Interview with the Winner: Dara Kell

April 12, 2024

On Monday, we published the winner of our 2023 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers: “Elbow in Zulu” by Dara Kell. First, read this magnificent story, selected by Jai Chakrabarti, then check out our interview with the winner below.


First, congratulations on winning the 2023 Summer Short Story Award! We’re thrilled to feature your work once again. Your story, “Exchanges,” was picked by Rick Bass for our 9th volume of our anthology. That story, which Bass compared at various times to Lorrie Moore, Susan Minot and Joy Williams, is set in Namibia, while “Elbow in Zulu” is set in neighboring South Africa. I know that you’re at work on a collection right now but I don’t want to make any assumptions—are both included in that collection?

Yes! Both “Exchanges” and “Elbow in Zulu” are included in a collection of stories set in Southern Africa. And I do want to say a big thank you to Masters Review for being a platform for writers like me. Finding out that “Exchanges” and then “Elbow in Zulu” were going to be published was such a boost to my work. It really helped me keep going.

What else can you tell us about the collection? 

I’ve been writing these stories for about fifteen years. Each story has a vastly different feeling, tone, and world built around it. I love linked story collections, but this definitely isn’t one of them. I wanted the widest range I could muster, to give the reader a sense of adventure, a new jewel-like world in each new story. In some stories, like “Elbow in Zulu”, I’m playing with the absurdities of contemporary South Africa, and poking fun at wealthy, clueless, racist white South Africans. I’ve set other stories either in the near future, looking at a time when poverty and climate change has spared no one, or in the past, in the sixties, during the early days of Apartheid. I do an immense amount of research (which is partly why I write so slowly), delving into everything I can to help build my characters’ worlds as accurately as I can. And so the process of writing these stories has also been a way of educating myself about South Africa’s history. So much was hidden from us growing up here in the 1980s.

Jai Chakrabarti calls attention to the POV in his introduction, which he calls “plural, jocular and occasionally elusive.” What led you to this POV, this tongue-in-cheek voice, for this story?

I have to admit that I pieced the POV in this story together from overheard snippets of real conversations. At the time I wrote it, I was living in New York, working as a documentary filmmaker, and coming back to Jo’burg to work on some short films about housing rights and evictions of poor communities. Living abroad was useful to writing this collection, because you forget how, as a middle class white South African, you often hear things that are ghastly. Taking time away, then dropping back in, allowed me to be freshly shocked by the casual racism that one encounters every day. This story is my way of holding a mirror to our culture here in South Africa, which can seem genteel and gentle, but has a deep and slow violence that is toxic, though by no means unique to this place. As we’ve seen recently, it’s easy for us to turn a blind eye to horror, and in a way, that’s what the narrator in “Elbow in Zulu” is doing. The jocular tone is meant to draw attention to the veil of civility that masks what I see as a deeply sick society. And again—so much of this is not particular to South Africa, it’s just a bit more blatant here.

The other aspect of the narrator’s POV is that she’s funny, often without realizing it (I think of her as a gossipy woman, although the gender isn’t specified in the story). Some of the women in my own family have a tendency to exaggerate for the sake of a good story. So I wanted her to do that. She’s a bit of a drama queen. And it’s a delicate balance in this story because it deals with serious subject matter, like the xenophobic attacks, and I didn’t want to be flippant about that. At the same time, South Africans love to laugh—at themselves, especially—and we tend towards gallows humor. I’ve encountered this during filming of people in documentaries I’ve made who are in life-threatening situations, and the people I’m filming with are cracking jokes during a crisis. It’s such a universal human thing, to laugh. It’s how we survive.

Besides being a writer, you’re also a documentarian. How do these two practices influence each other?

