Finding Humanity in the Monstrous: A Dialogue with Ntsika Kota
Born in Mbabane, Eswatini, Ntsika Kota is a chemist by training. A self-taught writer, he was originally inspired by a high school writing assignment. Ntsika’s work is a reflection of his thoughts and feelings, and he enjoys creating that reflection.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This interview was conducted via Google Docs from notes sent from Abuja, Nigeria, to Mbabane, Eswatini.
Aisha: I noticed your setting was in an African savannah; what made you pick it? Do you think a different location would have worked better with the story?
Ntsika: The choice of setting was driven very directly by the selection of the identity of the tribe. I wanted it to be made up of the very earliest examples of our species. I’m not an expert in the relevant fields, but my understanding is that the genetic and archaeological evidence leaves little doubt that biologically modern humans originated in sub-Saharan Africa. I wanted the story to be played out by the first humans, so it made sense to choose a generic savannah-type environment which exists all over the continent.
Aisha: I loved the imagery in this story. It was something to behold, especially the way you captured the emotions of the characters. How were you able to do it so well?
Ntsika: A piece of advice I once read about descriptions, in general, was to write as you would experience (I’m paraphrasing). I try to keep this in mind when describing emotions. What I mean is that I try to describe not just the features of an emotional state but also the effects on a character’s behaviour and perception. When characters act and view their world in a way that ‘agrees’ with their emotional states, I think that helps them grow into more authentic people in the reader’s mind. I try to mimic how emotion colours our perception of reality, so how a character experiences something is slightly different depending on how they feel at that time.
Aisha: I noticed a balance between the scenery and the characters’ emotions. This is sometimes hard for writers to accomplish. How were you able to do it?
Ntsika: It’s difficult to accurately dissect the process because so much happens without conscious input. Particularly in the first draft, I often write whatever comes as it comes. Only in the first edit do I start to think critically. That said, I believe an essential part of balancing a character and their environment lies in not separating them too distinctly. That is, they should both exist to tell the story. Having total control of a character and their scenery means each aspect can work well with the other, as long as it’s in service of the story. In short, I try to dissect the best way to make the reader feel at any given time. Then, I try to use that to decide whether the reader should ‘observe’ the character or ‘observe’ the scenery at that point.
Aisha: Was there a point where writing about the activities of the first humans became difficult?
Ntsika: The difficult part for me was probably deciding the cultural details of their society. As far as I know, there are no records—not even oral ones, that go back two or three hundred thousand years to humanity’s birth. That means that the language the first humans spoke and their culture are essentially unknowable. As a result, it wasn’t possible to use a language or culture for the village that accurately replicated how things truly were then. Instead, I chose to use modern cultures from southern Africa as the template for the villagers’ fictional culture, specifically Nguni cultures. Although several thousand years old, Nguni cultures are still relatively young compared to humanity’s age. The difficulty was in balancing the details of the villagers’ culture so it would feel authentic but not mirror any existing cultures. I thought that if the fictional culture mimicked an existing one, readers would mistake the setting as being at only a slight remove in time from today, rather than the vast difference I intended.
Aisha: How did you go about researching these cultural practices? Did you ever come to a point where it was too difficult?
“ As individuals, we have varying levels of empathy towards other people and animals. Therefore, we have varying comfort levels with harming others to get what we want. However, taken as a whole, humanity tends to act with empathy.“
Ntsika: Actually, I didn’t do any research. I was born and raised in Eswatini and spent years in South Africa where Nguni languages and culture are indigenous. The adage “write what you know” was a guide for me in this respect. I realised that since the actual language and culture of the first humans no longer exist, I could use any existing one as a basis for a fictional replacement. Nguni cultures are the most familiar to me, so it was a logical choice to take various elements of these and then modify and combine them.
Aisha: Oh, that’s great. Would you say there was ever a time when you had issues trying to portray specific themes of the story?
Ntsika: Perhaps one aspect of the story that challenged me was the hunter’s personality. When re-reading and editing, I wanted it to be clear that he lacked normal human empathy without removing his humanity entirely. Although he ultimately behaves monstrously, I tried to avoid making the hunter a kind of villainous caricature. The difficulty was in balancing his actions and motivations—self-centred and lacking empathy, with fundamental humanness, such as his desire to be viewed positively by his fellow villagers.
Aisha: While we were talking, I was notified that you won the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Congratulations! How do you feel about the win?
Ntsika: Thank you, Aisha. It is a tremendous honour to be recognised among writers of incredibly high skill levels and by judges of such high calibre. Although I was initially shocked at the news, this award has motivated me to dedicate myself to honing my skills and learning more about the craft of writing.
