AiW Guest Joanna Woods
With the publication of Pan African Publisher’s new speculative fiction anthology, Imagine Africa 500, two featured writers from Malawi, Muthi Nhlema and Tiseke Chilima, join me for a short interview on their stories.
At Kwaharaba Book and Art Gallery in Blantrye on Sunday the 20th December 2015, Muthi Nhlema told me about the creation of his story: ‘One Wit’ This Place’.
When did you first imagine ‘One Wit’ This Place’? Was it tied to your experience/time at the Imagine Africa workshop in 2014?
When I was invited to the Imagine Africa 500 workshop, I had a completely different idea for a short story – something about artificial surrogacy against the backdrop of fanatical Christianity. I was hoping to look at fanatical religions’ propensity for resisting change; especially technological changes that would assumedly make God obsolete. But when I sat down to write it – nothing came. Days passed when I just sat and stared, despairingly, at the blasted cursor blanking away on my laptop screen – daring me to put the idea on paper. With a few days left before submission of the first draft, I decided to give up on the idea and, exasperated, I closed my eyes and allowed my mind to wonder. The image that emerged out of the murk of my writers block was three people, man, woman and child, walking through a desert. The image stayed with me for a few days and I kept asking myself “why are they in the desert?” – and the rest is what you now read.
The story didn’t emerge as a direct result of the sessions at the Imagine Africa 500 workshop, but I borrowed some techniques from the sessions, e.g. second person narrative, which features in the story in some sections as a way of exploring character and intention. Plus the mentorships (with Jackie Batanda from Uganda), post-workshop, helped clarify what it was I was trying to say through the characters and the scenarios. So ‘O
ne Wit’ This Place’ was just as much a journey for me as it was the characters in it.
If subtle, the climate is at the heart of your story. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
When I was asked to imagine Africa in 500 years – the most immediate reality for me was climate change. Speaking from my context, I see the devastating impact of climate change on a regular basis through my day-to-day work. Floods, droughts, hunger – are daily realities for some people in Malawi. So climate change was a theme I wanted to explore.
But I didn’t want to fall in the trap of being preachy or to take on the dangers of climate change – I wanted climate to be a ‘character’ in the story and there was some ‘interaction’, though on a psychological level, between the woman in the story and the climate around her. I wanted it to be an ominous presence in the story – always there. Even when it isn’t mentioned, the reader feels it, consistently. The battle is not only for survival against death or starvation but it’s against giving in to this dead and dying world she is in. Her unwarranted hope is her last stand. And the question we are left asking is will she win against such an enemy as climate?
Also, what I actively tried to do, on advisement from my mentor, was not to mention the words ‘climate change’ – I had to write it in such a way that a reader would decipher for themselves that that was what they were reading without me actually telling them.
I understand you researched geo-climate before writing. Could you talk a little about your focus on a futuristic Dar es Salaam: Neo-Dar.
One thing I wanted was to be as accurate as possible in terms of how I depicted climate change – I know there is only so much creative license when it comes to this global issue – so I wanted to be factually accurate as well creatively interesting.
Climate change is the backdrop of the story and you get a sense of it pressing in on the woman in the story like a monster banging at the door. Besides being a plot device, climate change is the biggest issue of our time. Just an increase of between 1 – 2 degrees Celsius will have drastic consequences for mankind, especially the poor. One of those consequences will be an increase in sea levels as a result of the melting polar ice caps. This would put some African coastal cities at risk e.g. Lagos, Dakar, Abidjan, Dar es Salaam and others. That intrigued me and it made me wonder how people would live after a whole city went under water. How would such a people live? Where would they find food? How would they transact? The choice of Dar es Salaam as the city was a creative one – I wanted to use the word ‘Neo’ in the name of the city to signify the idea of a ‘New’ city, full of promise for the future, and ‘Neo-Dar’ sounded cool.
