On Childhood Stories, Food & Language: A Dialogue With Keletso Mopai

ON CHILDHOOD STORIES, FOOD & LANGUAGE

A DIALOGUE WITH KELETSO Mopai

Keletso Mopai is a South African storyteller who was born andraised in Lenyenye township, Limpopo. Her stories appear in highlyregarded publications including The Johannesburg Review of Books,DRUM, Omenana Magazine, Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review and The Ebedi Review. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Writivism Prize and was a finalist for the 2018 Africa Book Club Competition. She is the author of If You Keep Digging.

Abu Amirah (4)

BY ABU AMIRAH

This conversation took place in  Kenya and South Africa via email.

Abu: In your recently published story on Praxis you write: “I like believing that I am a born storyteller” and further mention how your father influenced your storytelling journey. For a moment, I had this feeling that the voice used at the beginning of the story differed from the one adopted later, mid-story. There is a shift of sort. Did the memory of your father’s “Nkane Nkane” take you somewhere else?

Keletso: I can’t say I’ve noticed that. Perhaps it did or didn’t, I don’t know. What I know is that I wanted a layered story on where my storytelling interest might have all stemmed from and to where I started taking it seriously. And as I was writing, I was surprised to find my father in front of me, telling me his stories. I can see him now; me—sitting on the floor and him on a chair, avidly narrating the tales.

Abu: I know that feeling. I grew up with my grandmother’s narratives. She’d narrate the stories while roasting bananas, and decades later I can still recall most of them. Considering that you are immensely influenced by oral narratives from your childhood, what informs your writing and how much of yourself do you place in your writing?

Keletso: Its amazing right? There are stories you forget. But those traditional stories, you don’t forget them.

My writing is influenced by books I’ve read. I read whenever I can. When I’m not repeating Grey’s Anatomy episodes, or tweeting—I read. But it’s not something I ‘squeeze’ into my schedule, I do it for leisure but, of course, I also read because I need to; often, when I’m stuck on my writing, reading a book or a short story online somehow brings me back to my creative mental. 

Certain parts of my stories do come from things I’ve experienced but I try as much to fictionalize and not make the stories about me. In fact, the stories are never about me, I just write what I care about, and if my experiences fit into the stories, then I draw from them. 

Abu:  I think many writers have experienced that, a book or creative piece online that jolts them back to their creative mental. John Hart’s ‘The Last Child’ and Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything (the movie) did that for me several times. That’s a terrific feeling, you know. It’s like being stuck in the mud and someone just pushes or pulls you out. Imagine the relief! I’ve come across several prominent writers you’ve mentioned in your writing like Arundhati Roy, NoViolet Bulawayo and Taiye Selasi. Arundhati Roy for instance starts her writing by employing very vivid visual images. What’s your writing process and do you build yours from a particular structure that gives shape to your narrative?

Certain parts of my stories do come from things I’ve experienced but I try as much to fictionalize and not make the stories about me. In fact, the stories are never about me, I just write what I care about, and if my experiences fit into the stories, then I draw from them.

Keletso: I am intrigued by Arundhati Roy’s writing style, It is completely different from mine, I tend to lean towards Noviolet Bulawayo’s. NoViolet’s Caine Prize winning story Hitting Budapest” kind of inspired my 2017 Writivism longlisted story “In Father’s Name”; I was in awe of Darling’s narrative voice, she sounded like someone I knew in my childhood. She sounded like me as a child. 

I don’t know if I’d be answering your question by saying I don’t plan how my stories unravel. I’d be knowing what I’d like to cover (i.e. racism or mental health) but how exactly the story would go is really not up to me. Most times, I am shocked at what the characters comes up with and how the story seems to fit all together like magic, I’m sure you could relate to that as a writer.

