Moso Sematlane is a writer and filmmaker based in Maseru, Lesotho.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Sokoto, Nigeria; Lagos, Nigeria; and Maseru, Lesotho; via email.
Uchenna: Congratulations on making the Gerald Kraak Prize Shortlist. You’re obviously not new to prizes. Last year, you were shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. How does it feel to know that once again another story of yours has been well received?
Moso: I feel very honoured to have the work resonate with someone enough for them to deem it worthy to be on any shortlist. I always hope that the world will see just how many stories Lesotho has to tell in all artistic mediums. Being on the shortlist for another prize is not only incredibly validating for myself but also for stories from this small country I call home that is often overlooked.
Uchenna: Interesting. Indeed, stories from Lesotho are not much represented in African literature. Does it come with any pressure when your stories are published and then go on to win nominations and prizes? Since there are few stories represented in the mainstream, do you start to think that whatever you’ve produced forms a perception of stories from Lesotho and so have to be told right?
Moso: I wouldn’t say it comes with pressure, though I do see how potentially the very small amount of short stories I have out in the world can form a perception about Lesotho, and hence, the need to be told right. Though I must say, it is quite a tall order to represent an entire population or country. I think fancying myself in that position would invalidate so many other voices and stories, as even a small country like Lesotho is not a monolith. I can only hope the prizes would inspire other Basotho to tell their own stories, because they are valid. I can only create from my own limited perspective as a queer black Mosotho man, and even though these are my stories, there will be many instances that I don’t get it right too. I can only hope to try and honour the stories and characters in the most honest way I can. Within my own limitations of course, as any singular human being is limited. I find great purpose in that too.
Uchenna: I totally agree with you. There are always too many stories to be told to begin to take one as a representative of the others, no matter how few they are.
I ask this question about pressure because of how often people tend to refuse variety in storytelling. They read stories from a particular people and begin to gatekeep. Take African literature for example. The first generation writers were mostly concerned with telling resistance stories, stories that aimed to fight colonialism and appreciate Africanness. Post-independence, it moved to telling stories about the aftermath of independence. Here, stories that talked about corruption, bad leadership, and tribalism became the norm.
A recurring feature of these two generations of African writers was that their writings were very serious and political in nature, and that formed a perception of African writing. A perception that grew into a stereotype that when people think of African literature, they automatically assume it is political literary fiction. Stories that protest. Then came the pressure to continue on this legacy, a pressure that extends to even now in the contemporary literary space. I don’t know about Lesotho, but in Nigeria particularly in the academic setting, stories that are not political or didactic are not considered worthy of critical appreciation. So, African genre fictions are often discouraged because they shift from the focus of these two generations of writers who were mostly political.
I just realised I’m rambling (laughs). I get that way when I start to talk about the too much responsibility people tend to mount on writers, especially African writers, instead of being let to tell our stories the way we please. I don’t know if you get what I mean.
Moso: I totally get what you mean, and rambling is always welcome (laughs). It can get incredibly frustrating because my perception of a writer has always been the writer as primarily an artist. I distinctly remember that since my childhood, the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was an artist (laughs). I’m mentioning this because I think it is in the nature of the artist, and the art itself, to not want to be boxed in, and I think, often, African literature has been denied the pleasure of being seen as just art, and not simply political commentary. Not that art cannot be and is not inherently political. I am thinking of a Nina Simone quote I always go by, where she says that the artist must reflect the times.
One thing I appreciate about my generation is our refusal to be boxed in, and a willingness to defy categories and binaries. I would eventually like to see a literary landscape on the continent where this huge load of responsibility is not placed on our shoulders. It’s interesting that you mention this, and I might be rambling as well, but I fully believe in the idea of creating art for art’s sake, creating something beautiful with the intent of satisfying a purely aesthetic component. Again, not that this can’t be political, but I agree that African fiction is often read as a political statement, and not as an artistic one. This, I think, speaks to the idea and danger of seeing African literature as a monolith with a single definition, as a vehicle to reflect the political strife this continent often goes through. Again, not that writers should not speak to this experience, but I think a much more expansive vision of African literature and art is something I would still like to see.