Also, during my research, I came across a term called Geo-engineering or Climate-Engineering – which is an idea that has been around for some time but is considered problematic in its approach to combating climate change. It’s basically about engineering climate to suit a particular country or area – so if a country or corporation has the resources they could engineer the climate they want. But this raises some geo-political consequences whereby, for example, one country’s geo-engineering programme could have adverse effects on another country’s climate and this could be grounds for war. Some analysts suggest the climate would become a tool for warfare. I got the impression that there was, and still is, some disagreement within the scientific community as to how effective or safe climate engineering is.
So, like climate change, the idea of climate engineering excited me and I needed to put it in the story, somehow. I refer to it briefly in a couple of places and the world the story is set in is just at the end of a war between geo-engineering nations, who believed they could save the world, and non-geo-engineering nations. And you learn early on in the story that geo-engineering was a failed experiment.
Your male character is clearly a soldier of sorts. What, for you, was most important to show through this character?
In a word: hopelessness. He fought for the geo-engineers, he left his woman to fight for them, only for them to abandon him on the battlefield in a broken world they had promised to save. The man is a contrast to the woman, who remains hopeful for the future, even though she has no reason to be. The man has become part of the world around him – empty and hollow – and his only purpose is to postpone death. No time for love or intimacy. And that, for me, will be the greatest tragedy of climate change – it weathers our humanity to its most basic primal nature of survival.
I think, on a global scale, we all have hope that our leaders will hold fast to the promises they made at the recent Climate Change conference in Paris and turn the tide. We have hoped before and they have disappointed us before. But we hope still, even beyond hope. Hope is a dangerous feeling, but that’s all we ordinary people have. That and our voice.
That and our words.
Why did you choose to use a part-pidgin part created language in your story?
When one considers the idea of the future it is often of changes in a technological sense, mostly. Flying cars! Time travel! Teleportation! Aliens! These are often the go-to devices when the distant future is considered. But I didn’t want to default to that – I wanted something less obvious. During my research, I tried to look at what are some of the predictions for the distant future and Cloud Atlas, a novel by David Mitchell, was referenced as a literary example of how language may change over time. And I thought the idea of creating a language seemed like a fun challenge so I jumped on it.
But because it was set in Africa I had to use some fragments of an existing language that we recognise and make up the rest – so I settled for pidgin again because I thought it would be a cool challenge. The rest, I made up as I went along, but it was important that people understood what they were reading. So, as part of the process, I wrote the sentences in plain English and then abbreviated and ‘pidgnised’ it so the sense remained as people read it.
In various ways there is an impending sense of fear in ‘One Wit’ This Place’. One such fear is associated with relationships and the creation of a family. The following quote highlights a very particular fear in relation to this, fear for an unborn child: ‘Howse can I prepare you fa this world the way it bi?’ (25). Was this an intentional subject matter or did it appear more as the story unfolded?
‘One Wit’ This Place’ was a very organic experience. I started with an image in my mind of three people walking through a desert and the story unfolded slowly as I went along. I always found it pretentious when other writers said ‘the story just writes itself’ – what literary hogwash! But I must admit I am a convert – which makes me just as pretentious as the lot of them! I had no plot. No real story. Just one image and I developed it gradually – and yes – the characters write themselves. When I had finished and submitted it I went back to it several weeks later and re-read it and was surprised with it. It was morbid, bleak and frankly depressing – three things I am not (I hope). And I kept asking myself ‘why did I write this sad story?’
