Loss And The Mundane As Catalysts For Life-Writing: A Dialogue with Zanta Nkumane
Zanta Nkumane is a Swazi freelance writer, journalist and ex-scientist. His work has been published in OkayAfrica, This Is Africa, Mail & Guardian, Racebaitr, Kalahari Review, City Press, The Johannesburg Review Of Books, New Frame, Doek!, and Lolwe. He has work forthcoming in We Are F**king Here (iwawelabooks), a queer sex anthology. He completed his undergraduate studies in Microbiology at the University of Cape Town and his honours degree in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between a bright kitchen & sometimes bed in cold Johannesburg, South Africa, and on the road from Nairobi to Kisumu, Kenya, via email and WhatsApp.
Edith: Zanta, thank you so much for joining me in this dialogue.
Zanta: Thank you for having me.
Edith: I can start this conversation in different ways because there’s so much about you: your writivism—archiving Black Queer lives and experiences on the continent, your role as a Nonfiction editor for one of the fastest-growing literary magazines in Africa, and even your own stories and essays. But I’ll start with your Kalahari Review Igby prize-winning essay, “This Strange House”. Towards the end, you write the following:
“Whatever definitions of home fill my mouth, I remember that my final home has already been set for me. It’s the one that I do not have to long for or search for. There is a twisted comfort that comes with knowing the destination regardless of all the detours and pit stops — the bubbling troughs of the chocolate ground await our arrival.”
Besides being one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read, I’d like to know what this sentence means to you. What was going through your head when you were writing it?
Zanta: When I wrote that, I was thinking about death; how we move through the earth and make homes out of different houses, people, jobs, lovers, bodies. But no matter how zigzagged or straight-lined your journey is; the grave is the final home for all of us. I’ve had to grapple with mortality, especially since my grandmother, and then I, got very sick. I both fear death and embrace it because there’s no escaping it.
I can have many homes and accomplish many things, but my end is set. That end is the same for all of us. That’s what I meant with that sentence. And it sealed that essay for me, and also gave me a strange peace that I can’t explain—to know that I can war through life but at the end of the day, I know where I’m going. That was the point of that sentence.
Edith: This makes a lot of sense; the grave as a final home. These are great thoughts. Still on the subject of death; in the same essay, “This Strange House” and more recently in “A Mourning Song”, published in Doek!, you write about the loss of your grandmother. The impression of grief seemed to weigh heavily on the two essays. Tell me briefly about how she contributed to your writings and your individuality.
Zanta: Loss has been a big theme in my work for a while now. It stems deeply from losing my grandmother 10 years ago. It changed my life in such a big way; it has imbued itself in my work too. Even when I’m not trying to write about it, it’s always an undercurrent of everything that I do, whether fiction or nonfiction.
As a writer, her death catapulted me into the space of writing about loss.
My grandmother also used to read; she always had a book on her side table. I mean, the Bible was always on top, but my grandmother read a lot of things. I remember she asked me in High School to help her write a book about her family history. She was like, “We should sit down and write about where I come from so you guys can have it”. As a teenager, that sounded like the most boring thing in the world, and I thought we had more time. But now, I see the importance of archiving ourselves. I wish I had the maturity to sit down and document that for her then. I deeply regret that. I get emotional every time I think about that missed opportunity because she left with all that history in her.
On individuality; watching my grandmother when I was growing up, she was quite generous, and not necessarily in the material sense. She taught me the generosity of spirit, of time, of all the non-material things that people don’t even realize are things we can actually give to others. That’s what she gave to me. And also, being empathetic. My grandmother was very empathetic. She felt everything; the smallest thing made her feel in a big, big way.
The whole idea of loss and healing is definitely something that she triggered in me in a way that I could have never expected. I realize that I write a lot about loss, grief, being left and rejection, and it’s all different facets of losing my grandmother and then obviously over the years the pain gets layers; from lovers, from other hurts in life, and grows like rings of an oak tree.
