Mubanga is a Zambian storyteller. Her first novel, The Mourning Bird (Jacana Media), won the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award and was listed among the fifteen most notable books of 2019 by Brittle Paper. Later that year, she won the Kalemba Short Story Prize. She’s been published in adda, Overland, and elsewhere. She has also appeared on shortlists for the Bush Fellowship, Miles Morland Scholarship, Nobrow Short Story Prize, Bristol Short Story Prize, Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and Fractured Lit Flash Fiction Prize. When she’s not writing, Mubanga serves as Fiction Editor for Doek!, and Mentor at the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She’s now an MFA candidate at Hamline University, where she receives the Writer of Color Merit Scholarship Award and the Deborah Keenan Poetry Scholarship. Her debut poetry collection unmarked graves won the 2022 Tusculum Review Poetry Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in October 2022.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This interview is a result of notes sent via Google documents between Nigeria and Minnesota, USA.
Aisha: Hello Mubanga, welcome to the interview.
Mubanga: Hi Aisha, thanks for having me.
Aisha: Congratulations once again for making it to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist.
Mubanga: Thank you.
Aisha: When I started reading your story, I didn’t expect the story’s title to be the name of the main character’s mother. I was shocked at her audacity to call her mother by her name. What inspired that?
Mubanga: When I started writing the story, I didn’t know what the title or even their names would be. What you read in the final version of ‘Thandiwe’ surprised me too. In fact, those lines where the daughter addresses her mother by her first name weren’t always like that, but once it fell into place in the story, I found that it reflected their relationship best. There is an intimacy between them, but they are also strangers. As for what inspired it—the story told me; the characters spoke, and I listened.
Aisha: It is pretty normal not to know what the title of a story would be as a writer. I have faced this challenge myself, but as you said, you let the characters speak, and that helped you decide what to name them and how their relationships would be. Misozi calling her mother by her name is unusual for an African; I cringed when I read it. It also makes you wonder why respect is forced between us as Africans, our parents and older people. Was your intention to address this respect issue?
Mubanga: You’re right. Stories present themselves in so many different ways. Sometimes they are not as clear at the start, and a title will only be known when all the words have made it onto the page. For this story, I had to listen to what the characters wanted, not what I wanted for them. I can understand the instinct to cringe at a person calling their mother by name, and maybe that is why I kept it. I believe that without having to explain, that alone tells so much about their relationship.
The Bemba say ‘Akape kakote tabakasula’, meaning ‘An old serving dish shouldn’t be disregarded.’ It is a proverb that explains that respect for the elderly is essential in our culture because they have experienced more of the world than a younger person has. Yes, the force with which the importance of respect is sometimes communicated can make it feel as if it’s being forced on us, but I wasn’t thinking about that in this story. It only became visible after I was done-done and started sending it out.
We need to respect our elders because they’ve gone before us, but what happens when we no longer feel that respect? Should we keep forcing the communication of that respect? I think the story made me question these parts of the cultures. How did you listen to the characters? I understand what it means to listen to a character, but I think we should let readers know how to do that.
I can’t speak for everyone who thinks they deserve respect in their lives, how they go about getting it, or how they show their own respect for others. I can’t even tell you what to do when you don’t feel respected. Those are the questions Misozi is addressing in her interactions with her husband, her sister and eventually with her mother. Yet, despite the context and knowing why she wasn’t doing the expected thing, it still jarred you. On the one hand, you’re thinking about the importance of mutual respect. However, on the other hand, you can’t help but gasp at how she acts out what that looks like for her. Listening can take different things for different pieces.
For this story, listening took workshopping it early. I was fortunate to be part of a workshop where the importance of focusing more on questioning than criticising was stressed. Talking about it out loud made me realise that in earlier drafts of the story, I was forcing it to be something it wasn’t. I tried to do this with formatting choices, language, where the story started, and what parts took up space. Learning what I did from the workshop, when my story asked, ‘Why did she say this here?’ rather than answering, I wrote it into the story, allowing the characters to fill in those blanks with their behaviours.
Aisha: Were there times when listening became difficult? Especially with a character like Thandiwe, who is complex and has a condition like dementia that isn’t well known in this part of the world.
Mubanga: Many times, but ultimately, that difficulty in the process was rewarding. I was taking a poetry class at the time, and that not being my primary genre was also sometimes frustrating for me. However, exploring poetry made me revisit Thandiwe, and I wondered what I could do with the brevity of words in poetry in a fiction piece. As it turns out, that worked well for her because it allowed me to create a character who could use fewer words to express herself. She doesn’t say a lot, and some of her words only exist in Misozi’s flashback, yet the story still came to me as hers.
Aisha: I spot this poetic storytelling, especially in your description of Thandiwe’s condition. It is somewhat Thandiwe’s story. Let’s move on to Misozi, particularly her struggles to earn Thandiwe’s love and affection. How did you listen to this? What was behind it?
