Clarity and Duality in the Fantastical Realm: A Dialogue with Stephen Embleton
Stephen was born and lives in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. His background is Graphic Design, Creative Direction and Film. His first short story was published in 2015 in the ‘Imagine Africa 500’ speculative fiction anthology.
More short fiction followed in the ‘Beneath This Skin’ 2016 Edition of The Aké Review, ‘The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! Vol.2,’ the debut 2017 edition of Enkare Review, The Bloody Parchment, AfroSFv3, The Kalahari Review, and Omenana.
He is a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society and its Nommo Awards initiative. He was featured in Part 11 of the 100 African Writers of SFF on Strange Horizons. His debut speculative fiction novel, Soul Searching, was published in 2020.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Durban and Kampala via email.
Stephen’s manuscript, ‘Bones & Runes’, explores traditional African beliefs, mythology, and the supernatural through the points of view of iSangoma, a Druid, and a Hindu Warrior-Magician.
Stephen discusses how documentary filmmaking helps him write persuasive fiction, social-media-induced anxieties, stream-of-consciousness ranting, conversations with Sangomas, the importance of listening to our ancestors, a lifelong fascination with birds – he even takes a secondhand potshot at my favourite birds, but (miraculously!) emerges unscathed (hooray! hurrah!) – and serving up real-world situations and emotions for his fictional characters.
Davina: Your foray into filmmaking started with experimental shorts, but the professional side of it has mostly been documentary-based. Timothy Marks says he was drawn to documentary filmmaking because ‘we live in a weird and wonderful world of diversity and culture’:
“…nonfiction filmmaking or documentary filmmaking is a great story tool because you are working with facts, real people, and situations that comes with an authentic taste. As documentary filmmakers, we for the most part really do enjoy exploring these different options whether it’s people-based documentaries or animals or topical or social discussions or something more abstract.
I think documentary filmmaking definitely gives people that are in the creative space more of an opportunity to go after stories and it is impossible to exhaust this resource because even though you’ll get documentaries that sound similar, seem similar and have similar types of narratives, the great thing with doccies is that the subject matter continually changes and evolve[s] and there’s always stories out there to be told.”
Where, if at all, do documentary filmmaking and fiction writing intersect for you?
Stephen: Documentary filmmaking taught me how to find the story. I mean the actual hook of the narrative that needs to be told in a way that is compelling. I completely agree that there is an inexhaustible number of real stories out there, but it’s about finding the best way of telling that story.
Doccies about serial killers we’ve all seen before can repackage the narrative and we’re sucked back in, learning something more or from a different perspective. And yet a story that can be heart-wrenching—particularly from the film maker’s perspective (or those involved)—may not have that hook for telling that story effectively, and it’s hard watching those projects falter.
It’s important to get it right in the pitch—even to yourself—before you put in all the work and then realise it’s not compelling. It starts with the one sentence pitch. Then the elevator pitch (give it to me in 30 seconds). I’m interested, now give me the full synopsis. Those guides help me with my fiction, from story to story, chapter to chapter, and scene to scene.
Davina: In Strange Horizons, you described yourself as ‘…not a big reader.’ Luckily for you, I’m big on offering writers second chances to make good first impressions, ahem.
Stephen: I love reading. My first reading materials were comics, superheroes, and Tintin and Asterix. I realised in my twenties that those are legitimate reading sources. I could spend hours reading those back to back – in chronological order, of course. It took me a while to cotton on to the power of a novel, through genres I enjoyed like fantasy.
I say I’m not a ‘big reader’ in the sense that I cannot consume at the rate that many other readers do. I see ‘read piles’ that friends or other writers post on social media and I feel bad still being on the same book. I seem to take time reading and soaking it up. I AM ‘a big reader’ in the sense that I love reading, though.
Davina: Excellent! You may now pass go, collect $200, and treat yourself to Tom Gauld’s cartoons. I LOVE his strips; I can’t look at them without grinning! Thanks to him, I no longer struggle to appreciate concepts like ‘literary conflict.’ I find his seven categories extremely helpful: a) Writer Vs Novel, b) Writer Vs Self, c) Writer Vs Twitter, d) Writer Vs More successful writer, e) Writer Vs Long, boozy lunch, f) Writer Vs Desire to rearrange bookshelves, and g) Writer Vs Dog who wants a walk.
For me, it’s ‘Writer Vs Novel,’ and ‘Writer Vs Self.’ I’ve recently added h) Writer Vs Sweet sleep, i) Writer Vs True crime shows, and j) Writer Vs Kitchen. You?
Stephen: Definitely ‘Writer Vs Self’ and ‘Writer Vs Social media’ for me – I would add ‘Writer Vs Household chores’ and ‘Writer Vs Dark European crime series.’
Davina: Writer Vs Social Media reminds me of writer friends who are always complaining of Twitter being ‘too much,’ but who simultaneously seem unable to imagine life without it. I reckon the ‘social media breaks’ they take these days provide much-needed relief.
In response to a question about how she deals with ‘the pressure to be present online,’ Sherry Shenoda says “I find that social media is useful as a tool when it helps me connect in a more meaningful way with people, either by leading to an in-person encounter, or to a wider community.” On the other hand, she continues, “I think the wholesale projection of our lives into the social media marketplace doesn’t allow for the kind of silence and stillness many of us need to truly create”:
“Creating for me is a spiritual work, and I find it difficult to serve the work in obedience and humility when I’m in the online noise. I find that writing on paper helps me slow down, to be intentional, and to sit with my loneliness, the brokenness and the beauty of the world and the needs of my fellow sisters and brothers.”
