Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with ML Kejera
ML Kejera is a Chicago based writer from The Gambia. His work has previously been published in Strange Horizons, The Outline, and Cafe Irreal. He was recently shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing. He is at work on a collection of short stories about the fictional nation of The G, for which he is seeking representation. Please tweet him images of your favorite pizza @KejeraL.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States, via email.
Nkateko: Hi ML. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
ML: Hello Nkateko. Being shortlisted primarily means I am one of many voices in a large body of international writers, all connected by the English tongue. I hope to build lasting relationships with the other shortlisted writers but also with anyone who submitted to the prize (anyone interested in international fiction, really). It also means that I have access to more literary opportunities. I’ve done more interviews over these past few weeks than I’ve ever done in my career. People have just asked to read my work out of the blue, some of them literary agents. It’s pleasant, if not a bit tiring.
Nkateko: I was watching this video where you mentioned that you were not able to submit an entry to the prize during the nearly five years that The Gambia was out of the Commonwealth. I am glad that you are now able to access the opportunities that you were denied during that time. Did that period of isolation from this international literary community inspire the themes you explore in ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator’? Does Fatou’s anger towards the dictator mirror your own feelings about what The Gambia endured under autocratic rule?
You also talked about this story being rejected several times prior to you submitting it for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Has this reassured you that you should keep submitting your work and not give up when you face disappointment?
ML: I don’t think The Gambia’s brief separation from the Commonwealth inspired the themes of ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator.’ Being separated from a literary community only inspired me to submit the story to the competition.
Fatou’s anger towards the dictator does, however, mirror my own. I don’t think I’m as angry as her— by nature I’m a pacifist, however naive that belief is. But, to be honest, I’m still angry that the cruel, sadistic, and autocratic actions of one man forced my family (and so many others) out of our home. I’m angry that, for most of my life, he was able to terrorize Gambians. I’m angry that he won’t be punished and is currently living in Guinea off of riches stolen from The Gambia. Understand, first, that I am against the death penalty and the very concept of imprisonment. I think we should all strive to move away from punishment as a means of attaining justice but it’s difficult to do so considering I really am still quite angry.
That said, though armed coups had been tried against Jammeh before, it must be noted that he was ultimately ousted through democratic means. Though, of course, Jammeh did contest the results of the election that unseated him. And I don’t think he would have stepped down if not for ECOWAS’ military presence in The Gambia but we cannot forget that he was voted out. So I temper my anger with the reminder that, at least within a Gambian context, democracy works.
I actually wasn’t too disappointed by the numerous rejections the story first received. As the process of submitting is repetitive and tedious, I was just glad that I could stop submitting as ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator’ had finally been accepted. I’ve been submitting stories, poems, and essays fairly consistently (sending something out every two weeks or so) for about two years now. When I first started, a rejection was a painful experience and I often would be unable to write for a whole day. I would read comic books to mitigate the heartache. Now when I receive a rejection, I just submit the piece elsewhere (usually within a few hours of the rejection) or retire the piece if it is clear that, upon rereading, I need to work on it at a later date when I am hopefully capable of producing better work. If one writes, one will be confronted with rejection— it’s a simple aspect of the literary world. I look back at the pain of yesteryear and chuckle.
Nkateko: What does your revision process look like, especially for pieces that you have put aside to be reworked at a later stage? Are there any pieces that you decide to ‘retire’ for good, or is every piece salvageable with the understanding that at a later stage you are ‘capable of producing better work’ than the moment you first wrote it?
Terry Pratchett said, ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’ Have you found that to be true with your own work? If subsequent drafts involve telling others the story, to whom do you tell it; does this mean sending it out to friends, editors or submitting it for publication right away? Do you have trusted readers who look at your work before you send it out into the world?
“If I am unable to better a story but sense that it could be better in some, at the time, undecipherable way, I assume I simply have not read enough or written enough to do so and work on something else. I sporadically read my old work to get a sense of how my writing has changed and if anything I deemed unworthy of effort might be salvageable.”