Uchenna: I agree with you, and I’m glad you get what I’m saying. Art should be looked at as just art first before proceeding to be something else. I mean, we’ve seen how contemporary writers like you in their artistic depiction of society have also in the process lent a voice to various social and political ills irrespective of the genre adopted.
For my undergraduate thesis, I’m carrying out an interesting study on African contemporary speculative short fictions as social commentaries. My case study is magic realist stories by Nigerian writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, found in his collection Dreams and Assorted Nightmares. I argue that irrespective of the magical elements of the story, they commentate on various social problems. The writing isn’t political, and the stories do not aim to protest or anything of the sort. Yet through representation of these issues in the stories, they are discussed, proving that one mustn’t write literary fiction to do ‘serious writing’, whatever that means.
I also think this hostility to diverse stories contributes to why the space is yet to fully accommodate queer narratives. This is of course coupled with homophobia, and that’s quite sad. Save for contemporary literary platforms and their incredible efforts in refusing to box our stories and accommodating this defiance of categories and binaries you mention here of our generation of writers, traditional publishing still suffers gatekeeping and censorship of ‘unusual stories’, and I wonder why. If art is truly a mirror of society, why should you frown against the representation of some aspects of society?
Moso: That sounds like such a cool thesis, and I admire people like Abubakar for defying these boxes and pressures we are speaking of. I do think, though we’ve made huge strides towards equality and having queer representation in literature and other forms of media, that we still have a long way to go in really centering the picture of a diverse human experience, and this contributes to the gatekeeping we sometimes see, or even, having a one-dimensional understanding of what queer fiction looks like.
In the case of traditional publishing on the continent, I think it is worth noting also that a lot of African countries have still criminalized homosexuality and queerness at large, so it is difficult for me as a queer writer to divorce the gatekeeping from this context. I think it begs introspection on the part of publishers, as big role players in deciding what gets published and what doesn’t, to really be aware, if they are not already, that even queer fiction is not one dimensional, queerness is not one dimensional. There’s still little representation for trans stories for example. I think diversity is something to embrace and celebrate, rather than shy away from. I really like what you said that art should be a mirror of society. And like any mirror, it must reflect all our beauty, and all our mess, all our contradictions.
“I have always believed that writing, making art, is a product of a lived life, and not to be too mystical about it, but I do think as a writer you are just a vessel for whatever the universe is trying to communicate through you.“
Uchenna: A very long way really, especially in this part of the world where our sentimentality comes with cherry picking cultures that suit our biases, and then go as far as criminalising those who dare to be different. Like you said, this also gatekeeps our stories, so I find it brave when writers decide to go out of the norm and tell stories that many would rather wish were never told and pretend like they don’t exist, stories like ‘The Boys Whose Hearts Were Sepulchres’.
In ‘The Boys Whose Hearts Were Sepulchres’, we are plunged into a sad world where Sello, a pure soul with love so genuine, is torn between a boy whom he loves that cannot love him back and an older boy who sees him as a sex toy and just that. Struggling to make sense of a society that judges him even before knowing him, happiness turns into a distant emotion that even love from his helpless mother makes little difference. What was it like telling Sello’s story? What informed it?
Moso: With this story I was interested in exploring the tension between beauty and a particular kind of restlessness and sadness that comes with being Sello’s age. There’s a town some 15 to 20 minutes from where I live in Maseru called Ladybrand. It is a part of South Africa, so you have to cross the border to go to it. I think I have always been fascinated by small, sleepy towns and something about Ladybrand just appealed to me…its slowness. Maseru is a city with characteristics of a small town, though in recent years, because of urbanisation, life has felt more fast paced. I am always fascinated by small spaces like Ladybrand, by the idea of slowness or boredom, and how this can be an arena for very grand emotion.
I was fascinated by the beauty of words too. I was listening to a lot of Florence Welch writing this, and I think the drama of her music inspired a desire in me to create something with high drama, melodrama even, in very small moments. And how she foregrounds the magic of words in her songwriting. I am mentioning these because it seems my jumping off point for writing any story, this one included, seems to be a collision of whatever things I am obsessed with at that particular time, and I am obsessed with a lot (laughs).