How do you deal with the pressure, the toomuchness, of social media? Do you think of your creative endeavours as ‘spiritual work,’ too?
Stephen: Absolutely, social media for me is intimidating in terms of seeing how prolific other creatives are and then comparing myself to them. I do enjoy the engagement, when it happens, when you can share your ideas and your process (like this interview!). I don’t always give myself the opportunity to look at my process or how I tackle projects until someone asks a question. It’s a perfect opportunity to reflect.
I definitely feel my creative endeavours are ‘spiritual work’ (and I don’t mean I’m called by God! FFS). Spiritual in a meditative sense, or in expressing yourself in a safe space. But also where the ideas come from. And maybe that’s giving it away to something outside of myself, but since my twenties I’ve questioned where my ideas come from.
I feel inspiration comes from somewhere, tapping into something on some level, and I am the mechanism for getting that out onto paper, whether it be images or words.
Davina: Let’s talk word count, now, Stephen. +100K words! How long did it take to write that?
Stephen: So it all started with a short, at the end of 2016, which I wrote for a short story submission along with another and secretly hoped this one DIDN’T get in because I realized what it was: the first scene of a novel.
I then took 2017 and 2018 to research and the start of 2018 was the face-to-face with various people, including sangomas. I had done about 40% (45,000 words) of it by the end of 2018 when I hit a block (I couldn’t get past a specific scene), and my mother passed away, but had most of the novel mapped out.
Then, fast-forward to lockdown, May 2020… My design and consulting work had dried up overnight but fortunately the inkling to write had started again. I took 2 months to finish it and had a ball writing every moment.
Everything was plotted out and I just had to write; sometimes a good day was 5,000 words. More research. More writing. And when I finished, I knew it was a trilogy. With so much more to research.
Davina: I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. What was she like?
Stephen: From my eulogy to her:
My mother was never a placard carrying, bra-burning feminist. But by her being herself she raised two boys to see who women really are in the world. She didn’t need a man, or permission from a man, to follow her dreams. But she made sure we appreciated our father and who he was in our life no matter their history. By her example, she raised two sons to see women as strong, capable and impactful human beings. Her daughters-in-law reflect that. And so do her strong-willed granddaughter and her tender, loving grandson – her legacy continues.
In the early 80s, I remember clearly the Sundays, when the shops were closed and the parking lots empty, as Michael and I roller skated around the newly-built Westville Mall. And while us two boys ripped around carefree, she was sitting alone in her car studying to become the teacher she wanted to be. She put in the work. She put in the time to follow her dreams.
Through her own spiritual path, she showed my brother and I a truly deeper meaning to life. My mother and I may have diverged on our spiritual beliefs but it never stopped us from having deep discussions about God and where we are in the grand scheme of things.
Davina: She left behind a great legacy of respect, hard work, and curiosity. Bones & Runes is a fruit of that legacy, I suppose, in the sense that it is also an exploration of the meaning of life. Where I’m from, one’s relationship (or lack thereof) with supernatural forces (and beings) is considered central to meaning-making.
When you said, earlier, that you had most of it ‘mapped out,’ did you mean that literally? Are we talking story boards, and story circles?
Stephen: Yes, mapped out on bits of paper, as well as the actual fantasy world map! Then virtual cue cards for the sections mapped out in Scrivener (which I have been using since 2012). Those cards would be shifted around and reordered along with summaries of what their respective scenes, objectives, and outcomes were to be. This gave me a good bird’s-eye view of everything.
Generally, I would then write in order but if I wanted to I would get inspired to tackle a specific scene and do that. Many of Amira’s scenes were like that – the Hindu warrior on her own mission.
Davina: You’re one of very few people I know who have managed to get that much writing done since the pandemic started, Stephen. Pre-pandemic, I once had a 20,000-words-night—the result of an EDM-induced trance (it was a rant, basically, there’s no other way to put it)—most of which was revealed by the broadness of subsequent days’ light to be unusable. I was aiming for a long-ish short story; I’m not quite sure how I went from that to a rant.
I think I’ve always been better at ranting, and have been saddened for a long time that rants don’t qualify as literary fiction. I’ve gathered that you used to rant —
“…and that was how we wanted to live; we wanted to sleep under our desks and have an IV drip of caffeine. That was our attitude.
“I would vomit all my rantings on my personal website. That eventually won a personal website award in ‘97 in the philosophy category (chuckles).” —
Do you still?
Stephen: Hell yes! How can I stay sane if I don’t rant, on paper? My notes app is filled with rants. And this is something I’ve mentioned before: I love writing dialogue. My rants usually have a dual aspect to them. Me arguing for and me arguing against.
Davina: Stephen vs. Nehpets. That’s interesting. I should try Davina vs. Anivad sometime. Hopefully, that will yield earth-shattering insights. (Wish me luck!)
Dialogue is a go-to favourite of mine, as well. I find that well-written dialogue frees me from many of the usual difficulties (of characterization, and mood, especially). I strive to make conversations between my characters do up to 85% of the work that a story requires.
Stephen: I feel written rants are a type of stream of consciousness and when I’m writing a ‘sane’ piece of prose I will remember a rant that is applicable, refer back to my notes, and extract the relevant nuggets. With a bit of cleaning up of language.
Davina: I do this, too, sometimes! I’ll take a few lines from a rant and feed them to a character (after de-escalating the rage therein, ahem; in my rants I’m always flaming against something). But these days I’m mostly trying to turn my rants into readable creative non-fiction, a form I’ve recently thought to explore. Is there a form or genre that you’ve never tried before, but would like to explore?