ML: My entire process is fourfold, structured to facilitate constant revision. I usually first have a snippet of an idea, generally a key moment in a story. I then title a document ‘Ramblings’ and, with the goal being to be as messy on the page as possible, type up this snippet and any related ideas (particularly quotations and ideas from stories, poems, essays, and books related to the initial snippet). This part of the process can, depending on the type of work, take days to months— and with one particular idea for a novel, years. From there, I create a new document, titled ‘Notes,’ where I collate the findings from my rambling and research. For fiction I fit all that into a template (though the template changes somewhat for each story). Generally, the template has these headings:
- Potential Titles
- Word Count
For ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator,’ I had a section where I put the real flights available from Chicago to The Gambia. I consider myself an irrealist writer and irrealism, I’ve found, works rather well when juxtaposed with strict realism.
With the ‘Notes’ document completed, I outline the story, beat by beat in a separate document, titled (shockingly!) ‘Outline.’ When I first started using this process, my outlines were more commands to myself as to what should happen, in, say the third paragraph of the story. Now, I usually just write what is essentially a first draft but in list form. The internalization of this aspect of my process helps with efficiency but I do, slightly, miss directly talking to myself on the page.
Regardless of how thorough my outline is, I move on to the next document, titled ‘Text.’ Next I use the outline to write a proper first draft. Currently, though I usually have most of the story written out in the outline, I still have the ‘Outline’ and ‘Text’ documents open. I copy one section from “Outline” and paste it into ‘Text.’ I then rewrite the section from ‘Outline.’
All throughout the process, I look back at ‘Ramblings’ and ‘Notes’ to see if any ideas left behind are once again relevant. The process is tedious but so thorough that I am rarely surprised by my own work. I am easily confused so I dislike surprises.
To actually answer your question (sorry I tend to ramble), my revision process starts with rereading a piece after its initial rejection. If I cannot see any obvious necessary changes, I submit the piece elsewhere. If changes are necessary, I look back through the ‘Ramblings,’ ‘Notes,’ and ‘Outline’ documents to see what I can pull from them to improve the story. Often, my stories are weak in terms of structure. To ameliorate this, I examine how other related work is structured. Twice, for the Caine Prize nominated story ‘The Magician’s Clown’ and ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator,’ I have revised work using Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp’s work, respectively Morphology of the Folk Tale and ‘Oedipus in the Light of Folklore.’
If I am unable to better a story but sense that it could be better in some, at the time, undecipherable way, I assume I simply have not read enough or written enough to do so and work on something else. I sporadically read my old work to get a sense of how my writing has changed and if anything I deemed unworthy of effort might be salvageable.
I’d agree with Pratchett about the first draft. With fiction, I send my second draft to my girlfriend— writer, editor, and educator Vashti Kalvi Daniel. We often edit each other’s work, having grown quite familiar with each other’s nuances. She has a different approach to and appreciation of literature than I do, which gives me crucial perspective into my own work. Generally, she believes that authorial intent doesn’t matter, and one should write with this in mind. I choose to believe that, while authorial intent is not paramount, readers ought to at least try to use it to inform their own understanding of a work. At least while the writer is alive and easily reachable! I won’t ever explain what my work has done (as I do believe that’s up to the reader) but I’ll readily state what I hoped for it to achieve.
With ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator,’ I also asked my parents to read a draft as, being raised in the Gambian diaspora, so much of my understanding of The Gambia stems from them. While I’ve researched Gambian history, I thought it would be beneficial to get their perspective on it.
