“We try to make sense of the world by creating stories”: Priscillar Matara

Priscillar Matara is a writer and film maker from Botswana. She writes short stories, some of which have been published in anthologies such as Lemon Tea and Other Stories, Flash, Roses for Betty, Bundle of Joy and Other Stories, Botswana Women Write and Waterbirds by the Lakeshore. She is also a 2nd prize winner in the 2018 Poetavango Award for Short Fiction in Botswana and a participant in the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Workshop in Zambia as well as the Goethe Institute’s Adult Young Fiction Workshop in 2019.


What, if anything, do writers owe to society?

Writers have been described as mirrors for society, that they force society to look closely at itself and to do so honestly, to acknowledge that nobody has a definite idea about what ‘this’ life thing is about. So I guess we could say, writers owe society honesty. But I also believe, writers owe as much to themselves. We try to make sense of the world by creating stories, characters that we assign the lives we think they deserve. And perhaps that is the only way to be honest.

What is the most important thing happening in the Botswana film/TV industry right now?

The most important thing that is happening in the Botswana film/TV is the realisation of how big and universal the industry itself is. Even though locally it is still small, it is very alive and it is refreshing to see people in the industry exploring the opportunities everywhere, particularly Botswana. In addition, it has become clear that traditional methods of broadcast such as the TV programming are no longer sufficient and streaming platforms provide a big space for all in the industry.  

What is a word or turn of phrase that you use time and again in your work, and why does it appeal to you?

When I was younger, I had an unhealthy obsession with the word kaleidoscope. Characters in my short stories always dealt with a ‘kaleidoscope of colour’ one way or another.  I thought it was the height of creativity and made sure I found space for it in any way I could. It was hilarious, actually, because I don’t think I was as versatile with it as it deserved. I still laugh about it.

With the rise of streaming, podcasts and social media content, do you think there is still a place for the radio drama?

I feel there is still a place for radio dramas; perhaps there isn’t much interest locally in writing and producing radio dramas but I still feel it’s still very relevant. Actually, BBC Radio still streams radio dramas so I don’t think radio dramas are going anywhere. In fact, if we are to compare radio and TV drama in terms of expenses, radio will seem like an easier choice because it is relatively cheaper to produce.

What are you currently working on?

I am very excited to be working on an idea for a play. I have never written a play before so I get moments where I second guess myself a lot, but I am pushing forward. The concept is very universal and I can’t wait for the first reading but first the play actually has to happen. Other than that, I am trying to interest a regional television broadcaster in a proposal for a lifestyle show. We can only try.

You can follow Priscillar here and here and check out another interview she did here.


Protecting your copyright: Copyright Society of Botswana (COSBOTS)

The Copyright Society of Botswana (COSBOTS) was commissioned and became fully operational in November 2011. In 2012 the registration of members, together with licensing of users, began leading to a successful distribution of royalties in 2014. COSBOTS is mandated by the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act – CAP6802 of 2006 to, among others, license and collect royalties from users of copyright protected works, to distribute them to copyright owners.

This interview was conducted with Mr Letlhogonolo Makwinja, the CEO of COSBOTS.

Why should writers register with Cosbots?

We make sure you receive the money you’re entitled to as a writer when someone copies or uses your work. We collect money from all over the world, then pay it to our members.

When you sign a publishing contract, you are granting the publisher permission to exploit (i.e., to publish and distribute for profit) some or all of your rights for a defined period of time. Generally, when publishing a book, the author will grant the publisher a license.

The author can also assign copyright to the publisher (copyright transfer agreement). In signing a copyright transfer agreement, the author grants all their rights as author and copyright holder to the publisher.

What is one common misconception about Cosbots that you’d like to correct?

COSBOTS is a secondary rights player in the collection of royalties. Which simply translates that primary rights is where artists are supposed to make the big monies. Collecting societies are only functional on possible infringement of rights and those are places that artists will normally not know. So, it’s small monies by its nature but people expect to get rich from secondary rights and pay less attention to making sure that the primary rights are worthwhile.

How does a writer register with Cosbots?

Visit cosbots.com and download registration documents or visit the office.

Contained within copyright is the entire bundle of rights that an author can grant to others or utilize him/herself.

You can lean more about COSBOTS and how to register here.

“The trick is to preserve the flavour of the writer’s voice”: Mafoko Manuscript Services

Mafoko Manuscript Services is an editing agency based in Gaborone, Botswana. It is run by Dr. Leloba S. Molema and Dr. Mary S. Lederer. They also offer translating services in Afrikaans, English, German, Setswana and Sesotho.

