Q&A with Muthi Nhlema: Time Travel, Nelson Mandela, and Digital Publishing


Image by Tasokwa Namalueso

Malawian writer Muthi Nhlema’s story “Ta O’Reva,” about a time-traveling Nelson Mandela, is competing in a “Long-Short Story Contest” held by online publisher Freeditorial. The contest, which will conclude on July 4, 2015, will be decided by the highest number of downloads as well as literary merit and offers sizable prize money: first place $15,000, second $5,000, and third $2,000. I interviewed Nhlema and asked him about his story (which you can download here), Malawian sci-fi, and digital publishing.

Story synopsis: “As a troubled young black man brutally murders an Afrikaner farmer in modern-day rural South Africa, NELSON MANDELA is brought back to life in a post-apocalyptic future where he is forced to question his legacy and face what maybe the hardest decision of his life: should he save South Africa, again? This question takes him on a new walk to freedom whose repercussions ripple through time from the fall of Apartheid to the rise of a resistance army determined to revive the promise of the Rainbow Nation.”

Stephanie Bosch Santana for AiW: How did you find out about Freeditorial and how does it work?

Muthi Nhlema: I receive blogs from a website called Write to Done, a writing blog by a woman named Mary Jaksch. She basically sends information, tips on writing, and so I read about a lot of that stuff. She sent a link to that competition, and I saw it and thought I’d give it a shot.

Does Freeditorial retain rights to the story?

At the moment, yes. If I don’t win, the story will still be on the site and people can still download it for free. But there is an opportunity that even if I don’t win, they might decide to buy the story from me if they want to promote it more and if they feel the story is worth selling.

How did you get the idea for this particular story?

Oh, ok, (chuckles), where do I start. The idea primarily came around the time that Nelson Mandela was in and out of hospital—when it was very clear the world was getting ready for him passing on at any moment. There was a time when the world accepted that reality. It intrigued me how people were taking to that eventuality, but a number of things led up to the story. Firstly, there were some news reports online about white South Africans being afraid for their lives because they felt that a number of black South Africans didn’t take revenge for apartheid because Nelson Mandela was still alive. I thought that was quite interesting because I hadn’t really thought of it that way.

I look at South Africa now, and I see South Africa as a melting pot of racial tension because of a lot of unresolved issues from the past, things that maybe most people felt they had gotten over but they still simmer under the surface for many South Africans. So that was the first thing that inspired me. And the second thing, very briefly, was a quote I came across from Nelson Mandela that said, “I’ve never been comfortable with my depiction as a demigod.”


Muthi Nhlema

What does it mean for you as a southern African, as a Malawian, to write about South Africa? 

South Africa is the example for a lot of African countries in a number of aspects, whether it’s economically, culturally, or politically. As a southern African I look to South Africa in many many ways. Perfect example, Trevor Noah taking over the Daily Show. South Africa also hosted the World Cup five years ago. South Africa sets the trend and demystifies a lot of stereotypes and the deficit view of Africa—you know that Africa is this basket case of problems and this thing that needs to be solved. As a Malawian, when I look specifically at Nelson Mandela, he’s an inspiration for many people in many many ways. His leadership, his humanity. I think he transcends his nationality. What he did, especially when he was released from prison, not to take vengeance against his captors was just amazing. He became an example not just for southern Africans but for humanity as a whole. So I think it’s something I connected with as an African because of what South Africa is to me; it’s this beacon of hope that we can do better if we do things differently. That said, I know there are certain things under the surface that challenge that dream and that hope, and I was hoping that in this story I could bring out some of those issues as well.

Why set this story in the future? Why play with time travel the way that you did?

I’m a science fiction geek (laughs). I love sci-fi and particularly I’m a big fan of time travel. When I was a young boy I used to read Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick. I’m also hugely into movies, and one of my favorite films of all time is Back to the Future II. I think it’s because of this idea of going back to change things and to do things differently, to get a second chance at life. That’s something that makes me gravitate to sci-fi for one, and particularly time travel. As for setting it in the future, I wanted to give myself a challenge. I had not written sci-fi before. Secondly, I wanted to get across, not a specific message, but to depict a certain potentiality, even as ridiculous as it may be. I wanted to take a simple idea and extrapolate it over time. If the racial tensions that we see in South Africa were to be extrapolated 100 years in the future, what would that look like? I played around with a number of scenarios to create this post-apocalyptic future where racial tensions have completely destroyed the Rainbow Nation and the dream that Mandela had for it to the point that the people in the future feel that the only way they can get back on their feet is to bring back Mandela through a series of cloning and synthetics and also consciousness being digitized and uploaded into clones.

I know you recently participated in a writing workshop with Shadreck Chikoti called Imagine Africa 500. You’re a sci-fi geek, but why do you think sci-fi and fantasy are so appealing right now to other Malawian writers as well?

I think the growing appeal of sci-fi and fantasy is rooted in the dissatisfaction that local writers have with reading all of this fantasy written by other authors; it doesn’t have to be Western—there’s a fantasy writer in Nigeria, Nnedi Okorafor. There is the sense that all we write about are modern day problems: HIV/AIDS, child abuse, corruption. Those are real problems, and I don’t want to downplay their importance, but we want to also read our own version of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and various other sci-fi and fantasy classics, to have our own stories as Malawians. Of course, in other countries across Africa, you’ve seen numerous attempts at going into sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, but in Malawi there’s the idea that if we tell stories it has to be rooted in reality or be a fable with a message. So there’s a dissatisfaction with that paradigm of fiction, and wanting to maybe still take the sense of moralism in some cases, but to explore it in other avenues, other universes, and other planes of the imagination. Sitting in that workshop I got a sense that it’s that dissatisfaction, that people want to tell their own stories set in the future, or outer space, but still have it be a great story.

How much of an impact is digital publishing having in Malawi today?

There are a lot of challenges in terms of people accessing content, whether hard copy or soft copy. Hard copy because there aren’t a lot of outlets. Even if you have a book out, most book stores won’t stock it on the shelf. Digital publishing is also quite challenging firstly because of access to the content and secondly because we don’t have a strong culture of reading. The other dimension of it is that even those who are reading don’t read Malawian content. So even if they can access it, have got an internet connection, and can easily download it, they just don’t gravitate to Malawian content the way they would to West African content or European or American content. There is a perceived assumption that the quality of Malawian content is poor. So for me, in  using this platform of Freeditorial, and getting people to download the story, I hope people see that by the mere fact of its being accepted, it meets a certain quality standard. I want to get people to see that Malawians can write as well, and that there are other alternative formats you can use to access content, on your phone, your laptop, or any other digital device. I’m not hoping to change the world with this one publication, but I’m trying to show writers that there are other avenues they can use.

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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