Stephen: I am determined to write a crime novel. Real-world crime, but still fiction. I’ve always been fascinated with serial killers and I enjoyed writing about one in my SF novel, Soul Searching.
After writing that, I felt I wanted something set in contemporary times in South Africa. It’s a bit daunting considering how many real serial killers there are and have been in South Africa to do it justice and find something interesting to say. But we continue to make notes…
Davina: There’s a scenario that plays out frequently in my head. I refer to it as my ‘nightmare scenario.’ There’s a hall. And a conference-type set-up. 300 people listening to someone, on the podium, speaking passionately about subject X. Every one of those 300 people is heavily invested in subject X. Every one of those 300 people is experiencing a strong, personal reaction to what’s being revealed about subject X.
Then time freezes. I’m supposed to figure out how to take 300 points of view from that frozen moment and write them in a way that makes sense as a story, i.e., as a chain of related events.
My friend says, “Pick one. That’s why words like ‘protagonist’ exist. Pick the one through whom it’ll make the most sense to explore reactions to subject X.”
I tell her, “But the point isn’t to pick one. The point is that the thoughts and feelings of 300 people matter equally in that single, frozen moment, and so must all be part of the narrative.”
She says, “Kyana, you have to pick one.”
I say, “No, I’m not going to pick one. But, this stream of consciousness business, could it work?”
She says, “I think that would be a river of consciousness. Just pick one!”
I laugh, despite myself, but my predicament remains.
Stephen: I completely get the underlying ‘rule’ of one point of view character vs multiple. I personally take it on a case-by-case basis and how the story needs to be told. Bones & Runes needed three point of view characters, and I’ve stuck with that rather than veering off into more than those.
Soul Searching has more point of view characters – for good or bad – which I felt I needed at the time. In your ‘300 people’ setting, I would take something like three points of view (yes, one could work)—I like three—and make those three be as contrasting as possible.
Also consider those inner monologues we have with ourselves — those three individuals (maybe only one of them realistically has hectic inner monologues) could be imagining what the other 299 people are thinking. Infer it. Did they bump into that woman over there before the event, and they said “xyz,” so she must be experiencing this feeling under the circumstances?
Even use the one character who has this extreme inner monologue exactly as you yourself are thinking about this narrative ‘problem’ — “what are they all thinking?” Use that! Stream-of-consciousness the hell out of it. Take the top ten ‘thoughts’ and write them as ten people imagined by you, the one point of view character. Fun.
Davina: All this to [indirectly] ask: what performance enhancers have you used (aside from IV drips of caffeine)?
Stephen: Caffeine is the most I’ve done, but wine certainly gets my ranting mind going. My brain is already a messed up place so I’m not sure anything else should be added to the mix.
And lying awake at night seems to be a weird, mind-bending time. Riley, my wife, knows when I’ve been lying awake thinking because half an hour later I have to get up and quickly write ideas down. Nearly drifting off to sleep is usually when I get past a block. Then I’ll need the caffeine the next morning!
Davina: (Chuckles.) Getting up to write ideas down is never an option for me; at 3:00 A.M., that’s more than too much work. I keep my phone close by, to type ideas into, when I suspect that I won’t be able to sleep (somehow, I always know beforehand when it’s going to be one of those ‘lying wide awake with face upward’ nights).
I save whatever seem (when time is bending my mind) like tectonic-moving thoughts as unsent WhatsApp messages to my old number. Weeks later, when going over those messages, I’ll realize that there are recurring ideas: that on five different nights, I typed the same 8-word line!
Stephen: Ah, to know when the brain is talking shit and when it’s providing constructive fuel to burn the midnight oil.
Davina: One of the things I like best about Bones & Runes is how commonplace and ordinary bird species are, for a change, granted great significance. Here, normally, no one will attend to Hadada Ibises pecking at the grass or pied crows jumping along in their fancy tuxedos (albeit on short, ungainly legs). And it seems all cattle egrets seem good for is hanging out with Marabou storks, once described so —
Marabou storks have a nightmarish, insect-like charisma (Lorimer 2015:35–55). While their size and upright stature invite anthropomorphism, this possibility is undermined by their sheer alterity—ungainly proportions, a robotic gait, the protruding fleshy air sac dangling beneath their foot-long beaks. Bizarrely other, yet somewhat familiar, these are uncanny creatures with monstrous faces who, in the course of Kampala life, lack “face”—the Levinasian ability to elicit an ethical response. Moreover, they themselves are largely unmoved by immediate human presence, content to walk and wander along roadsides and busy sidewalks or amid the comings and goings of dump trucks at the municipal landfill. […] Marabou storks are weedy creatures (Tsing 2005:174–176), unplanned inhabitants making the most of marginal anthropogenic patches.
— which is why you’ll often find both species pecking at long streams of sewage.
Stephen: Wow, that description of the storks is brilliant!
— but when I encounter egrets in Bones & Runes, I think, “Ahah! Finally, your station in life is improving! Very well done, guys!” I’m very disappointed that my favourite birds, the turacos, don’t feature, though.
“I’ve always been wary of putting in too much description, both because it can slow a scene down, and then I’m not sure I’ve mastered writing enough to wax lyrical. But what ‘Bones & Runes’ is making me do is to learn more about writing and be clear about things, particularly in the fantastical realm. “
Stephen: Turacos! Sorry, but I featured turacos specifically in Soul Searching, with a character comparing someone they disliked to a grey lourie. I’ll duck and hide while you read below – but this was something an ornithologist said to me about this bird:
“What’s the director?”