Aisha: Does the win validate your work in any way?
Ntsika: Absolutely. Part of why I submitted an entry was because I knew it would help motivate me to look at my story through new and more critical eyes. As soon as I clicked submit, I felt as if I had already gotten quite a lot of benefits from the competition—I faced a few of my fears and realised I had a story that I genuinely enjoyed. When it was announced that my story was shortlisted, it validated my positive feelings about what I had written. Then, when I learned that I had won the award, that cemented the feeling. It makes me believe that my evaluation of my stories aligns with what other people enjoy in storytelling. In other words, it has validated, I think, my ability to critically evaluate my writing.
Aisha: That’s wonderful, Ntsika. I wish you more wins like this in the future. Can we talk about the hunter—your main character. I decided to reread the story while we were talking, and I kept asking myself, “Why in the world did he do the things he did?, “Why did he kill someone just for the fun of it?” Can you answer these questions?
Ntsika: I wouldn’t say that the hunter acts violently for the fun of it. Although he is fascinated by the spectacle of violence, he doesn’t himself act violently without specific reasons. His actions spring from the fact that he doesn’t feel empathy for other living things. In the first instance, the nyala is already about to die. In the second instance with Mvubu, it is only through inaction that he allows a fellow villager to die. Only in the end does he choose overt violence. However, it’s important to note that he only chooses to kill because he risks an imminent loss of face—the version of the story he’s been telling everyone is about to be exposed. He takes the one course of action guaranteed to prevent the truth from coming out and causing him embarrassment. If it were not for that reason, he would never have attacked Nyati or Zungu, no matter how much he disliked Zungu.
Essentially, the hunter makes the most purely rational decision because there is no barrier of empathy to prevent him from harming others. Someone who considers violence but instinctively recoils from that possibility would have tried a different solution, such as approaching Nyathi directly and begging him to keep the news secret. However, every other solution is not guaranteed to prevent the truth from coming out, whereas the hunter is. Thus, although the hunter is fascinated by violence, he is not someone who acts violently for no reason. He acts rationally, and if the rational course of action means someone gets hurt, he has no particular problem with that.
Aisha: I could understand his action of killing Zungu and Nyathi. He needed to save face in front of the other villagers. Is the hunter a representation of humanity? In a way, I feel like we are fascinated by violence, and many of us lack empathy for other living creatures.
Ntsika: Yes, I think he represents a part of humanity. He is the part of us that is drawn to spectacle, even when that spectacle involves pain,violence or death. The hunter lacks the barrier of empathy between desire and violent action, working to help us avoid harming other people. As individuals, we have varying levels of empathy towards other people and animals. Therefore, we have varying comfort levels with harming others to get what we want. However, taken as a whole, humanity tends to act with empathy. Indeed some of our highest ideals as modern human society codify empathetic behaviour, even though we don’t always live up to those ideals. In a way, the hunter shows what humanity could have been if empathy wasn’t part of our standard nature. In a society full of people like the hunter, there might not be wanton violence, but there would undoubtedly be no altruism and trust. It would be a volatile society.
Aisha: I guess his character arc is similar to what we have with serial killers. They start with animals and then move on to killing humans. Can we say the hunter is a serial killer?
Ntsika: In the strictest sense, I think we can only say that the hunter has the distinct potential to become a serial killer. I believe it could go either way with him, depending on how events play out in his environment. On the one hand, without the ‘obstacles’ presented by Zungu and Nyathi, he would have no reason to risk his status by attacking anyone else. Imagine if he attempted another murder for the thrill of it, and his victim survived, or he was severely injured. To the hunter’s logic, that decision would present an unnecessary risk, with the only benefit being his enjoyment. I don’t think he would consider that a worthwhile trade. On the other hand, if a situation arose in which he once again felt that same level of threat was being presented by someone else, he would again see murder as the rational solution to his problems—an acceptable risk to prevent a guaranteed loss of status. Ultimately, whether the hunter eventually ends up as a serial killer or never commits another murder depends strongly on his circumstances.
Aisha: In some way, do you think this story has the potential to become a murder mystery thriller? I, for one, love reading murder mysteries, and there are very few African stories of murder mysteries.
Ntsika: Yes, I think there are several directions in which the story could go, and a murder mystery is one of them. It would be an exciting challenge to figure out what investigation and justice mean in a setting without explicit laws. There might also be the question of what effects the unearthing of the hunter’s deeds would have—maybe a loss of innocence for the society as a whole.
Aisha: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Ntsika. Congratulations on your win, and good luck in your future endeavours.
Ntsika: It was a pleasure.
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.