Dalene Kooper is a Namibian writer and media student at the University of Namibia.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Outjo and Kampala, via email.
Dalene’s story, The Letter, follows Maria Kala, whose classmates insist that she writes a letter to prove that the famous Diana K is her mother.
Dalene grew up on a farm and wrote stories for her friends to read in high school. Although the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for her to get the full internship experience she’d hoped for, it helped her return to writing. Currently, her goal is for Namibians and other Africans from rural areas to resonate with her stories.
She talks about outgrowing predictable stories, her preference for romance and mystery, and the work done by Jeremiah Goeieman’s stories. (She also breaks my heart when she reveals that she’s not sentimental about letter-writing. But, not to worry, I’ll survive. I have to.)
Remember to read her articles, which cover everything from celebrity entrepreneur Celma Hamunyela’s wig business to Namibian celebrities clapping back at Sean Combs.
Davina: Since last year, I’ve been deeply interested in deep fakes, about which I knew nothing until the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Disinformation and conspiracy theories are one thing. Altering a video to make it seem as if people are saying things they didn’t say is a completely different ballpark: it takes “putting words in[to] someone’s mouth” to dizzying places and frightening heights.
There are questions I ask myself about videos I download, or which people forward to me on WhatsApp, that I never used to ask. Previously, I’d watch a video and that would be that. These days, I remind myself that there’s a chance that a video I’m watching has been altered; I think twice before forwarding videos to friends; I allow myself a bit of time before believing my eyes.
Are there things that worry you about the way we are using and communicating within different kinds of media, Dalene? And, if so, are you being more careful about how you interact with yourself, and/or with others, via certain media?
Dalene: Social media is such a huge dynamic platform where everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There are good and bad, fair and unfair, consequences to actions made online.
I mostly use my mediums for sharing a good photo of mine or promoting my work and communicating with people I know. I would only use WhatsApp for people close to me. It’s quite scary how social media is such a powerful tool, as some people are just there to hate and hurt.
Davina: Are those professional photos? What kind of work do you do?
Dalene: No, just ordinary photos of myself: nothing professional. I am studying media to become a journalist. I am a journalist intern at UnWrap online, a celebrity news magazine.
Davina: I hope interning for a celebrity news magazine is as glamorous as it sounds. I reckon you’ve conducted several in-person interviews with famous people!
Dalene: I wish! COVID-19 made it impossible for me to get the full experience I’d hoped for. I only conduct interviews with Namibian personalities through online platforms. Sometimes celebrities don’t take interns seriously but so far it has been fun and a great learning experience for me.
Davina: Great! Having fun is very important. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your internship? Any advice you’d like to pass on to the next cohort of interns?
Dalene: The most important lesson I’ve learned during my internship is to accept that you will make mistakes. You have to accept constructive criticism and learn from your mistakes. It can be intimidating to approach overwhelming tasks but that is how we learn.
Davina: For how long have you been writing fiction?
Dalene: I started writing last year during the pandemic. I’ve always wanted to write but because of scarce opportunities I put writing aside to become a journalist. As a high school student, I would write short stories and let my friends read them but that’s as far as it went.
Davina: Doek! Literary Magazine has a list of platforms that publish writing by Africans, so I hope you’ll submit stories to those (and many more) in the near future. Incidentally, how did The Letter end up in Doek!?
Also, isn’t it more accurate to say you started writing AGAIN last year, since you wrote in high school? In which case I’d say that the idea of starting again during a period of great anxiety and uncertainty, which the pandemic was (and continues to be) for many of us, suggests that for you writing was a source of cohesion, support, and stability.
“I like to bring my wild imagination to life through writing. I spend most of my time creating scenarios in my head. My current goal as a writer is for Namibians and other Africans from rural areas to resonate with my stories.“
Dalene: Yes, I started writing AGAIN. Oh, yes, the pandemic made me realise that I had nothing extra to do besides being a student. Knowing that I used to write, I took refuge in writing and I am grateful I started writing again.
I came across Doek! Magazine’s post on Instagram requesting Namibian writers to submit their original short stories so I rushed to finish a half-written The Letter and submit it before the due date.
Davina: What stories did you write in high school? What feedback did they get?
Dalene: I wrote teenage love stories, and funny best friends stories. Stories that were similar to teenage movies I watched. Right now, I would say predictable stories. My friends’ reactions were positive; typically, they would respond with, “When are you writing a story again?”
Davina: Was it hard, returning to writing after the hiatus?
Dalene: I wouldn’t say it was hard. I started again as a beginner; I’ve read books and stories and know the basics about the literary world. I would and still search the internet if I get stuck with my writing. I would say that I outgrew writing predictable stories; right now I look within and around me for inspiration.
Davina: Regarding how the different parts of him – essayist, critic, editor, and writer – come together, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo says “…the basic element connecting all prose is the sentence”:
“Perhaps, it was naiveté but from the start, I reasoned that if somehow you could learn to write readable sentences, using punctuation correctly then you have had half the job done. And I mean this even for fiction writing.”