“A Grey Loerie. Turaco.”
“Corythaixoides! Excellent. Stiff and dull looking. Irritating call. Keeps telling you to go away. Nothing more than a glorified chicken with bad hair.”
Meanwhile, I love the purple-crested turaco, and its call, as they are prevalent in our area.
Davina: ‘Nothing more than a glorified chicken with bad hair?’ Tsk, tsk, tsk! I’ll have you know that turacos are the best looking, most fashionable birds on this continent. Where have you been while they’ve consistently topped every ‘chicest afro hairstyle’ list in the past decade? And on that note, on behalf of turacos everywhere, I’ve filed a defamation suit against you and your ornithologist friend. This sort of misrepresentation cannot go unchallenged! You’d best prepare to hear from my lawyers, so!
Otherwise, I’ve neither seen nor heard the Purple-crested Turaco, but I’m working hard to change that, as it is listed on our national red list as a data deficient species, i.e., a species for which there isn’t enough data to allow for an assessment, but which is possibly threatened.
But, now, on to another threatened species – Mlilo’s bones, which have been stolen. Bones & Runes opens when Dan has brought mutton curry, “the best in town,” to Mlilo (who goes by ‘Muliro’ – ‘fire’ – in my head, because the distance from that to ‘Mlilo’ is very short). But what Mlilo says he needs is the shinbone rather than the actual meat; that bone is what he needs to get through the door into Baphansi, the underworld, where time runs faster than it does in the real world.
My friends and I were talking the other month about how our sense of time, and its passage, has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak; readings were suggested for our club, one of which was The Tyranny of Time:
The clock is a useful social tool, but it is also deeply political. It benefits some, marginalizes others and blinds us from a true understanding of our own bodies and the world around us.
Are there any debates, readings, thoughts that have invited you to re-think your perception of time?
Stephen: Although it isn’t time travel as such—no going into the past or the future—I’m a time travel nut, and I wanted to have fun with time with this story because, from my understanding of ‘soul land’ or ‘the other side,’ and the quantum realm (if we must keep things scientific), time is flexible and subject to other influences and most definitely man-made as a means of control.
I wanted the world of the soul and the gods to be something that works differently, for many reasons, plus I’m having fun using that to my advantage in the story. And, who knows, we can’t rule out full time travel later on…
In my own experience, from a young age drawing and being in my own world, I was well aware of the perception of time. ‘Being in the zone’ is something I’ve felt for a long time. Most often it would be while I’m working on an illustration, but even reading and writing has the same effect. You feel like you’ve been doing it for a short time, meanwhile the sun’s setting and you’re being yelled at to come to dinner. Or the reverse, a tragedy feels like a lifetime.
Davina: I recently decided to count time the way it’s done in the language of my foremothers. I consequently reset my wristwatch: 7:00 A.M. became ssaawa emu ez’okumakya (the first hour of the morning), 7:00 P.M. became ssaawa emu ez’akawungeezi (the first hour of the evening), 4:00 A.M. became ssaawa kumi ez’ekiro (the tenth hour of the night), and 4:00 P.M. became ssaawa kumi ez’olweggulo (the tenth hour of the afternoon). And so on.
I had big hopes for that experiment; I thought I’d be significantly changed at the end. But I abandoned the experiment after a week, because half the time I was disoriented. Having to remind myself that some hours previously assigned to the morning now belonged to the night was much more taxing than I’d imagined.
Stephen: Woah. That is a huge endeavour. The most extreme time experiments I’ve been working with, particularly in the current times and my current position, is waking when the natural world wakes — hearing the bird song and knowing the sun is rising.
Not getting up in the dark and not getting up when the sun is beating through your curtains. What the clock says is irrelevant. We’re not talking about after-insomnia sessions or all-nighters, just the regular days. That has been rather beneficial. It is quite something to experience sun rises on a regular basis.
In a previous version of myself, I used to drive to work in the dark and drive home in the dark. Catching glimpses of the sun from behind a steering wheel is no good for the psyche.
Davina: My favourite character so far is The Morrígan, whose body is also the bodies of a thousand birds; in my head, she’s known as ‘The Badass Bird Lady.’ How did her story begin?
Stephen: Apart from my general interest in certain species, I really wanted The Morrígan to be associated with a Southern African species of crow and something more than your usual pitch black raven or crow, and the Pied Crow was perfect.
The Pied Crow’s black and white plumage gave me a visual contrast as well as a duality, which I liked for the character and many aspects of the story (there is no good and evil, and a goddess can do good as well as wreak havoc).
And bird feathers aren’t these easily detachable things that fall off on a whim, they have blood vessels or a vein feeding them, and so I took that to the extreme with The Morrígan — what if that was what the birds or The Morrígan were actually made up of when viewed up close: blood vessels.
Davina: That’s quite the close-up! I’m thinking now of that expression ‘the life is in the blood’ and how in Bones & Runes you cultivate that to become ‘the life is in the bones.’
A key theme of Bones & Runes is ‘Africa as the source of many revered and feared deities, supernatural beings and myths that have evolved and spread across the world; the ancient land spawning most cultures and beliefs, and the gods here are in their raw, unromantic form.’
Stephen: I think of it from a cosmological point of view as well as an anthropological one in terms of Africa as the cradle of mankind. If evidence is to be believed, and we all originated from an area or continent and spread out (taking continent separations as well) then, to me, the early ideas of the world around us would have begun to form from that start.
