The 2019 long listed stories for the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction and the Writivism Short Story Prize have been described by the judges as every bit brilliant and deserving, perhaps even daring. The 20 stories will be published in our 2019 annual anthology. The writers of these stories have undergone a month-long mentoring with authors whose work we greatly admire. All of them have unique histories for their writing journeys. Clarie Gor and Timi Odueso asked them a few questions so you can get to know more about them.
- PRECIOUS COLETTE KEMIGISHA
1.Has Africa begun to recognize and attend to mental illnesses? Do you think that mental illnesses, in Africa, have gained cognizance in recent years rather than being misdiagnosed as ‘spiritual problems’ ?
Yes and no.
I think that mental health professionals, especially in Uganda, have been leading awareness of mental health illnesses for the past few years. In 2017, the World Health Organisation released a report on mental health that listed Uganda among the top five countries with the highest number of people suffering from depressive disorders. That same report went on to state that there is a certain label that has been attached to those believed to be suffering for a mental health issue, the label of being ‘mad’. Those who are deemed to be ‘mad’ by their families or communities are often hidden because they are seen as a source of embarrassment to the family or they are taken to traditional healers, or even modern day deliverance Pastors, for healing. Therefore, because of lack of understanding of the scope of ‘mental health’, most of those suffering from anxiety or depression are mostly afraid to be placed in the category of being ‘mad’ so they refrain from admitting to anyone that they don’t feel quite right.
So mental health professionals are fully a9ware of the problem in Africa but there needs to be more public awareness to remove the stigma involved with mental health illnesses and to also prevent those suffering from these illnesses from being diagnosed as simply having ‘spiritual problems’. I have to say that I believe that everything has its place. There’s nothing wrong with prayer in the same way that there is nothing wrong with seeing a psychotherapist to work through some mental health issues. Do both, I say, and reap the benefits of both!
2. What is the most difficult part of being an editor?
Having a client who does not want to listen to suggestions! I think editing work that is not one’s own is a collaborative process. There has to be mutual understanding and respect. There also has to be a level of objectivity on the part of the author toward their work. So when a writer takes the editor’s critique as a personal slight, then that is not only difficult but it can be off-putting to the editor and demonstrates that the writer still has amateurish tendencies to shed off on the way to professionalism.
3. Do you think Africa is a ‘reading continent’? A lot of people would say otherwise but do you think Africans are a people that enjoy reading?
This is a two-pronged question. On one side you find that, yes, Africans seem not to read as much as other cultures but on the other side we see that many Africans enjoy reading but don’t have the access to libraries or culturally relevant works in the same way that, say, the Europeans have. To enjoy reading is something that has to be taught and nurtured. It is incorrect to dismiss an entire continent of people as not being the kind to ‘enjoy’ reading! If we go back to the basics of literacy and education, our continent is already at a disadvantage. If schools, parents, communities and governments went out of their way to promote reading (and the writing of culturally relevant content as well as literacy and education), I am sure our reputation as not being a ‘reading’ continent would change.
- PHILLIP LETEKA
- How do you think being Longlisted for the Writivism Prize helps in the development of Basotho literature?
Being longlisted for the Writivism Prize is an incredible honour, I am glad that someone somewhere enjoyed my words and thought that it was worth their note. As much as I am from Lesotho, I don’t necessarily like the idea of that following me around, even though, of course, it’s sort of a beautiful thing to say “Phillip, a Mosotho writer, this and that.” But I think I’m just a storyteller who happens to be Mosotho, I enjoy writing stories that could take place anywhere. It’s with platforms like Writivism that some of these stories get to be read and it’s a beautiful thing.
- Do you think Basotho literature is adequately represented? What Basotho books would you recommend to people who would like to read more Basotho literature?
I think Lesotho is on a threshold, she’s putting her house in order, she’s grooming a new troop of soldiers that’ll undo the current state of paralysis. Only a few literary works, such of those of Thomas Mofolo had been able to reach an international audience and it’d be great to have more out there.
