Nostalgia and hope animate Christine Coates’ The Lightness of Lies, the story of a widow who perceives more than a foreign(ers’) invasion in the robed newcomers who descend on her Free State dorpie and, for a while, stir animosity in its community members. The Lightness of Lies, has been longlisted for The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! (2018)

What was the germination of your story? 

The story came to me in strands and in snippets of ideas, and had been germinating over time. Some time ago I’d heard about a sect that had moved to a small town to separate themselves. They believed they were ‘chosen’ and were waiting for the end of days when they would be saved. This lodged in my mind and fermented. I am also drawn to ‘outsider’ artists, poets and writers and so my main character developed, inspired by such outsiders as Helen Martins. I wanted to explore the human tendency to define ourselves in opposition to the ‘other’. Religion tends to do this, to separate rather than unite. I decided to explore what would happen in a small community, made up of different groups who have historically seen themselves as different from each other – what would happen if a completely strange and different group came among them? Would they behave differently, would they unite against the other? I wanted to examine how some things change, die off and some things stay the same.

In what way would you say your writing is political?

I don’t have a specific political agenda. I dislike it when stories overtly push a political or religious message or demand that everyone must see the world as the author sees it. I believe in looking at things from every aspect, trying out different views, standing in the other’s shoes. I like my stories to challenge and question accepted notions. 

What are your opinions on religion, especially regarding how it is talked about in African literature?

Literature should explore the oppressive side of religion especially where it is imposed on a group of people, where it attempts to rob the individual of personal choice, where it seeks to mould the individual to fit into what is considered the norm. Literature’s role is to challenge this – especially how in colonial times religion was imposed on others, and how it diminished or tried to obliterate traditional African religions and culture.

What lesson are you hoping readers will take from your story?

I don’t try and push a message or lesson on readers. I’m not didactic or moralistic. I hope the reader will allow their own thoughts and engage with the story. In this story I wanted to explore how groups coalesce against a perceived “other”, how they define themselves in relation to difference, how groups may feel intrinsically superior to others. It’s a common human behaviour and one that has caused much unhappiness in the world. Humans may have different ways of being, relating, and worshipping but we really have much more in common than we think. I believe these times call for a radical shift in human and societal thinking as the world experiences (once again) the displacement of huge populations all because of religion and ideology. 

… in colonial times religion was imposed on others … it diminished or tried to obliterate traditional African religions and culture

Christine Coates

What advice would you give to beginning writers?

To explore everything, read widely, take risks, be willing to let your writing take huge chances, take detours, allow left fields, curved balls. Find a unique way of telling a story, allow every radical idea. Allow your first thoughts and drafts to be wildly creative. You can always rein things in a bit in your final draft.