Gaamangwe: Congratulations on being shortlisted for Writivism Koffi Addo prize. How are you feeling about it? What does being shortlisted for this prize mean to you?
Ope: Thank you. It’s really exciting to be on the shortlist. I did not expect it, so when I saw my phone blowing up with congratulatory texts, I actually started shaking. For my writing, it comes as validation. The brilliant judges, chaired by Akwaeke who I absolutely adore, and the team of readers who assisted found my work worthy. It makes me want to do more. It’s all very exciting. It just means that there’s more work to be done. There’s also the fear: “can I live up to it?” That’s the status that comes with being on the shortlist of a prize. But I’m learning to take every win or loss, major or minor, in stride.
Gaamangwe: I can imagine. But yes your work is worthy. I absolutely enjoyed reading your story. What is the impetus of the story? How did you arrive to knowing that you must write it? How was that process?
Ope: That’s an interesting question. For the first time last year, I tried my hands at creative nonfiction. I sent it to a magazine, and it got rejected. I was broken but decided to publish it on the electronic journal run by my friend, Fope and I: Arts and Africa, which is currently a medium site.
The feedback on this work was amazing. It turned out to be a medium staff pick. Based on this, a friend from Uganda told me to apply for the Koffi Addo prize. I was sceptical, and couldn’t write anything up until four days before the prize closed. Another friend gave me ideas on what to write about since I was entirely blank and out of ideas. I really wanted to try my hands again at creative nonfiction, I didn’t want to be a “one hit wonder”. Eventually it was just one word she said on the voice notes she sent to me that made me write Women That Bleed Colours. I can’t remember what it was but that word spun the story before I even started to write. It took me back to a time I thought I could no longer remember. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting to write it. Mentally in that I had constrained myself to such a short time, and emotionally in that the running theme of the work was rather sensitive to me. To tell the world things I had buried away. I enjoy writing about my grandmother who really was in Locus Parentis most of my life, it’s my best way to relive my time with her, so that part of the work was relatively easy. Once I finished writing it, I had a couple of friends read and chip in, I worked on several more drafts, sent it to an editor friend, did a final proofreading and just turned it in knowing that the prize was about to close and I’d hate myself if I missed the opportunity to send in something. All through, I thought of the work as flawed, and as raw.
I wished I had more time to allow it to breathe and then come back to shape it, to write and rewrite. James Baldwin who I was reading at the time was some consolation. He once wrote something about the work never being the exact way we want it to be even though we’ve done all we can for it. It was comforting to know that the feeling was universal and that I’d given it my all.
Gaamangwe: Wow, girl. That is amazing. It’s interesting that you can’t remember the word that spiraled things you thought you could no longer remember. There is that thing about memory. So elusive, so provocative because we really don’t know how we remember what we remember and how we forget what we forget. We perhaps only know a little of why we forget what we forget. What was it like to remember things that were buried? What did you want the essence of the story to capture? Was that even a conscious or a subconscious decision? Perhaps, I am trying to know what you think your subconscious mind wanted to explore with this story?
Ope: Funny how my answer relates to the complexities of the mind. In recent fiction, one of my characters ask, “what if mad people are the only ones who know what’s right?” And this question has stuck with me. It’s something my subconscious asks me when I write or read anything related to mental illness. In Freshwater, my current read, there’s a part of it that reads: “but I am not entirely opposed to madness, not when it comes with this kind of clarity.” One of my aims or rather one of the things subconsciously rattling my mind while I wrote Women Who Bleed Colours is: what wisdom or knowledge exists in an unquiet mind. For someone with little education on the matter, I write a lot of fiction on mental illness based on my experiences, the experiences of those around me and my general observations. It’s also interesting because I grew up in a religious home, and generally around religious people. What I understood as a child to be madness or mental illness was a cliché: naked men in torn clothing roaming about. It took me a while and by a while, I mean my whole life to process the sanity, or “insanity” of my grandmother who was always so full of wisdom and knowledge. And she didn’t roam the streets or exhibit stereotypical mad behavior.
Writing Women Who Bleed Colours was a way to sort out my thoughts and process them. I took each experience and timeline and juxtaposed them with other experiences, in an orderly, step by step system. It was interesting to remember these things, very much like going back in time. I was seeing my childhood with clarity, and also with a sort of vagueness and blurriness that made describing details of that time in my life hard. As you say, that’s the thing about memory, it can be so elusive. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is, in writing this essay for myself, and for people like me, I was trying to understand minds, mine and that of a million other people like me, like my grandmother. I was trying to understand if there’s just one truth, just one way to see the world, and, the validity of our truth(s).
Gaamangwe: I love that Ope. I have always been interested in truths. What is true and what is not true? But mostly what if all truth have mis-truths, and all mis-truths have truths.
This idea seems more rational than the idea of one truth you know.What truths did you discover about yourself and your grandmother and the woman other’s did not see?
Ope: I wasn’t able to discover many truths. Writing created a gap, more questions, less answers. Or perhaps, I’m the one precluding myself from seeing these truths, perhaps I am not ready to focus on them. What I know is that they are not going to be easy ones. That all truths have mis-truths, and all mis-truths have truths is an idea I can get behind, it is something worth thinking about.
Gaamangwe: Now I am interested in what kind of questions came up here? I think sometimes questions are more powerful than the answers. In asking, we create space for different truths to come up. And maybe the idea is not to find one definite answer because I don’t believe that truth is absolute. We must ask and ask because that is what will evolve or heal or give us warmth. So what questions are you obsessing on in your writing and otherwise?
Ope: Currently in my writing there’s so much I’m asking and often, they’re not conscious. I dabble in a lot of speculative fiction specifically magical realism as a way to question the world. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I ponder on themes of just how real reality is. I wrote a story about a girl who got lost in dreams for months at a time while life continued around her. I never got to finish but it’s one of the best things I’ve written.
I wonder about places, walls, the ground on which we walk, the ceiling, inanimate objects etc. I wonder what they would say if they could talk, how they would feel about us when we’ve lived with them or used them for so long. There’s a kind of emotion we feel when we lose things we are attached to, and leave places we love. What if those things, or those places could feel the same, and otherwise? Some of these questions are passing thoughts in my work, things I never actually articulate.
In Women Who Bleed Colours, I was trying to understand Spirituality and Mental Illness. Where we come from, a lot that happens to us is attributed to a spiritual force or spiritual forces, and now I’m beginning to wonder especially placing in mind the time before the advent of colonialism and “civilization” are these attributions valid? They were valid to our forefathers. Is Jazz Real? Can you speak to the earth and it answers you?
In my most recent work on Arts and Africa, I ask about guilt. How do we deal with guilt? For a time I thought it was my fault my grandmother died. Perhaps if I’d woken her a little earlier, she would have lived. It’s an irrational guilt I had to deal with alone. And a lot of the time guilt can be like that. Guilt can be many things. I love that you say the idea is not to find one answer. I think so too. I’d say the idea is not really to find an immutable answer. I have an open mind and I’m constantly gazing at the world and looking at the ways it’s different from yesterday.
Gaamangwe: I absolutely love the questions you are exploring. I am obsessed with similar questions. I cannot wait to read more of your writings. Thank you so much for joining me here Ope. I wish you all the best of luck with Writivism and your future writings.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted writers for Writivism Prizes.