“Stories are a great place to explore because you don’t have to have them figured out from the start. You can make them up as you go, and if you don’t get it right the first time, you can reshape it until it becomes something you like.“
Mubanga: It’s so tempting to ask you questions right now. I’m curious, for instance, what parts you’re thinking of when you talk about poetry reflecting in my description of Thandiwe’s condition. Misozi was the hardest to write; with hers being the POV of the story and her memory shifting in location and time, she sometimes became chaotic. Listening to that voice involved removing myself from the story and setting aside my subjective views of what a mother and daughter relationship should be like. As for what was behind it, I am always interested in mother-daughter relationships, the different ways they can look and the murky bits that aren’t visible to outsiders, including myself.
Aisha: It’s OK if you’d like to ask me questions. Some phrases and sentences that felt poetic are these, “but no, she still smells like just out of reach cocoa butter hugs” and “but Thandiwe blinks and vanishes back into herself again”. The first one describes her before dementia, and I think the second accurately visualises the condition. What do you think sparks your interest in mother-daughter relationships? Is it a result of personal experiences?
Mubanga: Ah, okay. Thanks for sharing that. It’s so interesting that you picked a before illness versus after illness description of Thandiwe; it’s very similar to Misozi looking back through the photograph while experiencing her mother in person. I want to say that my curiosity about what struck you is just my legal training exposing itself. I like hearing about how readers experienced my story versus my experience creating it, especially in the short story space, which isn’t where I originally began storytelling.
As for my interest in mother-daughter relationships, I’m sure I have a personal interest in wanting to tell some specific stories. Still, I didn’t bring any part of my mother or my relationship with her to this one except the cocoa-butter lotion, which, to be fair, I saw on many dressers growing up, not just my mother’s. I never experienced my mother in adulthood, so I have nothing to draw on there but my imagination. I find that even the part when Misozi called her mother by her first name isn’t jarring for me; I tested it. This is partly because Misozi harbours hostility towards her mother. It goes far calling her mother by her first name to the rage which pushes her to do so; a rage that shakes through the page somehow. Also, her mother’s name was a word and part of everyday speech.
Aisha: I am aware of your legal training and either way, I wouldn’t have objected to your questions. Reading the story, I was able to feel Misozi’s hostility and I think it’s impressive that you could create the relationship between Thandiwe and Misozi without any influence from your own experiences. Thandiwe’s scent reminds me of my grandmother. She used to have this perfume I only found years later, and she always used cocoa butter. I haven’t seen her in years, primarily because of the insecurity that comes with travelling in Nigeria these days, which brings me to the African in Diaspora experience that Misozi had. Do you think she went abroad to escape Thandiwe? Would you say it is a common theme with many Africans in the diaspora? This feeling of escapism.
Mubanga: (Laughs). I see that pun. She was pretty hostile, wasn’t she? I latched on to that too because mothers somehow implant themselves in your consciousness, whether present or absent. Grandmothers are similar in that regard. It’s in the way we remember them with specific fondness when they aren’t around or when something reminds us of them. For instance, you read the story, and suddenly you’re reminded of the perfume your grandmother used to wear. Now, you may feel the urge to look for that perfume because it reminds you of your grandmother.
Stories are a great place to explore because you don’t have to have them figured out from the start. You can make them up as you go, and if you don’t get it right the first time, you can reshape it until it becomes something you like. So my not having similar experiences as Misozi wasn’t an impediment. I haven’t experienced sisterhood as an adult either but moulding Chisomo and Misozi’s relationship was also a unique adventure. Leaving one’s birthplace can be as much about escaping as it can be about finding someone or something. I wouldn’t say Misozi was running from Thandiwe since they don’t have a solid relationship, to begin with. If anything, she carried bits of Thandiwe with her that she could have easily discarded. For example, the photograph she uses to try and jolt Thandiwe’s memory towards the middle of the story.
Aisha: She did seem eager to return home. I’d like to also talk about the other members of Thandiwe and Misozi’s family—Chisomo and their grandfather. She proves that it is possible to have different experiences from the same parent. I got a hint that Misozi’s relationship with their grandfather was characterised by abuse. Was this what you intended to portray?
Mubanga: She seemed eager for movement, and the phone call was just an excuse, but I guess in a way that can represent eagerness. One thing that I was deliberate about was the visual representation of the grandfather. He is introduced to the story when Misozi mentions the call Chisomo made to her. After that, he is this grainy element, similar to the picture. The story is mainly about the women of this family, and everyone else is a supporting cast. You may have picked up that Misozi’s relationship with her grandfather was characterised by abuse because Misozi remembers the part of her childhood he occupies as particularly violent. So yes, to answer your question, that is what I meant to portray.
