Joanne Hichens is unashamed about what she wants sexually.  Picture: LIESL JOBSON
Joanne Hichens is unashamed about what she wants sexually. Picture: LIESL JOBSON

JOANNE Hichens’s candour is delicious and disconcerting. Widowed earlier this year, the contradictions and dichotomies of her life are many. She talks fast with jittery gestures, launching into the back story of Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality. This erotic collection contains the winning tales selected from about 150 entries received for the second Short Sharp Stories Award, SA’s newest and most lucrative authors’ competition.

The competition’s start was pragmatic: "I needed a job, God dammit! I had a vision of how to address the loneliness of writing, the desire for contact with other writers and the need for an income while my own novel got written."

Seated beside Tony Lankester, the CEO of the National Arts Festival, at a fancy dinner, she shared her dream for a competition to encourage new writers and reinsert the short story on the literary landscape. Since the collapse of the SA PEN short story award, there has been little recognition for this ugly stepchild, a form that she loves.

Adults Only is the fourth short story collection she has edited. "Tony opened his wallet and wrote out a R50,000 cheque. ‘There’s your prize money and a small curator’s fee’."

Hichens waves at her home’s tired paintwork. "We were going to fix this place up," she says, then steers the conversation over to her own brand of feminism, and her irritation with the institution of marriage. She is unashamed about what she wants sexually and holds no truck with slut-shaming. She reflects on the place of the erotic in society, once again reversing the dynamic of the interview, asking me questions.

Is she flirting? Do I imagine this? Her quicksilver focus darts from her early career as an art therapist in a psychiatric clinic to her PhD in Creative Writing at Wits University. She skips to the financial challenges of supporting her student daughters, then mentions her preteen son’s karate contest win in the weeks after his father’s death. Interspersed in this mercurial narrative are the judges’ disagreements in selecting the finalists, the sifting of porn from erotica, the juggling of editorial decisions required to put Adults Only to bed.

It is hard to believe, yet not surprising, she insisted on completing the anthology a month after driving her husband Robert into the Constantiaberg Clinic emergency room. "Like in the movies," she recalls, "the doctor said, ‘Will you please sit down...’ I knew the worst had happened. I refused to be seated."

She turns philosophical. In the first year of the competition she solicited stories in the crime fiction genre, where her own previous titles are located: Divine Justice, Out to Score (co-authored with Mike Nicol) and Sweet Paradise. She felt confident assessing narratives in that trope. In the second year she invited erotic stories in a conscious attempt to ponder her frustration.

"Marriage is an outdated institution that ‘socialises’ and ‘civilises’ us under the influence of religion and normative values." She wanted more, "but the idea of living differently puts society in turmoil. And turmoil is painful; better avoided."

The sea seen from her home is so blue it is a parody. Her Facebook updates show her late husband, a barefoot artist and chef, on the beach, the brilliant white sand a mockery of paradise. Her eyes darken. "I loved Robert, would give everything to have him back. He was my pal and my one-man support system, but I was frustrated. Life was ordinary and predictable, even the sex.

"Coming from a home where ‘marriage’ was inevitable, I wanted to push the boundaries. It took many years to consider that ‘partnership’ might be more satisfying. I was dissatisfied but it wasn’t worth breaking it up for an illusive fantasy. I really wanted to get our marriage on track."

Her directness doesn’t waver. She acknowledges her desire to peer through a window into different sexual expressions. "I wanted to see how other people live out their sexual and sensual lives via their fiction. I wondered how writers would interpret the brief, and anticipated having a lot of fun." She got close to that.

Instead of renovating the kitchen she and Robert spent a summer in Greece. He cooked. They worked well together. "I wanted more. I wanted to travel to far-off places. And then he up and left me!"

It is not too big a stretch to imagine Hichens stepping into the pages of Adults Only, where the characters of the terrific stories each speak a line directly to her, their editor and compiler. Indeed, these lovers, wounded and resilient, funny and fighting, report from "the chaos of eros". The tender and bold accounts of yearning are heartbreaking and heartening. They speak to all who risk the backwash in the wake of love, those who drown and those who emerge.

Efemia Chela’s character says, "She could make you feel like you were enough." Ken Barris’s narrator says: "Louka is ecstatic pain, knowledge withheld, territory unknown — the mystery of Louka remains extreme." Alexander Matthews’s voice says, "I felt something, but it wasn’t enough."

Chantelle Gray van Heerden reflects that "respite is never found in the kindness of those you know best". Donve Lee’s character says, "Why this position unlocks so much in her is a question she has yet to answer." Aryan Kaganof writes, "She had a way of complicating things, a way of turning everything upside down and inside out."

Wamuwi Mbao’s character sums it up: "Part of you, proud and boastful, wants to share your conquest with the world. The other part of you knows it is you who has been conquered."

The book is a gem. Adults Only is a nuanced, sensitive and intelligent collection of fine stories that stimulate in the broadest sense, representing a wide range of erotic engagement. The best of them nudge the reader to a deep introspection of his or her own encounters with love and lust.

The language ranges from the subtle, lyrical and poignant to the overtly sexual, sophisticated and occasionally the hilarious.

Hichens’s own writing is moving towards nonfiction. "I want to uncover the truth about other people as well as myself. I’m fascinated by how we cope with the common currency of ... grief. I hate things to change. The shifting city, people growing older, dying, unfinished business. That’s the basis of my next work, an autobiographical account of living in Cape Town."

She is dealing with her loss and everything that goes with it.

"I’m living in this sore place without Rob and life’s rather too real. But my kids are real. And apple crumble. And dinner must be made. And whisky is real! Just a small one…"

Hichens refuses to sit down. The trip continues. So does the Short Sharp Stories Award. There is some weird energetic echo going on here. But then, what would one expect? The theme of next year’s prize is "Incredible Journey". Send in your entry.

• The Short Sharp Stories Award for South African short-story fiction is made each year by the National Arts Festival. Visit  Short Sharp Stories Award for details.