Joe Nyirenda is a writer from Zambia. He discovered his love for reading at the age of 10, after years of struggling to read and write. Once he learned to, Joe read excessively, as if to make up for those lost years. It was this newfound love that awakened a desire to create his own stories. When not weaving stories that harmonise fiction and the real world, Joe works as a customer service agent.
He was first shortlisted for publication in a local anthology in 2020, titled Sister Wives and Other Short Stories, by Myaambo Cooperative. In 2021, his short story, ‘The Last Supper’, was shortlisted for publication by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in a themed anthology on reimagining the Sustainable Development Goals in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, titled Beans without Korkor? and other stories.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation took place between Uganda and Zambia, via WhatsApp.
Charity: Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on being shortlisted for the Kendeka Prize for African Literature. How does it feel to be recognised?
Joe: Thank you. Making a continental literature prize shortlist is a dream realised for me. I was content with just making the longlist, which meant a guaranteed slot in the anthology. Being shortlisted was not something I saw coming. It has been a couple of weeks since the shortlist announcement but it has not fully sunk in yet that Until Mushrooms Sprout made the best five. Overall, the recognition is a surreal experience, one I never thought would come so early in my writing career.
Charity: I can only imagine. When did you start writing? At what point were you very confident to share your work with the world?
Joe: I took writing seriously in 2014, until then I was writing for my own enjoyment. The first time I decided to share my work with the world was in 2018 when I entered a local short story contest. I did not even make the longlist. It was the first time I experienced rejection as a writer and it hurt. I even contemplated giving up writing for some time. Eventually, I got the courage to start writing again. Since then, I have had quite the ride as a writer; twice shortlisted for publication in two anthologies, a longlist and more rejections than I have fingers to count. Knowing that my short story may be read across the continent gives me great joy. But I cannot say I am always excited about sharing my work with the world. I have come to accept that a writer’s psyche tends to be fragile; the prospect of being read by a large audience can be both daunting and inspiring.
Charity: Talking about rejections, Rhodasi Mwale, the winner of the 2020 Kalemba Short Story Prize, shares in an interview with Nkateko Masinga, how she at one time aimed at rejections instead of acceptances in her writing career; something that “took the pressure off querying and submitting.” Persistence is arguably always the way to go. As a passionate writer, what keeps you going even when the last email reads, “We are sorry to inform you…”
Joe: It took me a while to realise that rejections are a part of the writing life. Despite the rejections, I continue to write because it’s the only way to improve my craft and become a better writer. Writing is an art that can only be improved with continuous practice. I love entering short story contests particularly because they have deadlines. As a slow writer, short story contests challenge me to write a complete story in a given period of time. And being able to complete a work of fiction is such a fulfilling experience.
Charity: Rejections are indeed a step in the journey of almost every writer. The more you practise, the better you get. What is more important to you; the story or how it is written?
Joe: I think how a writer tells his story is more important. I love to read stories that draw me into their worlds and take my emotions on a ride. To be able to evoke a reader’s emotions and command their attention with written work takes deliberate planning on the writer’s part. While the writer may not always achieve this, I think it’s ethical to care about how you tell your story.
Charity: Your short story ‘Until Mushrooms Sprout’ is a strikingly well-written piece. It is no wonder that it made it to the short list of this prize. Tell me, what inspired this self-contained work of prose?
Joe: For me, there’s never a single source of inspiration for a particular story. Inspiration for the stories I write is triggered, mostly, by unrelated notions and events. ‘Until Mushrooms Sprout ‘ was developed over a course of many months and influenced by a myriad of concepts. But although this was the case, what really shaped the story was the social inequalities I observed in my community. The differences in privilege between the haves and have nots tempted my creativity and I succumbed.
Charity: The story captures critical moments and aspects of life, evoking sympathy, mixed emotions and admiration of the main Character on the other hand. What themes do you seek to explore in your writing? What is this story about?
Joe: From the start, this was an experiment to tell a multi-layered story. It is my attempt at creating a story portraying how often society fails its most vulnerable. ‘Until Mushrooms Sprout’ is a story about a mother’s love for her children and how far she’d go to keep them from starving. I thought lacing such a story with themes of human need and survival would make for a worthwhile story.
Charity: I notice that the story’s plot is simple; but ends up delivering great suspense, followed by a grand moment of revelation. What advice would you give to help others create plotlines?
“I think the mess started the day the world came up with gender roles. This gave birth to gender polarization and in turn, inequality.”
Joe: I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule when it comes to creating plotlines. However, I have a rule of thumb that says my plot ought to be as simple and straightforward as possible. The whole purpose of creating a story is so it can be shared with an audience and the writer is his own first audience. If the writer fails to understand his story, chances that his audience will grasp it are slim. So my advice is keep the plot simple and less complicated.
Charity: The effects of poverty have indeed made people go to all kinds extremes as they seek out any possible means of survival. This story is emotional in all ways, especially with the contrast you set between the rich people’s setting and the poor woman’s household that is facing many challenges. When you are writing an emotional or difficult scene, how do you set the mood?
