Jarred Thompson is a South African short story laureate. The 27 year old creative writer is an English graduate from Alabama State University, USA. A blogger, novelist and playwright, Thompson has just completed his Masters in English through the University of Johannesburg. He has been shortlisted for The Gerald Kraak Award, longlisted for the Sol Plaatje Poetry Award, and Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Hé was also runner-up in the GamaPhile Writers Competition and, recently, winner of Afritondo Short Story Prize competition for 2020 with an entry, “Good Help is Hard to Find.” In this electronic mail interview with Simeon Mpamuguh, he shares his experiences as a writer and sundry issues.
Can we know a little about your background and how you got wind of Afritondo Short Story Prize?
I’m a 27 year old, queer, South African living in Johannesburg, South Africa. I saw numerous posts about the competition, and I had just finished writing a story that linked up nicely with the theme of the competition, so that’s why I entered.
How do you feel winning the competition?
It feels amazing and, to be honest, a little daunting, too because, now, I feel that people will expect certain things from me. There’s nothing wrong with a little expectation, per say, as long as I don’t allow it to affect what I truly want to express. I’ve also been shortlisted for The Gerald Kraak Award, and longlisted for the Sol Plaatje Poetry Award and Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I was also runner-up in the GamaPhile Writers competition.
Tell us subjects of your various inclinations as a writer
Firstly, I’m drawn to narrating queer lives in all forms and expressions. I’m also drawn to exploring the everyday. By this I mean speaking about those overlooked moments in our daily lives that really are beautiful if you look at them with fresh eyes. Because my own sexuality is seen as such a taboo in many places in the world, I am drawn to taboo topics and pushing the boundary in what literature can express or talk about.
What is the setting of your winning story “Good Help is Hard to Find?” and major issues you try to deconstruct?
The main setting is a wealthy neighbourhood called Saxonworld in Johannesburg. In the story, I try and interrogate notions of privilege, especially white privilege, and class difference while also exploring the ways in which people from different backgrounds and different
classes still depend on each other. As an author, I want to write stories that make people think differently about the relations that make up their everyday reality. I also want to be able to capture those nomadic feelings that are sometimes really hard to pin down in words. Most often, we think that emotions or feelings come in neat cookie-cutter boxes, but real life is not like that, and I want to show that. None of my works are jejuned for me—they all spring from an interest in a particular aspect of human existence or even animal existence as I’ve written stories that center squarely on animals.
As a South African writer, what advocacy are you pushing to Africa and Europe with your writings ?
I’m in the business of paying witness to South African realities in a variety of ways. Paying witness to structural imbalances of gender, sexuality, race and class is in itself its own advocacy. At the same time, to create literary art, I cannot simply write pieces with advocacy in mind. When I sit down to write I sit down to create authentic connections across space and time with my words. It’s those authentic connections that I hope resonate with a variety across our differences. This is what art does, not by allowing ‘advocacy’ to overshadow style or aesthetic, but by finding a way where the two interpenetrate one another.
How would you spend the Afritondo prize money? Also, tell us the meeting point between “Good Help is Hard to Find” and cruelty in the light of rising cases of domestic violence?
The money is going to allow me to pay my bills for a few months. LOL. On the meeting point between my story and cruelty in the light of rising cases of domestic violence, I think the story picks up on the weariness and suspicion inherent in our societies where women, especially single mothers, genuinely fear for the lives of their children. This is a stark reality and, while the story touches on it in passing, the pressure for my main character to ensure the safety of her daughter is a very real reality for a lot of women in South Africa.
What personal encounter did you have that triggered the winning story?
I got a job house sitting in an apartment near where the story is set. While I stayed there, I just observed the very big divide between the haves and the have nots. However, despite this divide, the two still needed each other. I found that interesting and wanted to explore it. The knot of the tale? Pamela, a domestic worker, overhears that her boss, Mrs Carien De Villiers, is having an affair with another woman. This secret sets off a chain of events that Pamela pays witness to, finally seeing her boss unravel at the end of the story and being the only one there, in Mrs. Devilliers’ big house, to help her.
The judges said they loved your story because of its “unhurried style.” What was in the foreboding as you set out to craft thé story?
I wanted the story to submerse the reader in the everyday life of my main character. To do this, I had to take my time and detail the hours of Pamela’s working day very carefully. I also wanted Pamela to be the voyeur in this instance — voyeur to another story happening alongside her own; a story that showed another side to her employer that she didn’t have full access to but that she could observe with fascination.
“From comfort of routine, trust and laughter,” perspectives of the story to its “queer treatment of everyday life, peppered with humour and warmth” attributes, what is your take on ‘love,’ and the way we express it in Africa?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak for the whole of Africa, but I will speak about where I ‘m: South Africa. I think, in South Africa, our notions of love are still very conservative and heteronormative. This is, however, slowly changing as people are experimenting with new ways of relating to each other, finding support and love in friendships rather than limiting themselves to finding love with their romantic partner. I do think that there is room to be more expressive and vulnerable towards the people we love, especially for men: who often are brought up not to express their feelings and be vulnerable in front of other men or women
In “Good Help is Hard to Find ” are you mirroring Europe or Africa where communal life is more prevalent?
The title is a turn of phrase that refers to how people sometimes overlook the help that they do have around them. In other words, it’s referring to the way class privilege blinds us to the comforts and pleasures we do have over other people whose lives are a lot harder than our own. It’s an ironic title, because, as the story shows, help is there for the characters in the story. Some see the help they have, and are grateful for it, and others are completely blind to it.