Edith: The vocabulary of grief always feels so insufficient to me. Sometimes the words even feel cheap. I know saying I am sorry about the loss of your grandmother feels inadequate, but really, I am sorry for your loss.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend who lost his mother, and he said he was especially sad because he felt cut off from the words and stories of the family before him. And that the knowledge of men and women and places before him was now unreachable as his mum had been the custodian. And what you said now about your grandma wanting a book to be written about her family history so that you could know it reaffirms that our history and identity is in the memories of our parents and grandparents.
Do you think writers should give more attention and conscious effort in archiving these stories?
Zanta: It’s vital for us to ‘find’ those stories in the history of our parents and grandparents, because they existed in a space different to before we came to be. There’s a lot of identity and lessons in those stories, so we need to go back and get that. Stories build culture, stories build our realities.
I was thinking the other day that language is a funny thing. As Africans, our languages and stories have been invalidated because the people that write histories don’t see us as valid. We talk about feminism and its construct as a Western movement but the first feminists I knew were my grandmother and my aunts. She may not have had the authenticated or academic language to express herself in that way, but she lived a feminist life and had feminist ideals within in the space which she existed. Yet it wasn’t named or considered that. It was just a black woman living her life.
Thinking of writing, it’s also very important to me to archive myself; my Blackness, my Queerness or my joy. I am also at a point where this form of archiving doesn’t need to be exceptional. Ocean Vuong says that his job is to write Queerness as mythology and I agree. But then, I am trying to explore this idea of Queer lives as ‘boring’. As mundane; waking up, going to work, going grocery shopping, crying or burning the rice on the stove, etc. The banality of queer lives. Where there are no closet crises, no exceptional pains; where it’s literally a life story, as normal as the next story. I think there’s a lot of pressure on minority identities to continually be exceptional, even in their pain. That narrative is tiresome because it’s dilapidating to always pour from that pain chalice when we create.
I am also learning to explore these archives as non-exceptional. As something where we just exist—which is what straight people have been able to do, what white people have been able to do. I know it’s easy to say, not so easy to do when queer realities are not rosy in the slightest but I hope that change can lead us to that. That’s the shift right now in my writing.
Also, as an African, I’m not always going to write about identity. Sometimes I want to write about the fact that my lover and I woke up and went to the shopping mall and fought about us buying ice-cream and have that be enough. It’s quite important in terms of documenting this time for the future as well. We need to create as many diverse stories as possible that reflect our own diversities. So that people that come after us don’t struggle to find themselves in books, in stories, in art.
Growing up Gay in Swaziland, it was very tough to find a reflection of Queerness that was all round nuanced, expansive, and small. I know the importance of creating these stories. Yes, it’s for me and the reader, but I also know that it’s for someone who will need it because I know I have needed it. It is legacy work too. It’s a big task for writers. Sometimes I think about it as such a monolithic task, but if we do it in bits, we can do it. Just write. Write that story. Write that article. And in your small word, that will be enough.
At times, there’s a pressure to write these big wonderful impactful things that will change the world. And we think of the world as a big place, but don’t realize that the life around you; like your family and friends, is a world. If they read your stuff and they change, you’ve done part of the job. And we hope those ripples will cause other ripples that then merge with ripples being caused by people in Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and then those ripples then become the change of the big world.
“I am trying to explore this idea of Queer lives as ‘boring’. As mundane; waking up, going to work, going grocery shopping, crying or burning the rice on the stove, etc. The banality of queer lives. Where there are no closet crises, no exceptional pains; where it’s literally a life story, as normal as the next story.”
Edith: I get you. You say it’s vital for us to go back and get those stories from our history because there’s a lot of our identities in that. But more than the stories of the past, it’s important that we also archive our present moment—the present time—for the future. And again, we can be caught up in writing so many things and forget about this present time we are living in. My writings are mostly historical narratives and what you have said is a personal challenge to me. The past is important, but this present time will one day be past, so it’s important that I also record it.