Abu: Oh yes, I totally relate. I think as a writer it’s important to allow the characters to tell their story in their own way. They will always surprise you with something truly magnificent. It’s intriguing how we see parts of ourselves in other stories. I remember reading a short story by a Kenyan writer a few years ago and I saw myself and my absentee father in it! In your story on Kalahari Review, you mentioned that you are an introvert and this makes you very conscious of your actions especially when you are part of a crowd, so much that while physically you are part of that crowd, internally you are apart from them, watching and doubting your words and how they may be misinterpreted. This, in a way may drive you to seek counsel and company from within yourself. How has this state manifested itself in the development of your characters? Do you feel misunderstood?

Keletso: I can tell you are keener of my published nonfiction pieces by also mentioning my Kalahari Review essay, “This is not a Safe Place”.

I am different from my fictional characters. I write about people that fascinate me (extroverts). People who are outgoing and enjoy things I find terrifying. The characters who are like me are often minor characters.

Abu: I’ve actually read all your articles, the published ones that is. “This is Not a Safe Place” struck me as a piece wrapped in so much emotion, anger even. I saw it as a catharsis of sorts, an avenue where you, the author, released all these inhibited emotions. In the article you say: “If I dance freely, swaying my hips, stepping with my two good legs, will a man come beside me and grasp my thighs? Without my body consenting to this, without my eyes approving this, without my mouth and legs opening for him? And if I dare riot and lash out with my enraged tongue against his uninvited groping, will I be called a ‘slut’?” I found this particularly powerful.

Keletso: During my freshman year at varsity, there was a bash on campus for first year students. You know those “welcome” parties. Being curious, my best friend then and I attended. As we were having the time of our lives, dancing and “swaying my hips”, this guy just came out of nowhere and started grinding me, I will never forget. We did not know each other but there he was. I felt so invaded, and I pushed him. He then spat on my face and called me all sort of names. That situation piled onto other uncomfortable situations and made me very self-conscious around people, hence my social anxiety. I’m still surprised that a lot of people related to that essay.

Keletso: I am intrigued by Arundhati Roy’s writing style, It is completely different from mine, I tend to lean towards Noviolet Bulawayo’s. NoViolet’s Caine Prize winning story Hitting Budapest” kind of inspired my 2017 Writivism longlisted story “In Father’s Name”; I was in awe of Darling’s narrative voice, she sounded like someone I knew in my childhood. She sounded like me as a child. 

I don’t know if I’d be answering your question by saying I don’t plan how my stories unravel. I’d be knowing what I’d like to cover (i.e. racism or mental health) but how exactly the story would go is really not up to me. Most times, I am shocked at what the characters comes up with and how the story seems to fit all together like magic, I’m sure you could relate to that as a writer.

Abu: Oh yes, I totally relate. I think as a writer it’s important to allow the characters to tell their story in their own way. They will always surprise you with something truly magnificent. It’s intriguing how we see parts of ourselves in other stories. I remember reading a short story by a Kenyan writer a few years ago and I saw myself and my absentee father in it! In your story on Kalahari Review, you mentioned that you are an introvert and this makes you very conscious of your actions especially when you are part of a crowd, so much that while physically you are part of that crowd, internally you are apart from them, watching and doubting your words and how they may be misinterpreted. This, in a way may drive you to seek counsel and company from within yourself. How has this state manifested itself in the development of your characters? Do you feel misunderstood?

Keletso: I can tell you are keener of my published nonfiction pieces by also mentioning my Kalahari Review essay, “This is not a Safe Place”.

I am different from my fictional characters. I write about people that fascinate me (extroverts). People who are outgoing and enjoy things I find terrifying. The characters who are like me are often minor characters.

Abu: I’ve actually read all your articles, the published ones that is. “This is Not a Safe Place” struck me as a piece wrapped in so much emotion, anger even. I saw it as a catharsis of sorts, an avenue where you, the author, released all these inhibited emotions. In the article you say: “If I dance freely, swaying my hips, stepping with my two good legs, will a man come beside me and grasp my thighs? Without my body consenting to this, without my eyes approving this, without my mouth and legs opening for him? And if I dare riot and lash out with my enraged tongue against his uninvited groping, will I be called a ‘slut’?” I found this particularly powerful.

