Of the roughly five hundred submissions I read last year, many were declined because -- even in well-crafted stories -- I wasn't finding an original voice. Literary fiction has a distinctive voice that does more than tell a simple story: beautiful writing that offers a deeper look at the human experience, with uniquely individual phrasing, fresh and authentic.
Afia Atakora's work won Bacopa Literary Review 2016's First Prize in Fiction and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize because she has a fine feel for the structure of a story, an original voice, and an artist's touch for the rhythm of sentences.The beginning of "The Crooked Man" will give you a glimpse of Atakora's compelling style:
My mother has time to make me beautiful before we see the crooked man. "I will not," she says, "clean someone else's behind and have my child looking a sight."
So I sit on the floor and she sits on the couch and she clamps her big powerful mother thighs around my little girl head all the better for the unpicking and the reknitting of my spiralling plaits.
It's like a hug, if hugs are meant to confine, but there's a certain comfort in the warmth of her knees on my ears and the smell of her legs which is cocoa butter and the smell of her feet which is Bengay and the smell of her toes which is fresh red nail polish. I am almost lulled by the song she hums and sings and hums when the words don't come in the language that is hers but not mine.
I want to say "Oww ow ow" but by now I know that does no good.
"You don't," she says, "want to be looking a mess." No I don't want to be a sight or a mess, but I still fidget and wiggle as she wields the afro comb in the landscape of my knotty hair.
I am not allowed to move, not at all. I only see the floor, the weave of the rough carpet, the piece of candy under the armchair, its sticky coating calling dust. My mother yanks my hair when she needs a different angle. My head in her lap I see the water stains on the ceiling drifted like brown clouds. I miss the morning, when my mother is the most gentle, when the sun is nowhere yet and the sky is as much pink as it is blue and I am burrowed in the sheets of the bed we share.
"Not yet," she tells me and I borrow the warm of her and wait, "Not morning yet, little girl."
And when finally she opens her eyes we pray together amongst the untucked sheets, our knees on the mattress, our hands palm up on the pillow and our faces in our hands, "give us this day our daily bread," and we laugh when my stomach gurgles.
When my hair is perfectly presentable -- four new twists, two on the top like horns, two from the back like white girl pigtails, my scalp all scoured and sore and shining with coconut oil -- she frees me, briefly.
My mother presents the zip-lock bag, its crude zip mechanisms no longer functional, its clear plastic clouded by hair oil and time. That bag brimming over with my prized collection of hair clips and bows and beads and plastic balls on elastic like gleaming jaw breakers in every conceivable color.
This is a treat, to be decorated so beautifully, to feel something like a tree come to flowering, a wonderfulness so rare that I know today to be a special sort of day. I know I have to please the crooked man.
(More about Literary Fiction in The Huffington Post.)