2019 Writivism Short Story Prize ~ Winner: A Dialogue With Rešoketšwe waa Manenzhe
If you meet her on the street, Rešoketšwe will tell you she’s an engineer who primarily works in the mining sphere. The University of Cape Town went as far as accepting her as a PhD candidate. But sometimes she’s a poet, a storyteller; and in this regard, the Writivism Short Story Prize went as far as shortlisting her story, Maserumo. If you happen to meet her, please don’t ask her about the novel she’s supposed to be writing; talk to her about mining, poetry, and the endangered wild fruit Balobedu children once enjoyed in summer.
BY KEAROMA MOSATA
This conversation took place between Botswana and the South Africa via email.
Kearoma: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Writivism Short Story Prize, what was your initial reaction?
Rešoketšwe: Thank you very much. On the day the shortlist was announced, I kept refreshing my twitter feed for news. I was so anxious. When I finally saw the tweet I thought to myself, “Here comes another rejection.” But then I clicked the link and saw my picture; I didn’t even read the actual announcement. As soon as I saw my picture, I screamed, my flatmate thought I had gone mad. But I screamed for a good 5 minutes before I finally read the announcement. Then I annoyed everyone with the news and I haven’t stopped.
Kearoma: Oh, that is amazing. Maserumo is such a powerful story with a strong narrative. What inspired it?
Rešoketšwe: I first wrote the story roughly seven years ago; initially, it was meant to be an anti-war allegory, and the murders/deaths, starting with that of Samantha, happened within that context. At that point in my life, I somewhat imagined myself as something of an anti-war writer. It was stupid and I promise I’ll never do it again. Anyway, I submitted the story to a few places and it got rejected, as it should have, and so I parked it in my “unpublishable” folder.
Over the years, I grew to appreciate how rumours are started and spread in villages, and how often, the actual substance of the rumour gets overshadowed by the characters who spread the rumour. Last year, I struggled to write a piece for Writivism, but I had a lot of stories in the unpublishable folder, so I went there and “Maserumo” (which had a different title) kind of fed into what I was experimenting with at the time – the starting and spreading of rumours. I made the story less about the plot (the deaths/killings), and more about how it was told. I just wanted to tell a story about a storyteller; the story itself wasn’t so important, but the storyteller’s voice had to be so strong that it could kind of be its own character. In short, I just wanted to tell a village story.
“Over the years, I grew to appreciate how rumours are started and spread in villages, and how often, the actual substance of the rumour gets overshadowed by the characters who spread the rumour. Last year, I struggled to write a piece for Writivism, but I had a lot of stories in the unpublishable folder, so I went there and Maserumo (which had a different title) kind of fed into what I was experimenting with at the time – the starting and spreading of rumours.“
Kearoma: Wow, that is very interesting. I also love how you mention that it is a story about the storyteller, Maserumo has such a strong voice. I actually think I held my breath till the end of the story. It’s a brilliant work.
I think you are right, villages have a lot of stories, and you can, of course, be sure of a story (or two) at a tavern/bar. Was Little Samantha’s death meant to signify anything?
Rešoketšwe: Awww, thank you. In the final version of the story, Little Samantha’s death was simply meant to be a catalyst, similar to how people cite the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria’s death as the catalyst for World War 1. Her birth and death were the starting point, something that the characters in the story could refer to.
Kearoma: There are a lot of beliefs around death in African cultures, you mentioned that the story was inspired by the village story, what superstitions about death were central to this story?
Rešoketšwe: The main superstition in the story was the one about the unfinished business of the dead – the idea that, if someone didn’t die naturally, they don’t rest peacefully and thus become a ghost. Also, as a village rule, no one dies naturally. Even if a person has cancer, people believe that the cancer must have come from someone who gave it to the dead by way of witchcraft. I remember one time, someone was depressed and committed suicide, and for a few days we all believed in depression. But then, a few days later, a rumor was going around that the deceased had been “tampered with” in the spiritual sense. Very quickly, people discarded depression because they were suddenly presented with an alternative that made sense to them, because it was familiar. “I mean, is depression even real?” went the word “It didn’t make sense.”
I played around with that in the story; the first two deaths are just deaths, and it is in trying to understand how they happened that the mystery gets born. And then suddenly, the pattern and eeriness of it all gets born. The truth doesn’t matter, what the characters believe is what matters.
Kearoma: Oh yes, I know this. I think it could be a way to comfort ourselves for the loss by finding a supernatural cause to it. The finality of death is scary even if the cause was illness. I enjoyed the characters trying to make sense of the deaths. What other village inspired themes have you written about?
Rešoketšwe: I also believe it’s a way to comfort ourselves and each other; whether or not it works, is another story altogether.
Thank you. One of my short stories, Makoma, dealt with the concept of mahadi, or as it is widely known in South Africa – lobola. In it, I also examined how people wish for sons and not daughters. But in general, most of my stories are about ordinary village life.
Kearoma: Oh great. I would love to read Makoma and your other works. There are a lot of stories in our villages, I am a village girl too and yes, the stories are endless.
What does literary success look like to you as an African writer? I think that this question will have different answers and I am curious to hear yours.
Rešoketšwe: Thank you. But I’m so ashamed of my earlier work. It seems so naive when I read it now.
This is a tough one. I agree that it will mean different things for different people. I think a few years back it meant something else, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came along and now it means another thing. For me personally, it can be something as simple as getting published without being a celebrity. From what I’ve gathered, and specifically in South Africa, fiction is a hard thing to sell whereas celebrity “biographies” are easier. Everyone except writers is getting published. So, simply being a writer and getting a publishing deal based solely off that is success in my mind. The rest – the riches and fame and good reviews, etc. – is a bonus.
Kearoma: Oh, trust me, I think all writers feel this way. I read my earlier short stories and cringe. But I am glad for this because it shows growth and that my work is evolving. I love how you answered that question. Lastly, what other genres of fiction do you hope to explore?
Rešoketšwe: I want to branch into non-fiction too. I’ve done everything else that I wanted to do – poems, sci-fi, academic writing, etc., but non-fiction still defeats me. I have ideas I want to put down, but I simply don’t know how. But hopefully one day I can crack it.
Kearoma: I wish you all the best with your future writing endeavors. Thank you so much for your time.
Rešoketšwe: Thank you so much!
Kearoma Mido Mosata is a Motswana writer and blogger. She was shortlisted for the inaugural BSHD Tourism Fiction Award in 2016. Her work appears in print in 36 Kisses and Other Short Stories & Poems and as part of It’s The Devil You Know- Collection of Works on Gender Based Violence. More of her works are online on Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review and Arts & Africa. Kearoma writes about a lot of things but lately, her writing has been inspired by the idea of displacement, the self and home. Her first Non-fictional short story “This Is How We Grieve” is part of the recently published 3rd Journal of The Single Story Foundation.