Living in Blantyre, Malawi, Ekari Mbvundula is a budding freelance writer whose talent is one to watch. Her work crosses literary genres, but she has a keen interest in science fiction. Her story ‘Montague’s Last’ has recently been published in the tri-monthly magazine, Omenana (download here: (http://omenana.com/2015/06/22/montagues-last/).
Here, she tells us a bit about the story, and her career so far.
When did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I had a poem published in the children’s section of the Daily Times or the Nation when I was 7 years old. The other day I stumbled upon some early stories I didn’t even remember writing. I started my first novel when I was 14 years old. I haven’t finished it yet! But I am working on it, it’s one of my writing goals.
What kind of literature do you write most?
I love fantasy. It’s the genre which inspired me to want to create worlds that other people can get lost in, just like I found my escape in my favourite writers’ works. However, I write whatever inspires me. Sometimes I write stories that aren’t fantasy, and I like that. I have been writing using the short story format mainly, but I think I have a writing stamina where I can push for a 50,000 word novel. I intend to spend my writing career trying my hand at least once in historical drama, horror, comic books, humour, romance and anything else which might challenge me.
So, you mostly enjoy writing fiction, am I right? Have you written any non-fiction?
I wrote an article called ‘The Clock Tower, the Gun and the Boat’ for a local tourism magazine called Ulendo Magazine. It was about some of the history of Mangochi, a lakeside town in Malawi. Most tourists go to Mangochi for the beach resorts, but few people are aware that we have a canon monument in the roundabout in town, a fascinating little museum which has pre-colonial and tribal artifacts, and an entire boat inside! I learnt a lot myself through writing this.
Can you tell us a little about your literary profile/ portfolio – if and where you have articles/ stories published, and a bit about those pieces unpublished too?
Wow, at this stage it’s a little all over the place, and only this year have I really begun to get my work out there in a significant way. Many of the publications that I’m excited about are yet to be released, and I can’t wait! There is an upcoming sci-fi anthology called Imagine Africa 500 Years From Now which will be my first story in print, due for publishing in September 2015 I believe. The story is called ‘Green Imperialism’, and is based in Malawi 500 years in the future. It is about a family’s efforts to honour their late grandfather’s wishes, and features nano-technology, environmental extremism, and some other fun concepts. My story will be one of 20 works of fiction from writers all across Africa.
I have a short story entitled ‘Her Money Grows on Trees’, available now in Malawi’s Wealth magazine, which was an unlikely publication for me, but nonetheless enjoyable to write. The magazine is available only in Malawi for now.
Finally you can read a story right now on my blog entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room’. This is about a Malawian college graduate working as a waiter in an alternate dimension. I have a few other publications lined up with release dates as far as December 2016, but I will publicise those closer to the time.
One of your stories was just published. Can you tell us a bit about it? Where did the idea for such a story come from?
My short story ‘Montague’s Last’ was published in the 3rd issue of Omenana, a free-to-download Nigerian based online speculative fiction magazine which has captured some of the best recent fantasy works by African writers. I’m truly honoured to be included amongst their ranks.
The story is about a 18th century African slave in a French dungeon, who is guilty of heinous crimes and wishes to make his last act alive an act of redemption. It was an unusual choice for me, since prior to that I tended to write mainly humour and emphasised fantasy elements. This is quite a dark story, and fantasy is only a minor aspect. As for the idea… stories are as unique as children, and ideas often come from a wide variety of places. I tend to write down my ideas as soon as they occur to me, or else I risk losing them forever. They can start as merely a cool concept, a fascinating character, a deep feeling, or a sentence I really like. ‘Montague’s Last’ starts with an isolated sentence: “They say great things are achieved in the dead of night.” I literally had that sentence alone on a Word document for… months, or a year maybe. That’s not abnormal, I have plenty of ideas which are sometimes as short as a sentence, other times I flesh them out right away in 3 or more pages, with the intention to return to them at a later day.
One day I suddenly grasped onto a story to attach to that first sentence. I liked the thought of a man doing something that mattered. Like his life depended on it. Something that would change the world. I wanted that man to be black because there is a misconception that black people, especially Africans have not contributed to history beyond being victims of it. I wanted him to create something in nearly impossible circumstances; enslaved, doomed to be imprisoned in a miserable place for the rest of his life. But the unique selling point was that I did not want him to be pitied. His deeds were objectively evil, and even though he was ordered to commit them, I wanted to give the impression that he had perhaps enjoyed them and maybe would have chosen to do so even as a free man. So, at the end of his life, when he could easily excuse himself and be blameless in his own eyes, he instead feels the weight of his guilt. So with the limited time and resources, he does what he can to (hopefully) make up for it.