They are inextricably linked—my documentary work is how I find most of my stories. Some stories come from characters or situations that I’ve had to cut out of the films because they were too complex or they might put the real person in danger. So I repurpose that material for my short stories. The medium of documentary film can feel limiting. You are limited by what actually happened, by the footage you have on hand (which is always inadequate in some way) plus you have to stick to the facts. Writing fiction is a wild ride and I love surprising myself on the page. Stories take twists I didn’t foresee.

Writing fiction is what gets me up in the morning. It’s my treat (even though I find it exasperating, I still love it). And then I can go about my day and work on very serious non-fiction films.

Having a practice of writing definitely informs my filmmaking, mostly in the editing. Plotting out a story is good practice for adding a plot to a real life, longform, messy film. All stories need structure, and the storytelling in documentaries really jumps into high gear when you start editing. Editors are the unsung heroes of the documentary world. They are as important, I think, as the directors. Studying story structure for short stories and novels has given me tools that I use in my films.

Making films, especially being behind the camera, telling a story through visual images, has helped my writing. I try to imagine how I would film this invented scene, if I was holding a camera. What does my camera gravitate towards? What are the close-ups, those telling details? When should I step back and get a wide shot? When should we jump from a verité scene into a montage? I like using those same filmmaking methodologies for short stories.

Who are your influences? Who are those writers (or filmmakers!) you’re always coming back to?

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ve read it four or five times, and I dip into it regularly whenever I’m stuck. Each sentence is delicious. She’s got this incredible knack of being funny and bleak at the same time. There is a filmic quality to her writing that I try to emulate. Another favorite is Lorrie Moore’s collection Birds of America. I’ve read and re-read these stories so many times over the years. They are perfect. I have to admit to sleeping with this book under my pillow, thinking that perhaps her genius would somehow seep into my brain. Like Jennifer Egan, Lorrie Moore is laugh-out-loud funny.

A book I keep coming back to is Zora Neale Thurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book has unforgettable scenes, like the scene of the flood that takes up a big chunk of the book. The humanity, the precision, the intimacy amidst an epic event. I also admire Thurston’s ability to work in dual modes—as both an anthropologist and fiction writer.

A few other writers to mention: I love Miranda July’s sassiness and sparseness—her collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. And I love that she’s a filmmaker, too. A boyfriend once told me that I couldn’t be both a writer and a filmmaker—I had to choose one, in order to be really good. And I’ve been trying to prove that jerk wrong ever since.

Zadie Smith, too—she can be funny, scathing, warm, incisive in the same breath. Donna Tart’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch. Jonathan Franzen for how he writes about the weather, and about dysfunctional families. I tear through his books. When I was first starting to learn how to write a short story, I devoured Checkov. I don’t have much formal writing training other than attending Summer School in 2014 at the Iowa Writers Workshop (which was a game changer for my writing) and so I missed a lot of the heavyweights and “discovered” them anew when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I became a voracious zombie reader, devouring great writing. James Baldwin was someone else I read and re-read during that time.

I realize that this list is devoid of South African writers. Until my current collection is published, I’m trying to steer clear of reading other South Africans, although there are many writers here who I have huge admiration for, like Bongani Kona and Rosa Lyster. For now, I want to feel untethered, to zipline through technique and approach to see what I can do with the raw material of South African stories… but soon, I hope, once the collection is published, I’ll dive back into South African and other African writers. I have a vast collection on my bookshelf, just waiting.

I want to briefly mention two filmmakers whose work has been essential to both my writing and my filmmaking: Agnes Varda, and Laura Poitras. If you haven’t seen their films, I highly recommend them, especially Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès and Poitras’s My Country, My Country and her more recent film about Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. I used to edit my first film (Dear Mandela) with a note above my desk that read, “W.W.L.P.D.” – What Would Laura Poitras Do?

What does your writing process look like? Are you a morning writer or by the candlelight? What are your rituals?

I try to write every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Often, though, I get carried away and write for longer. It’s the best part of my day. Whenever I lose the habit, I know I’m depressed because I don’t give myself the luxury of working on my stories.

