Live long and prosper, SFFSA!
Interview with Gail Jamieson,
one of the committee members of SFFSA (Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa),
on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the association
by Alberto Panicucci
[published on RiLL.it in July 2019]
I don't think it often happens, when it comes to Fantasy, to think of South Africa.
Of course, the inventor of Middle-earth, JRR Tolkien, was born in Bloemfontein,
which even today is one of the most important cities in the country,
but in general it is much more immediate to connect South Africa with Nelson Mandela
(and to the long battle against the apartheid),
or to the diamond and gold mines,
or perhaps to the flora and fauna, characterized there by a very high rate of biodiversity.
And yet, in this country with three capitals (Cape Town, Pretoria and the aforementioned Bloemfontein),
with twelve official languages and an area of 1.2 million square kilometers
(about four times Italy, but with more or less our own population size)
there is also room for fans of imaginary literature.
Since 1969 SFFSA (Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa has been active,
with which RiLL has the pleasure of collaborating since 2015.
Our collaboration has led, to date, to the publication (on the
anthologies of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018)
of four stories awarded by their South African friends in their NOVA competition;
at the same time PROBE, the associative magazine of the SFFSA,
has proposed to its readers several tales winners of the RiLL Trophy 4
(the next will be "Front of the mirror", first classified in 2017,
which will be included in the number 181, to be released in September 2019).
In June 2019, SFFSA celebrated its 50th anniversary
On this occasion, PROBE 180 was released, a special issue that contains
speeches and articles by people and clubs that collaborate (or have
collaborated) with SFFSA. We RiLLini were honored to be invited to talk
about our partnership with South African friends; furthermore, we
considered it appropriate to dedicate a space to this event on RiLL.it.
South Africa is a gigantic country, in which to create and keep alive for
several decades a network of people who share "only" the passion for
something is not at all easy. Today many of the communications between the
members of the SFFSA pass through the Internet, which simplifies things a
little ... but, in any case, reaching fifty years of activity is a truly significant
milestone, and as far as I know in Italy there is no such thing.
association or club or group in the field of Fantasy
that has such a long history behind it.
It is with pleasure, therefore, that we present to our readers this interview
with Gail Jamieson, one of the SFFSA managers, as well as a very long-time member of the association (and below portrayed smiling in the photo).
For ... an unexpected journey in far South Africa!
First of all, Gail, can I ask you to introduce the SFFSA association to our readers?
What is your focus, your activities and how you manage your initiatives ...
As far as I know, SFFSA is the only South African club that deals with fantasy and science fiction.
We call ourselves a literary club, but to be honest we have become a mainly social club with members who love SF and Fantasy.
We are active in the province of Gauteng, the most populated area of South Africa
(the one in which Johannesburg and Pretoria are located -Editor's Note);
although we have members in most of the other eight provinces and a scattering of overseas members
(Canada, USA, Australia and European countries).
We meet once a month and on those occasions we usually have a speaker.
Usually on the hard sciences side but on the literally side when we can get someone.
We average about twenty people at a meeting and almost always finish up with a dinner and lots of talk.
We occasionally go out as a group to an interesting place, like the
Vreedefort Meteor Crater
(the largest meteorite crater on Earth, with a diameter of about 300 km -Ed);
and we went up North to go and see a Total Eclipse of the sun.
The fiftieth anniversary is a truly significant milestone for a non-profit club.
It is likely that the founders of the association did not think of reaching it!
From 1969 to today, how did the activity and the associative "life" of SFFSA change?
I doubt if the founders of the club had any idea we would still be going after 50 years.
It seems to me, and I have been a member for forty-six years, that the club has not changed very much over the years.
Somehow we always seem to have enough money from memberships to keep going.
We have always had a core membership who have kept the club alive.
It is strange for me to read that the SFFSA was born following a letter published in a newspaper
(your website says
that Mr. Tex Cooper wrote to a newspaper expressing his desire to form a science fiction club,
received 37 responses and some of those people were the founders of SFFSA).
How did you get into the association?
In 1973 I saw an advertisement in a Sunday newspaper, "The Sunday Times", which advertised the Short Story competition.
I had just left school and had no idea there was a science fiction club and having been reading SF since I was a child, was really intrigued.
I took part in the competition and my story got into the Top Twenty.
I joined the club and have been a member ever since.
SFFSA has become part of my life.
Can I ask you to describe to our readers the South African world of fantasy and science fiction?
This is a difficult one.
There are not a lot of people in this country who read a lot, especially with the advent of the Internet.
And far fewer who read SF or fantasy.
And many people who watch the Batman or Marvel movies would consider themselves fans of science fiction.
So there really is not a real SA context for speculative fiction.
Although we are seeing more and more SA SF and fantasy authors.
The SFFSA has an associative magazine, PROBE, published since 1970, that is for forty-nine years.
It is clear that PROBE is a central element in the life of the club and for relations between the members.
Can you present the magazine (and other publications eventually made by SFFSA) to our readers?
I have in my possession the very first set of club publications, from the very first newsletter.
