Love as a Risky Odyssey: A Dialogue with Gerald Ntando
A little over 34, Gerald Ntando was born and bred in Zimbabwe but currently resides in South Africa. A storyteller at heart, he is a scriptwriter, ghostwriter, and aspiring lyricist. He earns his crust as a freelance writer and researcher for television shows.
In his previous self-published book, Why I Don’t Believe in Love, he shares his unpleasant relationship experiences, and those of people close to him.
When Gerald is not writing, he’s busy in the kitchen putting his culinary skills to good use.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Johannesburg and Kampala via email.
Gerald’s manuscript, ‘A Reign of Terror’, is about evil vs good; witchcraft is one of its main themes. Methuli Singa, the protagonist, is excited about his transition from bachelor to married man, and is just about ready to start a family. Little does he know that his wife, Regina, is possessed with a deadly spirit of witchcraft that will brutally emerge and terrorize his family. It is a time frozen with horror and pain for the Singa family, as Regina’s evil spirit ruthlessly catapults them into a turbulent journey of misery, death, and extreme suffering.
Gerald offers a snapshot of his life: his love for RnB and pop lyrics, what gets his creative juices flowing, what it’s like to be a ghost-writer, why he wishes he’d written Prison Break, the kind of TV show he’d like to make, how he unwinds, and making the most of opportunities.
Davina: To junk or not to junk, Gerald? That is the question.
Gerald: It depends. When I want something healthy, I go healthy all the way. And when I want junk, it’s junk, junk, junk.
Davina: And in this case ‘healthy’ refers to?
Gerald: Low carbs and non-greasy.
Davina: Coconut oil or butter?
Gerald: Olive oil.
Davina: Favourite spice?
Gerald: I love Indian spices, especially the hot ones. Their spices are flavorful.
Davina: Apparently, food tastes better when we use our hands to eat. Cutlery or hands-free?
Gerald: I mostly prefer my God-given utensils.
Davina: (Chuckles.) Love is…
Gerald: Oh…I didn’t see that one coming. (Thinks.) Love is an odyssey that comes with risk.
Davina: Not what I expected, but I’ll allow it. What kind of lyrics/songs do you write?
I write RnB and pop lyrics, inspired by the songs that I grew up listening to. The likes of Luther Vandross, Joe Thomas, Whitney Houston — that generation. (None of the lyrics have been used yet).
Davina: Any near or far future plans to use them?
Gerald: Oh, yes, definitely.
Davina: What song won’t stop playing in your head?
Gerald: One Moment in Time by Whitney Houston.
Davina: Do you play a musical instrument?
Gerald: No, but I’d definitely love to play the piano. I love ballads.
Davina: In The Melody of Meaning, Modise Sekgothe says the core influences in his approach to writing are generally rooted in his fascination with music (rap, in his case), theatre, spiritual literature, and self-introspection:
“…the strongest influences in my work are first from musicians…as a result, I’ve never been able to divorce music from my process…music is there before I write and all the way through to the other side. It’s from the music that the words spring up and in some way it is precisely back to the music that they return. Meaning, that in some way, I have unconsciously approached writing poetry the way a lyricist approaches song writing.”
Gerald: I use the same approach. My work is inspired by real stories, characters and/or situations.
Davina: Of innovation, and keeping things refreshing and forward-moving, Modise says he thinks “the tension between past work and what should follow is a natural one with most artists because of the persistent temptation to duplicate what’s worked before”:
“There’s also the pressure of expectation; the more you create successfully, the more it is expected of you, as you do of yourself. This can interfere with the freedom of the creative process, which requires a certain innocence and ‘beginners mind’ that is very difficult to recycle as time goes by.”
Was there any tension between Why I Don’t Believe in Love and A Reign of Terror?
Gerald: There wasn’t really any tension. Both works are based on real-life stories and/or situations. When writing, I focus on the story that I want to tell; anything else that doesn’t help the story will kill the passion.
My approach to writing has always been to tell the story as vividly and deeply engaging as possible. I want to take the readers on a rollercoaster ride as they continue turning the pages.
“I would love to have a show that helps to restore people’s hope in life; to let them know and see that they still have a chance to better their lives.”
Davina: Any particular page-turning techniques that you favour?
Gerald: Definitely my style of writing. I don’t want the reader to feel bored. I want to keep readers curious and engaged all the time.
Davina: Why write fictitious stories based on real life, Gerald? Why not just write memoirs?
Gerald: In future, I will definitely write memoirs. My focus is not only on real life stories. I don’t box myself like that.
Davina: Is your writing tied to a specific part of your daily cycle?
Gerald: I don’t really have a specific routine. Whenever my creative juices start to flow, I grab a pen and a pad and start to write.
Davina: Pen on writing pad, rather than fingers on keypad?
Gerald: Most of the time, yes. Gerald is very old school (Laughs).
Davina: Old school is very cool. As is referring to oneself in third person.
Desta Haile speaks of the unpredictability of the writing process: “I think the process is unpredictable depending on the mood of the book or the piece.”
Does Gerald have any thoughts about process?
Gerald: l agree: each process definitely depends on the mood of the book.
Davina: What starts the flow of your creative juices?
Gerald: A great idea and/or character, or a real life situation.
