Mali: Thank you for the acknowledgement. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. Being shortlisted for Writivism means a great deal to me. When I submitted my entry, I did it just to give it a shot – nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I knew it was an Africa-wide so I knew there would be many entries and high quality stories because we have so many strong writers on the continent. I figured, whatever success I get will be an achievement because of the scale of the award.
I liked my story, so I entered it hoping other readers would at least enjoy it. When I saw my name on the shortlist, I nearly fell out of my seat! It wasn’t what I expected but I was thrilled! And then I got really nervous because I knew that some literary people would actually read the story – what would they think?
Gaamangwe: Oh yes, imposter syndrome is quite common with achievements but it is best to just remember that if you got selected, then it means the story is worthy to be there. What inspired the creation of your story?
Mali: The story originated one evening when I was thinking about how I missed going to art galleries and spending time wandering around appreciating the range of pieces and absorbing the creativity. I don’t get a chance to do that as much anymore. And I set the story in London because of that – the art. From there, the characters evolved from remembering experiences of people I knew and my own experience of moving to another country for school.
Gaamangwe: I got that sense that you as the writer knew the art-gallery world. I loved reading and experiencing that perspective of seeing art from a character who knew and appreciated it. I was also not expecting that shocking turn of events! Was that a conscious process? What was the essence you felt you wanted to capture?
Mali: It was conscious in the sense that I was trying to create a captivating story. I’ve also often wondered what it would be like to be the subject of someone’s art. Similar to being a muse, but without the inspiration! So, I built the story around that.
I think in essence, the story is a story about love. In all the pieces I’ve written (whether screenplays or short stories), I seem to always explore love in many different forms. But the character is who she is because she’s shaped by her passion for art. So these – love and art- intermingle in this story.
Gaamangwe: I love that – the meeting of love and art. You managed to do that so well. What about love fascinates you? Which different forms of love have you explored so far and what meanings do you hope to create from this engagement?
Mali: Love is life! Not just romantic but other relationships: parent-child, siblings, live between friends etc. But also how we feel about ourselves based on what we love, and receive love. So many of my stories have involved these aspects and characters navigating all of these. Love, in all its forms, is a powerful force.
As a writer, I think what I write is meaningful to me even if no-one else reads it. Because the writing process is deep and difficult, and to tell a story, you go through a kind of therapy. So when I come to the end of a story, I’ve done a lot of work on myself and how I understand the world.
Sharing my view of the world (through the stories) I think might help expand a view or point of view of something. I recently wrote a story about a young woman reconnecting with her childhood maid. Many people told me the story resonated with them, they could connect with the characters. But I found that precious because it meant my world view could be appreciated by others.
Gaamangwe: That is true. How did The Photograph expand your worldview and what do you hope others would appreciate from the story?
Mali: That’s a hard question for me to answer, I think. In many ways, I wanted to write a story that was universally understandable, that could be appreciated no matter what border the readers were in. I think I accomplished that in a way and that has cemented the adage that certain themes in stories are universal. I hope readers like Memory! She is a favorite character of mine and I hope they enjoy her as much as I do.
Gaamangwe: Amazing. What works are you working on now and/or what stories do you hope to explore in the future?
Mali: I am working on a collection of short stories. I like to also write essays/nonfiction pieces and always look for platforms for sharing those. Like most writers, I’d like to write a couple of novels but that work has not yet begun. As a woman, I have female characters at the centre of my stories, so I hope to continue writing stories about women and girls in all the amazing spaces and situations they see themselves.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted writers for Writivism Prizes.