I remember going to get my Sunday groceries in the student area I lived in and coming across a boy in very beautiful church regalia. We exchanged very quick glances passing each other on the street, but something about that moment made me feel like I knew him or had met him before. I might just be projecting but there was a sadness to him, and a beauty too, that I found interesting. I returned to my flat with my groceries, and just started jotting down notes around the story, sentences, and images that were coming to me in that moment. Writing the story, I was much, much younger than I am now but I remember wanting to really speak to the experience of youth, especially the stage of youth where the idea of who you want to be in the world looms ahead of you, and the uncertainty of it too. So it was really a collision of these different ideas and feelings and places that I was obsessed with at the time.
Uchenna: OMG! You have such an interesting writing process, Moso. I remember conversing with Nigerian poet Saddiq Dzukogi who writes similarly. Dzukogi says he could find a bird perching on a roof and kids playing football and a poem would occur to him that may not necessarily be about the sights he had witnessed, but would embody it. That’s what ‘The Boys Whose Hearts Were Sepulchres’ did, a beautiful mosaic made of pieces of these different ideas and things, making Sello’s story more memorable.
I would like us to discuss the characters individually. Let’s begin with Sello. There is an unsettling depth to Sello’s sadness. Unsettling for me because it felt like there were too many layers to it. No one deserves to carry that much loneliness and sadness, not to mention such a young pure heart like Sello who simply wants to love and be loved back. I came undone in the scene where he vents to his mother about how the society, the church and almost everyone around him condemn and judge him even before meeting him. That outburst reminded me of Ugochukwu Damian’s CNF piece where he talks about his relationship with the church. I know you said that Sello was based on this church boy you had seen one time on the street, but can you share more? What was it like writing him?
Moso: I really relate to that a lot, Saddiq’s process of finding the soul of the writing in the outside world. I have always believed that writing, making art, is a product of a lived life, and not to be too mystical about it, but I do think as a writer you are just a vessel for whatever the universe is trying to communicate through you. So I, too, have found that even something like the quality of light on an afternoon after it rains could open up this other world of stories, images, or feelings that inspire me to eventually write.
Sello is really special to me in that I relate a lot to that all-encompassing loneliness and sadness that he feels. When I was really young and starting to realize that I was a bit different from other boys my age, I remember really becoming aware of, for lack of a better way to explain it, the loneliness and, yes, sadness of how separated I felt from other kids my age. During play, I would sink into these really pensive episodes where I thought of all these big, existential questions about life…questions that I tried to find answers to in novels and films. Sello and I are unlike in so many ways, but we do have a lot of similarities. Writing him, I remember really wanting to tap into the angst I felt at that age. And although characters do have elements of ourselves as writers, I think, though there are a lot of things I would change about this story (laughs), I really succeeded in making and allowing him to be his own person.
For example, one thing I did was to try and discover who he was outside of the loneliness and the situation he was in. I know he’s an anime lover for example, and spends a lot of time watching that. Though not in the story, these things were important in making him real enough for me to write him. It seemed to me that Sello’s sadness, though he’s young, has an almost ancient lineage to it. It came before him and it will come after him, and in the world of the story would affect many other boys and girls like him.
The idea of this far-reaching, ancient sadness is something I was really interested in, how it binds Sello to men like David. The sadness was interesting to me especially when it came to the question of what it means to be queer in the world, to be born into a world that hates you before they even allow themselves to know you. As much as you can be gay, or bisexual, or trans… I think Sello’s frustration is that his internal world is far bigger than all these boxes the world tries to fit him into, and the assumptions they make because of that.
I’m glad that you had that reaction to Sello’s outburst and I hope I didn’t break your heart too much (laughs), but this is only because as a writer, writing him, this sadness is something I felt too. I can’t write, with honesty at least, unless the characters feel really real to me. So everything that they’re feeling I am feeling too. This can get confusing as a writer when I am in the middle of a story because I’m feeling all these emotions, and lines are blurred as to where my own emotions begin and end, and where the character’s emotions begin and end, as was the case when I was writing Sello.