Keletso: During my freshman year at varsity, there was a bash on campus for first year students. You know those “welcome” parties. Being curious, my best friend then and I attended. As we were having the time of our lives, dancing and “swaying my hips”, this guy just came out of nowhere and started grinding me, I will never forget. We did not know each other but there he was. I felt so invaded, and I pushed him. He then spat on my face and called me all sort of names. That situation piled onto other uncomfortable situations and made me very self-conscious around people, hence my social anxiety. I’m still surprised that a lot of people related to that essay.

Abu: Incomplete democracy, or a complete disregard for it is a disease in most African states. I think this is the best time to have these conversations about restoration of Black pride going on. I mean, we all want Black heritage to be respected in all its nuances and forms. But in the South African context, do you foresee a time when Black Pride will be fully restored? Is there a remote chance that perhaps SA could still ‘Kumbaya’ out of this someday?

Keletso: Not until there is land expropriation without compensation. Not until there is equality. But I am hopeful. 

Abu: Hopefully. Now, away from land issues. I have several Nigerian friends and some of my Kenyan friends have been to Nigeria. The topic of Nigerian food always seems to come up whenever I’m gathered with my Nigerian friends. They talk of Jollof rice and pounded yam as if, I don’t know, it is 

a food prepared by the gods themselves. I mentioned in one of these gatherings that Jollof has nothing on Swahili Biryani and I was booed down. Tell me you feel the same way I do, that Jollof is overrated!

Keletso: The Jollof rice debate is something I do not want to get involved in *laughs*. It’s war! I have never tasted it, until that day I wouldn’t mind waging in. But the best South African food to me is nama mogodu (tripe). Do you guys eat tripe in Kenya? Oh my God, you must try it!

Abu: Tripe? What is it made from?

Keletso: The walls of a cow’s stomach! *Laughs*

What is the best food in your country according to you?

Abu: Well,  in that case, we do have it as part of our delicacy but not as walls, rather the whole stomach and intestines. In my native Gikuyu community, we stuff the bowels with softer meet and roast it; even stuffed Turkey has nothing on it. Best food in my country? Hard to tell in country with 42 tribes, each with its own delicacy. Generally, I’d say Kenyans love Nyama Choma, roast meat. Biryani is a widely loved food at the coast, my adopted home.

Keletso: Now, I feel like I’d be the interviewer if I respond this with a question, which I’m not very good at. But do you actually call meat, ‘nyama‘?

Abu: Yes, we call meat Nyama. I believe it’s the same term in many Bantu languages. Talking of which, your name sounds Cushitic, Maasai actually!!

Keletso: Yes, meat in Zulu is “nyama” and in my language Sepedi it’s called ‘nama’.

Abu: We need to wrap this up before we turn an interview into a manuscript. Now that we’ve talked about food, tell me, if I was to visit SA on an eating spree, advice me on three locations I must visit to fulfil my urge on the budget of a writer who is not making much money from his writing!

Keletso: Visit any Kota establishment and try iKota or otherwise called Bunny chow. You wanted three and can only recommend one because I haven’t really been to most parts of SA. But we all love kotas here.

Abu: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Keletso. I wish all the best in your writing and look forward to reading more from you. Asante sana.

Keletso: Ke a leboga.

Abu Amirah is a Mombasa-based writer,  and a  student of Psychology. He was shortlisted for the Writivism 2016 short story prize and was mentored by Yewande Omotoso during the Writivism online mentoring program ( 2017). Having attended the Miles Morland Foundation writing workshop in Bulago, he has just finished working on his first short story anthology. His piece “Rock Bottom” won the Kalahari Review Igby prize for nonfiction in October 2017 and has also been published on Munyori journal. He does the weekly column “Swahilific: Diary of a campus girl” in Mombasa’s premier lifestyle blog www.lifeinmombasa.com. He is one of the founding editors of  Hekaya Initiative.

ABU AMIRAH

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER

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