There were seven newsletters and then Vol 1 number 8 was the first issue of PROBE.
You will see the cover of issue 1 when you receive PROBE 180 which is a special issue of the magazine, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary
(below you can see its cover, of which Gail speaks more extensively in the last question, -Editor's Note).
PROBE has always been a central part of the club and a vessel for publishing the winning and other stories from the Short Story competition.
One of our founding intentions was to encourage the writing of Science fiction and later Fantasy.
In this 180 issues, PROBE had six or seven editors and I myself have been three times.
Furthermore, PROBE goes to a number of countries around the world, as we also have overseas partners, as I said.
As a club we also edited the "The Best of SFSA", which collects the best stories from the NOVA award.
We have created three volumes; twenty years have passed since the last one, and we are considering publishing a fourth one.
Since the early 1970s, SFFSA has announced the NOVA competition for science fiction or fantasy stories.
We published some of the award-winning stories on the Mondi Incantati anthologies.
How is the competition organized?
As mentioned above, the short Story competition has been a part of the club from very early on.
We advertise it every year, and at the end of September the registrations are closed.
We receive stories especially from South Africa, but occasionally also from other countries.
At least five club members read each story, again without knowing the author's name.
The stories are evaluated considering seven different categories (quality of writing, creative ideas, appeal ...).
Ohe Top Ten stories are then chosen on the marks they have received and they go to a final judge.
The final judge changes from year to year and, and as we have a couple of Professors of English as club members we always have a well qualified person to choose the winning stories.
Some writers were also final judges at the NOVA award, for example
, who won an Arthur C. Clarke award.
Do you think that the NOVA award helped South African non-professional authors to become writers?
Yes. In fact, a number of people who have done well in the competition have gone on to become professional writers.
Perhaps the most famous is Dave Freer, who publishes with Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint.
Nick Wood> is another author who has published several books.
And Gary Kuyper, who has seen two of his short stories translated in your RiLL magazine
(in 2017 and 2018 -Ed.),
has published numerous books and is now working on a script.
So yes we are fulfilling our ideals and are seeing more South African science fiction and fantasy authors publish their stories.
An interesting thing is that the NOVA award has long had a specific section dedicated to tales of South African setting.
Can I ask you to explain, even if only in brief, the characteristics that a short story must have to make the most of this setting?
Just setting the story in Cape Town or Johannesburg does not make it South African.
The stories must capture the specific cultural aspects of our country.
For example, the stories that have among the Bushmen
or members of other communities in our country are undoubtedly South African
(South Africa is a strongly multi-ethnic country, in fact it is also called "rainbow nation", -Ed.).
For example, in 2009 the NOVA award was won by "Candy Blossom", a story by Dave Freer (an author I mentioned earlier).
The protagonist of that story is absolutely recognizable by any South African reader as un meticcio del Capo
(in English, Cape Colored, "person of color of the Cape", -Ed .).
We are very careful not to be "politically incorrect" but,
indeed, references to people from certain communities in our country make the stories undoubtedly South African.
Except for the RiLL Trophy and its authors published on PROBE, what do you know about Italian science fiction / fantasy / horror writers?>
I'm embarrassed to say, but I don't know anything about Italian science fiction.
But I liked the stories of the RiLL Trophy out on PROBE.
In Italy, science fiction and fantasy have long been considered a minor literary genre (and this is partly true today).
In South Africa?
Probably in South Africa they are not even considered literary genres.
Most people don't care about that kind of writing, even though they might watch "Iron Man".
It is very difficult for an Italian science fiction / fantasy / horror writer to live only with the proceeds of his publications.
In South Africa?
I'd say it's the same.
Indeed, I actually doubt that any South African author of any kind, with the possible exception of Wilbur Smith, have ever earned enough from writing to live there.
The last question concerns the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary!
What can you tell us?
I know that a very special issue of PROBE came out on this occasion ...
In PROBE 180 we published speeches and contributions from around the world on our fiftieth anniversary; have made this anniversary special.
The cover is a kind of collage of the covers of many previous issues from number 24, the oldest cover still "readable",
up to number 38 (the first of which I edited) or number 100, which came out for the forty-year anniversary of SFFSA.
To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary we also printed a special t-shirt,
and in the next few issues of the magazine I will insert a report on the celebration dinner
(a moment of which is captured in the photo above, -Ed.).
It was a great evening.
Always to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, this year we will give trophies to the authors winning the NOVA competition,
as well as the "usual" cash prizes.
But, in general, apart from the satisfaction for having reached this goal, life goes on and so does SFFSA.
As someone said, I hope the SFFSA is still active when the first issue of PROBE will be delivered to the terrestrial colony on Mars!
The interview with Gail Jamieson closes with this beautiful wish, that we RiLLini cannot but endorse.
In addition to thanking Gail for the time she has dedicated to us, we should also mention Gavin Kreuiter,
the NOVA award manager, who has been enthusiastically supporting the collaboration between RiLL and SFFSA since 2015.
Live long and prosper, SFFSA !!