What’s the most common mistake writers make, in your experience?

Prepositions and references.  Prepositions are difficult in any language, so we expect that, but references need to follow a style, and that has to be done by knowing what referencing style you are required to use and following it EXACTLY for each kind of source (web page, report, book, journal article, online article, etc.). EXACTLY means including where each full stop, comma, and colon goes. In general, though, because writing is idiosyncratic, each writer’s errors are idiosyncratic.

Which is easier for you: writing or editing?

Mary:  Editing, including my own work. It is always easier for me to look at something that already exists. I’m not as imaginative as our clients!

Leloba: Editing is easier. Writing is more taxing because I have to pay attention to things like overall coherence regarding the point I’m making, the research I’ve engaged in regarding that same point, and the self-editing I carry out as I write. And when I’ve finished writing, I edit some more, and this time quickly—checking for coherence, grammar, typos, etc.

Give some examples of writing habits particular to Botswana writers, and how you tackle them in the editing process.

Mary: In any second-language editing, the trick is to preserve the flavour of the writer’s voice in the original language without forcing it into an English corset.  So we usually try to leave such things alone and to make sure that what is being written is clear and vibrant.

Leloba: I agree with Mary, especially regarding novels, short stories, poetry, plays, autobiography/memoirs, and also when translating quotations from, say, Setswana/Sesotho literature into English, in academic papers.

About academic papers: Quite a few researchers use the passive voice in the belief that they are being objective, e.g., “It is argued in this paper that what, what, what, something, something, something”. So I also quite often turn this type of sentence into the active voice, e.g., “In this paper I argue that….” The objectivity lies not in omitting the “I” but in the quality of the research and how the result of that research is put together in a coherent argument, point by point, paragraph by paragraph.

Sentences in the passive voice can also be wordy and, as a result, incomprehensible to the reader, even when grammatically correct. (Here is an example from an editors’ blog: “The globalisation of travel and tourism has led to the employment of millions more airline operatives in the service of passengers globally. The recent referral by the UN report to this phenomenon has put it under the spotlight.” Instead, “The globalisation of travel and tourism means that airlines have hired millions more operatives to serve passengers. A recent UN report highlights this phenomenon.”)

What has been your favourite editing assignment so far, and why?

Neither of us has a particular favourite assignment, mostly because we find everything we edit interesting. There are so many things to learn!  We would never have thought about classroom seating arrangement, for example, as a subject of study, but there are many more aspects to it than we realised.  We learn something new from absolutely everything we edit, especially about situations with which we have some experience, and sometimes what we edit explains things in our own lives.

You recently compiled and edited one of the most significant books in Botswana’s literary history. If resources were no object, what would your next project be?

Mary:  Hard to say.  I’ve got some stuff going at the moment that is Bessie Head-related (editing a book for young people about Bessie’s early life, digitising one of the anthologies we edited, and compiling an annotated edition of A Question of Power). One thing that has been on a back burner for lack of resources is a photo/essay book about women in Botswana.

Leloba:  I am seized with my memoir.

Learn more about Mafoko Manuscript Services here and here.

“We need to think of our art as a business”: N&M Productions

N&M Productions PTY (Ltd) is a 100% citizen and women-owned entertainment production company and script-writing agency, with a vision to create a space where all Africans feel represented, respected and above all, entertained. It is owned and managed by Serena Serene Mmifinyana and Nikita Neo Mokgware. Their work includes UPICtv police drama The Star and Multichoice podcast This Is Africa.

What excites you most about writing for the screen?

Nikita: Writing for screen holds the promise of seeing it in action before your very eyes in ways you only dream of. I enjoy thinking of ways to make my story not just fun to read, but also fun to watch play out in front of you. And it’s not just the characters, but also camera movements, editing methods, and creative special effects that can take your story and elevate it to new heights! So many options, so many more stories to be told and utilized; I mean wow! How exciting is that? 

Serena: It’s always such a surreal moment to see your writing transform from paper to screen. It’s a wonder to see the work that you put in go through the transformative processes of production to finally be translated to a visual platform for all to see. As a media person, I am aware that media shapes and influences our communities, the world we live in. To be able to contribute to that – to teach, to entertain, to represent and celebrate our people – is truly surreal!

What’s the most important ingredient in a thriving film industry, and how does Botswana’s industry fare in that regard?