And what’s to say those concepts, deities, and rites are not a singular influence for all archetypes and traditions? What would some of those gods be like? And would they be a nicely polished western idea or would they be their root characteristics as imagined by our ancestors before we gradually developed those deities further – their back stories, their range of abilities and powers etc.?
Davina: “…would they be a nicely polished western idea or would they be their root characteristics as imagined by our ancestors before we gradually developed those deities further…?”
Over the last couple of years, I’ve sensed myself coming to this, albeit from a different direction. The other year I stumbled upon A History of God. I remember thinking, OK, this should be interesting. Because on average when people are discussing deities, they aren’t saying, “here is a narrative description of everything that’s happened to deity A” or “and now we’d like to present a record of deity B’s development.” Typically, they are saying, “This is what happened to us and our ancestors, and this is what we want you to infer about deities A&B based on our interpretation of what happened.”
So, my approach is now from the direction of: while we may start out insisting that we were created in the image of deity A/B, it often seems to me that what then becomes imperative in the long run is the re-creation of deity A/B in our image(s). Fiske Nyirongo references this, too, when she says, “…we do tend to build gods in our image, whether that be our ancestors or the God we believe in.”
Stephen: Oh, that’s great. Moulding them afresh. People reinterpret old texts to suit their current situations, their current worldview.
One thing that became clear to me as I grew older, my teen years, in our Born-again church, was how they would continuously preach how those other Christian sects were wrong, with some blatant idol worshipping.
“But, hey, we’ve reread the texts and we know our way is the correct way. Everyone else is going to hell.”
You mean everyone who is reading the same book as you is still going to hell? God’s intentions literally re-moulded.
Davina: In your conversation with Proffessor Gugu Mkhize, you touch on creation stories; listening to you both, I was thinking of a) the fear many ‘modern’ Africans have of locating ourselves (and our histories) within creation accounts other than those associated with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and b) the ways in which we negotiate those fears.
The pantheon of deities in the culture into which I was born includes Katonda (the supreme God), Ggulu (the sky god), Walumbe (the god of death), and Kibuuka (the god of war).
But what’s really interesting is that the distinction is very rarely made; today, even Christians praying in Luganda will pray to “Katonda ali mu Ggulu” (the God who is in heaven) – Ggulu is also used to mean ‘heaven.’
The God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob is now also Katonda. No one ever says, “Wait a minute, which Katonda?” I’m sure many of us are thinking about it. But we’re not bringing it up. There’s unspoken consensus that one can only be talking about one God (and not ‘the traditional one,’ at that).
This is something you and Prof Mkhize discuss, too – the ways in which different systems of religious thought and belief have intentionally (or otherwise) become unified.
Stephen: Yes, it’s interesting seeing how various people from all walks of life relook their traditions handed down to them and those forced on them. And by forced it can also mean a grandparent who has converted to another religion passing down that as a rule. It was interesting getting Prof Mkhize’s point of view on that bridge between Christianity and traditional beliefs.
But watching the young people during the Dr VVO Mkhize lecture made me see clearly the questioning of those imposed religions through colonialism and the importance of them questioning its validity in their lives today.
Take me, for example, being of British descent— I’m well aware that up until a little over a thousand years ago the UK was not a Christian empire. So part of Bones & Runes is my own questioning of where I come from, what my ancestors were doing, and what they believed.
I use Dan as that mechanism to delve into and learn more about those practices in Britain that my ancestors would have practiced. Having only grown up in South Africa and never setting foot in the UK, the weird thing is that I know more about iSangoma and inyanga practices than about Druids and shamans!
I’m also hoping to tackle the fears head-on. I was brought up with that mindset so I relate completely; engaging with those who practice those rites and beliefs, or reading more, is valuable because you begin to see how a Druid is like a Sangoma is like a shaman and ‘witchcraft’ is a judgement, a prejudgement, of what you don’t understand or appreciate.
Most religions are modern compared with those traditions. Our ancestors must have been doing something right because we’re here, aren’t we?
Davina: Right. You also touch on this during your discussion, with Elliot Ndlovu, about ancestors and traditions.
It’s fascinating what Elliot’s doing with medicinal plants; how he’s cultivating and exhibiting them. He’s using indigenous species, while simultaneously trying to ensure that they remain available to future generations. That he’s exhibited at the Chelsea flower show strikes me as a good example of bringing the traditional and modern together to serve a common purpose (he speaks to this unity, too, through his response to your question about white Sangomas), which is also something that Bones & Runes does quite well.
Elliot twice references similarities between Zulu and Hindu traditions. Had you already planned, going into that discussion with Elliot, to link Hindu traditional beliefs into the plot or did this come to you after?
Stephen: I had already planned Amira as being the Hindu warrior character and knew I wanted to delve into those belief systems because of how important it is in the greater Durban area (along with iSangoma and inyanga traditions) — along with my lifelong interest in it.
But Elliot definitely opened my eyes even more; when I was considering how to tackle the similarities of beliefs and traditions around the globe, his discussion made me even more determined to do it and do it as well as I can. These dialogues, and many more not recorded, are what have opened me up to points of view that I hope will be reflected in the stories and do these traditions justice.
Davina: By the way, are those ibises or hornbills that I hear in the background in the podcast?
Stephen: Ibises — we call them Hadedas in South Africa. We have so many hadedas around KZN, with a few Sacred Ibises in spots. Hadedas are usually notorious for waking up the neighbourhoods at sun-up. There are many hornbills in our area in Hillcrest.
