Jason Mykl Snyman is one of the contributors to the The Year of Free Birds Anthology. He lives in South Africa.
The Year of Free Birds is available for download as an ebook here.
AGBOOLA TIMI: I’m quite eager to jump right into the meat of this but, first, let’s know a bit about you. Who is Jason Mykl Snyman?
JASON SNYMAN: Well, I’m a writer from South Africa. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. In 2014 I submitted the first real short story I ever wrote – What If You Slept? – to Short Story Day Africa’s Terra Incognita prize. The story made their short list.
This opened some other doors for me. I started taking writing more seriously, and further stories were published by Expound, Jalada, New Contrast, Kalahari Review and more, and the reception to my work really boosted my confidence.
Five years later I’m a full time writer. I got lucky. I get to do what I love for a living, and meet and learn from the most amazing people. I now serve on the board of Short Story Day Africa, helping other writers from all across Africa hone their craft and follow their passions. We’re just about to release the Hotel Africa anthology, which is absolute quality.
I’ve also served as the Fiction Editor for Expound since their second issue, which has been really rewarding. Other than that, I have a number of other projects in the pipeline. I’m always busy.
That’s a most delightful personal story to hear — you seem to have literally had a place carved out for you with your own words and that’s quite the dream of every up and coming writer on the continent. Now, let’s talk about your story, “The Centennial Game” in the Year of Free Birds anthology. It’s quite the unusual story, I must say. Teju Cole tells us that the point of all creative writing is to take readers down into a narrative space they’ve never been before. Your story does that with graceful conviction. What would you say inspired it? What is behind the envisioning of this space?
The Centennial Game is comprised of many little ideas that I had – small pieces that slowly fell into place at the right time.
I’ve always been fascinated with chess, and in particular sans voir – blindfold chess. The dedication, the strategy, the memorizing and visualization of the pieces on the board. Of course, it’s one thing for a practiced composer of the game to play it equally well with a blindfold on, and another entirely for a lover of the game to grow blind with age, and carry that mastery of chess with them through the years. I wanted to tell a story about a blind chess master, and how impossible it may seem to those of us who can see, and how the ability to see really doesn’t matter when you’ve spent a great part of your life playing for your very existence.
I’ve also always been interested in the bargaining of our souls and lives, to put it all on the line in something as volatile as a game. The Seventh Seal, Chris De Burgh’s Spanish Train. What is the value of the human soul? What would you risk for just a little more time?
I liked the idea of basing a story in a monastery dedicated to and inhabited and cared for by the blind. I liked the idea of building the most beautiful garden the world has ever seen, bursting with light and colour, which none among them could see.
And, of course, human beings have always had a strange and fascinating relationship with death, and perhaps, death with us, if you buy into that sort of thing. It’s a romantic notion. I wanted to explore that. I wanted to see, and feel, and experience life as a human being forever on the brink of death. At the same time, I wanted to look at humanity through the lens of something inhuman. A force beyond our own understanding. What a mess we are. What a bundle of fears and nerves and irrationality. How desperately we cling to everything around us. How we allow these emotions and thoughts to lord over our hearts. How pathetic and stupid and weak we must seem, to something that has never, and will never feel what we feel.
These are uncomfortable spaces to be put in, and facets of ourselves that we don’t enjoy acknowledging. By exploring it willingly, though, we gain greater insight into who we are. Our longings, our fears, our insecurities, our loneliness.
And so, it all came together, and one dark night in the monastery, death itself visits our blind chess composer, to play a game of chess for his life, as they have done nine and ninety times before.
It’s so good to hear of your interest in chess but we will get back to that [later]. Reading “The Centennial Game”, one would notice the odd, slightly archaic, slightly formal, use of English prose. This—for me—quickly resolves itself further into the story, as the language, like a grainy monochrome filter, seems perfect to convey the themes of age and time, mystery and memories, among others. From the author’s perspective, [I think] writing like this requires a consistency and conviction of inner voice. Was the choice to write in this specific way a spontaneous one or something you arrived at later (in the editing process)? Or is it just exactly how you write like (?) [— hope not, though that’d be really fascinating.]
I do a lot of planning in my stories. Once I have the general plot mapped out, I start looking at the characters. Who they are, where they come from, their history and so on and so forth. A lot of these details don’t make it into the story, because I don’t want to flood the reader with information that doesn’t carry the story forward. The reader doesn’t need to know every detail of what a character is wearing, for example, because I do.
I’m a firm believer that the world should service the story, and not the other way around. Knowing who my characters are, and how they react to the world and certain situations, allows me to write them in a way that, I hope, the reader can relate to them and know them. I like writing about real people who have been thrust into abnormal scenarios.
So, I knew who Abidan Cointe was before I sat down to write the story. I knew what he sounded like and I knew his history. I knew that he was a very old man, facing a force as old as time itself. The way I wrote the story – in that odd, slightly archaic type of prose – was in service to the characters. To write it any other way would have been inconsistent to the themes and emotions I wanted to explore.
Abidan Cointe is a character that grows on us. In his dalliance with Death, in his solitude, in his rational fear, we find someone we know. Even Death, that harbinger of things unspeakable, takes on an oddly familiar shape. He is fond of Abidan Cointe. He plays with him almost like a loving parent does. He tells him stories of his past adventures — you could even assume he’s chatty. It seems that for Death, this is one part of his job that he likes and is unwilling to let go. And yet, nevertheless, he remains alien to us. Death wonders about mortality, remembers all sorts of strange things, considers life and its ending more like a game. The story ultimately becomes about Death itself and our fragility in the hands of forces beyond human control. “The Centennial Game” is a stunning work of fiction, nothing other than the product of a very good literary mind. I’m sure readers are dying to know more about the mind behind this story and the minds (or creative products) that have influenced it.
