Q&As: Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane – Judge, AKO Caine Prize shortlist 2022

AiW note: In the lead up to the award announcement on Monday the 18th July, along with our AiW Guest reviews of the shortlisted stories, we are running an attendant set of AKO Caine Q&As – with each of the authors, with the publishers of their stories, and with judges of the Prize this year – part of our annual AKO Caine Prize coverage, broadening our conversations around the work of the literary prize.

Today, in the second of our judges’ responses, and accompanying our AKO Caine shortlist Q&A with writer Billie McTernan, we are speaking with Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, a lawyer, and the co-founder and co-host, with Dr Alma-Nalisha Cele, of The Cheeky Natives, a “Black literature podcast focused on archiving Black stories”.

“Judges are drawn from different literary fields including eminent journalists, broadcasters and academics with expertise and a connection to literature in Africa. Five stories are selected for the shortlist by the judges, with one selected as the winner on the day of the award each year.
The AKO Caine Prize announces its 2022 Judges, May 27.

Also on the 2022 judging panel with Letlhogonolo were Okey Ndibe (Chair), Elisa Diallo, Àsìkò Okelarin, and Angela Wachuka.

AiW: Thanks so much for talking with us, Letlhogonolo.

Please tell us a bit about your judging the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing (perhaps something our readers might not yet know, or that they might need to, about being on a judging panel)? Are there any particular challenges, joys, or experiences specific to this year you would like to share with us? What does it mean for you to be working with the Prize now, in this, our current moment?

Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane: I think I am possibly the first nonbinary judge to be on the AKO Caine Prize panel. And I might stand to be corrected here but I think that I’m one of the few people from South Africa, and the even fewer black South Africans, to also be on the judging panel. That was interesting to think about: that South Africa is somewhat on the literary map; and queer and trans people are also fit enough to be on literary prize judging panels. 

In terms of challenges, I think this year was the biggest number of stories ever to enter the Caine Prize. So there were quite a number of stories that we had to read. And that was actually really challenging. Because you’re reading and reading, and you have to keep track and score, so that you’re not biased – because, you know, you could be feeling some type of way when you read the first story and feel quite differently when you read, like, the 100th story, right? So I think the challenge in part is trying to read each story with the same type of energy, because there were so many of them. 

But I think honestly it was really enjoyable because it was reading different stories and just marvelling at the talent that we have, of African writers. There were stories that I wish could have made the shortlist that for other reasons couldn’t, because they were just so delicious. And I enjoyed the fact that I don’t think I would have been exposed to so many writers and so many stories had I not been a judge of the Caine Prize. So what I really enjoyed was discovering new writers and growing stories.

Could you tell us about your work more broadly – with African writing but also any overlaps with the (other) kinds of work you do, the roles you hold, or the more general and different sorts of professional hats you wear?

I’m a co-founder and a co-host of a literary podcast called the Cheeky Natives, which is a South African based podcast that was founded in 2017. The purpose of the podcast was essentially to elevate Black writers across the continent, but also the diaspora. And, look, I mean, when my co-host Dr. Alma and I started the podcast, it was really just two friends who are really obsessed about Black writings and books. We thought we wanted to create a space like two friends meeting up for coffee over a book, and then we thought: wait, but what if we brought the authors into the conversation? So then we began doing that, and then we just kind of shaped into now being people who are asked to be part of literary festivals, people who are asked to host certain book launches. 

A lot of the work was us really thinking about how Black writers, and particularly Black African writers, are not given the space to talk about the depths of their book, right? It’s just, oh, it’s just another African book; it’s just another book on this. But actually, Blackness is not monolithic; Africanness is not just this one thing. So we wanted a space where we could explore and can do all this type of work. And it’s been amazing. It’s been a wonderful five years. I often tell people that I’ve lived some of my wildest literary dreams because of the podcast. There are people that I never imagined I would be in conversation with, and because we run the podcast, I’ve had such wonderful interactions with various people. And it’s wonderful to enjoy reading and speak to other people and geek and nerd out about books and themes in books. So the main reason I got to be a judge of the Caine Prize is primarily the work that I do through the Cheeky Natives. 