Nikita: There are many things that go into a thriving film industry, and it’s hard to pinpoint one. Off the top of my head, I would say that a thriving film industry relies heavily on collaboration between filmmakers. We need to utilize all of our collected skills and talents to make sure the work coming out of the country is top quality, and all local. Our own industry is still learning this.

Serena: Business skills are a must in any industry, and currently our film industry is lagging behind. As creative and talented as we are as Batswana, we need to think of our art as a business because we too must put food on the table. The art of business allows us to explore larger markets, to pitch to investors and stakeholders so we can develop and thrive.

In the movie of your life, what would the opening scene look like? Who would play you?

Nikita: The opening scene would probably be quite melancholic. I enjoy such emotions being portrayed on screen, and so I see my own movie starting with that, then leading into a more joyful space; a sun rising, or a child alone on a playground being approached by a new friend. I’m not sure who would play me to be honest. My first love was acting, so probably myself!  

Serena: I see a little girl stretching her arms out to the sky, eyes sparkling with passion and wonder at all that life can offer… I am a big fan of discovering new talent and would love to see a beautiful, Motswana girl make her debut on screen and captivate the world with her talent and aura.

What’s the biggest misconception about screenwriting?

Nikita: That it’s easy. Everyone thinks screenwriting is far easier than the different writing methods and honestly, as someone who has dabbled in novel and playwriting, it’s so incredibly difficult. You have to balance character dialogue with action lines. Figure out camera movements and any editing mechanics that need to be mentioned. Then there’s page count matching however long the episode or film needs to be, being aware of budget if it’s a small project and that scenes don’t end up costing a producer an arm and leg; so much to consider. Notice how I haven’t even mentioned the story itself yet! It’s so much fun, but it’s not simple or easy by any means to get a (good) script done.

Serena: Writing is easy; just make up a story! That is far from the truth! It takes research and planning, consulting and editing, constant re-writing and endless sleepless nights to develop a script. We create worlds and birth characters that our audience should be able to relate to, and that our producers and broadcasters are satisfied with; if we don’t hit the mark, it’s back to the drawing board! Screenwriting is a process, it’s a skill that only gets better with each script that we write.

Which local story, folktale, myth or real-life story, would you love to bring to the screen and why?

Nikita: My friend once mentioned all the folktales and myths that surround Mochudi, the area. I’ve dreamt of making a series based on them for the longest time. Setswana folktales are just as engaging as those from other cultures, so it would be nice to have our own stories be part of film history!

Serena: There are so many stories in Botswana that I would love to share with the world – our history, our folktales, our mythical creatures… However one that has always stood out to me is the story of Matsieng; to see Botswana’s first ancestor on screen leaving footprints behind on his adventure in a new world… What did he do? What did he see? Was he alone?

You can learn more about N&M Productions here and see their work here and here.

Inspiring a generation: Gaborone Book Festival Trust

All photos courtesy of Press Photo and Gaborone Book Festival Trust

The Gaborone Book Festival Trust was founded in 2017 by Kenanao and Keikantse Phele and organized the first Gaborone Book Festival in 2018. Their mission is to encourage and inspire people of all ages in Gaborone and beyond to read and share the transformative power of reading. In addition to the Festival, the Gaborone Book Festival Trust also hosts monthly book reviews, book nights and a School Outreach Programme.

What drove you to start the Gaborone Book Festival?

We were driven by our love for reading and realizing that Botswana doesn’t have a literary festival. As such we felt obliged to create this multiple tier platform where we can we can highlight the literary works of Batswana and that of other African authors. Furthermore, we wanted to create a legacy of inspiring a generation of readers and writers.

What’s the last book you read that had a profound effect on you?

It’s not the last book but one of the best I have read this year.  It has to be Nanjala Nyabola’s Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move. This is not a travel memoir as she sates in the book but it looks at issues of migration and immigration, based on her travels across the world. She discusses these issues in her essays with so much clarity and brilliance. It’s an essential read especially now given how the world of travel, migration and immigration keeps on changing due to Covid-19.

What do you hope to see the Gaborone Book Festival Trust achieving in the next five years?

We want to grow our School Outreach Programme because we have seen the dire need of literary activities in schools especially those in hard to reach places or low income. Furthermore, we want to venture into research in order to know the reading habits of Batswana in order to influence policy at government level and CSR for private organization. They are other book ecosystem places we want to venture into like specialized publishing of certain genres like history. Botswana history is grossly undocumented.