Joe: It usually takes multiple rewrites before I feel a particular mood has been set for an emotional scene. I find that understanding the setting helps create the right mood for any scene. The setting in my story is based on a real life slum in Lusaka and it too is bordered by a wealthy neighbourhood. Making a detour through these two neighbourhoods every day, on my way to work, got me in varied moods. And I try so hard to express these moods with the scenes in the story. So for me, memory comes in handy when it comes to setting the mood.
Charity: Memory is indeed a big asset when it comes to the art of storytelling. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi mentions that she was introduced to storytelling at an early age since she lived with her grandparents that told stories in the evenings. What kind of literature did you read as a child?
Joe: The very first stories I remember reading were Zambian folktales in English Language textbooks. I would spend hours on end reading the stories and some hours more attempting to continue from where the story ended in the textbook. Later on I was introduced to literature from across the world; the African Writers Series, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Frost and Charles Dickens. Simply put, my love for storytelling was shaped in childhood by a variety of literature. And then there was my mother’s daily evening storytelling that I strangely found easier to visualise than the stories I read.
Charity: It is widely known and accepted that a mother’s love for her children is like no other. And like you illustrated in your story, a mother could do anything really within their powers for their children’s survival. This reminds me of Femi Nzegwu’s ‘Love, Motherhood and The African Heritage. The Legacy of Flora Nwapa’. This book gives an analysis on the “role of the African women in relation to her husband, her family and society; and of the Central importance of women to an inclusive and successful African renaissance.” Women play a big role in society although their work is often downplayed, and greater success is attributed to the patriarchs in each setting. From unpaid care work to excluding them from some juicy opportunities because they are apparently weak and cannot handle some complexities. The question is how best can we smash and challenge this patriarchy, bearing in mind that we are all victims of a patriarchal society in some way. Men should not be seen crying and women should pay attention to their looks.
Joe: I think the mess started the day the world came up with gender roles. This gave birth to gender polarization and in turn, inequality. The world would be a much better place if more people realised that both genders are affected by existing inequalities in society today. I think the sooner we realise that having extremist groupings blaming the male for gender inequalities, while advocating for feminine superiority, is no different from the existing system the better for humankind. Perhaps we should all embrace radical feminism if depatriarchalizing society is to be realised.
Charity: You mention that it took your months to work on this story to completion. Do you have a writing routine?
Joe: I’ve always had difficulties maintaining a writing routine. Oftentimes, my inspiration does not coincide with the schedule and vice versa. I find it much easier to write as and when inspiration comes to me. Sometimes the story unfolds on its own and I tend to not rush the creativity.
Charity: Mwiza’s household is haunted by a common problem; Infertility. Procreation in African societies is held in high esteem. The destiny of a woman in traditional societies was marriage and child bearing. And women are mostly the first to be blamed if couples are unable to have children. In Africa, girls are generally raised for housekeeping roles. Ayobami Adebayo’s ‘Stay with Me’ gives an emotionally moving story of the main characters’ heart-breaking road to parenthood which has the woman doing all she can to make sure she conceives.
Joe: It’s no surprise that some aspects of the African tradition are an embodiment of sexism, a retrogressive notion. I do not think our ancestors were misogynists for coming up with rigid traditions that disadvantaged the female gender, rather it was largely due to their shallow perspective of the world. In the last couple of years, for example, there has been strides made to eradicate certain ancient vices such as early marriages and Female Genital Mutilation across the African continent. It will take continued collective action from across the gender divide to achieve a ‘modernisation’ of the African tradition. I’m proud to be part of a generation that is not intimidated by the prospect of achieving gender equality in our society.
Charity: What is the literary scene like in Zambia? The local writing scene?
Joe: I like to think of the Zambian literary scene as a fruit tree in a blooming period. We are in a development stage and there is promise for growth. Currently there are individuals, cooperatives and organisations showing commitment to the cause of growing Zambian literature through initiatives such as writing workshops, short story contests and literature prizes. What I find an impediment is that we are short of traditional publishers. I feel there is a lot of talent out there who desire to contribute to Zambian literature yet fail to because of the handicap that is self-publishing costs. But despite the challenges, local authors continue to be trailblazers and an inspiration to young writers like myself who wish to publish in the future.
Charity: The most difficult part of the writing process for a short story may be finding the main idea, but once you are satisfied with whatever shows up then you’re good to go. The rest can be put together with the imaginative mind. What literary trends have supported your work and efforts?
Joe: Yes, coming up with the main idea for a short story can be quite challenging and I always find myself stuck at that stage. There are a couple of trends in the literary world right now that I have conformed to but the most impactful has to be experimental fiction. I am a rebel who loves to defy traditional literature and find escape in the freedom to play around with my writing. This makes it easier for me to be more daring in my writing and explore themes that are rarely talked about
Charity: Wow. Interesting! What is the most valuable advice you have been given about writing?
Joe: Maya Angelou said ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ This quote from one of the best writers I have ever read keeps me motivated. An untold story is a confession nibbling at your consciousness; you are only at peace when you open up. Writing the last word even in a rough draft is such a relief.
