As editor of the Short Sharp Stories Awards anthology Adults Only published in July of this year, I was privileged to work with many talented writers who tackled the theme of ‘love, lust, sex and sensuality’ with honesty and verve.
Why do an anthology with this theme? Not simply in consideration of the fact that erotica had captured the public imagination, but to offer, through fiction, a broader understanding of South African sex and sensuality in the new millennium.
When it comes to South African erotica, we currently boast internationally published authors Helena S. Paige and Jassy Mackenzie, but as a genre, even with Fifty Shades of Grey having taken the world by storm, and with South Africa coming into her sexual own, erotica remains in its infancy here. As Arja Salafranca says (in an online BooksLive interview, one of a series with the writers published in Adults Only): ‘Sex is everywhere around us – seemingly – on television and billboards, online and elsewhere, and yet you don’t find much of it in literary terms. It’s something only partially explored in SA writing.’
For Adults Only we wanted to get away from this idea that erotica, or stories with sexual themes, are the domain of heterosexual women. Sexy fiction is too often denigrated as romantic or naïve girly fantasy which precludes sex that does not conform to a heteronormative recipe.
As the Short Sharp Stories Awards team, we wanted stories to tell of the struggles and celebrations around sexuality in whatever form it takes.We asked for the delicate, sensitive and funny, but also for the raw, dangerous and powerful; we wanted to titillate the senses, we wanted to be provocative; we allowed space for the deeply poignant as well as the playfully perverse.
The final product is a collection of tales, penned by both sexes, in which writers took risks to explore sex and satisfaction, but also to reflect on memory and longing, pleasure and pain, sexual orientation and sexual identity.To quote Ismail Mahomed, Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival, the collection ‘serves as a testimony to the progress that South Africa has made in the liberalization and decriminalization of personal and sexual relationships and these rights are now enshrined in the South African constitution’.
Although responses to Adults Only are exuberantly positive, with reviewers raving about the audacity and vibrancy of South African fiction, it is interesting to note that stories are often either loved or hated, given a perfect score or a fail. This might, more often than not, be associated with the kind of sexual norms held by the reader.
It can’t be ignored that personal taste and subjectivity will come to the fore in a collection such as this which covers a wide range. Gay marriage, love across the colour line, lesbian love, prostitution, threesome struggles, the discontented housewife – all are represented.
A number of stories are explicit, most are not. I have received one tongue-in-cheek complaint that there is not enough ‘sex on the page’.
This brings us to writing sex in fiction. Literary circles seem in ever constant conversation along the lines of what separates good sex writing from bad.
With the long-held maxim that sex should occur by innuendo, the tendency has existed to gloss over the sex act entirely. It’s been an unwritten rule that writers should refrain from referencing specific body parts or from trying too hard to distill the sensation of sex – the euphoria, or sensuality, even the brutality – into words.
When it comes to the Adults Only writers, Ken Barris suggests that good sex writing requires ‘an original angle, the right balance of distance and closeness, probably a sense of humour, and certainly the clarity not to perpetuate the usual morass of clichés.’ Anthony Ehlers boldly states, ‘Some writers play it tame when it comes to writing sex. My view is that a writer should not be afraid to write something radical, primal, personal’.
Wamuwi Mbao says, ‘I think stories are more interesting when they engage (rather than merely reflect) the true diversity of our nation.’Christine Coates emphasizes, ‘I wanted to turn Fifty Shades on its head. It made me angry. I had questions – what is missing in women’s lives that it is such a phenomenon? Is this what women want? It is soulless and not grounded in reality.’
In a nutshell, in reality it is as challenging to write about the nuances of feeling as it is to be more explicit. But as sex provides the most graphic detail as well as emotional resonance, it is important to linger a little with our bodies in relation to others and focus on the language of love and lust.
The beauty of fiction is that the writing allows the freedom to explore whatever themes and scenarios may intrigue. As readers we are exposed to imaginary accounts which might differ wildly from our real-life experience.
Chantelle Gray van Heerden, the writer of a BDSM (a combination of the following three phrases – Bondage and Discipline/ Dominance and Submission/ Sadism and Masochism) story that turns out to be the most hard-hitting in the collection,explains her approach: ‘Human sexuality has always interested me, but not so much in itself as where it bifurcates; where it becomes ‘unusual’. I am interested in why some people express their sexuality in different ways and how; what feeds these needs and why they are labelled as ‘different’. I often wonder why some people fear that which does not conform to the norm whilst others are able to embrace it – to embrace their own capacity to be different and feel different. I am interested in what those kinds of experiences allow for and what is possible when they can be held in a moment. And sometimes even a moment of lust.’
Writer Efemia Chela similarly commented on ‘difference’ or what could be described as sexual diversity: ‘I didn’t set out to be provocative… but I think it’s a shame that there are so few lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, inter-sex and questioning characters in African fiction. I want to write about all kinds of people, particularly those that have previously been, or are, silenced or stigmatized. I also wanted to thicken the plot by having characters with fluid sexuality. So I did. Mainly I just wanted to show a complex relationship. Straight relationships and gay relationships hold the same value for me so I find it no different to what I may have written about a heterosexual couple’.
This comment hits home. South Africa was progressive enough to be among the first countries to legalize gay marriage, but we read too often in the news about the heinous act of corrective rape.
Sex, whether we experience it as a translation of love, or as physical exercise, brings up all sorts of issues: Do we accept our bodies? Do we accept the sex drive as a natural instinct? Do we teach our children healthy attitudes towards sex?
It is imperative then that the conversation extend to pervasive issues of sexual abuse in society, with the ultimate challenge to consider why sex is too often used as a weapon against women and children.
With reference to the title of the anthology – Adults Only – the intention was not to suggest X-rated content, but rather to suggest content which reflects a mature (as opposed to defensive, antiquated or puerile) attitude to sex and sensuality. There is plenty between the covers to get tongues wagging.
Satisfying sex is release and relaxation; orgasm is ‘la petite mort’: transcendence, or spiritual release, or the oxytocin high sought by so many. Yet sex, an inescapable fact of life, remains shrouded with hang-ups and pre-conceived baggage; with agendas, with need. Sex is confused as power. Sex is used to manipulate, to subdue. Sex sells, sex hurts, sex is misunderstood. Sex is indeed controversial.
The hope is that readers, and society at large, not only celebrate sexuality so central to personal identity, and so openly written about in this brave collection, but take on the challenge of talking meaningfully about sex – of the enjoyment and complications alike.
The Short Sharp Stories Awards is funded by the National Arts festival. Adults Only is published by Mercury, an imprint of Burnet Media.
Next year’s Short Sharp Stories title is Incredible Journey.