Andrew C. Dakalira’s stories have appeared on the Africa Book club website, on africanwriter.com, Brittle Paper and The Kalahari Review. His novella, ”VIII,” was published in the second volume of AfroSF, a collection of science fiction novellas. He lives in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe.
The conversation took place in a green bedroom in the sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a room crammed with books in Malawi’s beautiful, dust-laced city of Lilongwe.
Gaamangwe: Congratulations for being shortlisted for the Writivism Short Story Prize! How are you feeling about this? What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?
Andrew: Thank you! It really hasn’t sunk in yet, to be honest. To be on the shortlist, together with such talented writers, is truly spectacular. Speaking for myself, there have been moments of self-doubt, whether you’re actually good enough, if people should even read your stuff at all. This is basically a sign that at least a couple of people think I wrote something worth reading, and that’s good enough for me.
Gaamangwe: I can imagine! I am happy for you. Your story is a take on “judgement day” right? What drew you to this particular narrative/idea?
Andrew: To be honest, I have always been fascinated by the idea. I mean, a supernatural being deciding where you end up based on the decisions you have made in your life. Granted, some have touted the idea of heaven or hell being just a metaphor, but I think that wouldn’t really be as appealing. So I thought, what if there really was a fiery pit somewhere, just waiting to roast our carcasses, but with a little twist to the story? Which is how I came up with the idea of people lining up, not to wait for Saint Peter but to be shown exactly what they did while on earth, with a seemingly-regular guy determines where they go at the end.
Gaamangwe: I love it when creatives explore existing ideas differently from the usual narratives. And the narrative of what happens to us after death and what every action implicates in the bigger picture is a powerful one. It has so much psychic and moral implications. At the back of our heads, we have the ideology of “judgement day” hovering over us. We live our lives with that idea influencing our decisions and the paths we take. Good or bad. But what is good or bad? I have always been fascinated with the idea. How will one be judged on their deeds, when it always seems that the line between good or bad is not that clear. Some acts we can say are bad, like say sexual abuse. But what of a man who steals to go feed his family?
Andrew: I’ve always believed that the line between good and bad is not as fine as religion, and to a certain extent, society leads us to believe. I mean, sure, hunting your fellow man for sport is bad, as is stealing to fulfill one’s kleptomaniacal desires and, as you’ve already pointed out, sexual abuse. But what about murdering a known serial killer, or what about the man who employs Robin Hood tactics? I for one wouldn’t really lose sleep over the latter two. I think that’s why we have books such as the Bible, not to mention the existence of laws; to try to remove doubts over such things. Were it not for these, conformity with regard to right or wrong would be very hard to achieve in some cases.
Gaamangwe: Definitely. That twist where the people didn’t remember why they were in “hell” was a bit grim. The idea that you could be in a state without actually remembering why you are in that state. Although it does make me think: life is like that! We actually don’t know why we are here, experiencing all the experiences of our lives. That’s mind blowing to think about. We could possibly be in “hell” right now. How did you arrive to that conclusion of the characters “not knowing”?
Andrew: That was actually something I came up with due to my own personal experiences. When you’re being punished for something you know you did, it hurts, but at least you know you deserve it. But when, for example, somebody just comes and gives you a couple of slaps, the pain is elevated by confusion. At least, to me. So I just thought, what if God turned out like that? I mean, He flooded the entire earth at some point, and he isn’t past releasing a blast of Sulphur Fire sometimes. Would it be so farfetched to think that He would pull off something like this? I don’t think so.
Gaamangwe: I am here thinking what if God is already like that! The reality that we still don’t know why we are here is a bit unsettling. Yes, we have theories but generally we don’t have that certainty. But it was refreshing to think of God as an African King behind a black door. We never think of that and so it’s important to keep exploring and experimenting with such powerful narratives from our perspectives. Was that intentional or just a spontaneous creative choice?
Andrew: Well, the black door was spontaneous. But the portrayal of God as an African chief was definitely intentional. The reason for that is quite silly, actually. We keep hearing people say God created man in his own image, so I started thinking literally. Like, what if, he actually appeared to everyone as their own personal reflection? You know, black, white, etc… and how that would be. No longer just a cloud or a burning bush. Another reason I chose the Ngoni tribe, specifically is because in our history, they have long been seen as warriors, brave and ruthless. The fact that my mother is a Ngoni had nothing to do with it.
Gaamangwe: I find making God reflect the images of the character is such a powerful act. The idea of a black God says that we exist, that we are visible, and that we too belong to God. I mean surely there is something amiss about the fact that ideologies and theories of creation and the source of all life do not have black individuals right? The implications are so erosive to the black psyche. It’s a form of erasure.
Now choosing a God who is from the Ngoni tribe, famous for being brave and ruthless has me wondering, do you imagine God to be ruthless? What purpose and meaning does that implicate for him to be ruthless? When I think about it, punishing people for eternity without their understanding of why they are suffering is indeed ruthless!
Andrew: I agree. The absence of black individuals is erasure, sort of. I have actually heard a few people try to justify this by saying there couldn’t have been black people due to location. This coming from an individual who not only lives in the 21st century and knows all about migration, but also believes that boats (arks) were invented ever since Noah was commanded to shack up with his family and animals for forty days and forty nights. Ridiculous.
I do believe that God is loving and kind. Unfortunately, it seems the focus is mainly what he does when you do not follow his commands. I mean, sure, you get chances to repent multiple times, but let’s not forget what happens when you don’t, or go against Him in some way. I remember a certain guy who performed wonders with a staff, even led his people from captivity, but never reached his intended destination. We know why that was. So it’s that side of God which I tried to portray at the end. He gave you a chance, you didn’t take it, now feel the wrath of His ruthless self.
Gaamangwe: I personally struggle with this premise of God. Why create beings, give them consciousness and free will, place them in a place of limitations and challenges, and punish them for how they exercise their will? For what purpose or gain? If we are to follow commands, those that He deems the one sufficient to reflect goodness, then aren’t we merely puppets? My concern is and will always be the question I asked above: What is right and what is wrong? How does he determine that this action is wrong, when many times an action is never an isolated and absolute act, but rather an effect of a culmination of acts before it, some of which were not chosen by the individual. This discourse is a very long and old one, but we do need to revisit it as much as possible. Thank you Andrew for joining me in this space! It’s been an education. All the best of luck with Writivism!
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted writers for the 2017 Writivism Prizes.