CityPress - - Voices -

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 Pub­lisher: Self-pub­lished Pages: 53 Free PDF at phum­la­ or R350 for a printed book; R550 for a signed spe­cial edition 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.”

ODD BUT EF­FEC­TIVE To Shy Away In Si­lence, an il­lus­tra­tion by Pola Maneli

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