I remember really wanting to be done with this story, if only so that he would release me, so I could get on with my life with the feeling that I still belonged to myself. But I’ve learned that this is the great sacrifice you make in telling fictional stories; you don’t really belong to yourself.
Uchenna: I agree with you. In the creation of a character, especially in a story you care so much about, you find that you’re suddenly powerless to the narration of this character’s life. It is like the character overpowers you and you swap roles, they become the master whose bidding you have to do, and if it’s a character that has even the tiniest semblance with a sadness about you, you begin to bare yourself in them. From baring, you risk losing yourself. Did you at any point in writing Sello (or any other character) take a breather because you were blurring the lines of creator and creation? If not, what do you do to not get into this state?
Moso: I think balance is something I’m always striving toward both in my personal and artistic life. As much as I can give myself over to these characters, what this would mean for my daily life is something I am always concerned about, because this blurring is something that I struggle with. I remember listening to an interview with the writer Hanya Yanagihara where she talked about the intense fever dreamlike state in which she wrote her novel A Little Life. Though you do get the sense of a single, sustained tone or mood reading the novel, it was interesting and admirable to me how she said, with this novel in particular, it didn’t pull her away from her life…she would go to her job, come back and be able to get in that sustained fever dream mode of writing.
As heavy as it was writing Sello, it was quite fun too. I enjoy the feeling of wondering where or how a character is going to end up as you are writing them. I drink but I’m not a huge drinker, and writing him I remember thinking, ‘this is why writers are notorious for being big drinkers, to numb themselves from the emotional pull fictional characters can have on you’ (laughs). So, as much as I never took a breather, I did look at some ways of involving myself in things that would pull me away from Sello’s emotions completely, until I opened my computer again. I took long walks, went clubbing, and would dance to pop music. Anything to completely throw myself in something that didn’t have to do with the story.
Uchenna: (Laughs) The bit about drinking. To me, writers who survive creating characters that carry so much sadness are brave. This is because I cannot. (Laughs) I may just completely lose it and that work will never see the light of day. Do you think this is why modern day African literature critics encourage writers to be more positive in their storytelling? Or do you see this critique as another attempt at gatekeeping African stories?
Moso: (Laughs) I do see writers as very brave people as well. Even those who don’t necessarily write sad characters. I do hope that at least you have other characters you can carry that hold other emotions in this very big spectrum of human emotion; we need those stories as well! Not to pivot too much, but I do find happiness, or the state of happiness, more challenging to write than someone who is sad. I admire writers who can carry both tones with skill and honesty. To answer your question, I do hear how people can long for happier, lighter stories from this continent. In my personal reading, I have found literary platforms, especially online, to be quite a champion for diversity in stories, and especially ones with a more positive outlook.
I think the world is such a confusing and often dark place already, so I do see how critics can encourage a bit of unabashed, positive escapism in our fiction. But, again, with that said, writing is often such a personal endeavour unique to each person who undertakes it. So, as a critic, or as a reader, I don’t see much value in telling another writer what or how to write. Though criticism is always welcome, and I see it as an art form on its own. So, over the years I’ve come to see critical engagement less as an example of gatekeeping, but more of a testament to how alive the work is. And life is not entirely sad, nor is it entirely a happy phenomenon. It’s a mixture of these things, and I am always really inspired by storytelling that reflects that.
Uchenna: This is an interesting approach to criticism and I like the optimism. Indeed, for your work to get critical engagement shows how impressionable it is, and irrespective of the impression, it shows that you’re at least being read. Looking at criticism this way also gives room for improvement, and this goes to show how intentional you are about developing your craft. I like that.
Why exactly do you find happiness or the state of happiness more challenging to write? Is this because it seems dishonest? So you struggle to relate to such experiences? I mean ours is a society filled with so many reasons to forgo smiles, so it’s understandable when writing happiness becomes untrue, dishonest and I dare say, farfetched. Is this why?