How can people support the Gaborone Book Festival Trust?

Anybody who wants to partner or support us can reach out to us via social media where we are active. Our email is info@gaboronebookfestival.co.bw. We are always looking for partners and collaborators. And to us, no partnership is small.

We live in the digital age, where we can get all our information and entertainment online. Why do books still matter?

Books will always matter – whether physical or e-books. There is magic and space in books.

You can learn more about the GBF here or here.

A voice for writers: WABO Chairperson Benjamin Mogotsi

Benjamin Mogotsi is the Chairperson of WABO, the Writers’ Association of Botswana. He is also an author. Writers Association of Botswana is a non governmental organization that aims at promoting writers rights and seeks to unite them. As the key stakeholders of the writing industry in Botswana, it has an executive committee that is spread throughout Botswana.

For those who are unfamiliar with WABO, what does the organization do?

The purpose of WABO as an umbrella group of writers is to be a voice for all writing students, individual writers, community groups, critics, editors, curriculum designers, publishers and other stakeholders; to showcase their creative abilities, and to develop and promote Botswana Literature to the status of other national literatures in the region.

Founded in 1980, WABO aims to provide a practical support network for aspiring and established writers through the following Objectives:

  • Opening a central office where it can help affiliate members to build a network of writers and other stakeholders from various parts of the country in the process of developing their writing.
  • Encouraging and promoting writing clusters/groups/workshops as meeting sessions, where they can critique, give and receive honest feedback on each other’s work. This is where established writers may nurture upcoming ones.
  • Setting up and overseeing regional branches whose membership will be affiliates of the Association.
  • Providing members with information and advice on getting their work published, and disseminating information relevant to creative writers, such as literary events, press publications, competitions, workshops, seminars and courses.
  • Providing writers groups/clusters/chapters with workshops, seminars, conferences, etc to share information on techniques and ways in which they might improve their writing ability in order to develop their work to a high professional standard.
  • Encouraging members to participate in promotional activities such as public readings, Mobile Reading Centres, community writers groups, and submissions to the Association’s Journal and Newsletter, or other groups’ Anthologies.
  • Embarking on grassroots development of aspirant writers by setting up writers clubs in schools around the country.
  • Educating its members on Copyright Law in order to help them to protect their Intellectual Property.
  • Encouraging writers to register with Copyright Society of Botswana (COSBOTS).

Why do you write, personally?

Generally I don’t decide to write; it rather comes as a result of some inspiration, an urge that if neglected or suppressed, it either disappears or nags. Specifically, I write to convey my thoughts and emotions in the most creative and appealing way so that I touch other people’s lives. Writing for me can also be some form of therapy. Sometimes I write for relaxation purposes.

As the WABO Chairperson, what changes would you like to see in Botswana’s creative writing landscape and how is WABO part of that vision?

The changes that I would like to see taking place in the creative writing space in Botswana include a deliberate move by government to develop and promote the local literature, for a nation finds pride in its literature. As such, we at WABO aspire to be a part of this vision by endeavouring to achieve the following:

  • To foster strong relations with community, government institutions and individual members of WABO,
  • To establish the teaching of creative writing at Botswana’s tertiary institutions,
  • To cultivate and encourage excellence in the writing of contemporary Botswana literature,
  • To advance the prominence of a national culture in contemporary Botswana literature
  • To support, nurture, and acknowledge the creators, readers and publishers of contemporary literature and the teaching of writing – the outstanding publishing houses, editors, critics, and literary arts administrators.
  • To ensure the long-term stability of WABO.

How can writers join WABO?

By accessing the Association through its website, which has all the necessary tools to becoming a member. One may also identify a writers’ club nearby and become a member, which would ultimately join the umbrella body.

Who are your top three Botswana writers and why?

I personally don’t know the criteria of selecting the top three; whether it’s based on several publications one has, their work’s impact or popularity. Therefore, let me not be a judge because writers are unique in the way they handle their craft. So, comparing them is unjust.

You can contact WABO here.

A lover of languages: Paul Batshedi More

Paul Batshedi More was born in 1968 in Molepolole, 50 kilometres west of Botswana’s capital city Gaborone. He lives with his family in Gaborone, Botswana. He is a qualified real estate professional and well experienced on the development, management and investment disciplines of property. 

Paul has served as the head of property development for the largest residential property developer in Botswana and has also acted as the head of investment promotion for the country’s largest investment promotion agency. 

