Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Alboricah Tokologo Rathupetsane
My full name is Alboricah Tokologo (which means “freedom”) Rathupetsane. I love writing and art, and I use these to express my feelings and ideas. I grew up in a rural village in the province of Limpopo in South Africa, though I currently work and reside in Port Elizabeth. My home language is selobedu (a sepedi dialect) and I have two younger siblings. I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of the Witwatersand. I have two self published novels that are part of a sci-fi series I started in high school (using pen name Alboricah Rathup). I want to edit, republish and launch these properly when I have finished writing the entire series. I’m also thinking of writing an anthology. Short stories are quite fun too.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, South Africa, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Alboricah. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Alboricah: Hi Nkateko! I hope you are well. Thank you 🙂 Being shortlisted means the world to me. It’s a form of validation I hadn’t even realised I needed. When you’ve been writing for 12 years with close family and friends as your only audience, you can’t help but assume their opinions are heavily biased. So being shortlisted makes me feel like I have some degree of ability in this passionate hobby of mine. I love to write, so it’s an inspiration to me that the stories I tell can actually touch people. It’s a big step towards becoming an even better, more celebrated author.
Nkateko: I am well, thank you for asking. You’re absolutely right, we often assume that family and friends are biased when they praise our work. This reminds me of those television talent shows where a family member accompanies the entrant to give them moral support and there is that initial anxiety and uncertainty as they step onto the stage, that final glance backstage as if to say ‘Sure, my mother thinks I can sing, but what will these judges think? Here goes nothing…’ It is such a beautiful moment when someone receives the public acknowledgement that they deserve, and I am glad that being on this shortlist gave you that, especially after taking a break from writing. I was watching this video where you mentioned that a friend recommended that you enter the prize as a way to start writing again, and that the deadline pushed you to finish your story on time and submit. I would like to think I speak for everyone who has read ‘The Faraway Things’ when I say that we all need that friend in our lives. Deadlines too, I suppose, but mostly supportive friends.
On the topic of friendship, ‘The Faraway Things’ introduces us to Lesedi, a boy whose mother, Mokgadi, remains a steadfast friend in a world that continually misunderstands him. When I finished reading the story, it became clear to me that Lesedi had created his own world; one in which the far away things did not feature, and I envied him somewhat for that ability to just allow the mysteries of the outside world to remain so. The doctor in me wanted to diagnose Lesedi as I began to make my way through the story, to place him on the autism spectrum as an explanation for his behaviour, but by the end I was so ashamed of this thinking because Lesedi managed to solve a mystery that had evaded those outside his world and I realized that I was part of that ‘outside’ world, that by trying to diagnose him rather than understand him, I was just adding to the many ‘far away things’ that children like him have to deal with.
Alboricah: Thank you for reading the story. She is my oldest friend and has always pushed me to write, even in high school. We both love writing very much and frequently send each other stories, mostly unfinished but it’s all in the name of fun. I’m very blessed that she challenged me to enter the competition, even knowing that it was very different from my usual stuff (I like writing novels). ‘The Faraway Things’ is actually my first short story, and I garnered so much satisfaction from it that I now write short stories too.
I think it’s human nature to want to label things and people. By placing them in a category, we’re able to relate to them better. Unfortunately, this often makes us forget that every person, despite their “clinical condition”, is unique and doesn’t perfectly fit the mold of whatever label we give them. And we also tend to forget that each person’s reality is heavily influenced by their own perception of everyday things. This is why I chose to write in Lesedi’s perspective. He was aware of the people around him, interacted with them in his own unique way, yet his reality had elements that didn’t exist in anyone else’s reality. This idea, brought on by my late cousin’s life, made me more compassionate and open-minded to people’s feelings, fears and concerns. All of these are real and they matter because they are real for the people experiencing them.
“I think it’s human nature to want to label things and people. By placing them in a category, we’re able to relate to them better. Unfortunately, this often makes us forget that every person, despite their “clinical condition”, is unique and doesn’t perfectly fit the mold of whatever label we give them.”