Davina: We call hadedas “mpabaana” —this literally means “give me children”—after their onomatopoeic exclamations, which are the unofficial soundtrack of Kampala life. As a child, I trembled whenever I heard them flying over the house; obviously, I had no idea why they wanted children, or where they intended to take them. I would just think, “Ayaaah! They’ve come to fetch me, bannange! I’m done for!”
There’s a bit where Dan is looking for his ring and discovers that he doesn’t have it. Mlilo is teasing him about not being as prepared as he likes to think himself. Dan says to take a moment, and then refers to Mlilo as ‘Mr. Witchdoctor.’ Mlilo instantly corrects him: “it’s traditional healer or isangoma.” As far as he’s concerned, Dan is the one with the “witchdoctors, druids and Getafix magic.”
I chuckled at that. But when Mlilo and Dan go at each other like that, I wonder if they’ll make it, especially when it starts to seem that Mlilo misinterpreted the message from his ancestors about Dan bringing what he needs. The way they relentlessly tease each other seems playful enough, yet I can’t help but wonder if there’s something I’m missing. Is there something unresolved between them lurking in the background?
Stephen: With most friendships and relationships there are always things that are left unsaid or not handled out in the open. I never want my characters, particularly two ‘best friends,’ to seem like an idyllic relationship. That’s crap in the real world and crap in fiction. It’s too easy to throw a dramatic moment into their lives and have conflict erupt from that.
I feel like there needs to be differences, undercurrents and opposition even in the slightest of actions and conversations before the shit hits the fan. Relationships can have brilliant moments of truth-telling, and I feel Mlilo and Dan use their digs at one another to get to those truths, understand the other’s beliefs and expose their own prejudices (even consciously), but they aren’t supposed to be the best communicators either.
But, when we meet them, Mlilo has just suffered an ordeal we and Dan are not fully aware of and Mlilo isn’t ready to explain and go into it – and in his frustration and anger he’s not hearing or listening to his ancestors clearly. He’s also frustrated that the ancestors have involved Dan – he is self-reliant and doesn’t like making his problems someone else’s problems.
And here is Dan, all flippant and ignorant of what his friend has just been through in losing his amathambo. Part of Mlilo’s journey in realizing how he can include those close to him in his life is revealed as a direct result of not divulging the extent of the ordeal to such a degree that Dan is unprepared for what’s to come. Risking both of their lives.
Davina: Where I’m from, ‘amathambo’ are ‘amagumba.’ But let’s circle back to birds for a bit. How much of your research involved birds; what you learned from them; and so on.
Stephen: I have always been fascinated by birds since I was a child. Mainly the raptors. But working with a client and friend—a bird expert, specializing in the audio realm —in the early 2000s gave me a new love for the complexities and quirks of various species. I began to identify birds, which just snowballs from there when you show an interest.
Hearing a bird without even seeing it is a thing now. But most of all, flight is the standout aspect of birds. You can be miles from land and here is a bird circling your boat. Effortless and defying gravity. What birds have shown me, for my writing and world-building, is that nature is everywhere.
Bones & Runes is set in the real and fantastical. The real can be a cold, hard city, but a city has birds, isolated grass patches, and occasional trees, and with a city like Durban, bordering the salty ocean. Those elements make a city livable.
While the fantastical of Bones & Runes is about emphasizing the natural world, the soil we find beneath our feet, as inspiration and as the source of connecting with ourselves, and our history as both humans and animals.
Davina: Raptors are stunning. My favourite is the Secretary Bird. It’s a Sagittarius and so am I! We are meant to be! (Swoons.)
What you say about nature being everywhere; this is how I prefer to think about nature, most of the time, too. Nevertheless, I sometimes catch myself yielding to the temptation to believe that ‘true’ nature is restricted to some spaces; that it can only be found 500km from wherever I happen to be at time T, usually in a protected forest, wildlife reserve, or national park.
I think this is related to what Mpho Ndaba said (while speaking about his environmental activism, public media policy, education, and climate policy work in South Africa), about the ‘monetization’ of nature:
“…it is essentially about recognizing that with settler colonialism we are removed from forming relations with other beings, that instead, “nature” is monetized for the few capitalist elite. Not only that, at the level of society, black people are excluded from experiencing what is considered to be nature and the natural environment.”
Stephen: My work with conservation organizations, wildlife documentaries, and natural history filmmaking highlighted exactly this: access or lack thereof to wild spaces for the majority. Firstly, I think us South Africans take for granted our natural spaces on our doorsteps. And I mean that literally. Yes, we are famous for our nature reserves and cordoned-off wild spaces but we have so much that is in our neighbourhoods – usually pointed out by outsiders.
And then, to your point, there is the stark disconnect in South Africa for many, many who even border the enclosed reserves, are inaccessible because of cost and access – not everyone has a vehicle to cruise around a kilometres-wide estate or the luxury of taking a day off from work. Fortunately, communities are demanding inclusion and involvement in the bigger picture, but it’s nowhere close to equalizing yet.
Davina: You mentioned earlier discussions with your mother about “…where we are in the grand scheme of things.” Véronique Tadjo touches on this in her novel, In the Company of Men, and in Art in the Era of Catastrophe:
“The Baobab tree as a witness of the events unfolding came to me because I wanted to instil a strong ecological dimension into the narration. It was also important for me to invite the readers to dive into their imagination right from the start; to enter a space where humans and non-humans are on the same level; where man is part of nature and not above it. Baobab trees are very well known all over the world. They have an amazing presence and are famous for their resilience and longevity. In the book, Baobab gives nature’s point of view.”