I have many times found myself in books. When I read, I sometimes identify with a character’s struggles and their lives and that gives me a sort of comfort- to know I am not alone. So as a writer, I owe the next readers that same solace. It’s great that you are doing that already; writing about your Blackness and Queerness as mundane and not exceptional because like you’ve said, it doesn’t have to be a monumental, life-changing narrative.
But tell me, when you talk about documenting this present time for the future, doesn’t this put pressure on you? Knowing that this is not about you, but that what you write will impact future generations in their identities—how then do you choose what you deem ‘important enough’ to write about and what to let slide? Because now it’s not just about storytelling, but writing for a cause.
Zanta: It does put pressure on me, but also doesn’t. I’ve learnt that pressure has a very complicated implication on my creativity. Under pressure, I mould myself to create something—and it just comes out very dishonest, performative to me and rushed, so I tend to not put pressure on myself because I’m scared that that’s what will happen to my work. I take my time for sure, to the annoyance of some people. But the importance and the weight of the work is pressure. So, the honesty, the vulnerability, the openness. That is where the pressure is. To always be authentic and write something that hopefully moves people and makes people think and see the world differently. If you’ve done that as a writer, most of your job is done. I’m not sure this is a word, but the emotionality of it. That’s where the pressure lies for me.
In terms of what I choose as important or not. I think if you are moved to write something, it’s important. I don’t think you would be pushed to write something if you didn’t think it was important, so I go with that. There are many ideas in my head, but the moment I start writing the one idea, it means that’s the one that deserves my attention, and that means it’s the time for that idea to materialize on paper. That’s how I decide what’s important or what’s not. It can be spiritually and emotionally taxing, this writing thing.
I know that as a human being, if something is important to me, there’s someone else in the world who will also find it important. And that, for me, is enough.
Edith: “I know that as a human being, if something is important to me, there’s someone else in the world who will also find it important. And that, for me, is enough.” Okay, this is deep. Truly as writers, our first audience is ourselves.
Zanta: Yes! If you would read it, I genuinely believe someone else would as well.
Edith: Kurt Vonnegut said that we should write about subjects we care about. And it’s in this genuine caring which will be the most compelling element of our style. So yes, being authentic is key. And while we can be authentic and vulnerable while writing fiction, I believe Nonfiction allows us the greater expression, especially because it’s about laying ourselves bare. Yet for myself and maybe most of us, we are more inclined to lean towards fiction and cannot comfortably write about our realities. There’s very little nonfiction in our continent.
Zanta: Nonfiction is quite tough to write and gather, actually. A lot of literary magazines struggle with nonfiction submissions and I really don’t know what the cause is. I have always assumed that nonfiction would be easier to write because you are writing about something that happened or something that doesn’t need imagination; it’s not something that you are coming up with. It is a retelling of sorts. But it just seems like it’s a big stump on the continent. But I also understand why fiction is a burgeoning art form because of its escapism. You can write yourself into a superhero in fiction. You can write yourself into the sky in fiction or be anything you really want and I understand the power of that escape, that imagination as a coping tool.
When you write nonfiction or write in general, you reckon with words and with your life, and you see it in front of you, and it exists outside of you. You see it. It’s tangible… I can understand the difficulty, because African lives are not easy. Many of us have experienced pain or loss.
There’s also that expectation from non-African magazines to write into the trope of black pain or poverty porn. When you write something that they don’t recognize as that, you don’t get lauded.
Edith: This expectation by foreign magazines for African writers to write about pain, or what I will call typical Black literature, which is struggle narratives and poverty porn, reminds me of your essay titled “Dear Black Boy Magic”, where you wrote the following:
“As Black people, we are descendants of a traumatised bloodline, where our ancestors’ own healing was not pursued because pain was made intrinsic to the Black experience by the diabolical order of colonization.”
Could this be the genesis of our pain; narratives where we have even romanticized suffering in our works? And in normalizing ‘escaping’ and being anything we want in our fiction stories so that we can hardly write the truth, isn’t this a problem? If we can write ourselves as we truly are, don’t you think it’s easier for the world to see and know us, as opposed to packaging our narratives as fiction?