The Power Chase is his debut novel.

What inspired you to write this novel?

Though for now I can only speak and write two languages, I must say I am a profound lover of languages. Linguistic diversity is dear to my heart, and it is unfortunate that lack of exposure has denied me the opportunity of rising to the level of a cosmopolitan polyglot. However, I have always sought to improve my ability to comprehend, speak and write the English language, a trait that has been ingrained in my veins from adolescence. While at high school, I devoured the entire set of Pacesetter novels that were available at Kgari Sechele Secondary School’s library.

As my palate for reading got more refined, my passion veered into the big-name arena, and I started reading explosive, mind gripping and well researched works of fiction, where massive bundles of intrigue and suspense were crafted into spine-tingling plots with a reasonable dose of verisimilitude. In the process of reading novels, the two questions that often bounced on my brain were; “how do writers of fiction create plausible content that could fit into a couple of hundreds of pages or even more?” and “Can’t I do the same?” Upon realisation that I had the potential to write, I decided to follow my passion, and this is what birthed the 345-paged novel. For me, writing this novel felt like I was running to myself, not away. And it certainly did not feel like a necessary evil nor a temporary distraction. The writing journey was chockablock with unforgettable moments of absolute pleasure and innate joy!

I associate with Clark M. Zlotchew’s view, a distinguished professor of Latin-American Literature, “Fiction has been maligned for centuries as being ‘false,’ ‘untrue,’ yet good fiction provides more truth about the world, about life, and even about the reader, than can be found in non-fiction.” Prevalent in the world is the twerpish absurdity that readers of non-fiction, particularly biographies, auto-biographies, and motivational books, are the only ones endowed with a refined taste for great books. My view is that, like a sharp sword, fiction tends to cut into inconvenient truths that other genres can at best only skirt around.

What were the best and worst parts of the writing process?

Let me sum it up by quoting Britain’s wartime prime minister named Winston Churchill. He said; “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you will kill the monster and fling him to the public.” I hope you catch the drift.

The best part in writing The Power Chase was sitting before a computer and having my mind flooded by a lot of thoughts and twists and turns that could easily be crafted into the novel. It was a joy to find myself in command of the story, accepting some of the best ideas and tossing many that were equally good. I had to remind myself ever so often that I needed to take breaks. One of the most challenging things was knowing when to stop for the day. In many instances I lost track of time and would find myself busy lucubrating in the wee hours of the morning. Do not be surprised if a sequel hits bookshop shelves!

What was the publishing experience? Did you have any guidance or assistance?

I chose to go the self-publishing route. I talked to a couple of authors, who did not only advise on the process of securing ISBNs for the hard and electronic copies, but also on choosing a qualified company to print the book. I must say, I was surprised at how simple the process was.

If you could go back to the start of your writing journey, what advice would you give yourself?

Let me declare that I lay no claim to being a literary aficionado. But I do have a few arrows of advice in my quiver and in responding to your question I will direct my views to aspiring authors. 

1.Do not underestimate your potential. Refuse to listen to that inner voice if it constantly propagates the myth that you cannot write. I am as human as they come. My ability to write a novel indubitably proves the fallacy of the notion that writing is the preserve of the privileged few. Many people are pulsating with the potential to write, but they are none the wiser. They need a gentle nudge to motivate them to explore their talent and harness their creativity for their own good and for the benefit of the targeted readership. Dan Poynter, an American author, rightly observed, “If you wait for inspiration to write, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” Let go of fear and reverse the inhibition that is tying your hands.

2. Do not take short-cuts! Avid readers make brilliant authors. You cannot write a book if you are not enthused about reading. Make it a habit to read daily. Continuously inform yourself. If need be, cut the time you spend on social media and devour wholesome written content, whatever genre tickles your fancy. An American novelist named Annie Proulx shared this insightful observation, “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” The zeal to read endows one with creativity, expansive vocabulary, great diction, and the rare but convincing ability of bringing alive emotions and environments close to the mind and heart of the reader. Apply yourself and without falling into the trap of overdoing it, elegantly craft a fraction of sentences into tweetable quotes, but resist the temptation to swamp your readers in an infinite pool of endless verbosity. Good authors are not showboats. Mind the fact that in writing a book, you are not showing off your vocabulary, but painting a compelling word-picture for appreciation by readers.