Moso: I wouldn’t say writing happiness seems dishonest for me. God forbid the day I find happiness as something unworthy to strive towards, both in life and in art. Although, I must admit, with the state of the world right now, it seems there are fewer and fewer things to be happy about each day. It might just be a matter of personal taste. I’m realizing from this conversation that all the books I’ve loved throughout my years as a reader are quite sad books. I recently fell utterly in love, again, with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I loved that book when I read it many years ago, but reading it again in a world altered by the pandemic, I realized just what a sad book it was, how much sadness the characters carried in them, because they were, fundamentally, disappointed by the world and how it kills whatever dreams or ideals you have.
To me, happiness seems harder to write because I genuinely think it’s much more complex than what society has led us to believe. Conventionally, a happy life, or a happy existence, seems to be one that leaves no room for darkness, or dark moods or thoughts, or even, the fleeting nature of happiness itself. If I am happy for a day, then sad the next, then happy again the day after that, does that make me, in a general sense, happy? When I am writing, I am always thinking about and investigating emotions on both a macro and micro scale…what is making the character in this moment happy? Are they genuinely happy or is this something they’re telling themselves? Forgive this philosophizing (laughs), but to answer your question, it’s just the complexity of how I view happiness that makes it difficult to write. Because for me, as I’ve grown older, I’ve suspected that perhaps our understanding of happiness is limited. That happiness is something that has to take account the sadness of our existence as humans, or the darkness our hearts are capable of. This is a hard balance to strike for me in art. And perhaps in life as well (laughs).
Uchenna: Not you trying to make me question all of my happy moments. (Laughs) But can’t this also be said for sadness? Amidst the sadness, there are episodes where we are genuinely happy. Moments in between the seemingly overbearing sadness, where a smile erupts due to say, a win, getting a hug from a loved one, a fond memory, or the boy you love searching for words he cannot say with his foot under a table and in between your legs, right after you told him you loved him.
Breyten. The boy who chose to remain in The Glass Castle. I feel there is so much to Breyten than meets the eye. Maybe because the narration was told through the eyes of Sello, but we didn’t get a chance to unravel the many layers you wrote into his character. Like Sello, I feel he, too, carried sadness in him. Sello confesses that he sees something familiar in his eyes, “boys who could love only in the darkness”, and even in the glance Breyten exchanged with his mother in church when she walked up to them together, like she knew his orientation and he feared her. What I cannot place my finger on is what exactly was stopping him from starting something with Sello. Was it just his religion? Or was it a problem of race too? Talk about Breyten and his own sepulchre of a heart? What was it like writing him?
Moso: These are such beautiful observations and an equally beautiful question! I’m reminded of Sello himself, especially the part where he honours the happiness he felt even in those moments where his love for Breyten was not returned, small moments like their feet touching. I think it really speaks to holding on to the moments of happiness that we’re speaking of, however fleeting they may be.
What was really interesting, and frankly, really enjoyable for me in writing Breyten was this very same distance I keep him from the reader. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? In the story, the point of view roves around a little bit, but with Breyten, I remember making the choice to make it so that Sello, and by extension, the reader, could not pin down what exactly he was thinking. Sello, at the restaurant, succeeds a bit in pulling out words from him to discover his feelings, pulling him out the Glass Castle so to speak, but once Breyten is on the edge of it, he puts up those walls again. The irony of this is that, as heavy as it was writing Sello, and technically challenging, Breyten was always the one whose emotions and emotional journey I could chart throughout the story.
I don’t want to impose my own perception on a reader too much about a character, even though I am the one who wrote them (laughs), but I think to answer your question about what was stopping him from starting something with Sello, was simply, all of the above! It did have to do with race. It did have to do with religion, and a lot to do with being in Ladybrand itself. Breyten has never dealt with any situation where another boy desires him in such an overt way, and at first it makes him uncomfortable, before awakening his own desire to perhaps go down a path that is more true to his own heart than the one he is on. The fact that it’s a black boy at that introduces a whole new phenomenon in this white-dominated and super religious environment he’s grown up in.
If writing Sello felt like I was singing this sad, slow lament or dirge, I remember writing Breyten and feeling like he had hurricanes inside his chest. We don’t get his perspective much throughout the story but what we get are emotions or utterances that are constantly in flux… sometimes they’re violent, sometimes they’re affable again, sometimes they seem to show an earnest desire to get to know Sello better, before starting the vicious cycle again. This is why the constant image that came to me writing him, and even now, is someone with hurricanes in their chest. That is the nature his sepulchre takes.