Zanta: Because of the many horrible Black realities, the escape can be considered a necessary coping mechanism. We’ve had to create these fantasies and fictions where we exist as beautiful, big, strong, as superheroes, as flawed, as full spectrums of being. I understand why we’ve had a huge spurt of fiction on the continent. And I think that kind of reality does play a role in why we have so much of it. It’s getting harder now as we reckon with ourselves more—as we question realities, and our lives—and that’s why nonfiction is important, because it is a questioning of your surroundings, it is an interrogation of everything happening in the world – to you and around you. A reflection on a moment, space or time can unearth a missed lesson. It’s very hard because like I said, to deal with yourself outside of yourself can be painful and traumatic but also very healing.
It’s a huge emotional ask sometimes, for nonfiction, because it asks of you to dip into yourself and your life in a considered way. Things are changing, and obviously, there are diverse realities; it’s not just pain. There’s joy, there’s laughter, there’s sunlight.
Edith: True. But outside of the continent, there is a growth of nonfiction and I am glad that we are also embracing it inwardly. You are a Nonfiction Editor at Doek! Tell me, how do you think we can encourage this genre to grow?
Zanta: If we can get people to be observant of their realities, and be able to put them on paper, we can achieve a shift in spirit. When people can deal with themselves in that way, and interrogate their realities. I think sometimes we just live this docile, non-questioning, ‘this is the way it is’ kind of life to what purpose as the world burns around us.
What nonfiction has also done for me is when I read my work, I’m like ‘wow, I had never realized that what was what I was feeling’. It’s therapy. And I think if we sell it as something healing and hopeful, and if people can see it as therapy and a conversation with yourself on topics you know others will relate too, then we will hopefully get more nonfiction—when all of us can question our realities and lives and system of power. That’s the hope that I have, that we can encourage people in that way.
Edith: That’s a great outlook. That despite our painful Black realities, we can choose to write our stories from a place of interrogation, therapy and healing. I am a victim of writing struggle porn and wallowing in it. I am embarrassed thinking of it now. And in having this conversation, I am encouraged to do better. As the larger writing community, how do we change the focus from the struggle narratives we have glorified and write about existing just as much as the next person?
Zanta: Writing on the continent has been under the glare of the white gaze and seeked white legibility. That was the mark of success for a lot of African writers. I think we have maybe all followed that formula, which has led us here. When you write anything that is not poverty porn and that is not trauma, you don’t get attention from the West. From whiteness, specifically.
I think the way forward is to swerve our focus and start writing inward. Start writing for the continent. This will lead us to a more authentic African storytelling archive. For us to do that, we need more African literary magazines, more African editors. We need to put ourselves in those spaces where actual structural transformation can happen in the writing community.
We need more platforms like Lolwe, Doek! and Bakwa. We need more book festivals to foster the reading culture of our own stories within the communities in which we live as well; book festivals like Abantu, where it’s just black writers; for black people, by black people. Those spaces need to grow and get bigger. That’s the way forward for us.
But it always becomes an issue because the money is with the white hands, so it becomes very arduous because to create these spaces needs funding and that involves bargaining with those very people who caused the problem, which is fatiguing. The continent is finally turning inward and I think that’s a very good start for us.
Edith: Excellent thoughts, Zanta, and I totally agree with you. More African lit mags, more African editors, book festivals and also literary prizes. So yes, we are on the right track. I am privileged to be a member of the African Writers Development Trust, that organizes writers’ conferences, awards and residencies for African Writers, so yes, we are finally turning inward.
We have continental literary prizes and scholarships like the AKO Caine Prize and the Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship. Do you think they play a significant role in popularizing African literature, or are the smaller lit mags more significant in this end?
