Nuances and other stories by Dianne Stewart: reader impression

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Nuances and other stories
Fine Print Books, Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal
Dianne Stewart
2021

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

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Lord Nelson was famously said to have told his captain, “Kiss me, Hardie,” before expiring on the deck of his flagship. For years, like everyone else, I uncritically accepted the oddity of this account, before learning that what he actually said was, “Kismet, Hardie” – kismet, as in fate.
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Lord Nelson was famously said to have told his captain, “Kiss me, Hardie,” before expiring on the deck of his flagship. For years, like everyone else, I uncritically accepted the oddity of this account, before learning that what he actually said was, “Kismet, Hardie” – kismet, as in fate.

I got to thinking of this episode as I completed one of the more intriguing books I have read in recent weeks, a collection of short stories by South African writer Dianne Stewart, set mainly in South Africa, but also abroad. Her stories are all about the vicissitudes of fate in everyday life. We are all subject to the “closing doors” draw of the luck. Kismetically enigmatic, often arrested in time, intruding into events right in the middle of things – her characters rarely find meaning in what has befallen them.

...........
Her stories are all about the vicissitudes of fate in everyday life. We are all subject to the “closing doors” draw of the luck. Kismetically enigmatic, often arrested in time, intruding into events right in the middle of things – her characters rarely find meaning in what has befallen them.
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The stories are nihilistic, inasmuch as the author makes no judgements, moral or otherwise. If there is any meaning, it is up to the reader to decipher what that meaning might be, and to that extent they leave one restless and unsettled, but anxious to read on. The stories are quite addictive in this respect. The closest literary approximation – especially regarding the opening story, “Drought”, involving a woman alone on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal who is attacked by intruders – might be the American short story “A good man is hard to find” by Flannery O’Connor, a deeply unsettling, unresolved morality tale of good and evil. There is menace and risk in the events of everyday life, Stewart seems to be saying – even the most mundane events.

The effect is compounded by the author’s approach to the structure of her short stories, which avoids the classic conventions of a beginning, a middle and an end. Or, in the jargon parlance of today, an exposition or premise, an inciting moment and a denouement, preferably with a touch of catharsis somewhere in the tale.

Instead, the writer is more of the Fichtean Curve school of structure, which jumps across the exposition and inciting moment, and starts each story with the “rising action”.

Of the 20 stories, several stand out. One is “Nuances”, the titular story of the collection, which involves a would-be children’s author and a London agent who is initially welcoming, but who in fact specialises in rejecting writing offered to him, only to “dream-steal” and plagiarise the unpublished stories for his own work. In the preface, Stewart quotes Celeste Ng as saying, “Here she found, everything had nuance; everything has an unrevealed side or unexplored depths.” Indeed, and as the aspirant author in the story discovers, the very fact that her work was stolen and published under another name, means it was good enough to see the light of day.

“Car guard” is another of the stories which I found oddly affecting, and yet seemingly pointless in the unfathomable arc of fate – involving, as it does, a Mozambican without papers working in South Africa, who experiences xenophobia.

In this vein, and far from pointless, was “Homeless”, the best story in the collection, or at least the most moving from a character-driven point of view, involving the coincidental meeting between a white homeless father sleeping rough in Durban and his long-absent son. Written in spare prose, it serves as a tale of, if not hope, then at least the possibility of hope, for this reader at least.

Stewart spent years in KwaZulu-Natal, inter alia living on a sugar farm, and this has given her the confidence to place some of her stories in a Zulu setting – a language with which she is familiar. In our woke world, it has become almost obligatory for writers to confine themselves to writing only about their “lived experience” – men cannot simply invent plausible women characters, or whites write about blacks – but Stewart manages to invest her stories, no matter the gender or race of her characters, with complete conviction, not a note out of place.

The short story genre has attracted numerous South African writers in the past, too many to mention here, but those who stand out might include such writers as Herman Charles Bosman, Marita van der Vyver, Casey Motsisi, Dan Jacobson, Stuart Cloete and Elsa Joubert. The older generation of writers, the Cloetes and Bosmans, would, stylistically perhaps, be identified more with European writers like Guy de Maupassant or Saki, where themes on human frailty are explored and exposed: greed, avarice, envy, etc. The notion of a satisfying, morality-tale conclusion to this type of short story was also carried forward by more modern writers like Graham Greene, Ray Bradbury and especially Roald Dahl, through whose tales, as the Irish Times has observed, runs a vein of macabre malevolence, the more effective because it springs from slight, almost inconsequential things.

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Dianne Stewart’s stories are effective because they, too, are rooted in the modern everyday experience of ordinary people with whom we can identify. We cannot predict their ending in most cases, because they are often left open-ended, but it is our imaginations that supply the denouement, depending on which door we open – it puts the reader in the position of being an arbiter of fate.
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Dianne Stewart’s stories are effective because they, too, are rooted in the modern everyday experience of ordinary people with whom we can identify. We cannot predict their ending in most cases, because they are often left open-ended, but it is our imaginations that supply the denouement, depending on which door we open – it puts the reader in the position of being an arbiter of fate.

Nuances deserves a wider readership than I suspect it is getting. Stewart has been better known as an award-winning children’s author: The dove, 1992, The gift of the sun, 1996, and The guineafowl’s spots and other African bird tales, 2007. This foray into adult short stories is a relatively recent departure from her usual style, and bodes well for her future writing.

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