You have a number of non-human characters, including porcupines and hyenas. What did you consider while making creative and/or narrative decisions regarding non-human characters?
Stephen: The most important consideration is their roles in southern African cosmology. For example, animals are essential in many myths and folktales, as well as being totems — representing messages or ideas coming from the other side and the ancestors.
Everything has to have a precedent. And in connection with ‘writing others’ stories,’ it is referring to what has been documented to date, looking to those histories of existing mythological creatures and animal totems. Down to the uChakide character, as an example. Their backstory, in relation to things featured in the confrontation with Mlilo, all relate to the existing canon of folktales for them.
Davina: I hope it’s OK that I have a bit of a crush on the boatman, Haiseb, rather than on either Mlilo or Dan. I sometimes find myself drawn more to supporting rather than main characters.
Stephen: Haiseb is a fun one to write, how he is physically and his character. He is also a prime example of the good and bad of any being or deity in the Bones & Runes world. He is an important figure in Damara and Haiǁom mythology and I wanted him, as a character, to introduce those traditions to the Bones & Runes reader, particularly for the stories to come. I would be intimidated to have a sit down with him but you go ahead.
Davina: Great! I’m always a bit anxious about meeting characters without the verbal or written consent of their creators. So, thanks! I really appreciate the vote of confidence! I hope he likes pizza because I intend to ask him out to a pizza joint!
How far along are you into the stories to come? You mentioned earlier knowing that what you had on your hands was a trilogy. Were characters calling you up at odd hours, and begging you to write a sequel and threequel?
Stephen: I have the main character arcs for the second and third stories. Book 1 was Mlilo-centred. Book 2 is Dan. Book 3 is Amira. And I know the final climax and outcome of Book 3 that I hope will come out of left field for many readers, and another reason Amira is such a fun character to write. All three protagonists are as important as the other, everything they deal with is vital to the overall story; it’s the storyline of each book that needs a focus to pull them together.
I knew from the start, if I got it right, that there was a bigger picture to everything, more than Mlilo’s amathambo. And when I had those three awesome people in front of me it was a really fun notion to play with, having them as the focus of their ‘own’ books.
What it also meant was placing hints along the way that there is more to come. Mentioning a character, not yet featured, who we will meet in the subsequent stories, or a foreboding for our heroes. That’s what I enjoy in those types of films, comics and books and I get to play with that here. I hope I’m not compelled (by a higher force – not me!) not to kill any of them.
I can tell you it is hard knowing that a certain event will befall a character I care about, or they are dealing with an emotional struggle, and then have to get to that part to write.
Take the previous points about writing as a meditation and something beneficial to my soul: through the three lead characters I was (and still am), able to work through my own stuff that began building in 2016.
From around 2018 onwards, I was suffering from extreme depression and I wrote notes about things I was feeling. I knew I was writing notes about Mlilo. I had to be as honest as possible for myself and for him on the page. Mlilo’s depression, isolation and tendency to self-reliance were part of my journey with Bones & Runes.
I didn’t want a happy-go-lucky hero who has hardships thrown at him: I wanted someone already experiencing struggles to have things compounded. The single sentence I had in bold at the top of my notes document read “Mlilo’s depression is your depression. Use it.”
As is the rollercoaster of life, I was served up more real-world situations and emotions for my characters to encounter. Sorry for my characters but catharsis is a relief.
Davina: The descriptions in Bones & Runes are quite detailed. I’m thinking of the care you take to describe the trunk on which Mamlambo is resting—and, later, the red-capped crab—as if there’s nothing you consider unworthy of generous attention.
Stephen: I’ve always been wary of putting in too much description, both because it can slow a scene down, and then I’m not sure I’ve mastered writing enough to wax lyrical. But what Bones & Runes is making me do is to learn more about writing and be clear about things, particularly in the fantastical realm.
I really want people to ‘see’ what I’m seeing as much as possible, because holy crap I don’t know where this is coming from, but at the same time allow parts for them to build in their minds without my help.
On the ‘learn more about writing’: the block I had in the writing of Bones & Runes was a hand-to-hand fight scene – a battle I hoped to be slick in its simplicity. I knew the outcome but damned if I knew the in-between.
I ended up choreographing it in my lounge! And those encounters are where you need to be clear and simple. While a strange creature or environment needs more depth to make it believable. And a good editorial team will add to the balance.
Davina: While we are on the “because holy crap I don’t know where this is coming from” subject, I really like the idea of tinnitus vis-à-vis ancestors trying to communicate to Dan. Was this one of those ideas you actively deliberated and progressively developed, or one of those whose origin remains unclear?
Stephen: This is directly from my conversations with sangomas and the ways they describe the ancestors sending messages or communicating with you. They will keep smacking you on the back of the head until you get it, until you understand what it is they are telling you.
Your amathambo, animal totems, auditory prompts: pay attention and find ways to interpret the signs. Dr VVO Mkhize did a brilliant explanation on the range of uHlanya – diviners – and an abalozi is the diviner who hears the whistling or ringing. Of course, I’m still trying to understand the tinnitus in my own ears.
Davina: You know what else I thought was brilliant? When Dr VVO said “we are all diviners.” It made me think of that very common expression ‘something told me to…’
I was talking to a relative who said that, once, while he was driving, ‘something’ told him to switch lanes. And he did. A minute or so later, a truck swerved into the lane he’d just switched from and collided with the car that was behind him prior to the switch.
And I’ve heard countless stories like that. People from vastly different backgrounds all insisting that listening to ‘something’ telling them to do X or Y ensured that they weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time – that they avoided fatal accidents, entrapment by burning houses, and shootings.