When I thought about it – I realised why I wrote it and the quote you’ve picked, to me, is at the core of why the story is important to me. It’s probably a cliché but it’s true when people say ‘nothing prepares you for parenthood’ – and it’s true – nothing does. I have a three year old son and what overwhelms me the most about being a dad is the thought that I will be responsible for shaping his world view and how he will perceive and interpret the world around him. That’s such a daunting prospect when I haven’t figured me out yet, not entirely, and yet I have to help another little human being figure things out for himself. But what scares me is the moment I will have to face up to one day when I will have to explain the ugliness in the world to him and why I did nothing, in whatever measure, to change it. Specifically, when I look at my own country, Malawi, all I see is a place of apathy, impunity and directionlessness. As much as I say that, I constantly find myself asking ‘what will I tell my son when he asks me why he doesn’t see my face or name in history books among the civil protesters who spoke out against corruption or government impunity? What will I say when he asks me what I ever did to change things in Malawi and I say I did nothing’. There were moments, when I was alone with my thoughts, when I felt bringing a child into such a country as mine was the most irresponsible thing I had ever done. But my son is here, and I love him to bits and I have to do right by him the best way I know how. It’s ironic – maybe writing this story is my little contribution to the grand enterprise of changing the world for my son.
Tiseke Chilima was shortlisted for the 2008 MAWU girls’ short story prize. Here she talks to us about her published speculative fiction tale, ‘Women Are From Venus’, set in Malawi sometime 500 years from now.
Can you tell us a little about your story?
The story is about a time when Earth is in the initial phases of being repopulated. Women found themselves on Venus and men on Mars, hence the terms Venusian and Martian. The result of this separation is that both sexes had to use technology to adapt, but this brought about its own set of problems. Women had to adapt physically and use engineering to survive the practically inhabitable Venus. Men turned to biology and genetics to manufacture perfect women. (They experienced more changes, obviously, but I decided to focus on these points). Because of the artificially created women, Venusians are treated with contempt and suspicion because of their imperfections. The main character is living in this environment.
Did you attend the Imagine Africa workshop in 2014? Did this have any bearing on ‘Women Are From Venus’?
Yes, I did attend the Imagine Africa Workshop and it is largely because I did that I came up with this story. The workshop helped me mould the elements of the story and gave me the desire to experiment with this theme.
‘Women Are From Venus’ is dense in subject matter. Brilliantly, you manage to cover a great deal of topics in just 3000 words – gender, age, beauty… Striking in composition is your dealing with identity politics (naming, paperwork, stereotype…) Did this idea develop overtime or was it the basis for the story?
The idea of identity politics came up when I was writing. Given that there is such tension between the sexes, I suspected that being able to quickly and thoroughly identify someone would be very important. Given the number of instances in real life where people are discriminated against because of something about their identity, I thought it was something important to show. What I am asking the readers is ‘is this fair?’ and ‘are we really going to still be doing this to each other in the future?’
Climate seems to sit at the seat of ‘Women Are From Venus’ – ‘….perpetual storms and near unliveable conditions…’ (178). Was climate something you intentionally set out to write about?
While I was looking around for a concept, I decided to look at my immediate environment for inspiration. Where I work, we focus on informing the youth and children of their rights; this includes issues of gender relations and helping the youth understand climate change and how it will affect future generations. I drew from that and just ran with the most extreme situation I could think of considering the amount of sleep deprivation I was under at the time. (Haha)
We tend to fight a lot as human beings. Something you bring to the fore in this story is existentialism and the fight to answer questions such as ‘What had I done to deserve this? Where would I end up?’ (180). They are old age worries; they are our present, and they will remain in our future. How do you think futuristic writing could appeal to such thinking and our human condition?
One of the things I love about futuristic writing is its way of opening people’s eyes. The genre might be full of wildly incomprehensible things that are both entertaining and enjoyable, but there is truth behind those layers. Unlike historical stories that bring people to think they shouldn’t commit the same errors their ancestors did, futuristic writing shamelessly shows the reader where they are going to end up if they don’t make an effort to make a difference. I believe that, whether we’re conscious of it or not, futuristic writing makes us reflect on ourselves and the future of humanity. Sometimes, when you’re lucky, it causes us to act on those thoughts. That’s all any writer can hope for, honestly.
Joanna Woods holds a Bachelor of Arts in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and is a graduate from the University of Copenhagen. A literary enthusiast, she has a recent publication about Malawian poetry and, as a particular interest of hers is now contemporary literature, she aims to write more.