Nkateko: Labels make us feel as if we are in control. They shield us from the threat of not knowing, of not fully understanding. But as you said in your response, nobody perfectly fits the mold of the label we give them. Mokgadi knows this and each day she gives Lesedi the freedom to explore his world and to interact with other people without the pressure to try to understand the far away things. She does not coddle him or make him feel as if he is different. In fact, it is only from the comments of people outside his home that he realises he is perceived as different. Because the story is written in the third person limited point of view, we get to explore Lesedi’s world with him and we get to meet Noni. The scene where Lesedi goes to fetch her from her mother’s house is incredibly vivid. I keep going back and thinking, How is this even possible? I think I am as bewildered by this as Lesedi is when Mokgadi reveals the truth about where Noni is.
I think you summed it up perfectly when you said, “All of these are real and they matter because they are real for the people experiencing them.” Does this mean that Noni will continue to be part of Lesedi’s world? He seems conflicted at the end because the one person he can trust most in the world is telling him that his friend is gone, but it just can’t be possible. In the end, he thinks we choose what matters but then says out loud, ‘We let them go,’ and I am wondering, does Noni stay, because she matters more to Lesedi than the outside world’s reality, or does he manage to let her go?
Alboricah: Lesedi’s mother is the tether between his truth and reality. Noni has died but he sees her. To give the background more context, in a questionnaire I submitted to the Commonwealth, I wrote “Noni was based on one of my closest friends, Siviwe, who passed away from cancer at the age of 24. At the time, I really struggled to accept the reality of someone so young and full of so much potential dying. The concept seemed too “far away” to grasp and for a long time afterward I continued texting her frequently despite the fact that she’d passed on. This was my own way of dealing with the tragedy before slowly letting her go.”
I think this is the same for Lesedi. Somewhere deep inside him, he’s probably aware that Noni is gone. In the scene where he picked her up, he even noted that Tshiamo (Noni’s mom) “…always asked the exact same question…” This could just be him reliving one memory over and over, maybe the actual last time he picked up Noni. But he chooses to explain it away as ‘small talk.’
I don’t think it’s as easy as him ‘stopping to see her’ now that he’s aware of the truth. He’s likely always been aware of it. I think the likely phenomena is that he always conjures her when he needs a friend, or he’s bothered by something and wants to ponder it out loud (the issue of the cattle not eating).The first time he brings up Noni, it was because he wanted her input on this concern that he had. And if you look at their conversation, it is based around his problem-solving methodology: Noni asked why they were going far out that day and he explained his experiment, with his question being ‘would the cows eat if he changed the grazing location?’ Even the game of hide and seek was Lesedi investigating why the cattle still did not eat, even after shifting locations. He stops seeing her after he solves the mystery. But he might have panicked because he had been so happy to see Noni again that when she ‘left’, he needed Mokgadi to remind him that she was really gone. From Mokgadi’s reaction, she had probably dealt with these episodes before (she had a puzzle reference ready – Noni’s lack of aging – as though she had explained this to him before). It’s very possible that Noni could, the next time Lesedi needs a friend, show up again. I wanted the reader to decide this for themselves after reading the story.
Nkateko: I am so sorry for your loss. In my own experiences with grief, I have also learnt that letting go is a slow process, and that we all have our own coping mechanisms. I first learnt about the five stages of grief after my maternal grandmother passed away twelve years ago. At that time, I thought that if acceptance was the final stage of the process, then I could fast-forward my healing by going through the other stages quicker. It didn’t work. I would accept that she was gone and then keep going back to denial, to anger, to depression, sometimes all at once. A few years after that, my childhood best friend passed away and I went through this again. I wanted the pain to go away as quickly as possible and I struggled to understand why the five stages weren’t working for me. It was only when I started attending therapy that I began to understand that grief is not linear, with a clear beginning and end point. Grief is cyclical; I could go from acceptance to denial, then to depression and anger, then to bargaining and back to anger again. This did not mean I was not healing, but that I was in the cycle of my grief. This understanding allowed me to be patient with myself and realise that as long as I was allowing myself to acknowledge what I was feeling instead of stifling the emotions, I was on my way to getting better. The pain never truly goes away, but on some days you wake up and it hurts a bit less than on other days.