For some, that ‘something’ may be God, or the ancestors. For others, it may be the gut. I sometimes like to think of this ‘something’ as a vast pool of knowledge out there, somewhere – perhaps an endless lake filled with information about everything that’s ever happened, is happening, and will happen. And that some of us can just, for whatever reason, access this pool of information more readily than others.
Stephen: I like it. I do feel like we access this information as you suggest, and however we choose to interpret it, and who we perceive it to come from, it is coming from somewhere. We have to know how to listen.
Water is something that is key in Bones & Runes so I like that analogy of information from the other side being accessible in that way. uNomkubulwane, the rain deity, resides by a lake in our story, and she features for our protagonists in their times of crisis.
Davina: At the beginning of his lecture, Dr VVO spoke about how, unfortunately, ‘our things’ are often written about by white people. Did you run into any resistance related to this during your research for Bones & Runes? Any “Oh, great, here’s yet another Muzungu wanting to tell our story for us!” type business?
Stephen: I didn’t. If anything, everyone I’ve engaged with has been enthusiastic to talk about the knowledge they have and to share it. Before I’ve sat down with them, they all know exactly what I’m doing and my intentions. I hope that also comes across in the podcast interviews.
I’m doing what I can to be true to everything I put to paper — I feel I’m not just writing a fun story; there is a higher purpose I cannot fathom. And my question to Elliot around white sangomas was related to that because I’ve been reluctant to look at anyone ‘outside’ of these cultures for input, whereas he was clear about sharing the knowledge with those willing.
If anyone wants to say that about Bones & Runes and me writing it, that is a perspective I completely understand. I have to write what I have to write and I will involve those more knowledgeable than myself in the process. If someone chooses not to engage with it for their reasons, I respect that.
I’m writing a novel which includes people and cultures I find around me. I hope that anyone interested in those cosmologies and traditions looks to the likes of Professor Gugu Mkhize, Dr VVO Mkhize, Elliot Ndlovu, and others as the custodians of that knowledge. They are the ones writing (and rewriting) and teaching ‘their things,’ breaking down past and present prejudices, and decolonizing their histories.
Davina: What you said, earlier, about how you sometimes hope that people will say no because part of you knows that what you’re submitting isn’t ready, or is meant to be something else – well, I can relate.
So many times I will submit something even when I know I shouldn’t, and hope that I’ll get a rejection email—“we are sorry but this isn’t the kind of writing we publish”—that’ll prove my doubts correct.
But why did you think that the telling of this particular story would be better served by a novel? There were times when, while reading the banter between Mlilo and Dan, I imagined what they were saying into speech bubbles and dialogue balloons.
So, why a novel in the traditional format, Stephen? Why not a comic book, or graphic novel?
Stephen: I can definitely see this as a graphic novel and beyond. What stopped me from even attempting a graphic novel was I felt my own style and abilities would not do it justice. I also knew I would have a hell of a lot of fun just getting the words onto paper, and then see what I end up with.
And along the way I had the urge to illustrate key scenes – but not in a dramatic comic way – but more of an additional reference like some of the books I grew up reading – an illustration plate in each chapter. And even those may not make it into the final novel – publisher’s preference as well as my own (I need it to be consistent throughout the book and be a-ok with them).
But, I like the idea of writing something that the reader then imagines for themselves. They can embellish far more than what’s on the page and that is the added dimension that I, as a visual person myself, can appreciate.
I also tend to visualize scenes, have conversations play out in my head, from a comic or film perspective and yet I find getting the right words together to describe it is just as rewarding as illustrating it.
Davina: It’s fantastic that you had fun writing Bones & Runes. No matter how difficult it might be for me to explore a subject, I always try to enjoy myself. That’s usually my main objective: to have fun. My commonest version of writer’s block equals me finding myself in a place where I’m no longer having fun with a story.
I LOVED the illustrations! It really was helpful to discover where what lies, and in relation to what: The Spear Forest on this side of The Great River; the Shadow Lands cutting across The Great River.
But, there’s the way things look in your head and then there’s having a three-dimensional form of an idea, exactly as the writer imagined it, in front of you. It was strange, sometimes, because I would think, Hmn, this isn’t how I imagined that.
I only looked at the drawings after I’d finished reading. Your drawings of Mamlambo’s domain and Haiseb’s boat made me realize that my idea of both was very different from your idea!
Stephen: And this is why I’m in two minds about including illustrations. I love that a reader builds their own idea of the worlds my words represent. Adding my image and visual interpretation can take away from that. What is in your mind is more vivid than a picture on paper. Aside from the map, of course. And they are so much fun to illustrate.
Davina: You mentioned having spoken to other Sangomas. Which conversation with which Sangoma stood out for you? I hope you asked whether there’s a Man Booker Prize in your future.
Stephen: Elliot was most honest and open with his background and his ongoing work, which I am so appreciative for and him allowing me that time (and subsequent random WhatsApp questions), but I had an amathambo reading with Mkhulu Jabulane Magwaza.
Mkhulu Jabulane Magwaza is an isangoma and teacher of isangoma traditions. Naturally, this was specific to me and it gave me a firsthand look at the sacred space and the process involved in the rite. It was emotional and he was spot on with everything. And he mentioned good things to come…
Davina: To what use do you intend to put the prize money?
Stephen: Buy books!
Davina: Good answer!
Stephen: And wine. Lots of wine.
Davina: I look forward to all the rants that wine will bring forth! Good luck!
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 James Currey Prize for African Literature.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her.
She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.