Otherwise, I’m rather bad at sharing my work with close friends and family, often forgetting to do so with individuals who specifically ask.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for sharing your process with me. Yours and Vashti Kalvi Daniel’s different perspectives on authorial intent must make for very interesting debates and discussions about the literature you both read and write. I believe it is important to have one’s views challenged in an environment where one feels safe to defend those views, and I have found that my own relationship provides a similar environment for such conversations. My partner majored in linguistics, so he focuses a lot more on the details than the overall picture. He provides a lot of insight into the origins of words and the potential ambiguity of some of my sentences, which has made me a more careful editor of my own work. I tell students in my poetry workshops that every word must audition for its place in a poem, but I only practised this properly when I had someone to question every word I used in my own writing.
I have found that friends who are not writers often offer unreserved praise rather than constructive criticism and it might not necessarily be helpful to share work with them until it is published, but it is still very encouraging when that praise comes in after the work is done. A good friend of mine refers to these people as your “tribe”, the ones who stay rooting for you no matter what.
Did ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator’ change significantly after you got your parents’ perspective on The Gambia’s history?
ML: That’s fascinating that you have access to a linguist’s perspective for your poetry. I, myself, keep a personal dictionary in which I jot down the definition of any interesting words I come across while reading. To get a better understanding of these words, I started tracking their etymologies in my notebook. Now I find myself, while writing, looking up the etymologies of many of the words I use. I’m not entirely sure if it betters my work but, when I use a specific word, my understanding of its etymology means that I am consciously imbibing my work with the word’s history. Or, perhaps, I’m just wasting my time. Who knows? Regardless, it’s an enjoyable (albeit additional and potentially unnecessary) part of my process.
What do you, as a poet, teach your partner about the study of language? What are the aspects of language that a linguist finds difficult to grasp that come easily to a poet?
Interestingly enough, I only had to make about five rather minor changes to ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator’ after my parents read it. The one that sticks from my memory had to do with the single mention of the kankourang (a ritual masquerade character of sorts). I had misidentified the type of tree used to create its costume. Oh, and they reminded me that the phrase “No pity in business,” was not of my own invention. Apparently, whenever we were in Côte d’Ivoire, I used to love reading this comic called Cauphy Gombo and the protagonist made frequent use of the phrase.
In addition to my tedious process, I tend to do copious amounts of research for anything I write. I dislike the presence of mistruths in my writing (unless I have decided to, well, present a mistruth for the sake of writing) and I don’t trust the perspective of any singular source—particularly if the source happens to be me as I am a very forgetful person. And, as much as I love them and trust that they presented me with an understanding of The Gambia that is true to them, my parents are, ultimately, only two individual reservoirs of Gambian history.
Nkateko: I have been teaching my partner about rigid poetic forms as an avenue to explore the intersection between science and creativity. When I was designing a poetry workshop based on forms that employ repetition, namely ghazals, pantoums, villanelles and sestinas, he was learning how ambiguity could be beneficial in these poems. The pantoum relies on the repetition of lines in order to push the narrative forward: the second and fourth lines of the first quatrain recur as the first and third lines in the second quatrain and this pattern continues until the end, with the final line being a repetition of the first line. That ‘formula’ is the scientific aspect of the pantoum. The rest is down to creativity and effective storytelling.
A story has to have a strong beginning and ending, but if these are required to be identical as in the case of the pantoum, how can you play with meaning to ensure that the reader leaves the poem with a different understanding than the one they came in with? It becomes tedious if the repeated lines don’t mean something new in each stanza, so one must select what goes before and after the repeated lines carefully to create new meanings. A poem is like a car on the road, each line depends on the one before and after it in order to move. With this knowledge, my partner can now identify the linguistic anomalies in my poems not with the intention to weed them out but to explore how they can be used to make the story more interesting. I think we are both learning that there are intersections between our fields; linguistics is not purely science and literature is not purely art.
I find it very interesting that you dislike ‘the presence of mistruths’ in your work, and I am sure that this largely informs your comprehensive research process. As a reader, do you find yourself drawn to historical fiction? Does your preference for factuality influence how you approach the books that you read for leisure?