Zanta: Definitely. They’ve played a hugely significant role in popularizing our already great writing and getting it to the world stage, which has a wider audience. But I value smaller lit mags for the tiny spaces they occupy as they serve an audience that was overlooked before, their impact is meaningful in this way in the sense that—they provide a space for the community that may have not existed prior.
I’m also enjoying the smaller lit mags because writers they can play with form, with structure, and with language. Some cool, small lit mags are doing some interesting publishing. I think they’re doing more of a significant role carving out new ways of African writing.
Edith: Totally! One of my first stories was published in Writers Space Africa Magazine and they gave my story not only a home, but a belief in myself and also allowed me to play around with language. I am a forever supporter of small zines.
Your thoughts on the smaller lit mags also remind me of minority magazines where we have Black, Women, Queer and other minorities. Tell me, when we have, let’s say a Queer magazine, doesn’t it propagate exclusion more? Let me explain: Minority magazines cater to specific people, which means they are focusing on a niche within a niche. If we are to normalize Queerness, shouldn’t we have to show that people can be Queer without it being a label? I am just thinking, I have never seen a magazine labelled “Straight Magazine”. As you said before, Queer people are just normal people having mundane, domestic lives. If we don’t see something every day, it’s weird to us, but if it’s an everyday thing, we don’t notice it anymore. What if we work towards an acceptance where a magazine can feature all sorts of stories and writers? And this doesn’t go only for Queer magazines, but for all minority magazines.
Zanta: Within minority groups, there are very particular experiences, and we can try and group and say everyone who is ‘othered’ can be a ‘home’, which is not the truth. Because there is always a co-existence of oppressions and privileges. Right. So as a Black gay man, I have privileges as a man, but obviously, as a Queer person, I am oppressed in that manner on so on. There are so many power dynamics that intersect and that must be considered. It’s very important to create these spaces of particular minority experiences because they expose society for its stratification of class, of race, of everything.
We have so many co-constructing experiences that exist that are so particular that we do need to create the magazines because, for example, I can support women and be there and stand with them, but only their experience of that lived reality is the true story that must be told. These magazines exist to create spaces that are particular to those experiences, because without that, then we will drown people’s voices and we will do what the white gaze does; paint everyone with the same brush so they can be palatable. So, as a Black person, I need to tick these boxes, and that’s it. What I think these particular magazines create is a reflection of the diversity in our society, and I think we must have even more particular magazines because the particularity of human existence is so big, and each and every part of it needs to be documented personally.
So, it’s tough when you say something like ‘there are no straight magazines’ because the straight narrative is normal. No one questions straightness. It’s the norm.
For straight people, everything they see around them is validated from the first moment. It’s in the movies, art, it’s in church, it’s like they never have to think outside of the box. They never have to question themselves. Which is why I find Queerness so freeing, because no one delves into themselves quicker than a person who’s questioning their sexuality at a young age. As you question your sexuality, you question other things about yourself too. The world too.
That creates a particular view of the world that I think does deserve its own space, its own magazine, which goes for any other minority experience of that nature. It’s quite important that we do that, create these magazines where Queer stories are validated, where Trans stories are validated, where black woman stories are validated. Magazines where we don’t need to explain, where the editor gets it.
Edith: When you talked of stratified privilege, my mind immediately went to Joseph Beam’s essay, “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart” where he writes:
“My body contains as much anger as water. It is the material from which I have built my house: blood-red bricks that cry in the rain…. I am angry because of the treatment I am afforded as a Black man. That fiery anger is stoked with the fuels of contempt and despisal shown me by my community because I am gay. I cannot go home as I am.”
He talks about the struggles of being a Black man; so here, he is part of the struggle and goes on to write again how his own community despises him because he is Gay. Which reinforces what you earlier mentioned—the need to encourage spaces where ‘othered’ minorities can make homes. And I must thank you for your candid insights on the same, and actually the grace in which you have answered this question.
In addition to your great thoughts, I must add that minority spaces also act as resource centres; not only in archiving the diverse stories but also in reminding the othered individuals that ‘hey, you are not alone’ And as you write in one of your essays, “Your Heterosexuality Is A Privilege”, that we should always be aware of.