3. Do you think Africans should write more works in their indigenous languages and why? Would you, one day, consider writing a story or a piece in your language?
I think Africans, or anybody really, should write stories in whatever language they feel comfortable with. I write in both English and Sesotho. I find that my style of writing and the exploration of all these different worlds that I’m fond of creating, stay the same regardless of language. And lately, it’s actually even more fun to write in Sesotho and then translate later on.
- RESOKETSWE MANENZHE
Do you believe in ghosts? As a person of science and intellect, how much do you believe in the existence of the paranormal?
This is a very hard one. I’m not sure that I believe in ghosts. But as my culture acknowledges the existence of active Ancestors, and as I’ve found myself falling more and more in love with my culture and all its practices, I desperately want to believe in ghosts. But “good” ghosts (lol), like Ancestors watching over their descendants. In short, I’m not sure that I believe in the paranormal, but I want to, especially when it comes to African spirituality and our link to our fore-bearers.
Do you think the current African system of education is flawed and outdated? Are exams/tests a true test of intelligence or simply memory? How, in your opinion, should students be tested?
I think that a lot of the present systems test memory rather than understanding. But I’m also not sure if this is strictly an African education problem, and I think some African countries have figured it out better than others. I also think that overhauling the current systems wouldn’t necessarily be a solution, mostly because the facilitators themselves would need to first be students. It’s very tricky in my opinion. But I think we can start by making education a bit more relatable and accessible. For example, I still have people who get shocked that I haven’t read literary works that are considered as classics. But the thing is, these people haven’t read authors like Tsitsi Dangarembga or Zakes Mda. They get shocked at me because I haven’t read western classics; and from my side, it’s purely to make a statement, because I think African literature doesn’t need to be supplemented. I think we need to restructure these sorts of things, where we make Africa and African experiences the norm, not a niche thing that only a radical, select few appreciate under the taint of some kind of political statement. Also, African science is beautiful. Our Ancestors had some pretty revolutionary ideas and technologies. I personally think our respective education systems should elevate these, make them normal, or simply make them known. Lol, I have a lot of feelings regarding this. I’ll stop before I ramble myself into more hubris.
For all your love of blueberry pies and cold rural towns, do you think certain environments foster writing? Or are we all conditioned different in such a way that some people can think and write better in one environment than they do in another?
My experience has been that certain environments foster creativity. But I think I might have adopted this from the romantic idea of writing often presented in Hollywood movies. Small cafes and rural places, are definitely the place to go for good writing. I think there’s some conditioning.
- NWANKWO UGOCHUKWU EVANS
How do you think writers and literary aficionados can help increase agro-alliance in Africa?
I believe writing can take one beyond their horizon. Relatively, Africa has the capacity of becoming the greatest exporter of Agricultural products. When writers and lovers of literature begin to incorporate in-depth agro-based stories in their projects, just like the virtual world does. You read stories which highlight great advances in technology and artificial intelligence, and it really opens your eyes to a whole new world. In similar vein, writers of African descent can help promote agro-alliance by building their stories to reflect the opportunities that are out there, of which many are still oblivious to. Literary agencies can as well create a competition with an agro-allied theme. What is more, agro-based industries can as well take the initiative and sponsor writing competitions like the Telecommunication and Oil and Gas industries are currently doing.
- In our present day how do you think people, view the Igbo concept of a personal Chi ? Do you think that Chi and Chukwu, have over time, been replaced with the Christian God to a point where the concept of a personal Chi no longer exists?
My people have an adage, “onye kwe, chi ya ekwe,” which means that whatever one does, he/she must first agree with their Chi. The historic, polytheist Igbo man, despite being cognizant of various deities, would always make attribute to a personal Chi, which guides each individual. In our more contemporary times, where, even during Igbo traditional marriages or funerals, an elder would always break the kola by offering prayers to Chukwu, which is like God. In recent times, the concept of Chi would presently be equated to personal guardian angels who watch over and shape the life of each person. I don’t think Christianity offered the Igbo a new God, rather it opened their eyes to what has always been. In my view, I think Igbo being quite possessive have abstracted God as their personal Chi, and we boast about him – the God who directs and shapes our lives.
