Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Peter-Adrian Altini, author of “Hanna. With two N’s”

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Fluid book cover: Karavan Press; Peter-Adrian Altini, photo: provided

Short.Sharp.Stories is a platform showcasing top and emerging South African fiction writers. The theme of this year’s anthology is Fluid – freedom to be. Fluid, this year’s Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, seeks to engage fictional expression around identity, culture and society.

Karina Magdalena Szczurek conducts interviews with the respective short story writers.

Below is a mini-interview between Karina Magdalena Szczurek and Peter-Adrian Altini, author of the short story “Hanna. With two N’s”  in the 2023 Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, Fluid.

KMS: You write in many forms and genres. What draws you to the short story?

PAA: The short story is all about compression. For a writer it’s a deeply satisfying medium because you can distil ideas down to their essence as well as hone your craft and see the results so much sooner. The great Irish short story writer Frank O'Connor thought it a pure form, “motivated by its own necessities rather than by our convenience”. But what is more wonderful than the punch and poetry of the short form and the pleasure of reading it in a single sitting?

What is more wonderful than the punch and poetry of the short form and the pleasure of reading it in a single sitting?

KMS: Your story in Fluid, “Hanna. With two N’s", is based on a horrifying historical fact. How did you come across the true story?

PAA: While watching the movie Moffie (Oliver Hermanus) and having read André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiography when it was first published, I found myself drawn to the terrors hinted at when they referenced Ward 22, a place that gay men and women (and other so-called deviants – even drug users) were taken to be “cured”. This led me down a horrifying rabbit hole of research and I was just amazed by the fact that so few people are aware that such atrocities had even taken place. There was obviously no single perpetrator, but Aubrey Levin, a colonel and psychiatrist, was a key figure in the systematic abuse and torture of these soldiers in his effort to eradicate homosexuality from the SADF. He escaped to Canada before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report named him as one of the abusers of human rights, but was later found guilty of sexually assaulting his male patients while practising in Calgary. It was clear to me from the beginning that this had to be a story of revenge.

KMS: What can this past show us about our present?

PAA: The Aversion Project was a dark stain on humanity and on the history of this country. The LGBT+ community has always suffered terrible abuse and discrimination. We are taught that homosexuality is harmful and shameful, and even though so much progress has been made, we have seen today how easily that progress can be eroded. While South Africa’s Constitution has much to be proud of, at a grassroots level there is still so much hate and fear. So we need to continue to fight for our rights, and for the rights of those who are still denied them in other places. A wonderful project worth supporting is Where Love is Illegal, reminding us that where bigotry thrives, telling our stories remains our most powerful defence.

KMS: Why do you think so many of us perceive difference as a threat?

PAA: We are told to fit in, to conform, to behave in a certain way. To fear the unknown. We repress our true natures, often to the detriment of others. Throughout history, perceived differences have incited communities to violence. Scapegoat ideologies have started whole wars. Minority groups “threaten” the majority, whether through race, religion or sexuality, and unfortunately these societal prejudices can have devastating consequences. In our modern online world, social media algorithms are designed to exploit this and widen the gap further.

Those in power should educate or inform, when in most cases they are actively fostering perceived differences to galvanise support for their own warped agendas.

Those in power should educate or inform, when in most cases they are actively fostering perceived differences to galvanise support for their own warped agendas.

KMS: You are a university lecturer. Where and which subjects do you lecture?

PAA: I teach at Sciences Po and the École de Guerre, the Paris “war school” for high-level French officers. I also teach LBGT+ film studies at the Institute Catholic and run leadership and filmmaking workshops at a number of business schools. It’s quite varied and allows me to practise my two great loves: the English language and cinema. I also get to work with young people, and their engagement, determination and creativity are always so impressive and it keeps me on my toes.

KMS: How does your screenwriting influence your fiction?

PAA: The process of writing a script is so different from that of writing a novel (or short story for that matter) and oftentimes quite collaborative. There is a real emphasis on craft and technique and each definitely informs the other. A “well-written” screenplay is not always the objective, whereas expressing things succinctly and highlighting the essential is key.

My prose tends to be quite descriptive and cinematic in scope as well as the way I might structure scenes and intercut between them.

My prose tends to be quite descriptive and cinematic in scope as well as the way I might structure scenes and intercut between them. When writing a novel, I still need to learn to be ruthless, build my story in scenes and use tension to drive every scene, which is easier said than done, especially in work which is more character rather than plot driven, though they are two sides of the same coin.

KMS: What motivates you to enter writing competitions such as Short.Sharp.Stories?

PAA: The first story I wrote was placed in the top 10 of the Fish anthology and when it appeared in actual book form it was such an incredible feeling. I haven’t always had the same luck when it comes to placing a story, and of course being a writer means becoming inured to rejection, but writing competitions are wonderful places to realise you might have a voice worth listening to.

KMS: Do you have a favourite short story writer, local or international?

PAA: Ivan Vladislavić is an incredibly accomplished local short story writer. Ursula K Le Guin should be compulsory reading for anyone who loves literature and the short form.

KMS: Please tell us more about your completed novel, Salt water pool boy?

PAA: A tender portrait of the giving of care, the longing for intimacy and the heartbreak of letting go, Salt water pool boy charts a young man’s journey through grief and love. Grappling with his mother’s terminal illness while hiding his sexuality from her, Damon falls for the confident Nico at Cape Town’s Sea Point pool. His desire to be truthful is tested when his mother’s health takes a turn for the worse, forcing him to choose between Nico and an unspeakable promise to help end her life. When Damon later moves to Rome to escape his grief, an obsession with a male prostitute risks blinding him from his one true chance at finding love. Twelve years on and craving an intimacy with his long-term partner he can only find in a string of one-night stands; a casual hookup in Paris threatens to open rather than heal old wounds, reminding Damon he has yet to fully come to terms with his troubled past. Inspired by Damon Galgut’s In a strange room (hence the name of the central protagonist!) and drawing largely on my own life and experience, I wanted to write a novel in three parts, each section devoted to exploring the complicated nature of desire, identity and loss.

Also read:

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Alex Latimer, author of "YOLO"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Kingsley Khobotlo, author of "Against the grain"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Yuwinn Kraukamp, author of the short story "iHeart you now and always"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Jarred Thompson, author of the short story "What we ride in on"

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