Davina: What stops the flow of your creative juices?
Gerald: Probably personal problems that end up getting in the way.
Davina: What have you read recently that has nourished you?
Gerald: I recently finished reading The Winner Always Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho.
Davina: What about The Winner Always Stands Alone stood out for you?
Gerald: I’d say it’s the plot. It keeps you engaged and curious to know what happens next.
Davina: I’m interested in your treatment of initial ideas, Gerald; how do you know that the pursuit of idea A is likely to be more fruitful than, say, the pursuit of ideas B, and C?
Gerald: As a writer, you just know it when you have a good story. You can feel it in your soul.
Davina: Mention is made of you going through your unpublished work, when you heard about the call for manuscripts for the James Currey Prize for African literature, and finding A Reign of Terror, which you then “dusted off and submitted.”
What did the “dusting” include?
Any other unpublished manuscripts that need dusting?
Gerald: I had to make sure that it was up to standard; it was more a matter of polishing it up. At the moment, I do not have any other unpublished manuscripts but I’ll start writing soon. “Writers write,” as I always say.
Davina: What would you like to explore in your next book?
Gerald: Love, secrets, disappointment, healing, restoration.
Davina: What is being a ghost-writer like?
Gerald: It’s amazing. It’s like living someone’s life through their experiences, thoughts, views and opinions.
Davina: Any advice for aspiring ghost writers?
Gerald: Keep writing and putting your work out there. You never know whose attention you’ll attract. More often, opportunities come when least expected.
Davina: Is there a particular story, about witchcraft, from your childhood, that stuck?
Gerald: That witches and lizards can own your life and control it at will. That’s scary.
Davina: There’s something about the beginning of A Reign of Terror that I can’t quite get over: Methuli’s mother-in-law bequeaths an evil spirit to Regina. Who does that?
Gerald: I think the moment you venture into the wicked path of evil, you lose all conscience.
Davina: In Home and Healing, Gaamangwe Joy Mogami says that a ‘radical shift’ occurred when she started to look closely at the words used to describe our ancestors’ belief systems:
“…when I started to think of a Sangoma as [a] shaman or medicine woman/man or healer who is able to interact with the material and immaterial world.”
In response, Tapiwa Mugabe says he always tries to remind people that the only time Sangoma was associated with something bad was when we started referring to the Sangoma as ‘a witchdoctor’:
“And the word witch is a foreign word that means something evil. But Sangomas are not evil, they are divine healers. They healed from the land. They dug roots and prescribed medicine that came from nature.”
I was hoping that the decision, by Methuli’s last born, to defy his mother and abandon school to train as a Sangoma, would bring some restoration to the family.
Gerald: It definitely did bring some restoration to the family. His spirit was different from his mother’s. His was to do good by helping people come out of the challenges they were facing.
Davina: So why the resistance to his decision to quit school, then?
Gerald: He simply wasn’t interested.
Davina: What are your views on the material and the immaterial worlds?
Gerald: I’d say both worlds exist, but then it depends on how each world has touched and affected your life.
Davina: Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
Gerald: Yes, I’m a very spiritual person. I believe in God. He’s my Lord and Savior.
Davina: What’s your typical day like, as a freelance television writer and researcher?
Gerald: It depends on the project. Some projects have very strict deadlines, and others, strict but not so strict, if you know what I mean.
Davina: I know what you mean by ‘very strict deadlines,’ but I don’t know anything about the kind of research that you’re typically required to do.
Gerald: Okay, so being a researcher for a TV show means looking for people with stories that fit the format of the show.
Davina: Favourite TV show?
Gerald: Prison Break.
Davina: What TV show do you wish you’d written and why?
Gerald: Prison Break. The suspense is on another level. Brilliant story, brilliant cast, and very well executed.
Davina: You’ve mentioned wanting to start your own TV show. What kind of show would that be?
Gerald: I would love to have a show that helps to restore people’s hope in life; to let them know and see that they still have a chance to better their lives. Many people are broken out there, they have given up on life. My role would be to put them on the road to recovery and help them to change their lives for the better.
Davina: What do you enjoy more, writing books or writing for television?
Gerald: Well, that’s a tough one. Let me think…I love writing for TV more because I get to see my work on the screen. No, I actually love writing books more; it gives me unlimited freedom to be creative. (Thinks.) Well, you know what, Davina, I think l enjoy both the same. (Laughs.)
Davina: Well, alright then. Is there going to be a sequel to A Reign of Terror?
Gerald: Definitely. There’s going to be a part 2.
Davina: If you could change something about your writing journey, what would it be?
Gerald: I don’t think I’d really change anything. It has not only been a journey, but it has also been a process that taught me to work hard, persevere, and make the best of any opportunity that comes my way.
Davina: Your idea of unwinding?
Gerald: Good food. Good friends. Good music. And, of course, a good amount of liquid courage. (Laughs.)
Davina: Of course! Liquid courage is the latest vogue! What do you intend to do with the prize money?
Gerald: Spoil myself with some gadgets.
Davina: Nice! I’m going to send you my favourite fork as a good luck charm!
Gerald: Thank you, Davina. Fingers (and toes) crossed. Let’s wait and see.
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 James Currey Prize for African Literature.
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.