ML: Thinking of the way that form shapes language as purposeful linguistic anomaly is a great way to frame that. I think that poetry, especially, tends to facilitate the deconstruction and reconstruction of the sentence. I’m not exactly a poet per se but I think about this quite a bit. I’ve noticed in your work, at least from what I’ve read while we’ve been conversing that you tend to use poetry, often, for narrative purposes. What about poetry makes you want to tell stories?
Have you always done this? Though most of my (admittedly minor) formal creative writing education is in poetry, I decided to further my prose because I found it easier to tell stories with it. Additionally, I am familiar with the work of West African griots (who, I’d argue, combine what we understand to be prose and poetry for the express purpose of longform storytelling) but am not talented or knowledgeable enough to emulate them just yet.
I wouldn’t say my fondness for truth in writing influences what I read, as such. I keep a giant list of authors I mean to get to and add to it based on suggestions and my own research. I’m not too sure I have a particular preference when it comes to reading as I will read almost anything suggested to me. I especially enjoy reading surrealist and irrealist work but greatly enjoyed, for example, the realism of George Eliot. I consider ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator’ to be a somewhat irrealist story. I think, when it comes to truth in my own writing, I am careful to acknowledge that art, to me anyway, is a recontextualization of reality. We change aspects of reality in our depiction of it to highlight specific aspects of it. I’m careful to avoid mistruths, I think, because I think it is important to know what you are changing about reality and why you are doing so. I research not only facts but also perspectives. I familiarized myself with Jammeh’s speeches—which often contained factual errors or just nonsense—when writing ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator’ to glean some sense of how he wished to present himself.
Nkateko: I believe that every narrative poem begins with the act of witnessing. Whether you are seeing an event unfold in front of you or creating it with your imagination, you are the key witness who, after observing, gets to decide if the story is told or not. In a recent online poetry workshop, poet Theresa Lola said that a poem encompasses both emotion and curiosity. Your curiosity about what you are witnessing, as well as how the event makes you feel, is what drives the story you are telling. In one of my poems, ‘Ode to the Ordinary’, I talk about seeing my partner’s eyes properly for the first time in the light of dawn. It is a personal poem but I believe that the act of observing a private, seemingly ordinary event with extraordinary attention is universal. The poem ‘I Watch Her Eat the Apple’ by Natalie Diaz also makes the ordinary seem divine. I have watched many people eating apples but have never written a poem about this, because I lack both the curiosity and emotion to turn what I consider mundane into a poem. However, when I read this poem, I suddenly want to watch someone eating an apple! And yes, I have always used poetry to tell stories. I only started experimenting with form a few years ago, but storytelling has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I truly enjoyed reading ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator.’ The moment the height and weight of each opponent were mentioned, the significance of the title clicked for me and I felt like I was a spectator in a boxing match, sizing up the two contenders but obviously wanting Fatou to win. The ending gave me the satisfaction of a well-timed, well-deserved victory and I also learnt a lot about The Gambia in the process.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about your powerful story and about your writing process. Your insightful questions also made me think a lot about my own process and I appreciate the invitation to delve into poetry during this interaction. It is conversations like this that remind me why a writing community is important to me. Congratulations again on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I wish you the best with this and with all of your work going forward. I look forward to being in conversation with you again in the future.
ML: I love coming across others who think that art comes down to whether we choose to recontextualize and represent a thing or not. Perhaps it’s too simplistic a view but I genuinely believe that what, ultimately, defines art is someone choosing to typify a thing as art. I think that what your and Diaz’s lovely poems demonstrate is that the entirety of existence is awe-inspiring and one function of art is to, in a sense, elevate mundanity.
Thank you for your kind words about my story! It’s always interesting to see what conclusion a reader comes to from my rather ambiguous ending.
Thank you, also, for interviewing me and teaching me about your process. It has been rather illuminating because, though I’m not much of a poet, I do write poetry and am always looking to craft stronger sentences.
At time of writing, it is Eid so Eid Mabrouk! I look forward to our future conversations and wish you well!
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest work has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.