But again, not everyone would walk up to the newsstand to buy a magazine labeled Queer. But if the diverse Queer stories are normalized in general publications, and every time anyone bought a magazine, the stories would be there. Wouldn’t this familiarity be a step closer in the inclusion of minorities? And in a bid to create minority spaces, shouldn’t we also be careful that we don’t exclude ourselves even more?
Zanta: Interesting question. I think the problem is the kind of queer stories that garner normalization in general publications is that they tend to either not agitate that norm, or they create a skewed legibility of Queer literature like we spoke about African literature and poverty porn. We need the minority spaces to carry the stories that don’t seek the validation of the straight gaze. It may create familiarity to plonk queer stories here and there to satisfy some cold diversity quota, but what kind of familiarity are you breeding? The intention is key here.
Normalization of queerness is making me think of this book called Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation by Calvin Warren and it’s on Black nihilism. It talks about how for Black people to actually get true freedom, we have to “erase” everything and start afresh. Very much a “you have to destroy in order to rebuild” because for a black person to be considered a human being, we need to go back to the ontology; in the ontology we are not seen as being human, we are seen as mere objects of function. I think it’s the same thing for us to normalise Queerness. We have to go back to that question of being; where you first have to recognise me as a being, for you to even begin to afford me the same humanity, the same grace, the same privileges. It’s difficult to see Queer people as “normal” if you don’t recognize them as even worthy of being.. Also, the use of memory as a tool that sustains certain discriminatory practices contributes. The act of remembering and forgetting is a potent mechanism to invalidate lived realities. Those who oppress invisiblise experiences as a means to sustain their power; so, you invisiblize the terror that has been reigned upon Queer people so that the work doesn’t get done.
For us to get to a place where it’s “normal”, we need to pick apart the structures, the stratification, and not cosmetic work. Being mundane and not exceptional can also be a way to normalize Queerness. I’m learning to do that in my own life, to give myself the grace to be okay with mundanity. I don’t know, this was a very tough question and I hope I’ve answered you.
Edith: You have answered me.
Erasing everything and starting afresh sounds interesting. How does that work? Do you mean it in the sense of going backwards? In Africa, some say that being Queer is a foreign western concept. But if you look back at our history, all the way from Egypt to South Africa, all over the continent, even in ancient rock art, we have evidence of homosexuality.
I’d say we need to retell our history, and as writers it’s important for us to do this because our history is identity, as you said. So, if we can write and bring in the stories of the past, would that work? Would it lead to an acceptance? Or what do you mean when you say to erase everything and start afresh?
Zanta: I don’t want to surrender to hopelessness and say we should destroy everything; that in itself is the design of oppression, that’s the mental warfare used on minorities – to not give in to pointlessness. Remembering and reclaiming a different history, investing in the writing of the present, this can hopefully create a better future. Certain histories can equip us with information that can propel us forward with a different artistic buoyancy. This present will one day be history too. Creating our own spaces where there’s a centering of Queerness that is not voyeuristic or closet crisis prone, or tinged with trauma porn.
I don’t want to fog my head too much with Black Nihilism because then it would really swallow you and you’d see no point. Then we will stop writing and doing the things we do, if we give in to Black Nihilism.
Edith: You again talk about creating our own spaces and I see that this is important since it allows us to use language to create and shape our experiences as we see fit. This takes me back to what we discussed earlier on emerging lit mags on the continent that allow experimentation with form, structure and language. Should this be guided so that in the midst of it all, we are still able to appreciate and identify the literary form, or should we give it free rein and just see what new forms it will birth?
Zanta: I say give it free rein. Let people express themselves in any way they want to; that is how we create meaningful diversification in writing. We always know when something’s good; even if it’s new or unfamiliar. When we read it, we will know if it’s good or bad.