I am also a lawyer here in South Africa. Particularly on social media, most people know me as a book critic, but also as a lawyer. So it’s often interesting to think about engaging people from a particular platform and how, in my literary work, or in my lawyery work, I often bring the fiction books to the legal literature, and vice versa; I think about how Audre Lorde would be considering the law in this particular way, or how Chinelo Okparanta might think on it

If I give a speech or a lecture in law, I always begin with a quote from a book. Interestingly enough, I co-wrote a journal article with Lethabo Mailula, “The bloody rainbow: The creation of the second closet – Lesbian Blackwomxn, intimate partner violence and third parties’ responses”, about black lesbians and what we call the creation of the second closet, which is based on the idea that when they report intimate partner violence (IPV), they are discriminated against. My co-writer and I were thinking about how literature fits into the law and one of the ways in which we tried to illustrate the point was by referring to a debut novel that deals with intimate partner violence in a lesbian relationship called If I Stay Right Here by Chwayita Ngamlana (Blackbird Books).

I find that the books always follow me. So no matter where I am, I’m going to remember something someone said, and how it’s actually applicable in this particular regard.

What is the best investment you’ve made in your professional self / selves? And/or the most valued advice you’ve received about navigating your industry or industries?

That’s such an interesting question. I think the most valuable advice I’ve received, and it sounds really cliche, but it is to believe in yourself. I’m someone who struggles a lot with this idea of the impostor. I feel like wherever I am, I’m faking it and people are going to find me out. And someone just said: Believe in yourself; believe that the work that you’re doing is important. And I think that’s the most valuable advice. 

I also think that reading, especially reading fiction and nonfiction that is not academic, allows you to think about things a little differently. What reading has really done for me, broadly in my career, is help me look for what is not on paper; look beneath the words, in between the words. And I think that’s really the beauty of what words can create.

What have you come to find most enabling for your practice as you think/make/produce – say, the top three (things/communities/people/places/snacks/habits/apps, screen time…)?

Another interesting question. I think community, but honest community. Thinking about during lockdown, for instance, when we were all confined to our homes: the Cheeky Natives did a series where we were having a conversation with a different author every day, Monday to Friday. And we found that a lot of people were talking about how that helped them through the loneliness of the pandemic because they felt connected. 

When you think about social media, too – I think this is where we really saw the rise of Twitter spaces. There were a lot of conversations that were happening and people were able to connect across the world. The pandemic made us realise that we can connect through virtual platforms. Because I know we know Skype, and we know Zoom, and we know all of that. But I think we really found the utility and usefulness of it during the pandemic. When we could no longer be in the same room, we began to create those rooms virtually. 

I also think the dissemination of knowledge became easier because more people could access who was who, and who was in conversation with each other. So I think meaningful, engaging community has been really important. But also believing that the work is important, and that it will be received by who is supposed to receive it. Because often the work that we do in literary spaces feels thankless, because it’s not like people are giving you tonnes of money to hold them, to run, say Africa in Words, right? A large part of it is the fact that you’re passionate, and you want people to have access to this particular thing. So to believe that the work reaches out to someone is important. 

I really appreciate receiving compliments about episodes that we’ve done or books that we’ve recommended, not because I’m looking for the affirmation, you know, like I’m trying to feel “Oh my gosh, yes, we know”, but for someone to say “I resonated so deeply with that and thank you”, “I feel less alone because of X or because of Y”. 

If you have a major making or productivity bad habit/kryptonite/heel of Achilles/soft underbelly, please confess it; and what is the one thing you would change about how you work?