Uchenna: Oh, I get it now, and I must say that my inability to completely comprehend him gave him this interesting wonder and shielded him from whatever dislike I wanted to offer. I mean, he did hurt poor Sello, but dude seemed like he had his own demons and I can’t be hating on someone like that. (Laughs) You know who I can completely hate? David. Poor sweet Sello never deserved that dude. I remember the scene where Sello confessed his feelings for him, and what did David say? “Keep that to yourself. I just came here to fuck.” Ah! Why so cold? No no no, nah, not my Sello. You don’t get to do that and stay on my good side. I’m curious, what is it like writing him? What were you aiming at by writing David the way you did?
Moso: (Laughs) Oh no, not this conversation starting the anti-David hate movement (laughs). I hope that David, wherever he is, has thick enough skin to withstand the hate coming his way (laughs). I am glad that you reacted that strongly to him though, and it feels like I did my job in showing all the ways David’s presence in Sello’s life harms Sello in the end. As much as I prefer not to take any firm moral stance in my writing, I think David’s ugliness to Sello was something I had to be comfortable with showing as well. The interesting thing about him is that he didn’t come to me in my initial inception of the story, I had always thought of a more self contained story with just Sello, Breyten, ‘MaSello, and the other minor characters. He just grew from this fascination I had throughout the writing with, again, this ancient sadness that affected three boys in different ways, almost as a motif. I say boys because to me, David is still a boy stuck in his adolescence. This became interesting to me in light of the question that I had, of why these older queer men sleep with younger boys. It seemed, to me, an iteration of this sadness I’m talking about, a way for them to relive bygone years where the times didn’t allow them to be their true selves. I found beauty, too, in all his ugliness.
In the idea of sepulchres, or an almost Biblical pain and anger of being born into a world where your true self is criminalized. It might just be my own gloom talking again, but I find graveyards and sepulchres to be quite beautiful things. I thought it interesting that David comes from all these aesthetic fascinations I was having at the time. Growing up in the apartheid era, as much as he is a white man who was unaffected by the violence black people faced, the idea of violence and repression was still something woven into the fabric of the society he came from. I just liked this idea of an ancient, Biblical sadness refracted through these three different boys…in some of them it takes the shape of anger and coldness like we see with David. But I think because of this, it was quite fun writing him too (laughs). Maybe I have a bit of sadism in me, but I liked that through him, I got to explore all these different aesthetic concerns I had. Like I said, reading this story now, there is probably a lot I would change, but I had fun writing him.
Uchenna: I think I was close-minded to David’s character and that probably limited my understanding of him, maybe because Sello had already been hurt by Breyten and then David came into the picture and dealt a greater blow that straight up riled me up. (Laughs)
Your last line sparked off my curiosity and you just have to tell me. What would you change about this story now? I hope Sello getting a happy ending makes it to the list. Please.
Moso: (Laughs) I apologize on his behalf for this. Though, looking back at this, it seems to me that David was very aware that he was hurting Sello. Or that Sello had already been hurt.
I don’t know if I were to write the story again, if it still would be as lush and really colourful with language as it is now. Over the years since writing this story, I have been fascinated by restraint in language. I’ve learned that as an artist you are never satisfied; you are always tinkering with the work. But again, my own fascinations shift and change so often that I might find that I would do everything exactly the same should I write it again (laughs). Though I am proud that reading it, it seems to be a beautiful object, which was my aim when I started writing it, to create something beautiful.
(Laughs) I don’t know if Sello would get a happy ending though. I will say, a rewrite of this story would probably be picking up from a place where Sello is much older, and some of the struggles he’s facing in the story he would have overcome. Just because he would be older and more mature. But life as we know is very unpredictable (laughs). Happy endings aren’t always guaranteed.
Uchenna: Moso, we will take what we can get (laughs). At least a more mature Sello would be able to navigate his depth of sadness, which they kept unearthing.
