Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Aba Asibon
Aba Amissah Asibon was born and raised in Ghana. Her short fiction has been published in Guernica, The University of Chester’s Flash Magazine and The Johannesburg Review of Books. She was also longlisted for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction and featured in the prize’s anthology “Migrations”. Aba currently lives in Malawi and is working on her debut novel.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and Malawi, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Aba. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Aba: Thank you, Nkateko. Being on this shortlist is affirmation that stories like mine are relevant and well-received. As an African writer who believes the continent is bursting with powerful untold stories, the prize presents a platform for literary diversity to be celebrated and disseminated.
Nkateko: In ‘The Dawning’, Mansa is slowly coming to terms not only with Mr Atta’s death but also with the fact that she is growing old. I am stunned by how deliberate she is in finding the balance between coaxing Mrs Atta to eat and groom herself and allowing time to do its work, all while acknowledging the limits to her own strength and authority in this house. It is as if there is a push-and-pull between grief and recovery, responsibility and ability. She notices how, apart from Mrs Atta, the rest of the house has “recovered from the shock” of Mr Atta’s death, and it seems as if the shrine is the only visible and tangible reminder that things are in fact not normal.
We also learn that Mansa is dismayed not only that she is growing old but that she is doing so alone, and yet she has made a conscious decision to stay in this house all these years. “The calm and dreadful realization that you are truly alone catches you by surprise” is quite a devastating observation and Mansa is acknowledging this not only in light of her madam’s widowhood but also her own grief. Is there more to Mansa’s devotion to Mr Atta’s household than she lets on? I feel that if she were to acknowledge the full extent of her devastation then she would be in a state similar to Mrs Atta’s, and perhaps she knows this, perhaps this is why her grief is compressed to “the size of a matchbox”, to prevent her whole world from falling apart?
Aba: It’s fascinating to read someone else’s take on the plot! Mansa is a symbol of devotion so powerful that it is almost selfless, but not necessarily in a good way. The dynamic, like you rightly said, is a push-and-pull between choosing to display vulnerability and upholding one’s sense of obligation. At first, it’s very easy to envision Mansa as a highly dutiful, one-dimensional figure but once you take the time to hone in on her actions, you see there is more behind her drive and her commitment to this household.
Mansa’s relationship with Mrs Atta also leaves much room for interpretation with its increasingly blurring lines. The story begins with the two characters appearing quite divergent, but hopefully, as one moves through the story, the reader is able to draw subtle similarities between the two women.
Nkateko: “…once you take the time to hone in on her actions, you see there is more behind her drive and her commitment to this household.” I completely agree. Mansa believes that running the household and supervising the rest of the house staff are tasks she is called to do, so she goes about her work with a sense of pride that almost trumps her grief. It is as if she has decided that in devoting herself to a life of service, the proof of her success is the presence of light and life in the house. It makes sense that Mrs Atta waking up is not only like a dark cloud rising from the house but a source of joy for Mansa, who feels Mrs Atta still had the beauty and opportunity to find love again. I kept thinking about the title of the story when Mrs Atta began her process of recovery, like the dawning of day was reflected on her face: suppleness returning to her cheeks, life slowly returning to her eyes. What does the dismantling of the shrine represent for Mansa at the end of the story, especially since grief is a lifelong process? Is she saying it is time to move on?
Aba: For Mansa, her entire existence is centered on her place in the Atta household. The dismantling of the shrine is evidently a consequence of how she perceives Mrs Atta’s recovery and the need to move on but there’s more to this decision. The key is really in the manner in which she dismantles the shrine; her demeanor at this point is void of the gentleness and reverence we have seen her display towards Mr Atta throughout the story. She “bundles up” the expensive lace tablecloth and turns “Mr Atta’s face towards the wall.” In a way, Mrs Atta’s recovery ignites a “dawning” in Mansa as well. She begins to reckon with the emotions she has tucked away for so long, even prior to Mr Atta’s death.
“I always save portions of writing I am unsure of. There have been times when I have gone back and repurposed those paragraphs or ideas where I feel they are better suited. Words are like currency— they will always find their value someplace.”
Nkateko: ‘In a way, Mrs Atta’s recovery ignites a “dawning” in Mansa as well.’ This is powerful. I had not thought of it this way, that it dawns on Mansa that her entire life has changed. The one thing that has been constant about her life and this job that she feels she is called to do has been Mr Atta’s presence. Now that he is gone but her responsibilities in this house remain, feelings of anger and betrayal are coming to the surface. It is difficult to acknowledge anger as a normal part of grief because we want to direct our anger at something or someone tangible, accessible. When someone has died, it seems futile to harbour ill feelings towards them because they can neither defend themselves nor offer us any respite from the overwhelming emotions we feel towards them.
When my childhood best friend passed away a few years ago, I was not allowed to talk about her at home. Her death came after a long struggle with drug addiction and when I found out she had overdosed and died, I told my parents and my mother said, “Her mother is probably ashamed of her behaviour, why should we feel any different?” This hurt me very deeply because this was someone who had been to my house, someone whose photographs were in my family’s photo albums. For them to shun her this way made little sense to me. I had to grieve in silence, so I began to write to her, letters and poems that she would never see. I was angry because we had so many plans for our lives, so many dreams we wanted to fulfill together. In the fifth grade, we had taken part in a school yearbook project called “When I’m 21.” We each had to write what we wanted to be doing with our lives at the age of twenty-one. My best friend had written “To have a career.” She used to tell me she wanted to be either a veterinarian or a flight attendant. It was a bit ambitious of all of us to think that we would have our lives figured out in our early twenties, but what did we know at the age of eleven?