3. Avoid dabbling into outright amateurish pastiche. Enter the realm of writing with the panache of a seasoned writer. Readers would not normally care that it is your maiden novel. They would judge you by the same standards they use for experienced authors. Do not run the risk of childishly announcing to the reader that you are a novice. Obsessively filling pages with endless bouts of implausible ideas and attempting to submerge readers into endless pools of inane and outlandish fantasy is a definite no-no. A novel is not a burlesque rendition of life. In fact, brilliant works of fiction excel in enabling readers to identify with certain characters, and this compels them to learn from their experience, as opposed to learning from the school of hard knocks. Do your research. Readers are not fools. Most of them are worldwise. Some of them might be more knowledgeable on issues and would be quick to throw away an unrealistic novel, hence the cautionary note from an American author named Ernest Hemmingway, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

4. A penchant for creativity is a must. Creatively weave plausible and insightful but chilling twists and turns that will grip your audience and mess around with their emotions. Avoid the trap of lapsing into bouts of predictability. Without being too predictable, hold the reader like a yo-yo in your hand and adroitly toss them in whichever direction you wish. Predictability bores readers.

5. Festoon the content with raw emotions of happiness, suspense, shock, empathy and liberally etch disappointment and anger to your storyline. Lace your narration with an unforeseeable volatility of emotions that would make the novel somewhat ‘unputdownable.’ Do not be limited by your own experience, if need be, borrow from other people. Always remember that yours is an artistic work of imagination. More importantly, ask yourself, what lessons do I want the reader to take away from this novel and how can I craft them into the soul of the protagonist as well as major and minor antagonists? 

6. Mind the pace of the narration. As the plot thickens, where necessary step on the accelerator pedal and tear the emotions of the reader by defying norms, but do not overdo it. Have the wisdom to know when to decelerate and romance your readers by charting a captivating witty course. Pepper your write-up with gut-wrenching unignorable cliffhangers that would impel the reader to keenly look forward to turning the page.

7. Research on common mistakes made by first-time writers and avoid them. Take time to diligently review what you’ve written, careful to spot grammar mistakes. Readers have no patience with content that is riddled with awkward grammatical faux pas. You would not be able to spot all errors. Have the humility to engage a qualified proofreader and editor to sanitise and breathe grammatical hygiene into your book.

8. Much as you would like to believe that when you write a novel, you’re occupying the seat of the master, nothing can be further from the truth. Authors are servants of readers. There is no room for the converse. This calls upon writers of novels to be disciplined. To resist unnecessary long dialogues meant to cover more pages but doing nothing for the reader. Experienced readers are always quick to spot rambling by authors.

9. Get-up-and-go. If you would like to try your hand at writing, move from the lethargic stage of saying to yourself, “I wish I could write with such colour.” The one thing life has taught me is that wishing without working never gets the job done. No one will be kind enough to drag you from the zone of lack of confidence. Shatter that cocoon, step up to the plate and write your first novel.

As a writer, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

It would be my pride and joy if I could be remembered for the creative ability of authoring a maiden piece of fiction that sent a few people on introspective journeys and motivated them to explore their hidden literary acumen, decisively breaking as it were the shell that has for many years suppressed their talent.

You can learn more about Paul’s work here.

“My only obligation is to the story”: Cheryl S. Ntumy

Cheryl S. Ntumy is a Ghanaian writer based in Botswana. Since her first work was published in 2008, she has gone on to publish several articles, novels, short stories, poetry and comic books. Her novels include seven romance titles, a YA trilogy and a paranormal thriller.

In 2017, Cheryl participated in the Caine Prize workshop in Tanzania, where she wrote “The Storymage”. It was published in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories later that year. She was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship in 2019. Her work has appeared in Will This be a Problem, Molecule: A Tiny Lit Mag, Botswana Women Write, Breathe: Anthology of Science Fiction and We Will Lead Africa Volume 2: Women, among others.

What drew you to Petlo?

I joined Petlo because I love writing, talking about writing and thinking about writing. I love collaborating with other writers, sharing our work, getting feedback and building our skills. Petlo provides an opportunity for me to be of service to other writers, which in turn makes me a better writer. We need storytellers to mirror us and allow us to explore aspects of ourselves that are difficult to explore in any other way. To do that job well, it really helps to know that you have a community to lean on.

Setting in some of your work is indeterminable. How important is setting in a story?