Another character I would love us to discuss is Sello’s mum. Earlier, I shared what I deduced from her character, how she is personally struggling between accepting her son whom she loves dearly and her faith that instructs her to condemn him, explaining her insistence on his going to church and her still loving him for who he is. Could you talk about writing her and how her being on the fence regarding Sello’s sexuality affected Sello?
Moso: This is an interesting question. With ‘MaSello I remember really wanting to investigate the relationship a lot of queer people have with their parents, especially religious parents. I think what I was getting at, or at least, trying to get at, was to find out for myself how I might empathize with a parent who, though they’ve accepted their child for who they are, doesn’t truly understand them. In a way, ‘MaSello is admirable to me because even in this not-understanding of her son, she still holds on to the idea of love as a guiding principle. Even in the face of a homophobic church.
It reminds me of something someone said that I found so profound. Though I believe that queer people don’t have to come out as anything to their parents, because that’s not an expectation that is put on straight people, it’s unfair, but this person said that when coming out about your sexuality to your family, they go on journeys of their own with it. Oftentimes as queer people, by the time we come out, we’ve had years to deal with our feelings and identity in the privacy of our hearts, so coming out to someone close to you, it feels new, as it does with ‘MaSello. The best people won’t struggle too much with it, but because we’re all flawed, as ‘MaSello is flawed, she still sees Sello’s sexuality as something new that she has to grapple with.
Writing her really fleshed out, for me, the dimensions around the idea of coming out, and made me appreciate the very flawed humanity in a person that still struggles to fully accept someone else’s sexuality. Not that it’s for them to accept in the first place. But ‘MaSello’s failure to fully understand really further isolates Sello. He has all these feelings around why society makes it hard for him to just love another boy, and ‘MaSello becomes this void that he’s constantly screaming into but gets no answers from.
Uchenna: It is the same feeling I have toward ‘MaSello because as much as she was indeed a void, you could tell she was struggling terribly. Torn between accepting her only child whose confession is a threat to all the institutions in her life and unlearning years of hate toward gayness in her. She was written really well. I loved the representation.
This has really been lovely. Let’s talk about your writing generally. Since ‘The Boys Whose Hearts Were Sepulchres’, has the consciousness with which you approach storytelling changed? And what year did you write ‘The Boys Whose Hearts Were Sepulchres’?
Moso: Thank you! I started writing ‘The Boys Whose Hearts Were Sepulchres’ in early 2018 and finished it at the end of that year. I think since then, the consciousness through which I approach storytelling has stayed pretty much the same in the sense of me drawing from the world around me, and even my personal life sometimes, to fuel my writing. In these stories are some of my most precious memories, people I’ve talked to, things I’ve seen, although there is an equal number of things I make up. But of course, over the years as you grow as a person and as an artist, your tastes change too. Your political and personal concerns. So as much as it’s stayed the same, it has changed in many other ways too.
Uchenna: What are you currently working on? Mind giving us a scoop?
Moso: (Laughs) I must confess that I am not immune to writerly superstitions around talking about work before it’s finished but what I will say is that I am always working on something, or some things (laughs). It just takes a while before they are at a level that can be shared, but I always look forward to sharing, even if it’s given the time of day by only a small group of people.
Uchenna: Are you for real now? (Laughs) This wasn’t the exclusive I was looking for, but I will take it.
What books would you recommend and why?
Moso: There are many books I am always excited to recommend…there’s always so much to recommend and even so much more to read. But I will highlight three that I have been thinking about lately. The first is Chaka by Thomas Mofolo. This, I think, is a novel that is often overlooked in its contribution to African literature. It’s even closer to my heart as it comes from Lesotho. The second is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This one, I think, leaves you a much kinder person after finishing it. The world is always in need of more kindness. The third is The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I read this in the beginning of the year and was completely blown away by it. It is quite long but it was a reminder of what is possible with the form of the novel. I will throw in a fourth because, why not? (Laughs). A friend recently got me the memoir An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison for my birthday, which I found really illuminating, especially if you are someone who often finds living inside their own head quite a challenging experience like I often do. This is such an important book, I think, for anyone who has ever had mental health struggles.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Zenas Ubere.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.