for now.

"Also, I think I’m getting a radio show.”

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