It depends on the genre and what you want to express. Setting isn’t just location; it’s also time and circumstance. “Unnamed city in a distant dystopian future” may not be a valid setting for literary fiction, but works just fine for speculative fiction. Lesley Nneka Arimah has a wonderful, chilling short story called “Shells”. She never mentions the location and the protagonist has no name, but those details are irrelevant and in fact would hamper the story. Some readers find it disorienting, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to throw you off. It’s supposed to be eerie and uncomfortable. It’s human nature to fear the unknown and stories are an attempt to face that fear.

As a woman writer, do you feel obligated to write about issues particular to the female experience?

No; I’d say the best work comes from a place of conviction, or at least genuine interest and curiosity, rather than obligation. As a woman and a feminist, issues particular to women are particular to me and I write about them often, but my only obligation is to the story. The themes that interest me are universal – spirituality, self-actualization, relationships, philosophy, power, inner conflict extrapolated on a global or cosmic scale. Sometimes people blur the lines between issues particular to women and universal issues explored through female characters! I also write non-female (and non-human) characters, so it just comes down to what works for the story I’m telling.

Which genre do you find the easiest to work in?

In technical terms, romance is the easiest. The format is clear-cut and the storylines are simple. However, it’s easier to tell the truth in speculative fiction because there’s more room for complexity, nuance, experimentation and contradiction. Human beings are complicated and weird! I find that the more space I have to imagine and explore, the more human I can be. I’d say romance is easier on my brain, but speculative fiction is easier on my soul.

What would you love to write, but don’t think you can?

I’d love to write a story from the perspective of an omnipresent and omniscient being. I’m not talking about the typical third-person God-POV, which is still hampered by human limitations. If the past, future and present are all accessible simultaneously and you are everywhere at once, with your consciousness permeating and interacting with all matter, ideas and possibilities, there is no way you would think like a human being. Not even close. Our entire concept of reality is determined by our limited perception. Remove those limits and what would we become? How do you express that in a human language, which is a product of limited perception? That would be such a head trip to write (even harder to read, probably) but I’m not nearly clever enough to do it justice. I bet someone has tried, though.

You can learn more about Cheryl’s work here.

The Art of Show and Tell: Gothataone Moeng

Gothataone Moeng is a Serowe-born writer of fiction, a former fiction fellow (2018-2020) in the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has also received fellowships and support from Tin House, where she was a 2019 Summer Workshop scholar and from A Public Space, where she was a 2016 Emerging Writer Fellow. Her writing has appeared in literary journals American Short Fiction, One StoryA Public Space and the Oxford American, amongst others. She holds an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Mississippi. 

What scares you most about writing?

Being a writer, attempting a serious writing career, especially in a country like Botswana, requires so much courage and sacrifice of your time, of financial security, sometimes of your relationships, that I do get anxious about whether in the future I might look back and discover all the sacrifices were not worth it.

Additionally, I am terrified of all of the public-facing work of the writer in the current publishing environment. Having to do interviews, panel discussions, public readings, book tours, maintaining active social media platforms, et cetera. I understand the necessity of it, but I wish I could just write my stories and put them out there without having to “engage” and promote.

Who is your least favourite fictional character from someone else’s work?

I am actually in the middle of reading Madame Bovary for the first time and I am seriously hating Rodolphe, the landowner and bachelor who seduces young Madame Bovary. I usually have a soft spot and a dark fascination for literary villains, but this guy, in his plotting to seduce and dump Madame Bovary, feels almost too contemporary. He recalls, for me, the pick-up artist, the incel and even the self-proclaimed alpha males who hold forth on Twitter and YouTube. All these categories of men hold such entitlement to women as sexual conquests and fail to consider that women are just as human as they are. Anyway, I hate them and I hate Rodolphe. But the book is great, so read Madame Bovary!

What piece of common writing advice is often misunderstood, wrong or just plain useless?

“Show, don’t tell”, the first writing rule dispersed to beginning writers, should be “show and tell.” I think the way this rule is taught makes telling seem like a cardinal sin. I stopped trying to painstakingly show everything when I realised that all of my very favourite writers do a fair amount of telling in their stories – Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Edward P. Jones. The texture, depth and insight of their telling should be what we strive for. Earlier in the pandemic, perhaps sometime last year, I took an online seminar taught by the writer Yiyun Li and she pointed out that everything that can be shown can be told, but not all that can be told can be shown. Furthermore, as Yiyun Li pointed out, showing can be inefficient because it can take up so much space.

Do you think a literary agent is necessary, especially for writers on the African continent?