The opportunity to take care of Mrs Atta allows Mansa to honour Mr Atta in a way that has a visible outcome, and it makes sense that at the end of the story, Mansa has reaffirmed her commitment to the smooth running of the Atta household. Did you always know it was going to end this way? I know that there was no way that Mansa would leave, but did you know that even at the end, she would put her own needs and feelings aside and just get on with her work? A part of me hoped she would break down and allow herself to be vulnerable in front of others, but I also realise that she wants to maintain her dignity in the eyes of the house staff and Mrs Atta.
Aba: Thanks for sharing your story of grief and sorry for your loss. Grief is such a powerful thing to write about because it is one of the few things in life that cuts across all boundaries and differences. One of my favourite things about the writing process is that my characters guide me and I oblige. When I started this story, I had no idea where it would lead or how it would end. I had a fair idea of my protagonist and the basic plot, but that was it. As the story unraveled, I found Mansa forging her own path and crafting her own grieving process. The ending of a story is always the most difficult part to write because it is usually what sticks with the reader. This particular ending was written about 6 months after the main body of the story was finished. I had toyed with various alternative endings and settled on this one, where Mansa’s actions, simple as they may seem, speak volumes.
Nkateko: During those six months when you were figuring out the ending, did you share the draft of the story with anyone? Do you have trusted readers or editors who you regularly share work with before publishing or submitting for prizes? Do you find it helpful to receive feedback when you are still in the process of writing something, or do you wait until you have a completed draft?
Aba: I tend to be quite protective over my unfinished work, which means I don’t usually share with others until I have a complete draft I am confident in. As I alluded to before, my characters usually write their own stories so in this case, I had to patiently wait for the right ending to come to me before sharing. I have close friends and family who serve as my unofficial editors. It is always interesting to see a story through their lens, just like it’s been a pleasure seeing this story through yours.
Nkateko: I can relate to the protectiveness over unfinished work. I know you are referring to a complete draft here, but I want to explore the idea of a complete story. Is there such a thing? Is there a point where there is nothing more to say, or when a character has said all that they needed to say? You speak about waiting patiently for the right ending to come to you, so does this mean that you knew the story was complete as soon as you wrote that particular ending? Do you undergo a grieving process when you finish writing a story that has taken you on an emotional journey?
Aba: That’s such a thought-provoking question, Nkateko. Is there such a thing as a complete story? One of the most essential skills a writer must possess is knowing when to wrap up a narrative – you want to ensure you give some level of closure to both your characters and readers, but also want to give the reader room to apply their own interpretation. I often know when an ending is right if I feel a sense of relief after writing it, when it feels like my work there is done. So, I wouldn’t say I go through a grieving process when I finish writing a story like this one, it’s actually quite a euphoric feeling most of the time.
While I am writing a story, I battle with uncertainty and feelings of being in limbo. So really, finishing a story isn’t just about giving my characters and readers closure, it is about seeking closure for myself as well. It also helps to acknowledge that my characters live beyond an ending.
Nkateko: I love the notion of giving your readers room to apply their own interpretation. A few years ago, I attended a book festival where one of the breakaway sessions was a panel discussion with a well-known author, followed by a question-and-answer segment. During the Q&A, the author was very reluctant to give solutions to the various dilemmas faced by the main character at the end of the book, saying only that the character’s fate was for us as readers to decide. That statement was then followed by this question from the audience: “Will there be a sequel?” We all laughed, but I think that person spoke for all of us. We want to know what happens next, but we don’t necessarily want to be the ones who decide that. As a reader, has there ever been a book or story ending so unclear or complicated that you wished you could ask the author what happened next? Are you content with the idea that not all loose ends are meant to be tied up by the writer?
Aba: Absolutely! Without thinking too hard, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun immediately comes to mind. It’s a book that I’m sure several of your readers are familiar with. Adichie leaves the fate of one of her main characters, Kainene, to the reader’s imagination. I remember getting to the end of the book and thinking, “I need more. This can’t be it.”
I completely identify with that feeling of not wanting to be the one to decide a plot or character’s fate as a reader, and yet, I find myself sometimes putting my readers in that very position. When you surrender to your story as a writer, you learn to also surrender the desire to tie up all “loose” ends. No writer wants to short-change their readers with an inauthentic ending and sometimes, that means handing over the reins to them.
Nkateko: ‘When you surrender to your story as a writer, you learn to also surrender the desire to tie up all “loose” ends.’ I love this. The topic of loose ends makes me think of poetry and my own writing process. If a poem isn’t working as a whole, I deconstruct it and tentatively begin new poems with the strongest lines or stanzas from the ‘failed’ poem. Sometimes this takes me in a completely different direction to what I envisioned with the original poem, but it makes me feel as if instead of abandoning a project, I have turned it into something new. Is there a similar technique in fiction? Have you ever kept an idea, even a character perhaps, that did not fit into a particular story, for a future project? In the process of writing your novel-in-progress, what do you do with the portions that just don’t seem to fit? Do they get deleted or saved for a possible future story?
Aba: Very apt question! One of the main characters of the novel I am working on is actually the protagonist from a short story I decided not to move forward with a while back. I felt the short story form would not do justice to the intricacies and breadth of the plot, and decided to expand it out into a full novel.
I always save portions of writing I am unsure of. There have been times when I have gone back and repurposed those paragraphs or ideas where I feel they are better suited. Words are like currency— they will always find their value someplace.
Nkateko: Aba, I truly enjoyed reading ‘The Dawning’ and having this conversation with you. I wish you the very best with your novel and other writing projects going forward. I hope to be in conversation with you again in future.
Aba: Thanks Nkateko. It has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you about my work. Your questions have been very insightful and engaging. I do hope our paths will cross again in the near future.
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.