I want to learn to be a little bit kinder to myself, in work but also in life in general. And to not come from a default of negativity. I find that I’m learning a lot about myself, and the way in which I approach life is that I’m always expecting the worst and never expecting the better. I wish to change that about myself. I wish to be more hopeful about the things that I desire, in theory going from, “Oh, that’s not going to work out”, to “Actually, I deserve for certain things to work out in my life”. And it’s quite challenging because it’s a paradigm shift. You have lived and existed as this one person and now you’re trying to live and exist as another person, and there’s this dissonance, this tug and pull. So I think to be a lot kinder to myself, and actually to truly believe the compliments that I receive. Because I feel like criticism stays much longer than compliments.

Thinking more particularly about books now – we wonder if you might tell us a bit about your relationship with yours: how your bookshelves are arranged vs. how you would like them to be arranged, for example? Are you deliberate about materials/designs; where treasured finds and gifts go?

My bookshelves are organised into sections. I have feminist writing and feminist works on one side, and within that, Bell Hooks, for instance, has her own shelf; Alice Walker has her own shelf; Toni Morrison has her own shelf; Audre Lorde has her own shelf. I think about my favourite writers – anyone who knows me knows I like James Baldwin. So James Baldwin has the centre of my bookshelf – you’ll see a Baldwin; and a Baldwin; and it’s just like, this area is Baldwin. I have a section for male writers who are black on this particular side; I have an entire queer section, which I’m really proud of, so that also deserves a centrepiece position; I try to have a separate poetry section. And then you also have miscellaneous – it’s kind of like, I don’t know where to categorise this, so I’ll put them at the bottom, so there will be random bits at the bottom of the shelf.

Is there anything you like to do often before/after reading? (habits, routines, tics, talismans, spaces…)

I like to read early in the morning or late at night. If it’s early in the morning, it’s the first thing that I do before I give the world myself, kind of thing; and late at night is like, okay, now I have this time to myself and therefore, I’m going to read. 

I don’t turn off my phone. I should probably, but I don’t. I will reply to messages in between the 10 pages that I’ve read and stuff like that. But sometimes the book is so gripping that I forget about my phone. 

I suppose the reading practice that I try to keep is to read between 30 to 50 pages in a sitting. I can read more but if I can get to that, I feel I’ve done enough. Because I work as a lawyer in South Africa, I’m always reading at work. Reading for leisure becomes quite difficult because I’ve already read 200 pages in a day. So by the time I get home, I do want to read but really, it’s easier to watch something. So the reading practice is a minimum of 50 pages a day.

Is there a serendipitous book-related thing – perhaps a striking, happy, weird, downright uncanny accident that has occurred around books that you can share with us?

There’s a book called How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones. I was going to just read this book – you know, I like Saeed, I want to read it – but it turned out to catch me in a way I didn’t expect. It made me cry because they were talking about grieving the loss of their mom. And I lost my mom a couple of years ago. This was a book that was so heavy, but so gripping that I finished it in one sitting. I just kept reading, and reading and reading, it was so so good. So that was serendipitous, in a way. I suppose another similar serendipitous moment was when reading Sefi Atta’s Swallow. In the beginning, I thought, This is going to be a funny book; and then I get into the middle, and I’m thinking, This book is not funny at all. This is a serious book. So I think that’s a kind of serendipity, the moment we think the books are going to be a little light, but they are serious, or they land with you in a way you couldn’t predict and by then, it’s too late for you to turn back. 

What’s the strangest, most significant – outrageous, even – thing you’ve done or would do because of, or for a book?

I don’t think I’ve done anything outrageous for a book. No, actually, I have. I have, okay. It was Nayyirah Waheed’s salt. And it isn’t the most readily available book in the world, you know? I was at someone’s house, thinking, “Oh, this book is really cool, whatever”. Then when I arrived home, it was more like “OMG, I stole someone’s book”, right? Because I thought I’d put it back. But… well, you know, I was showing her my books and we were looking at the books together. And I put it into my bag… 

I messaged her and she was very gracious and let me keep that copy. But that wasn’t intentional, so I don’t think it’s that outrageous…

So, I would probably pimp one of my friends out for a book to be honest, if someone was like, “Listen, if you hook me up with this person, or give me their number, I’ll give you this book”. I probably won’t give out the actual number; I’ll pretend to. But, yes – that’s something I would do for a book.