What would you say is the number one impeding factor for upcoming writers in Africa?
I think it is “limited opportunities.’ Limited opportunities for inchoate writers to exhibit their works in a competitive field. How many secondary schools, even universities organize writing competitions? Companies and multilaterals have limited their corporate social responsibilities to music and entertainment, or technology, with little or no attention to writing.
- KANYINSOLA OLORUNNISOLA
1.Do you believe in such a thing as a universal ‘God’ or do you think that every people (nation) have, over time, developed their own notions of deities which suit their communities?
Funny you should ask that, really, because I am about completing an essay on the same topic. Obviously, no universally-accepted notion of god exists. There is also the problem of what we mean when we talk about god. Is it a bearded white man or a tree-bound deity or a sentient ball of fire? Even the humanoid conception of god, which appears popular across history, is itself varietal. However, I am especially seduced by the New Testament and its claims about a god of cosmic justice. I do believe in the necessary existence of a god but whether we can ultimately know that god, and how that their mind works, is another story.
2. What do you think awaits Man after death? An afterlife where we will be judged by our deeds or nothingness?
This is where it gets tricky. It is a rich topic for philosophical acrobatics. But no one really knows the answer to this, except for those who claim to have died and met Jesus as a handsome blue-eyed white man in white garment. Go figure. Frankly, I hope it does not exist but hopes and wishes do not affect reality. If it exists, there is only way to know for sure.
3. As a writer, how would you advise new and upcoming writers to deal with criticism? How have you dealt with literary criticism?
As someone who has a lot anxiety and battled self-confidence issues for so many years, I have been failing at dealing with criticism in a healthy way. I am not getting a perfect hang of it but at least I’m trying. One thing I am learning, though, is to not take it so personally. When you learn to divorce yourself from your work; learn to throw your darlings into the lion’s den, knowing they could be ripped apart, you will be fine. Like I said, I am failing at it but I will be fine. I will be fine.
- The relationship between your protagonist and his mother seems a lot more dysfunctional than the ending makes it out to be. It turns out the child is just very naughty and the mother isn’t abusive. Were you ever worried that people might read your story and further conflate parental abuse with discipline?
The story portrays how children deal with grief and how that can be misconstrued as indiscipline by inattentive parents because they tend to act out a lot. The protagonist is angry and seeks ways to express himself. His mother is too consumed by her loss to realize her child needs attention. I think the general assumption is that death does not affect children because they are too young to understand it.
Not only is this inaccurate, it is also unfortunate. Children grieve too, just differently.
There is a thin line between parental abuse and discipline especially in the African context where ‘spare the rod and spare the child’ is like the continental motto. I think the trauma of corporal punishment manifests as adults who are either perpetrators or enablers of violence in society. Discipline should not be synonymous with beatings. There are alternative methods to enforce good behavior which are less
scarring to children.
2.You write scripts and plays as well. In what ways does that influence your writing especially in terms of technique, use of language, etc?
There is heavy use of dialogue in scripts and plays with brief scene descriptions. Your writing cues actors and directors. Internal monologue is rare because actions are used to convey thoughts. The ‘show don’t tell’ rule is key so I guess that is something you become good at.
3.This story being your debut short fiction, how was it different from your previous writing experience?
Writing material for a visual audience gives you the advantage of getting direct feedback from them. If they like an episode or a scene, you can tell from the laughter or the views and this guides your creativity. But writing short fiction is like a shot in the dark. There are no ratings or reviews to influence your next page. It is just you and a few thousand words, hoping that people will like it. It was quite the challenge.
- Do you find practicing medicine an inspiration for your writing? Does it influence the kind of stories you want to tell?
Hardly. I like to separate the two. Writing is an escape for me. The only thing they have in common is that I am required to read volumes of books to be good at either of them.
Find the longlisted writers’ bios here. Part two of the interviews is here and Part three is here.
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