I was terrified for Lesedi when he was struggling to find Noni. I was thinking about all the children who have gone missing in South Africa and I thought that she had been abducted while Lesedi had his eyes closed. I have to admit, I stopped reading when I got to that point because I could not bear it. When I picked up the story again, I was so relieved when it turned out that Noni was already gone, not because I wanted her to be dead but because I knew the community would have blamed Lesedi if his understanding of the situation had been true. I like that you say Mokgadi is the tether between Lesedi’s truth and reality. In many ways, her character tethers us as readers too. I managed to confront many of my own prejudices and false beliefs just by noting how she treated her child, regardless of what people in the community were saying about him.
Alboricah: That is the beauty of mothers. They are the most accepting of us. They don’t always understand our ways but they know what it takes to bring us back to a place of safety. My mom frequently tells me that I’m one of the most unique people she knows. She said when I was young the only time I cried for something I couldn’t have was when my library card application was denied because the town library was too far out from our home. I was so upset that the librarian made an exception and granted me a library card anyway. I do remember that every day I would save all my pocket money so that every second Friday, I would have enough to travel to the town library and switch out the books. My mom is very outspoken and dynamic, whereas I’ve always enjoyed quiet hobbies. She doesn’t relate to my love of fiction or drawing, but she bought me drawing and reading books because she just accepted that it was my way.
I think Mokgadi is the same kind of mother. She doesn’t always understand Lesedi, but she knows that routines centre him – hence she only scrubs his back on certain days. She slowly tries to integrate change into his life but in a manner that is not intrusive – how she offers to scrub his back even on different days, but accepting of it when he refuses. And she also shows him that change can be good too (she promotes him for good work, so he’s getting paid more, which is a positive change). She tells him about the village happenings because he’s still part of the community, even if he doesn’t like to interact with its people. She’s taught him that being attentive is polite so she knows he’s listening, and is aware that he’s very smart even if it’s in a way that most people don’t appreciate (how he explains that the lottery odds don’t change). Lesedi has in her not only a guardian but a friend, a mediator and a teacher.
Nkateko: Your mother sounds absolutely amazing. It is wonderful that she celebrates your uniqueness and that she has helped you to cultivate your passions from a young age.
Can you tell me about your writing process? You said earlier that ‘The Faraway Things’ is your first short story. How did the process of writing the story differ to when you were drafting your novels? Did you know from the start that this would end up as a short story or did you just begin writing and allow the characters to lead?
Alboricah: I must admit, writing a novel is a very messy business for me, and it’s hardly ever chronological. Most of the time, I don’t even know what happens next. I just write as the story ‘reveals’ itself to me. I will get these random flashes of inspiration, normally brought on by a particular song or picture or anything that can tell a story. And then I will ride out that scene until I’m satisfied I’ve captured all I can from it. Gradually, all these disjointed scenes come together to form a story. Other than just being scenes, these ‘flashes’ also help me map out a direction for where the story is going. It often feels like I’m a sailor out at sea (picture an old but sturdy ship in the 1400s) and the compass doesn’t always work, and other times it’s both broken and the skies are cloudy so I can’t even use the stars. But every time it does work, I get a little bit closer to my destination, and start from a much better position than I was previously.
When I was writing the novel version of ‘The Faraway things’, I had random pictures of a young boy herding cattle down a hill, then I saw him laughing with his best friend who was so much younger than him. These pictures were all dots and the story was like me joining the dots with lines in between. But when I finally decided to convert it to a short story, I took all these dots and they became the line. Lesedi was featured in all of these pictures and I think it was at this point that I decided to limit my point of view to Lesedi as much as possible, without making him the narrator. I was determined to make the reader see life through this boy’s eyes, and feel his feelings.
Nkateko: You are a brilliant storyteller, Alboricah. I am so honoured that I got to read ‘The Faraway Things’ and speak to you about this story and the themes it explores in such a candid manner. Congratulations once again for being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I wish you all the best with your work going forward and I hope to speak with you again in the future.
Alboricah: Thank you for your interest in the story. Really, a reader’s appreciation is the best reward for any writer 🙂 Thanks again for your time!
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest work has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.