Monday Motivation: Just a slender thread of story
‘He might be dead.
‘It’s dreadful but it’s true. Bobby, my younger brother, pulls at my hand and asks again, “Where’s Dr. Congo-man?”’
So starts Inessa Rajah’s essay that won her first prize in The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition, 2016 – the longest-running contest of its kind in the world. It’s been overseen by the Royal Commonwealth Society, and its forerunners, since 1883, and currently does so in partnership with Cambridge University Press.
So it’s no mean thing to have won it, and our congratulations are due Inessa, a 17-year-old schoolgirl from Durban, KZN.
The reason I’m focusing on her achievement has, though, little to do with the prize, and everything to do with the writing.
Because what Inessa’s pulled off here is a minor tour de force in which she has yoked emotion to make her political and philosophical points – and she’s done so by threading a story through her argument.
What is that argument? Well, simply put, it is that in South Africa, which fought so long for democracy and the recognition of human rights, we all bear a share of the responsibility for the xenophobia that periodically breaks out across the country.
That’s the theme. But what gives it its power, what welds it together, is the story that Inessa has woven through it.
The story concerns the relationship that grows between the writer’s little brother, and a Congolese refugee. The Congolese man works as a car-guard. The writer discovers, however, that he qualified as a doctor in the Congo. He is warm-hearted, kind and generous, helping carry her mother’s shopping to her car, making friends with her little brother, murmuring the odd French phrase.
But then, one day, when Inessa and her brother are sheltering from the rain while they wait for their mother to finish her shopping, she realises that he’s slipped away unseen from her side. She panics, casts about for him, before finding him to her great relief talking to the man her brother has taken to calling Dr Congo-man.
She approaches them, prepared to scold her brother for running away – and then notices “the atrocious laceration on the man’s arm. Words abandon me. The wound looks like a burn, and my eyes well with pity.”
But her pity is comingled with guilt, because she has never paid enough attention to the car guard even to ask him his name…
The essay is, as I say, emotionally powerful. It should be required reading for every South African – and a good many in every country in which “the refugee question” has begun to influence elections and attitudes.
But, the more I dwell on Inessa’s essay, the more I admire that slender thread of narrative… the little boy reacting to the shy charm of the nameless refugee… the unnoticed welt… the upsurge of guilt and pity…
How much more visceral are these details than a complex, abstract argument?
Think about what this means to your own writing. We love to write lyrical description; we think we’re gifted in that way; and it gives us a chance to show off our vocabulary and our delicate sensibility.
But it’s the thread of story, the links that join cause and effect, the onward rush of incident, the suspense of not knowing what’s coming next, that drives readers on.
Once you have that story working for you, you can hang the odd line, even the odd paragraph of description, of introspection, of reflection, of analysis, on it.
But it’s the story, as Inessa Rajah demonstrates, that makes everything else work.
Her essay ends like this:
‘The man does not notice my guilt, or perhaps he does and finds it as pointless as I do. He is pointing at something behind me, to which Bobby turns his attention, his face breaking open in delight.
‘It is a rainbow- iridescent in the remnants of the rain.
‘“C’est magnifique, oui?” says the kind man.
‘Bobby laughs, enthralled by the rainbow’s beauty- and I smile at the sound of his laugh, a universally wondrous noise.
‘I look at the man and we are smiling together. Perhaps we do have something in common. Perhaps we all do.
‘I ask the man his name. His smile broadens – and he replies.’