BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between Kenya and Zambia, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Rhodasi. Congratulations on winning the Kalemba Short Story Prize for your story, ‘If It Ain’t Broke’. Can you take me back to when you found out that you were on the longlist, then the shortlist, and then finally when you won the prize. What were you feeling throughout that process?
Rhodasi: Hello, Nkateko. Thank you so much for the congratulations and this interview. Pardon me if I have difficulties in conveying my thoughts, I’m not accustomed to talking about myself.
It’s been an amazing couple of weeks. Did you know Kalemba published their long list in alphabetical order? I didn’t know at the time and I scrolled down line by line. With every name that wasn’t mine, I lost my spark. I was drowning in self-doubt. When I finally saw my story listed, my face was pure sunshine. It was worthy. Yet somehow I was still stunned when my story made the top 6. Not because I thought it wasn’t good enough but that it wasn’t Zambian in its casual tone. Not ethnic enough.
In the hours leading up to the announcement, I was in a mess. My publisher was folding due to pandemic pressures. Over a year of hard work gone in a flash. The last thing I wanted to focus on was the fate of my short story. I can not describe the joy I felt in the moment of that announcement. Nothing else mattered. I danced. I cried. I prayed – something I don’t do. It’s an experience of a lifetime. I hate to have to use cliches but I am so on top of the world, I’ve gone lunar.
Nkateko: You deserve to be on top of the world, and I am certain that this prize will open doors to even greater opportunities for you and your writing. I had no idea that the prize longlist was arranged in alphabetical order, and I can just imagine your heart thumping louder and louder as you scanned the list hoping to see your name and just as you were giving up, there it was. The process leading up to the final announcement sounds like quite the rollercoaster, and despite concurrent challenges and disappointments, I am glad that you were able to hold onto the joy of that moment and fully celebrate it. It is important to be fully present for these moments of pure joy, with both body and spirit. Perhaps the prayer was an expression of the spirit’s joy.
Speaking of joy, the protagonist in your short story, Nasilele, makes her entrance into our lives by announcing that she has reached “blissful contentment!”. However, it soon becomes clear that the opposite is true. Her psychiatrist, Dr Theo, prescribes a new mood stabilizer and after filling out the prescription, Nasilele contemplates buying an expensive perfume. My main thought as the story progressed, fuelled by the fact that Dr Theo confirmed her persecutory delusions earlier, was that Nasilele was in the throes of an episode related to her psychiatric condition. Even as I reread the story now, I am not sure if Nasilele is hallucinating throughout, or if I am the one imagining that there is a logical disconnect between what happened prior to her name being called, and afterwards. Was this your intention, to blur the line between the real and surreal?
Rhodasi: A writer once said ‘we don’t create stories, we are simply conduits through which the characters tell their tale.’ Did I intend to blur the line between real and surreal? Honestly, all I set out to do was tell Nasilele’s story. And believe it or not, I don’t know if it was a hallucination, an intense longing, a dream or reality. What is true is that Nasilele’s psyche wants an escape even though she is doing her darndest to accept her situation and find contentment.
“Persistence is a mindset I ‘inherited’ from my father. He was a man who believed that until you have put in your maximum effort you have no justification for quitting. You must learn, improve, grow until you’ve done everything humanly possible and if it still doesn’t work, then you can move on.”
Nkateko: I think that many people can relate to Nasilele’s desire for an escape, especially one that includes some form of time-travel. I do believe your assertion that you are unsure whether or not she is hallucinating, because she is brutally honest from the start— even admitting to us her homicidal thoughts involving her husband—but at the same time, her mental state is arguably a cause for readers to classify her as an unreliable narrator. Inasmuch as you were a conduit for your character’s story, what was the motivation to tell this particular story using the first person narration? As a reader, this style of narration made me automatically sympathetic towards Nasilele, even at times when I questioned her sanity or was shocked by the level of her honesty.
Was taking on the “I” a beneficial tool in your process of understanding your main character, as well as how to frame her relationships and interactions with other characters?
Rhodasi: The first person narrative is integral to the story. I’m convinced that without it, the story would fall apart. It is when we experience Nasilele’s world through her tinted lenses that we become fully immersed in her journey. We feel what she feels, we doubt what she doubts, believes what she believes.