Finally, and perhaps particularly given our experiences over the last couple of years, what are the most ethical and/or heart-lifting practices you’ve seen happening across your industry/industries and working life?

I think just being honest about people’s writing and work. It can be hard in the African market, a difficult market, to be consistently and truly honest about some people’s books. So I see that kind of honesty as an ethical practice.

Another is, I suppose, being genuine as you put yourself out there. A lot of the conversations we’ve had at the Cheeky Natives was me tweeting an authentic, “Hey, we would really like to have you on our podcast”. And some of the authors have said that those have been the best conversations that they’ve had. 

And also to continuously support writers. As a literary podcaster and a literary critic, I now get books for free. But if there are places where I can buy someone a gift, I would still do that.

Letlhogonolo has offered for anyone interested in reading “The bloody rainbow: The creation of the second closet – Lesbian Blackwomxn, intimate partner violence and third parties’ responses”, the co-authored article, with Lethabo Mailula, that they mention in the interview, to be in touch with them for the PDF. 

Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane is the co-founder and co-host of The Cheeky Natives – a literary platform that focuses on archiving and curatorship of Black artistic expressions. The Cheeky Natives was awarded social media influencer of the year by Brittle Paper in 2021. Letlhogonolo is an advocate and a member of the Johannesburg Society of Bar. They hold a Bachelor of Law from Stellenbosch University and a Masters of Law (summa cum laude) from the University of California, Los Angeles. They have guest lectured at Stellenbosch University, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Pretoria. In 2018, they were named one of the Top 200 Young South Africans.

If you are not already doing so, seek out and follow The Cheeky Natives, “a literary podcast primarily focused on the review, curatorship and archiving of black literature”, now!

Our author, publisher, and judge AKO Caine Prize Q&A Series began on Monday this week, and our five Guest reviews of the shortlisted stories ran the week prior.

NB: Of note in the Q&A series with Letlhogonolo’s reflections on the productive overlaps of “literary and lawyery” work and labour might be writer Joshua Chizoma’s Q&A – shortlisted for “Collector of Memories” (Afritondo), and currently studying for the Nigerian bar: “What I find surprising about these aspects of my life is that the law actually does help my writing. […] studying law actually helps me to understand human actions, human emotions, the whole works.” 

Our twin Q&A in the AKO shortlist Caine set today is with Billie McTernan, whose shortlisted story, “The Labadi Sunshine Bar”, was published in indie Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ collection Accra Noir (co-published with Cassava Republic Press in the UK in 2020). We hosted a Publisher AKO Caine Prize Q&A with Johanna Ingalls of Akashic Books here on Monday, where Johanna opened up the publisher’s route with the three shortlisted stories published by them

Johnny Temple, Publisher at Akashic Books, says: ‘We couldn’t be more honoured to have three stories shortlisted for the prestigious AKO Caine Prize from two outstanding anthologies in our Akashic Noir Series—Accra Noir edited by Nana-Ama Danquah and Addis Ababa Noir edited by Maaza Mengiste.’

AiW Guest Nnaemeka Ezema’s review of McTernan’s “The Labadi Sunshine Bar” picks through the dichotomies of agency and victimhood in what he reads as its fiercely competitive economic space:

“…Maintaining a terse linguistic economy and the concise plot of the short story form, McTernan’s narrative exploration centres on sex work in Accra, but goes beyond recounting the economic tensions that surround prostitution, its vicious competitive space, to raise questions about how “the ancient profession” could be a means for negotiating female freedom in a dominant patriarchal society.

~ Victims and Prey: The Agency of the Body Merchants in Billie McTernan’s “The Labadi Sunshine Bar”

And please follow this link to read all our posts in and around our AKO Caine Prize archives, this year and (way, way) back…

The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.

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