My morning brain is my best brain. I try not to do anything else (especially not checking email) before I write, otherwise I lose that fuzzy access to the subconscious that is loose and free and uncensored.

The stories go through phases—the first phase is all about pottering around with a character I’ve fallen in love with or a situation I really want to write about. And then things get tighter and very disciplined as I start to edit and rewrite. My stories go through many drafts, and things change drastically in the early drafts, and less so as the characters and plot and themes firm up. I’ve had stories that are essentially complete, but I can’t figure out what’s still not working, so I start writing it from scratch, from memory, and I’ve found that the kinks work themselves out that way.

Once the plot feels right, at that point, I start to focus more on the rhythm of the words and the sentences. My way of doing this is to break away from the computer, and to read the story out loud, record it, and listen back to it. But things can become overworked and lose their magic. Over the years I’ve tried to force myself to step away from a story, to put it in a drawer and forget about it, as many writers, including Zadie Smith, have suggested.

Something that has helped me a lot over the years has been writing workshops. Having the chance to read other writers’ stories and have them read your own—and then being willing to break open a story you’re in love with and do open heart surgery on it. Or start it from scratch, or approach it from another angle or POV—that’s been essential to my process. I workshopped both the stories that have appeared in The Masters Review. And the first short story that I ever had published, “Small Holding” was workshopped at the Iowa Writers Workshop Summer school, and it went on to win the Zoetrope: All-Story first prize in 2015, which I attribute entirely from the thorough beating that it got at that workshop. The other thing that writers workshops have given me is community. Making writer friends, people who share and understand this obsession with words and literature, after being so siloed in the documentary world, has been a lifeline.

I also share my work with people who inhabit the same world that my characters do. I wrote a story about a composer, and sent it to a viola player who works in the avant garde music world that the main character lives in. She helped make sure that the details rang true. Plus it was fun to have an excuse to take her out to lunch. I love to write about characters with whom I don’t have much in common, but the danger is that no matter how much research you do, you can include one off key detail that renders the whole thing inaccurate. I have a journalists’ take on this. It must be accurate, even if it’s not all true. I regard it as my duty. If I’m going to be ballsy enough to write about something I don’t live in already, at least I need to do the dirty work of making sure it’s correct as much as I can.

Besides the collection, are you working on any other projects? What’s next for you?

I’ve got a second story collection in the works, based in the United States, with women as the protagonists. The stories feature a photographer, a viola player, an anthropologist, a farmer, a painter—all artists or academics or low wage workers battling with love and work and their own brains and hearts. I like to write about women doing creative work, or any work for that matter, because it’s not something I feel gets enough attention. So much of our lives, unfortunately, is spent on the job. And there is rich material to be mined from that.

I’ve written a divorce novel that, for now, is in my drawer, sulking. I’m writing a new novel told from multiple POVs, set in inner city Johannesburg, that I’m having a lot of fun with. I’m also writing a fantasy series (four books) set in New York City. Now that I’m living back in Cape Town, I’m really enjoying writing things set in New York, finally! Before, it felt too close to home, but I lived there for twenty years, so the streets and people are part of my DNA. I’m trying to step back from working on too many things at the same time, so for now, I’m only working on the fantasy series, because I have a one year old son, and I’m excited about the idea of reading the series to him one day, and doing all the different voices.

Besides various freelance film jobs to pay the bills, I’m also doing a part time Master’s degree in Visual History. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. An experimental history writing course has unlocked a way for me to write about some of the people I’ve met through my documentary work, and introduced me to the work of authors like the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich (Chernobyl Prayer). So I’m working on a non-fiction book about the social movement I’ve been making a film about (The Poor People’s Campaign), and I’m excited to be working in a new mode. I’ve written the first few chapters, and it feels urgent and like it flows and like it’s not work at all, which tells me that it’s something I need to do for a while, to play in the mud like a kid, without worrying too much about the outcome.

Interviewed by Cole Meyer


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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