Thank you for your kind words. “The Centennial Game” is very much about our relationship with death. Death, in both theme and in personification, plays lead fiddle. Abidan is more of a mirror, held up for us to gawk at. All of my characters have something that gnaws at them, whether it be fear, grief, illness, paranoia or ambition. What that says about me, I’m not too sure. As a conscious being, Death suffers from something similar. By nature, he is uncompromising. He’s spent so long entertaining this little bargain between himself and Abidan, though, that the old man is perhaps the closest thing to a friend that he’s ever had.
I like to think that Death wouldn’t have treated anybody else with the same compassion, or interest, or attention.
I’m not too sure who, or what, my influences are. People, first and foremost, influence most of what I write. Real life and real people are so much more fascinating and strange than anything I could create all by myself. I like to keep notebooks, record little bits and pieces, watch and listen, and learn. I draw a lot of inspiration from those around me. Everybody has a story, right?
As far as writers whom I enjoy go, I’ve always been partial to Cormac McCarthy, Hunter S Thompson, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Charles Bukowski. Those are my go-to guys. As far as my writing process goes, I’m incredibly slow. I spend ages plotting stories out, thinking about them, allowing them to grow in their own ways.
As Rahla Xenopoulos once put it, ‘unwritten characters will grow feral in your head.’ Once that character names itself, it’s time to pull the trigger. Then I just sit down and get it done in silence.
Fascinating. As an aside, there’s an abundance of absolutely gorgeous prose in “The Centennial Game,” tell us how important prose is to you.
It’s a tricky thing, prose. As a writer, you want your prose elevated to something beyond the ordinary, but you don’t want it too flowery, or it won’t be accessible to many readers. It’ll get away from you if you let it. In the past, I’ve gotten some flack for this, and I’ve tried to learn from it.
I think it’s something that differs from writer to writer, though, as they try to find their voice, and the way I write is very much a part of who I am, how I feel, how I think, and what I enjoy reading. You’ve heard the saying, less is more, right? And the way I write has sort of evolved from that. Trying to say more with less, and trying to evoke as much emotion with it as I can.
The writers I mentioned [just now] all have very distinct voices. Prose plays a big part in that. You know their work when you read it.
We tend to see the writer’s process through rose-tinted glasses. We want to believe that a writer runs on high emotion, reckless abandon, bleeds upon the page, and to some extent that’s true. We can so often feel what our favourite authors are feeling – no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader, right? But the unromantic truth is that it’s often a lot more methodical than that.
You have to be methodical if you want to maintain control over the story, and try to play to your strengths, and hopefully the readers will respond the way you would like them to.
In your story, and in other stories in the Year of Free Birds anthology, age and darkness are correlated, and darkness to death. The characters constantly seem a whisper away from death, from an impending doom. Would you say this is a good reflection of reality, even as blindness obviously makes it difficult to navigate through the world?
Long after writing the The Centennial Game, I spoke to two blind people about it. One of them blind from birth, and another who had grown blind due to diabetes-related complications.
We couldn’t explain colour, for example, to the person who had been blind from birth. Where would you even begin? But this person was a high-functioning adult. Probably more functional than I am. He was comfortable in it, it was all he’d ever known. The person who had grown blind later on in life found it harder to adapt in the beginning, and initially experienced this sense of doom much the same way that we would if we were suddenly blindfolded and told to go out and navigate a world of sharp objects. It’s that fear of the unfamiliar, of things that are completely out of our control.
Abidan’s sense of impending doom arrives from his complete fear of death, as well as the sense that he’s wasted most of his borrowed time – and eyesight – running away from it. He knows that his time will come, either this year or the next or the next, and should have come a long time ago. He knows that his life depends upon his prowess upon the chessboard, that his fate is in his own hands, in a game of order, in a disorderly world. In a sense, this is a terrible feeling to have. It causes him anxiety.
Let’s go back to your story one last time. At the end of Part II, we are told that Death makes the first move on the chessboard. Also, in Part IV, Abidan Cointe’s chess pieces are black. It was very exhilarating to read these parts for two different reasons. One, I thought that a universal truth was passed along—death will make the first move on us. It is always one step ahead, always waiting, perhaps with a smile on its face. The second one was also great to read, because, as a small enthusiast for the game of chess, the attention to detail indicated an author who cared about getting the small things right. I loved that, and I think many others will love it as well as they get increasingly familiar with your work. That said, what is Jason Snyman doing next? What should curious readers and fans of your work expect in the coming months?
Thank you again for your kind words, it’s always nice to know that the work you put into something is appreciated. As you noted, fiction isn’t always perfect – sometimes it just can’t be – but we all try our best. It’s these little details, such as the significance of Death making the first move, as well as the greater research, such as plotting out an entire game of chess with two alternative endings, that make any story what it is. All we can hope for is for somebody to notice it, and enjoy the story.
Well, as I mentioned, I’m a terribly slow writer. I’m currently working on a number of exciting projects – including two collections of short stories – which may or may not be completed this year. Some of my work is available on my personal blog – The Strange Brontides – which I try to keep updated, and of course, there are always big things happening with Short Story Day Africa and Expound.
Amazing, Jason. I’ve enjoyed having this conversation with you. I am also delighted to being able to look forward to more of your work. Thank you for having me and thank you for the pleasure of “The Centennial Game”. The Afro Anthology team is honoured.
Thank you very much.
Jason Snyman is one of the contributors to the The Year of Free Birds Anthology. He lives in South Africa.