“Some of my journalist colleagues used to say my writing sounded happy. I don’t know much about that unless they meant entertaining, which, I admit, is one goal of my writing. As both reader and writer, I like for words to be alive on the page, for one sentence to propel you to the next just by force of the way its words are arranged. I also think highly of clarity and insight. Now, if you add all three—a certain kind of entertainment, clarity, and insight—with the judicious use of punctuation, you will find that there is little else that a piece of prose writing needs, be it a story, an essay or a review. Of course, as a writer one pays attention to the context. For instance, the story needs a narrative in the way a review doesn’t; the review needs an argument; and you can’t be over-literary in some types of journalism.”
What would you say are the goals of your writing and reading, Dalene?
Dalene: I like to bring my wild imagination to life through writing. I spend most of my time creating scenarios in my head. My current goal as a writer is for Namibians and other Africans from rural areas to resonate with my stories. I grew up on a farm and went to school in the town nearest to it. I believe I can describe rural experiences better than those in the suburbs and city.
I mostly go for books with good reviews, which makes it easier for me to choose. My favourite genres to read are romance and mystery. It thrills me to unveil mysteries, follow clues, and figure out things before the characters do. One can learn a lot about description from romance novels, but I also just enjoy reading a good love story.
Davina: For Faraaz Mahomed, the fragility, vulnerability and fallibility of people tend to be some of the most central themes in his writing “…because that’s where the intricacy of the human experience is”:
“I do also engage with humour and with lightness, because that too is intrinsically human, but I would say that my most natural voice is rooted in the parts of our lives that we want to shy away from or feel shame about. In a way, that is what’s more interesting to me.”
What parts of our lives, and of the human experience, are you most curious about, Dalene?
Dalene: Human experiences we go through as children are what I think shape our way of life and way of thinking. The decisions we make as children go a long way, our childhood experiences can inspire us or break us, so in a way I think this is the most vital part of our life.
Davina: Does this—the vitality of childhood, the way it shapes us—drift among other stories you’ve written?
Dalene: Well, most of them but not all. As a person matures they learn and unlearn along the way. I think the stories that I’ll write in future will tell a different story.
Davina: What do you consider to be the most interesting aspect of your story? I liked the idea of the letters as a proxy for intimacy.
Dalene: What I consider to be the most interesting part of The Letter is the relationship between Maria and Taleni. We, at one point in our lives, have had someone we feel like we had to prove ourselves to. Maria longs for intimacy with her mother; she regularly writes letters to her, hoping that she will respond. She hopes to connect with her mother through writing letters to her. But this time she has to convince her classmates that her mother is famous.
The Letter is essentially a story about children going on an adventure. Everyone can come to different conclusions about it, but it’s meant to be about the innocent reaction of these children to Maria’s absent mother.
Davina: How old are these adventuresome children, again?
Dalene: 14 – 15-year-old high-school students.
Davina: Hmn. I thought they were younger than that; for some reason, in my head, they sound younger when they’re speaking to each other.
I LOVE going to the post office, so I understand their excitement! Are you, like me, sentimental about letter-writing?
Dalene: I was good at writing letters in high school. I would still choose to write a letter over a summarily-written text but I’m not sentimental about letter-writing.
Davina: Sigh. I’d hoped you’d buy shares in my commemorative stamp collecting business. I guess I’ll have to ask Maria instead, but before that I must get to know her better:
Is her faith in Taleni, as the only one that can/should deliver the letter, misplaced? What reservations does she have about the rest tagging along to the post office? Why is she tetchy about being called ‘Mary?’ Why does she refer to her classmates as ‘my peasants’?
Dalene: Maria is a good student. She does not want to dodge school and prefers that only Taleni delivers the letter. I would say she is also a little self-entitled. She thinks she deserves special treatment because she’s a goody two-shoes. She thinks she’s better than her classmates because, after all, her mother is a superstar. In the heat of their argument, she just doesn’t like it that Taleni calls her ‘Mary’ while her name is Maria.
Davina: The way Taleni is able to leave the school grounds and get his father’s truck suggests a general absence of close adult supervision in the story. Perhaps your characters are reacting to more than Maria Kala’s absentee mother.
Dalene: Wow, that’s a really close observation. Taleni steals his father’s truck, so, yes, no parental supervision. Also the teacher is absent so, again, no adult supervision. These kids are on their own for the entirety of the story.
Davina: I was puzzled when, close to the end, the girls went to the right for their earlobes to be pinched and the boys went to the left to be caned. In the school I attended, boys and girls were punished the same way.
Dalene: I think this—separating girls from boys when punishing them—was a common type of punishment teachers used in schools. A male principal or teacher wouldn’t beat a female student on the buttocks.
Davina: Do you have a favourite Namibian writer, and what kind of legacy do you hope to leave for Namibian writing, and other Namibian writers?
Dalene: Yes, I do have a favourite Namibian writer: Jeremiah Goeieman. He is a Khoekhoegowab writer. I met him in my last year of high school. We read and studied his stories in our Khoekhoegowab lessons. He disciplines through his writing.
The kind of legacy that I want to leave for Namibian writing is that I was here, and learned from the best. I hope to write unique, entertaining, and inspiring Namibian stories.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
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.