History is filled with times when despicable things were openly accepted as the norm. This story is about trying to find morality in such an environment. Montague was a victim of slavery, but he was also fully a man, with some influence and power over his circumstances and actions, albeit in a hugely limited way. This character came to me like that, by adding aspects which fascinated me, piece by piece. The rest of the story evolved as I was writing and researching, until I reached a satisfying ending. It has been a work in progress since 2012, passing through many hands, read and edited by many friends, as well as (through pure luck) the South African playwright Nick Warren. I have been told that the amount of work put into it shows (nine drafts in total), and I am glad. I probably could have continued editing it for much longer (laughs), but I think the story itself decided it was time to see the light of day when I was asked to submit a story for Omenana. I write the same way I read sometimes – several projects at a time, picking up one putting it aside, starting another, coming back to the first… ‘Montague’s Last’ has been in rotation since I started working on it.
Would you call yourself as a ‘Malawian writer’?
I am a writer who happened to be Malawian/African/female/young etc but I don’t want my identity to define what I am “allowed” to write about. I should be able to write about a sentient vegetable colony on Venus if I want to. I have an affinity to fantasy, and I may touch on Malawi here and there, but I’m not restricted by it. Some of my readers have requested that I write more about Malawi, and to them I say that I understand your perspective, and I will write about Malawi in various contexts, but it will not be my sole topic. Western writers bear no such burden of being restricted to setting their stories in their home countries. The reason behind that is too complex to get into, but to simplify it; readers want to see stories which are relatable to their everyday lives, and those are scarce for Malawians. I get that. But one is much more likely to enjoy my work if you come with no expectations.
You write literature. Do you also perform it? I’m wondering about oral literary traditions in Malawi. Where and with whom, if so?
Glad you asked! I love performing, although I get little opportunity to do so these days. My blog post is called ‘Ekari Mbvundula: Writer and Performer’, but it’s been heavier on the writing. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to perform in Malawi, so I cannot tell you about local oral literary traditions, not before I have done my own research. My latest greatest performance was at a drama competition at the University of Cape Town in 2008, of a play called ‘…Aut Mortatis Conans’ (’…Or Die Trying’) which I wrote myself, and sort of fell into the lead role. It was actually the second time I had performed it, the first was in high school where I played a very minor role. I wasn’t able to save any copies of the high school play, so I did the most sensible thing I could think of and rewrote it from memory. I hadn’t planned on playing a lead role ever, because to be honest it never occurred to me that I was capable of playing lead, but I wound up playing it through fate and circumstance I suppose,… and I got nominated for lead actress. My co-actor actually won lead actress, but I handed it to her happily, after all it was her character that had to endure getting slapped (for real) by my character every rehearsal and performance! I was the villain in case that wasn’t obvious. Good times… I hope to get back onto the stage again soon as I find it a fascinating way to explore story. Every writer performs a mini play in their minds every time they put a tale to paper anyway, so I don’t think performing is that much of a stretch for us – once we get over stage fright.
Bio: Ekari Mbvundula
Currently, for money, Ekari is working for the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi Limited (ESCOM). However, obtaining her degrees in Environment and Geographical studies from the University of Cape Town, between 2006 and 2009, Ekari has also pursued work as environmental consultant and occupational health and safely auditor, as well as being an English and Maths tutor and a research consultant for Helard (Pty) Ltd in Malawi.
Saying all of that, her first passions are writing and performing. Ekari was one of the authors involved in The Story Club creative writing workshop held in Lilongwe in November last year (working in conjunction with Panafrica Publishers), and she is soon to appear in the upcoming anthology Imagine Africa 500. Most recently her story, ‘Montague’s Last’, was published in the tri-monthly magazine, Omenana (available to download here: (http://omenana.com/2015/06/22/montagues-last/)
Joanna Woods holds a Bachelor of Arts in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and is a recent graduate from the University of Copenhagen where she completed a thesis on ideas about home in Malawian poetry. A literary enthusiast, she is particularly interested in contemporary literature emanating Malawi and is soon to embark on research in-country for an imminent PhD.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A
Thanks for the lively interview with Ekari who sounds like an amazing author. I hope she is able to earn her living by writing and performing one of these days!