I say give writers the freedom to express and wield language as they see fit, especially English. I think it is Chinua Achebe who said—and I’m paraphrasing here—language is a weapon, use it against the fucking enemy as long as it’s good writing. We’ve been given this tool, and our power is in how we use it. If I want to write a story that is a science report, that’s what I’m going to do, or a story in the form of a chapter in the Bible. My words are literally the one thing that I have to express myself. We need to let writers write the way they want.
I struggle with themes; they limit me and I panic and then I’m like ‘oh my god, now I need to write within this kind of zone’. And I get the aim of themes for literary submissions, since it helps you hone in on creating a cohesive publication, but also in the same breath it’s like ‘oh my god what do I write about this topic’. So, it’s a struggle for me, and it just causes creative inertia.
Edith: Agreed. Experimentation should be encouraged. I am thinking of Binyavanga Wainaina, who changed the literary landscape in Kenya because of his unconventional style with language. He exploded literary expectation by publishing both the poetic and the profane. When Binyavanga founded Kwani?, he featured works in Sheng—which is Kenyan slang—alongside English. His use of English in his essays was so personalized. Because of Binyavanga, I was able to look at writing differently. It felt freeing. Again, I am thinking of David Foster Wallace. If it wasn’t for his experimentation, we wouldn’t have his intricate prose, footnotes, too much detail, and fancy writing.
Looking at your writing, both fiction and nonfiction, there’s so much beauty in it and so much that is going on in your stories. Not just in the story, but in the craft itself. You have vivid descriptions and all your works seem to have a hovering sense of pain, described amazingly. I know pain is not a style, but you seem to lean heavily on it. Is this a conscious thing for you, when you sit down to write? What is the process for you? Do you find yourself unconsciously leaning towards a particular style?
Zanta: Pain as a style is such an interesting concept because I do write stories that are tinged with pain but even my ‘happy’ writing gets its essence from a pain that has healed. It always feels like it’s better to create from a place of pain, from places in me that need healing by taking form as something outside of me. Happiness is always hard for me to capture sometimes; I overthink happiness when the pain feels easier to express and create art around. But I like the idea of pain as a style.
When it comes to writing, for me the story comes in my head first. I think about the story itself, the character I’m creating, more than the form or structure. Certain sentences will come to me and I will scribble them in my notes and save them for a story. It’s a multipronged process, but once the story has come to me and I’ve written it, I need to sit with it and reread, edit, and change words. Let it breathe. That’s my process, I guess, which really isn’t a process. I will obsess over the story until I think it’s perfect. Even now, there are things that I’ve published that I’m skeptical to read because I will definitely want to change something. So, once it’s published, I let it go because of my own obsessive perfectionism when it comes to writing.
Edith: This goes to show that every writer has a different writing style. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Personally, stories don’t necessarily come to me; I go looking for them. As a writer of historical fiction, I deliberately look for stories in archives, libraries and all the dusty, old places. That being said, isn’t it interesting that we are so quick to give writing advice to new or aspiring writers, knowing fully well that what worked for us won’t possibly work for them?
So, firstly, what is the worst or most regrettable writing advice you’ve ever received? Secondly, you won’t believe this but I have to ask you—what is that one piece of writing advice you would give someone?
Zanta: I also am interested in historical fiction, actually. The novel that I’m working on involves Swazi cultural practices of Chietancy, and reflections of this family. Historical fiction is important because it feels like a reclaiming.
I don’t know if I’ve received bad writing advice as yet. I can’t think of anything that hasn’t propelled me to the paper and writing. I think the best advice was literally ‘just write’ and I would give that advice as well. Just write. Just tell your story. You can deal with the editing and making it pretty later. Just write. It’s simple yet powerful. All you have is your word. Speak it. That would be my advice to anyone.
Edith: Great. Just write, enhe. As an editor, what draws you to a story? What strikes you when you read a piece of work? When you say, ‘Now that was a great story/novel!’ what would it have been that stood out for you?