Charity: I was reading an article on Publishing in Africa and the author mentioned that, “Africa is a lost cause”. Apparently the Internet in Africa cannot match up to the world. Bookstores; another sad story. Traditional publishers prefer educational, self help and religious books of course, for obvious reasons. The reading culture is also on the lower side. Sometimes our stories are rejected by international publishers because they are “too African” However, there has been a steady growth in digital platforms for African authors. Although this also comes with its own challenges, I think overall, the traditional Publishing industry in Africa is shaping, and it is possible for growth. It is very important for new voices to emerge. What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Joe: I always had the view that as the writer, only I could dictate the storyline. But then I read an article online which compared writers to God. It said because writers play God, they create worlds and characters with predetermined storylines. The article read like it was written by an advocate of fictional characters’ rights with its strong emphasis on letting characters steer the story. My perspective on playing God with my characters changed since reading that article.
Charity: Apart from the pressure that comes with deadlines, what do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?
Joe: Having a realistic word count for a particular period of time has always come in handy when I need to stay focused. Writing is not so simple and coupled with the demands of everyday life, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. With my mind set on a specific number of words, it’s a lot easier to maintain focus.
Charity: In your Bio, you state that you are an avid reader. Which writers excite you? What is it about their work that inspires you?
Joe: I have a long list of writers whose work I find exciting. A couple of years ago, I would restrict my reading to specific genres and writers. Now, I read diverse literature from across the world and this has been beneficial to my growth as a writer. Literature is said to be the mirror through which society should see itself. It is works that don’t shy away from mirroring the state of the world that leave a lasting impression on me. At the top of my list is Dan Brown, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Shirley Jackson. The works of these writers have questioned my faith, changed my perception of the world and left me scratching my head long after reading them.
Charity: If you could meet some of your characters, what would you say to them?
Joe: The article I earlier mentioned had a line reading ‘when you choose to write fiction, you take on the role of God. Be a fair God.’ Considering the diverse personalities of my characters, I would say to them ‘remember you have free will.’
Charity: Everyone has a story to tell. Writing down our thoughts in whichever way is a strong tool. Do you hope to attempt writing long fiction (a book) someday or you found your niche and are not planning on moving any inch away from it? Is there something you’re working on?
Joe: Actually, there is a project I am currently working on. It is something I have been developing for so long I feel embarrassed talking about it. When I decided to take writing serious, I thought short story writing was not for me, that maybe novel writing would be easier. And yet now, I have made progress with short story writing and yet my novel project stalls. Maybe it will see the light of day soon. Maybe it will not, (laughs).
Charity: What matters is that you actually started on something. Like they say, “However long the night, dawn will break.” We shall be here waiting to cheer you on this journey. All the best. With so much going on in our lives today, maintaining focus while in a writing period is war. I like your strategy of aiming at a particular word count. Some people use music, and I use food. I love to write as I chew on something even if it means nibbling on a pen cover (laughs). It kind of activates my brain. What is your favourite writing snack or drink?
Joe: Music, particularly Kalindula, plays a huge part in activating my creativity. Kalindula is like the Country Music of Zambia and has a wealth of stories that help jumpstart my imagination. Attempting to snack while writing always impedes my progress; I tend to focus on the meal more.
Charity: You mentioned that participating in literary contests motivates your writing. What are some of those contests you’d encourage writers to look out for?
Joe: I have made a commitment to enter at least one short story competition a year. Some of the contests I know of and are free to enter include; The Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Afritondo Short Story Prize, The Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, Kalemba Short Story Prize (open to Zambians only) and of course The Kendeka Prize for Literature. I read somewhere that winning a short story contest all comes down to the judging panel’s preference, which story appeals to them more. Since then, I enter contests to challenge myself to complete a piece of work. My advice to other writers is to participate in writing contests to improve your craft; you may go on to win or may not even make the longlist. But in the end, you become a better penman the more you write.
Charity: When you are not writing, what are you up to with your life?
Joe: In between my reading and writing, I watch a lot of television. Most writers claim they abstain from watching the telly because ‘books are so much better than movies.’ Not me. I have loved television since childhood and I would not have evolved into the writer I am today without it.
Charity: I am with you on this one. So, movies or series? And what would you prefer for a book that has been adopted into a movie; read the book first? Watch the movie?
Joe: I love both. When I’m having either reader’s block or writer’s block, I find solace in watching television. Thank God there’s no ‘viewer’s block.’ I will go for the movie first. I’ve always struggled picturing what fiction characters look like despite the writer’s best efforts with the description. And then there are works like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings which I only got to appreciate after I watched the movies. Yes, movie adaptations of books tend to fall short of reader expectations but maybe they are a necessary evil.
Charity: Thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation, Joe. And congratulations, again. Here’s to more wins in the future!
Joe: Thank you so much for your time. This is my first interview as a writer, and it will hold a very special place in my heart. I’ll treasure this moment for the rest of my days. Thank you so much.
Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the project coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. Her work has appeared in The Kampala Sun, Afreecan Read Magazine and is forthcoming in Sahifa magazine. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother.