Creating Things that Have a Life of Their Own: A Dialogue with Moso Sematlane

CREATING THINGS THAT HAVE A LIFE OF THEIR OWN

A DIALOGUE WITH MOSO SEMATLANE

Moso Sematlane is a writer and filmmaker based between Maseru, Lesotho, and Johannesburg, South Africa. He has been published in Nat Brut and is an Assistant Editor at Lolwe Magazine.

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation took place between Maseru and Kampala via email.

Moso’s story, “Tetra Hydro Cannabinol,” is about a young boy grappling with the arrival of a medical marijuana company in a small village in Lesotho; he talks through what kind of art he admires, how he decides that a sentence (or a story) is complete, investigating neo-colonialism and capitalism, and how filmmaking often leads to a better understanding of self. 

Davina: When you said telling stories is important because it makes us feel less lonely, I thought of Michael Harris’ Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, which was gifted to me by a friend. 

Harris suggests that we are mistaken in thinking of companionship as an alternative to solitude; that while we may stave off loneliness with more connections, we should also occasionally consider “exercising our solitude.” He writes of how he went from thinking of solitude as “a lost art” to thinking of it as “a resource”:

True solitude—as opposed to the failed solitude that we call loneliness—is a fertile state, yet one we have a hard time accessing. Once we do make room for it, though, we discover there are needful things hidden in that empty space, still waiting between the flash and action of our social lives.

I’ve always believed in a distinction between aloneness and loneliness; that one can be alone without being lonely. (But people have always said “no, come on, that’s semantic pettifoggery; there’s no difference.”) Does this distinction resonate with you?

Moso: That does resonate a lot with me. I’ve often gravitated to this image of someone who is lonely in a crowd, and it’s fascinating to me because I have been that person. So much of the great art that I admire in film and literature often deals with this – I am thinking of a film by Sofia Coppola called Lost in Translation, and a novel I read quite a while ago called Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto. 

I do believe there is a distinction between loneliness and cultivating a kind of solitude that is healthy for anyone to gain access to, and I believe this kind of solitude can lead to all sorts of personal revelations within yourself that can lead to a richer, fuller life. 

I must say though, as a writer I find it necessary to always gain access to this state, because, like Harris says, it is a fertile state. For both the practical reason that writing is a solitary activity and you mostly do it alone, and for even the more artistic reason in that, through solitude you can discover so much about yourself and even more about the world around you.  

Davina: Tetra Hydro Cannabinol opens with praise for the narrator’s mother, Puseletso (how hard she works; how she wakes up before the roosters to fetch water from the spring). The opening made me think of Lucky Dube’s God Bless the Women, although the connection is probably only in my head.

I hope this isn’t me overthinking things, but Puseletso seems like a loner; perhaps the high value attached to her art, which the narrator compares to an apple or a stone (I was intrigued by that, by the way—art as edible fruit but also art as hard earth), is grounded in her ability to access the kind of successful solitude that Harris writes about.

Moso: I am really glad that you were reminded of the Lucky Dube song whilst reading it, and I think the parallels are not just in your head at all! Writing her, I was thinking of all the women I grew up around. In Lesotho, most of the population are working class, so I grew up around many women like Puseletso. 

At her core, Puseletso is an artist so her version of hard work consists of primarily making beautiful things. To bring up the Michael Harris book again, a regenerative solitude like that is something she is very familiar with, so she’s very much a loner, because the work she does requires that. She puts a lot of care into it and enjoys the process, rather than the result. This is something the narrator admires in her, and he sees and feels this dedication to creating beautiful things simply from holding her straw art. 

In that way it is something as edible as a fruit and as hard as earth because to him, it feels like something alive and ‘of-the-Earth.’ That is always something I’ve always been intrigued by, how artists can create things that have a life of their own independent of the creator.

Davina: Equally intriguing is how to tell when the fruit is ripe; how easy or hard it is to harvest that fruit; when to let it start seeding elsewhere, so to speak. When do you know that something you’ve written is “ripe,” Moso?

Moso: Interesting question, and I think a question that many writers often grapple with; how do I know ‘it’ is done? For me I guess what I’m always looking for is a kind of harmony, starting from the level of the sentence itself. I’m not the best writer in the world, but I do think I have a very high capacity of knowing when a sentence sounds complete; its rhythm, even the way it looks aesthetically on the page. 

The difficulty with fiction however, is that for it to be successful, to me at least, the sentences have to work in concert with so many other elements; the characters, the dialogue, even the tone of the story as a whole. This is the harmony I’m speaking about, It’s a very vague concept and idea, but I try the best I can to trust my instincts, and most importantly my ear. 

Granted, there have been numerous occasions when I look back at something I wrote that has made itself out into the world and thought, ‘Damn, if only I changed element x or z’, and I guess that sort of nullifies the concept of harmony. I guess it’s the mystery of writing itself. With letting the work seed elsewhere, I must confess that I’m in two minds about it. 

On one hand, it seems enough to write, and complete something, and never share it at all. I think there is great beauty in that, creating something complete and perfect, for yourself. On the other hand, art gains a new life when it is shared with others, and ‘released’ from the creator and I think there is great beauty in that as well. I’m curious as to how the process works for you? When do you know when the work is ripe?

Davina: When I can’t find any more things to tinker with. Typically, after I write a story, I let it “marinate” on the desktop for a while, during which time I’ll busy myself with other projects. If I return to a story three months later and there’s nothing I want to cut out or insert, or I’m not leaving comments like “what does this even mean?” and “re-work this” and “this doesn’t seem credible; would YOU believe this?” in the margins of a Word doc, then I know that I’m OK with dressing the story in its Sunday Best clothes and sending it out into the Big Bad World.

Which doesn’t mean that when I see that story, in print, a year later, I won’t wish I’d used a shorter sentence in the first paragraph or a semicolon in the second paragraph. I’ve been finicky about things like that for as long as I can remember.

I’m a very instinct-sy writer, otherwise. I know writers who, like you, rely on their (and others’) ears. I admire that. I do. But I’m not like that. I’m the quintessential “stomachic” writer; how I tune into disharmony is almost entirely through the proverbial gut feeling. I know that’s not a very technical way to craft, but there it is: if something doesn’t sit right in my intestines, I’m taking it out of a story.

On one hand, it seems enough to write, and complete something, and never share it at all. I think there is great beauty in that, creating something complete and perfect, for yourself. On the other hand, art gains a new life when it is shared with others, and ‘released’ from the creator and I think there is great beauty in that as well.

Moso: That seems to be a lot of what we do as writers; trusting our instincts! For all the great novels and attention paid into the craft of writing and teaching writing, it’s amazing that most of the time, we’re just trusting our instincts! I totally relate to that.

Davina: The narrator is sad that Puseletso is unable to see how much joy her art brings to those that buy it. It’s however left unsaid whether Puseletso is as interested in how the white gaze perceives her art (possibly because, as you say, earlier, it’s the process, rather than the result, that matters to her).

What about you, Moso? Which of the two is important to you, and why? (Also, to be clear, what did you mean by “working class?” Here, the expression may in one context refer to people who have salaried 9 – 5 jobs, regardless of where they work, while in another context it may refer to people employed to do low-paid, manual labour in factories.)

Moso: Yeah, by working class, in the context of Lesotho, I mean people employed in low-paying, manual labour jobs. What’s interesting about Puseletso is that it is very hard for me imagining her selling her art by the side of the road. In a way, it is an ideal situation for her to have these children who could do that for her. Yes, she is interested in the process, rather than the result. 

I also do think she is perceptive enough, in a way that the narrator isn’t, of the sense of ‘performance’ with which the white people engage with her art. As much as they appreciate it, it’s a double-edged sword because there is a sense of being incredulous that a black woman from the village could have such a high degree of artistry, and I think that would make her uneasy.

Like her, I do enjoy the process rather than the result. It brings me endless joy to move around a sentence or a comma for hours on end. Having something ready to send out for possible publication always puts me in a bit of an existential crisis because it feels like my job, after the writing itself is done.

Davina: Same here! I often feel rootless after completing a writing project. I always think, urgh, bleh, now what next? Why is the earth even still rotating around the sun? And what have you. Are you the kind of writer who immediately launches into another writing project, or do you give yourself some time to recover?

Moso: I do like to give myself time to recover, and most of the time I do that by reading. More than the physical exhaustion of writing, there is an emotional exhaustion too that can come from it, so I always like to give myself time to come down from the high of getting involved in the lives and emotions of these imaginary people in my head.

Davina: The way the lives of imaginary people stress us! Eh! Untellable, I tell you! 

The narrator and his siblings learn about Lesotho’s first cannabis cultivation facility (which is owned by The Company) in a very by-the-way-ish manner; one day, after selling off the last of Puseletso’s creations, they stumble upon a gathering presided over by the village chief (who is accompanied by a be-suited white man).

The chief informs the gathering that Lesotho recently became the first African country to legalize the processing and sale of cannabis. After which the white man heralds the on-going cannabis revolution. Although the villagers gathered around should be celebrating, it turns out that no one present has understood anything the white man has said!

I can’t tell you, Moso, how many times something similar has happened to me. I will stumble upon a large group of people watching something or someone. After failing to push through, so that I might see with my own eyes, I will turn to those around me. But after several rounds of polite inquiries – “kiki ekigenda mu maaso?” or “bannange, kiki ekiri wano?” – all I’ll get is lazy shrugs and unlimited variations of “simanyi” or “sibitegedde.” 

But meanwhile the people saying they don’t know or haven’t understood what’s happening will likely have been part of the watchful crowd for several minutes! It’s the ultimate frustration! So many times I want (but decline) to ask “So why are you still here if you don’t understand what’s happening?”

What were you thinking though, with that scene? 

Moso: (Laughs). That is frustrating, and fascinating how similarly humans behave, no matter the cultural context. In small towns and villages, I find that is often the case, we don’t mind stopping our day to spend hours watching any irregular event that may be happening. 

I know in a village like the one in the story, often life is very slow, (though this descriptor can be used for the whole of Lesotho as well), so the white man being present at the pitso is something the villagers don’t mind stopping their day for at all, because it is an extraordinary event. 

With that scene I was trying to investigate for myself how neo-colonialism and capitalism function in the context of these big companies and corporations, like the cannabis one, who come to Lesotho under the guise of advancing ‘progress’ for the people who live there. And often the way they do this is through language; the language of progress itself, how they are creating something novel, starting a revolution. 

I find this is a very sinister thing too, because in the story, the white man is very aware that the villagers don’t understand what he is saying. Even though the villagers are the ones that are going to be affected most by the arrival of the cannabis company, they are the last in the line of communication to know of its existence, and aren’t even asked for permission in the first place whether they would like the company there or not.

Davina: Now that you bring up capitalism, I’m thinking back to the scene where a priest comes to talk to Puseletso; despite the priest’s protests, Puseletso doesn’t quit her job at The Company. The narrator rationalizes her defiance by reminding himself (and us) that, well, money needs to be made. 

That idea, the importance and urgency of money-making, is one thing Giorgio Agamben explores in his essay, Capitalism as Religion

Capitalism, then, is a religion in which faith-credit-has been substituted for God. Said differently, since the pure form of credit is money, it is a religion whose God is money. 

This means that the bank, which is nothing other than a machine to fabricate and administer credit, has taken the place of the church and, by governing credit, manipulates and administers faith–the scarce, insecure trust–that our time still has in itself.  

Moso: That is a fascinating idea. I think what is perhaps even scary about it is that capitalism is a religion that we all subscribe to, unwillingly or not. Religion at least you can renounce, but even that is hard for some people because of the backlash or ostracization they might face. 

But it is hard with capitalism especially if you are someone who fundamentally resents it because at the end of the day, like the narrator says, money needs to be made. I think this is a quandary Puseletso finds herself in as well, having to throw away whatever moral convictions she might have to be part of the ‘capitalist machinery’ so to speak.

Davina: Could we not renounce some parts of the capitalist machine, though, Moso? Especially in the kind of village in which Tetra Hydro Cannabinol is set? In theory, we could always revert to exchanging a comb for a mug of porridge, or a dress for a basket of eggplants, no?

Moso: I really would like that, especially because of the toll capitalism takes on our collective mental health. I guess I don’t really know the answer to if we can eventually renounce it, but I am hoping that as humans we never get too comfortable in the status quo. We constantly need to challenge it, I believe. 

Davina: By the way, is Tetra Hydro Cannabinol the kind of story that you would consider adapting into a screenplay for a short film?

Moso: It’s interesting that you mention this because coming up with the idea for the story, I had always thought it would be a film. I had these images of people coming to Lesotho in search of what on a superficial level was marijuana but would later reveal itself as one of those spiritual journeys. 

The idea of adapting something I wrote into another medium is always scary for me because it would feel like performing surgery on yourself, having to take the story apart to put it back together in a new form. But I’m always open to the idea of adapting it, I guess we’ll see what the future holds. 

Davina: Performing surgery on yourself. That’s a striking analogy. Perhaps you should try Ts’episo Mahase’s approach—escape from yourself for a while; make it about your audience rather than about you:

I believe cinema is a great form of escapism and it should also be an enjoyable experience. Definitive rules of cinema should not stand in the way of giving insight into different perspectives.

Moso: I love that quote, and love Ts’episo’s work. Film and prose are very different mediums, but the common ground I’ve found for me is the escapism of it. I love that concept of escaping from myself; I guess a Tetra Hydro Cannabinol film is something that might be a possibility in the near future! (Laughs).

Davina: Elelwani Netshifhire says she’s the kind of filmmaker who is “interested in revisiting places and stories that made us who we are.” She says that although the journey can be harrowing, “making films can become a healing process.” What kind of filmmaker are you, Moso?

Moso: I share the same sentiments, especially around revisiting the stories and places that made us who we are. My impetus for writing a film always comes from a really reactionary place, and I have surrendered to the fact that Lesotho will always be my muse for better or worse. 

And I do think filmmaking has a very great capacity of leading to an understanding of self. Being on a film set itself can bring out everyone’s best self, and there is something, I think, inherently healing for a group of people to come together for hours on end in order to bring an idea to life.

Davina: Philani Nyoni believes that “spiritual freedom and developing our languages” is the next frontier of independence for Africans.

I liked that several Sesotho lines in Tetra Hydro Cannabinol remain untranslated. Are you making a statement, or am I overthinking things?

Moso: Interesting question, and once again, you are not overthinking things at all. I’ve been very interested in the colonial legacy of the English language. It doesn’t escape me how contradictory it is for me, then, to be writing in English at all. And to even think in English, because my thoughts are both in Sesotho and English. 

But I’ve been really interested in the idea of using language as a resistance of sorts. There is something profound to me in re-imagining the English language to create a tapestry where in the same piece of fiction, Sesotho can exist in all its expressivity as well. 

There’s also the fact that this tension, or co-existing between the languages, is how I view the world, and how I express myself in my day to day life and I want my work to always reflect that.

Davina: The Company erects nice-looking toilets for the villagers. Although the narrator enjoys using the new toilets, he suspects that they are mostly for other white visitors to look at. He muses about what the villagers are saying — that the new toilets were built because The Company doesn’t want their shit to contaminate the spring. The same spring which, later, neither villager nor healer will be able to access because The Company builds a long, shiny fence stretching on either side of it.

Thankfully, a government minister quickly installs a tap in the middle of the village. I laughed at this part, Moso. The tap with a beautiful red bow around its neck! The only thing that was missing was the ceremonial ribbon-cutting!

Spectacle is clearly a go-to special effect in this story, isn’t it?

Moso: (Laughs). It is! And I’m glad you enjoyed that! I’m always fascinated by, especially, the nature of Lesotho politics and politicians. Spectacle is unfortunately their go-to method of doing what should essentially be a public service, but isn’t. 

So instead of practical policy that can actually help people, we get the spectacle instead; them inviting cameras to cover them handing out food parcels to the needy, inviting cameras to record them planting trees in a campaign to make the city ‘more green’. Not that these things aren’t important and deserve attention, but with a country like Lesotho that faces a lot of poverty, which is a structural issue, cosmetic solutions do not help anyone at all. 

A food parcel would last a family a week, and then when it is finished, there is nothing else to eat, while the politician retreats back to their mansion and does the same to the next family in need. That is something the cameras won’t show us. They will show us the bow around the tap so to speak, but once the ribbons are cut, and the film crews leave, once the spectacle is gone, the structural issues still remain, whether that’s poverty, unemployment or other failures of the state. 

Davina: Another part that amused me is when the Jeep-owning white boy, who the narrator first meets on the roadside when he stops to ask for directions to the lodge, is asking if Puseletso can get them into The Company’s greenhouses. 

The narrator and white boy are talking to each other, but they aren’t communicating. Most of what’s exchanged is yes and okay: Yes? Yes. Yes. Okay. Yes, yes, yes!

As for the security guards on The Company’s premises! All it takes to distract them all is for one of the white girls to start crying about a nail in one of the jeep’s tyres. Imagine that as a scene in a film.

Moso: (Laughs). It really would have been quite the scene! I tend to think of story very visually, especially in terms of blocking, how the characters are moving from place to place, and I see how the whole operation of getting into The Company mimics the quintessential ‘Hollywood’ third act where the heroes face up against the villain, and the grandiosity of a scene like that.

With the ‘lack of communication’ between the narrator and the white boy, I’ve always thought it interesting in using dialogue where subtext takes precedence, where the central tension is in what is not being said, rather than what is being said/what you hear from the characters’ mouths. I always like seeing that in the fiction I read.

Davina: And I enjoyed seeing that in Tetra Hydro Cannabinol, Moso! Many thanks for speaking to Africa in Dialogue about your story. I wish you lots of luck ahead of the regional winner announcements. 

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda. 

She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her. 

She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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