I intended to honour the people in my story and not just shine a torch on the abuse they experienced. The way Misozi talks about it reflects how she’s experiencing the moment. Focusing particularly on that section of the story, Thandiwe’s statements disrupt what Misozi thought she knew. Which then brings me back to your first question about the title. Thandiwe has a perceptible illness, a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Still, when we see that heated confrontation between her and Misozi, it’s clear that there’s ambiguity in both their recollections. This confusion needed to be in the veins of the story. I mentioned this varying experience of the same thing when I spoke to the Commonwealth team. I’ve heard, read and watched that siblings sometimes have very different experiences with the same parent, so that’s another journey I took in writing this piece.
Aisha: I like stories that leave one with questions about the event of the story’s ending. One that makes you go back to the story to read it repeatedly, especially when you don’t have the privilege of asking the author what they intended. I know I must have hinted at this question earlier, but how did writing this story affect you emotionally?
Mubanga: Once I’m done writing a story or novel and have submitted it to the place where I intend to get it published, I wouldn’t say I like to go back to it for any reason. To distract myself during the wait, I write some more. All this is the long way of telling you that, even though I only finished this story last year, many words have poured out of me since then, and I haven’t taken the time to process how it made me feel. If I have to tell you that right now, I have to do a bit of digging into myself. Here is what I can remember; at first, it was frustrating; I was so anxious about finishing it because I had a deadline I was working against. Also, I was juggling so many roles, and that contributed to the difficulty I had finding time to focus on how the story made me feel.
Additionally, once I was past revising and knew what shape the story needed to take on the page, I was in a better place and could focus more on the line by line choices and what each of the words was doing if they had earned their place. It was only after I had done all that that I read it aloud to myself. Engaging with it that way, as a final step, was more an act of dotting all the i’s sort of thing to ensure I wouldn’t have any regrets. I didn’t want any case of ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’s about the whole thing. I only got affected emotionally recently when I was informed that the story had been shortlisted as part of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It was like being told that it had found a home, the home I wanted for it, and that helped me exhale and for the first time, read the story just for the sake of reading it. I can say now that I feel sad for all three of them for the bits they can never have because once a thing is passed, it has. I think I did a thing here, and I am proud of it.
Aisha: Ah. I have the same reaction to things I write. I only go back to read them when they get accepted into journals or I have to edit them. So, wouldn’t you have read the story if it wasn’t shortlisted?
Mubanga: I agree, and I know that the editing can go on forever too, but I do get to a point where I’m like, ‘Okay, this is good. I can let it go now’— with this story, that’s where I was. Of course, I would have reread it eventually. I knew it would find its way home. I don’t send anything out until I can say that for sure.
Aisha: Yes, it can. I don’t think a writer has ever finished editing a piece. There’s always something to add or remove. What pushed you to submit the story to the CW prize?
Mubanga: Next thing you know, you’re 95, swearing you were just an undiscovered genius. At some point, you have to birth something you grew, you know? “Pushed me?”— I came to storytelling through the novel first and only tried short stories after as a decompression writing gig for myself. Everything I know, I learned through Google by typing ‘How to___?’, then practising whenever I could. When I completed my novel, I was exhausted but also antsy about creating more. That’s when a writer friend suggested that I try short stories. At first, I couldn’t imagine being able to contain a story in so few words, but then I read the stories that had won the regional prize in 2017, and of all of them, I thought, ‘Wow, this is gorgeous. How do I do that?’ So I started writing short stories, trying to compress, testing myself and what I could do. I entered the CW prize for the first time in 2018, again in 2019, again in 2020, and then again last year. Each time I didn’t get it, the lesson was that I could get better and inch closer to magic. This year was the first time I wasn’t frantic about it, which is a big deal. Usually, I like to know what’s going on all the time, but this time I was just like, ‘What is mine will be mine’.
Aisha: (Laughs). “An undiscovered genius” has me laughing, but would that be such a bad thing for you?
Mubanga: I don’t know. We can revisit the idea on my 95th.
Aisha: Hopefully, you wouldn’t need to revisit the idea because you’d be too busy with author fame.
Mubanga: Well, what will be mine, will be mine. The work is in writing, and I am always writing, so the space to worry about future fame and undiscovered genius does not exist.
Aisha: That’s great. Being a writer should be about writing, and I’m glad you’re focusing on that. Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation, Mubanga. I had a great time talking to you. Good luck.
Mubanga: Thanks, Aisha.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tealee A. Brown.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a Law student, poet and freelance writer and journalist from Kaduna State, Nigeria. Her poems, essays and curated interviews have been published in Document Women, Africa in Dialogue, Agbowó, Muslim Girl, Aster Lit and others. In 2019 she won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. In 2020, she was one of the judges for the same award. When she isn’t studying and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats, watering plants, reading about Sufism and working to spread mental health awareness as Head of Administration at the FAM Initiative. Aisha currently writes for Document Women’s Arewa Voices column. She hosts two podcasts, namely the Poet Box Series and Story ER.