And yes, she is an unreliable narrator. Not just because of her illness. She has blinded herself to all other perspectives. It doesn’t matter if the people in her life are against her or not. She lives in a cage made from her own sadness. Her anxieties, her failure and her despair. She’s created her own reality. What we experience is the world according to Nasilele. Reality and truth don’t matter. In fact the events that unfold in the story are en passant. It’s all about her experience.
Nkateko: Nasilele has a life that many people long for; she’s got a family, financial security, and access to the healthcare that she needs. And yet, these are the things that remind her of how unhappy she is. She despises her husband, her children are monsters, and her psychiatrist is not interested in listening to her. She feels desperately alone. What Tina presents to her during their conversation is the possibility of a different life, and at the end of the story we see that Nasilele has taken this opportunity, but what we do not get to see is how she uses it. I have my own predictions about what happens to her after the story ends, which I am sure would differ from the predictions of other readers, and I think this is largely influenced by our own personal desires. As you say in your response, “We feel what she feels, we doubt what she doubts, believes what she believes.” So in many ways we are her by the end of the story, and yet not a single one of us knows exactly what is next for her. Ending the story on that note, where we are uncertain what the protagonist’s new life will look like, but excited that she is escaping a life she felt trapped in, is that how you envisioned it all along? Is there an alternate version of the story where we would have gotten to see her journey beyond the RESET procedure?
Rhodasi: It is interesting to have to decide how a story ends, isn’t it? The original version, though, did have a conclusive ending. Nasilele goes through with the procedure but instead of scrapping her entire life, she chooses one in which she maintains control of some of her choices. She’s still married to Henry, still has the kids but she didn’t give up on her career. This version was about balance. That you don’t have to lose yourself to be happy and that imperfection is a part of life.
But then I read the story and wondered if this was the most satisfying ending. It was conclusive but did it have to be? I literally deleted the last scene on impulse but seeing it that way made me think about what choices I’d make in that situation. I felt more engaged and that was it. The scene in which she ponders her next move became the natural end for the tale.
Nkateko: Endings are very interesting, in fiction as well as in real life, and I think to some degree we are all invested not only in how things end but also in how they could have ended if circumstances were different, or how an ending—particularly in the case of relationships—could have been prevented altogether. Do you ever feel this way about your own life, and in the absence of an escape like the one Nasilele was offered, how do you move forward? Does the knowledge that endings in real life cannot be prevented or changed lead you to an immediate acceptance of the outcome, even if circumstances are not in your favour?
Rhodasi: I don’t know if it’s possible to have an ending or to make a decision without ‘what ifs’. At least for me. I have spent time in the past wondering how different things would have been. In the case of relationships I think it’s different for each one. How invested am I? Did I explore all options available to me? Do I want to explore all the options? Would it change the outcome? Is the other party willing to explore the options with me? I think the finality of it all does affect how soon I accept a situation. I know I still have to go through the motions and experience grief. But of course, accepting the finality of a situation does very little to help with the emotional roller coaster of losing something I cherished. But I will say this, there is a peace that comes with finality even if the ending is not in my favour. So perhaps the knowledge that endings in real life can’t be changed does give me immediate acceptance.
Nkateko: Your bio mentions that sharing your fiction—apart from publishing on your blog and social media—is a new experience for you. What prompted the decision to begin sharing your work with a wider audience, and what has been the most surprising part of this process for you?
Rhodasi: I was really young when I started writing and as expected my writing wasn’t very good and I suppose my personality wasn’t developed enough to accept critique. I attempted to submit to a journal and although I received a form rejection, I was gutted. So, I kept my writing to myself and only shared with my sister. She loved the stories but she’s my sister, she has to right?
But I’m persistent and writing has always been a dream of mine. When the internet became accessible I devoured any and all material I could find on writing. I was determined to improve my craft. I started my blog so I could find the motivation to finish stories and stop self rejecting. But what truly prompted me to start submitting seriously, was a challenge a writer posted on twitter last year – 100 rejections. I signed up. Aiming for rejection instead of acceptance took the pressure off querying and submitting. And it’s been amazing.
What has surprised me the most is how one editor will hate your story and another will be ecstatic. I knew there was an element of taste involved but I had no idea just how big a role it plays in publishing. Nowadays when I receive a rejection I take the notes, if any, and submit to another publisher.