The simple answer is that an agent is not “necessary.” There are plenty of writers, especially on the African continent, who have been able to publish books without literary representation. However, I think having a literary agent can be a huge benefit for a writer, especially if the writer wants to be published in the bigger, much more complicated American and British publishing industries. The big publishing companies (as opposed to independent presses) are still huge corporations; they are not necessarily benevolent patrons handing out whatever writers deserve. An agent frees a writer from the necessity to handle and figure out the business side of publishing. There is so much about the publishing industry that is opaque to people that are not within the industry, and a good agent should demystify all of those things and help a writer take advantage of whatever options are available to them. Honestly, agents also become friends and confidants and cheerleaders and basically therapists for writers. I don’t know how they do it.

If you were about to be banned from writing and you were given the chance to write one last work as your swansong, what would you write?

Why is this such a difficult question? My instinct is that it should be something deeply personal, and also something I wouldn’t ordinarily write. But I think I put personal stuff in my fiction all the time. I would love to write a book that is like a beautiful artifact, like an art object. I don’t know what about though. Maybe I will just write a book of poetry.

Learn more about Gothataone’s work here or connect with her here.

“I do love happy endings”: Sharon Tshipa

Sharon Tshipa is an award winning fiction writer, an award winning international multimedia journalist, and a development practitioner based in Gaborone, Botswana. Tshipa has short stories and poetry published and anthologised in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Uganda, India, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana. She is an AWDF – African Women Writers Residency 2019 Alumni, a 2016 African Writers Trust, Editorial and Publishing Training Workshop participant, and a 2016 participant of the Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) Flow Workshops for writers in Africa. She is also a Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) Africa 2014/2015 Writivism Writivist/Mentee. As a co-founder of Botswana Society for Human Development (BSHD), Tshipa has facilitated the publication of two domestic tourism fiction anthologies: The Blue Train and 36 Kisses.

What do you express best through fiction, and what do you express best through non-fiction?

I express life as I view it, as a whole better through fiction, as opposed to specific philosophies (themes, angles…all that narrowed stuff) which I do through non-fiction. I also just find non-fiction limiting, as freedom of expression is not as absolute as we like to believe it is.

How did being part of Petlo influence your writing?

Petlo was a safe space for me to explore the creative in me that I discovered in my lower primary school years—back then when words jumped out of the pages of my novels as I read and embraced my heart warmly. Even my young mind then knew it meant something special. So, I ventured into writing on my own, a childhood hobby. Fast forward to varsity days, Petlo found me, opened my eyes to the vast world of creative writing, I have been writing professionally ever since.

If there was a national holiday called Writers Day, what sort of festivities and initiatives would you want to see?

A platform that will bring writers under one roof will be very much welcome. Often times, if not all the time, writers work in seclusion, and their works are constantly pitted against each other. This happens despite the fact that each writer is unique, as works are informed by their individuality and distinct backgrounds and environments that are in a way a lens through which a writer deciphers life. So, getting to meet other writers would be great as that can mean shared ideas, mentoring, a support system, strong networks, etc.

What’s your favourite final line of a book or short story, and why?

“And they lived happily ever after”, lol! Seriously though, I do love happy endings. Which is why I do not take too well to suspense. I love a book that will tie up all the loose ends, a book that will answer all my questions (after it had kept me guessing) and of course give me the closure that I think I deserve as a reader. I do not have a specific line in a book or short story I can single out. I have read many incredible stories, and I love them for a myriad of varied reasons. Though some books stay with me (as in their impact) for long, and others longer, I still cannot say I have a favorite final line. Just as much as I find it difficult to say I have a favourite song.  

What book are you enjoying right now? If you could decide the topic of that author’s next book, what idea would you give them and why?

Currently, I am reading a novel written by Dominick Dunne, called Too Much Money. If I could decide the topic of Dunne’s next book I would suggest a book called Too Little Money. That’s simply because I love the way he chronicles rich societies, and I am curious about the way he would less fortunate communities. And by that I don’t mean the “from rags to riches” type of stories, I have read enough of that.  As in Too Much Money, there are hierarchies, classes, those looked up to, those envied, vanities and treasures among the less fortunate. Other than wealth, Dunne’s favourite obsessions according to the New York Times were crime, status, backbiting and power. We can safely agree that the same idiosyncrasies are found among the poorer societies. Oh well, Dunne passed away in 2009 after completing Too Much Money, so I guess I will have to write Too Little Money myself!

You can connect with Sharon on Facebook and Twitter and learn more about BSHD here.