Thursday 6 November 2014

Surgical Anatomy - the bare bones of storytelling by Stanley Kenani

Caine Prize One Day Short Story Surgery in Port Harcourt

A day before the start of the Port Harcourt Book Festival, 14 writers came to the Niger Delta from all parts of Nigeria. Fifteen writers were selected from a list of 46 eligible applicants. One, however, could not make it at the last minute. So, these participants gathered in one of the conference rooms of the Presidential Hotel for a day-long short story surgery.

The short story surgery participants at Port Harcourt (Photo credit: Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya)

The team of facilitators comprised three people: the lead facilitator was Caine Prize Deputy Chair, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and the two co-facilitators were Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (shortlisted in 2013); and Stanley Onjezani Kenani (shortlisted in 2008 and 2012).

Facilitator Ellah Allfrey and the two co-facilitators, Abubakar Ibrahim (left) and Stanley Kenani

What, you may ask, is a short story surgery?

In its typical sense, a short story surgery is a step-by-step strategy that allows students to cut open their drafts and mess with the guts, adding or removing chunks to a piece. It is a tool that appeals to kinesthetic learners – and to everyone who thought writing was boring.

But that is not what we did in Port Harcourt. The surgery was of a different kind.

From the start we were worried about the methodology, about what to put in and what to leave out. The task was not made any easier by the fact that participants were of varying degrees of aptitude. There was a temptation to throw in everything: opening, voice, setting, point-of-view, character, dialogue, details, ending and many other aspects of the craft. But people spend years studying all these. A day was therefore far from enough. Besides, those with more polished skills could get bored if we dwelt on the basics.
Olufemi Terry

After some email exchanges and a Skype conference call, the co-facilitators agreed on the way forward. We started by workshopping Olufemi Terry’s "Stickfighting Days", which was awarded the 2010 Caine Prize. We divided ourselves into three groups, and each group analysed the story based on a key element of the craft: setting, language and character. 

"Stickfighting Days" is published by 
New Internationalist in the 2010 Caine Prize
anthology, A Life in Full

Perhaps no story could have been more suitable for the occasion. "Stickfighting Days" drew mixed feelings from the participants. There were those who liked how the story handled each aspect of the craft examined. Overall, students liked the cinematic feel of the story, and the fact that from its opening, “Thwack thwack”, we dive straight into action. But there were also those who questioned everything...

Character: Why are all the characters alarmingly violent? A participant went so far as declaring: there is nothing I like about this story – so violent!

Setting: Why doesn’t the author name the country in which the story takes place? “That could have made me understand the story better,” said a participant. I was in the camp of those to whom the naming of the place did not matter. “This makes the story universal,” said a participant who shared similar views. “The setting could be Nairobi, Mumbai, Lagos, Cape Town – anywhere. They have rubbish dumps in all those places and more.”

Language: Why are characters using language such as ‘psychologically,’ yet they do not seem to have had the benefit of formal education? And what was the original language of the characters? English? Yoruba? Zulu? Against which others argued: does that matter?

The second part of the surgery involved discussing the stories of the participants themselves. Everyone had read these stories ahead of the surgery, and co-facilitators had made notes on each. Again participants were divided into three groups, and, with the author in a gag, each story was discussed in turn. Here, participants became surgeons: they tore into the stories as diplomatically as possible, providing vital constructive criticism in the process. Co-facilitators ended the day by providing one-on-one feedback to the participants.

According to the Director of the Caine Prize, Dr Lizzy Attree, the Port Harcourt One Day Short Story Surgery is a one-off event, for now, and was devised with the Port Harcourt Book Festival as part of the celebration of their 2014 UNESCO World Book Capital status.

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