Zanta: As an editor, what draws me to a story is honesty, vulnerability, and lately, a lot of innovation. I’m enjoying stories that are innovative and play with structure and language. It’s also always prose for me; when I read a piece of work, like sentence construction. Some people are gifted with words; that’s why I obsess over one sentence for a very long time when I write: I always get struck by people who can construct a sentence that is both beautiful and economical with words, but also gets the point across powerfully. I respect the sentence so much because it’s a building block, especially with short stories, as you don’t have the space of a novel. For me, every sentence counts.
There’s also character development. I need a character to come across as strong as possible or as painfully as possible, or they must just have a weight in them which is what stands out for me in a novel. If they are gentle, that gentleness is vivid in that character. So, when you have a great novel, that’s what I’m, thinking. I recently finished A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo and my god, that book is phenomenal. What hit me the most was the richness in the characterization of that couple in the book.
I also realize that the way we use English, as Africans especially, is very different from how the West writes and uses English. Sometimes people think in vernacular and then write in English, and there is something there, in that distance between the two, that is either special to us or can be a problem, depending on how it’s used. It’s a very interesting time on the continent. The more stories get written, the more we see how vernacular has an influence on our use of English.
Edith: There’s a quote by Brené Brown that says vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. As writers, I believe if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable then we will tell the story the way we want to tell it, not the way we think it should be told, or how others want us to tell it. So, I agree with you that being vulnerable opens us up to do a lot of things, to be unconventional. As you were speaking, I was actually thinking of what was a great novel for me and it would be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It’s very unconventional; long sentences, the absence of full stops, rich characters and overall, very disruptive and experimental.
This makes me rather curious about the novel that you are working on. Are you employing a lot of experimentations and innovations, or is it a traditional novel? Also, why are you writing a novel? Why do you think it’s important for you to write what you’re writing?
Zanta: Wow! Why am I writing a novel? Beyond the typical, ‘I find the story important’, the truth is that there’s an ego attached to writing a novel that I will not deny. For me, it’s about archiving, but also legacy and immortalization. A novel is like your child; you fight with it, you raise it, you change it, you tell it what works, it tells you what doesn’t work, so it feels like a birth of sorts. I’m writing a novel for myself but also as a way for me to grow as an artist, because it’s the next form of writing that I need to explore in my journey.
It’s taking a while because I’m consciously trying to chase form and structure that is not easy or traditional. It is traditional in parts, but there’s a part of it that I want to be unconventional and different. Like I said, I have an obsession with small details, so it might take a very long time for me to finish this book. If I could just get the time, which is the complaint my writer friends and I speak about—that we don’t write enough because we actually have jobs—because we go to work and that sucks everything out of us, and then I’m expected to write a phenomenal novel.
James Baldwin was living in France and all he did was wake up and write. And mostly, live. ld produce more too. If African writers were given that opportunity to just wake up and write, and not have to worry about bills or finances, we would have a different landscape. We are compartmentalizing ourselves, which saps from our creativity, but possibly makes our work more beautiful. It’s also worth considering how amazing it is that even with all these things pulling at us from different sides, we have produced work as African writers. It’s phenomenal.
Edith: What a finish! I’m glad you’ve brought this up. This conversation of inequalities needs to be first of all, acknowledged, and then addressed. But as you said, let’s just keep writing.
Thank you so much, Zanta, for allowing me to have this very important conversation with you. Thank you for your thoughts and for your time.
I wish you all the creativity and steadfastness as you write your novel. Let me know when it comes out.
Zanta: Thank you so much, Edith. Your questions made me consider many things that I had taken for granted before.
Edith Knight Magak is a writer and editor living in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Critical Read, Urban Ivy, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jalada, Six Hens, among other places. Edith writes about writing, depression, trauma, family, history and sometimes murder. In 2019 she was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award.
When she isn’t writing or working, she fills her time taking long walks, scribbling poetry, or reading short stories. Edith is a member of the African Writers Development Trust.
Edith believes that the future of African literature is creative nonfiction.