Nkateko: I love the notion of aiming for rejection instead of acceptance. I remember watching the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It a year ago and seeing the main character, an artist named Nola Darling, pasting her numerous rejection letters against the wall of her bedroom. I considered that for a while, printing out all my “we regret to inform you” emails and creating my own wall of rejections. I eventually decided that it would be a waste of ink and paper, but I am still looking for a way to make the process of submitting work less painful. I think I will also try the 100 rejections challenge and see how it goes.
Is your persistence in writing in any way influenced by your work as a scientist, specifically by the understanding that most times we don’t get things right the first time we try? You mention that you started writing at a young age and that your skill developed over time, so do you consider the process of writing as a type of experiment that you are conducting, and if so, which elements have you found to be essential to becoming a better writer?
Rhodasi: It’s actually the opposite of that—my persistence influences both my scientific and writing endeavours.
Persistence is a mindset I ‘inherited’ from my father. He was a man who believed that until you have put in your maximum effort you have no justification for quitting. You must learn, improve, grow until you’ve done everything humanly possible and if it still doesn’t work, then you can move on.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that I love learning. If something can be learned, I will learn it. Bonus if I can learn it for free. I was in heaven when I discovered writing resources. I’m a frequent visitor to sites that give writing tips and advice – the Writer’s Digest, Anne R Allen’s Blog. I frequently re-read Dwight V Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. It’s an amazing book.
I’m of the opinion that the most important element to becoming a better writer is learning. You can never learn too much. Passion and talent are great to have but without the right education, the proper tools, it all falls apart. Sure there are exceptions to the rule – amazingly gifted writers who don’t need to learn – but the rest of us mortals have to make an effort.
To be better writers we need two things—to write often and to never stop learning.
Nkateko: “If something can be learned, I will learn it.” I love this statement because it demonstrates an unwavering lifelong commitment to honing one’s craft. A difficult part of the learning process is unlearning what was previously believed to be true, which I think is easier to accept in science because if I learn that a particular drug has been proven to be harmful to patients then it’s a no-brainer that it should no longer be prescribed. However, it’s not quite as cut-and-dried with literature, because the evidence is not as tangible. For instance, some writers say there is no such thing as writer’s block. Some say it exists, and even offer advice on how to overcome it. It’s all so personal, and as a writer you need to decide what you believe and stick to it. Justifying my own writing methods reminds me of my approach to a philosophy course in my first year of university; I would argue the case for a particular belief based on the number of philosophers whose work supported it. Looking back, I question some of those arguments because often it was the lone dissenter who was correct, but would I have been able to fill my answer booklet with evidence of that? It’s terrifying being the lone voice, or adding your voice to theirs.
How do you approach unlearning in your journey as a writer?
Rhodasi: Literature is subjective, isn’t it? I had the expectation that tastes will differ. I’ve read acclaimed books that I didn’t enjoy. I did however expect some sort of coherence in technique. I thought the rules would have some consistency. Boy was I wrong. There is no formula for writing. I had to fumble around for a while unsure what advice to pick and what to discard. I still do. And while genre conventions exist, they aren’t binding are they? Of course the teachers will say be true to yourself, find your voice and it will make sense, somehow.
It’s ridiculously easy to get lost in the multitude of opinions. I did get lost for a while. I think for me because the English language is taught in such a prescriptive way in my country I thought I could apply some rules and voila! I was certain I could learn the ‘rules’ and pump out a bestseller. Then I’d pick up a book that broke all the rules and wonder how on earth it got published. It got me thinking. Could it be that literature doesn’t actually conform to a set of rules?
I have had to go through a great deal of unlearning. Because as you said writing is personal. There’s nothing prescriptive. One plus one sometimes equals eleven.
As I read more about writing, I only find one rule that everyone seems to agree on: write. Forget all the rules and write. Technique and all that have their place but writers must write. Literature is about freedom and sure maybe that means your work won’t win a Pulitzer but nothing beats free expression in art.
I still have a lot to unlearn that’s for sure. It’s hard most days and I get paralysed by the idea of winging it. But a writer must write.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation, Rhodasi. Congratulations once again on your well-deserved win, and I wish you many more of those. I am very excited to read your debut novella. All the best with everything.
Rhodasi: Thank you. This has been an amazing experience. Note Worthy is out now and live on ebook retailer sites. It’s a short read for anyone looking for something heartwarming with a little escapism.
Keep writing, keep reading.
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 co-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 chapbook, psalm for chrysanthemums, was selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set. She is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.