The Perceived Threat of the “Other”: An Interview with MH Sarkis

“What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.”–MH Sarkis

MH Sarkis is an artist whose work explores cross-cultural tensions and identity. In our interview with her, she tells us where her interest in art stems from, her influences, how it has evolved and her plans for the future.

profile - MH Sarkis
MH Sarkis

ABR: First of all, your name is fascinating. Anyone seeing it without first meeting you is more than likely to think that it’s a man behind the beautiful paintings? What’s the reason behind the pseudonym?
SARKIS: I’m happy the name sparks curiosity. MH is a shortened version of my full first name, which I feel good about keeping under wraps as I continue solidifying myself in the industry.
It’s interesting you should say one would think it’s a man behind the work; recently a national newspaper referred to me as a “he”. I suppose many still consider it to be a male-dominated profession.
Someone came up to me the other day and said “I didn’t expect to see a fine girl behind these paintings!”
I laughed. I don’t mind – I enjoy the element of surprise and challenging expectations and perceptions.
 

ABR: How did you develop an interest in painting and when did you decide to go pro?

SARKIS: I was always drawing and colouring in my childhood. Throughout primary school I enjoyed showing my work to adults and seeing their reactions. Then in secondary school our art teacher told me it would be a shame if I didn’t do anything with my skill-set. Although I didn’t think much of the comment at the time, it encouraged me.
I was more drawn to painting as a medium when I read about the Expressionists and how they explored the body and the self. I tried acrylic paint shortly after, and I fell in love with the “gloop”, its versatility, when I saw I could manipulate it well to the point of presenting something unexpected and visually striking. I had a gut feeling and when that happened I decided to go pro…
I then backed out of my English (Literature) UCAS applications. I wasn’t one to wait [for another round of UCAS] so I enrolled into a liberal arts institution which was happily quite international, and was painting of my own accord throughout undergraduate studies. No regrets o! None at all.

ABR: What was the first work you ever did and the first you ever sold? What has changed since then?

SARKIS: It’s hard to tell; just today I found another work in the house I grew up in, and I’m not sure of the date. The first artwork I sold was a large commissioned landscape piece that wasn’t really connected to my current practice but was a good experience at the time. That was years ago and what has changed is, as I’ve focused on my practice and continued exploring what inspires me, I am now sensing heightened interest from others inside the industry as well as outside.

 

ABR: What influences your style and what medium do you use in painting? 

IMG_20150829_153858SARKIS: Nigerian crafts (I grew up surrounded by carved work and not paintings per se). Masks, scarification, people. The grooves within and around the face. I am also interested in clash of cultures, or a harmony sometimes unexpected. The “other”, and the perceived threat of the “other”. They arise from my own experiences.

I mainly use acrylic paint because it allows flexibility: I can lay it on thickly and shape it, or thinly and as a wash. It also dries more quickly, which is often a good thing as it can encourage instinct if one’s an over-thinker, which I can sometimes be. On the other hand that can be quite dangerous, especially with my way of “digging in” while it’s fresh and workable.

 

 ABR: Your first exhibition in Nigeria “Back on the Island” is currently ongoing. What is the inspiration for your latest paintings?

SARKIS: All stem from real experiences and personal realities. The pieces are somewhat varied but at the heart of the works are notions of “cross-culturalism”, otherness, and identity especially relating to the Sub Sahara and Middle East. Scarification is a big inspiration, but the distinction in my work between markings and sculpturally-influenced lines are often blurred.

 

ABR: What memorable responses have you had to your works?

IMG_20150829_154004SARKIS: A lot of people (many of whom I don’t know) have stared at the works, and eventually, slowly stretch out a finger to touch. At first I would observe and not register how I felt about that as I wasn’t sure; you know often people advise against touching artworks for various reasons. But afterwards I realised I felt happy the work was that textural or tempting for them to just go for it, even when they knew full well the artist was standing a few feet away. Thankfully they were gentle.

 

ABR: How has painting influenced your life?

SARKIS: The painting process, as well as the surrounding and resulting events, has been cathartic. It is one of the strongest ways to express myself; I feel if we can’t express our story the best we can, we have the tendency to act it out in ways that are difficult to comprehend.

In short I have been able to understand my personal history, experiences, and triggers and tie things together through the medium. I am able to form relationships with others through sharing my work whereas previously, I had experienced feelings of isolation that can come with being a migrant here.

 

ABR: What setbacks have you experienced in your artistic journey and what did you learn from it/them?

IMG_20150829_153938SARKIS: I left university and didn’t have artistic contacts or networks to join in the UK (let alone Nigeria where I previously was). Most of my peers left the country after graduation. There was no tangible support system and I felt like I was starting from rock bottom. It was that sense of isolation and detachment, which I linked to “outsider-ness”, all over again. Getting online and applying to many open calls helped, as I then exhibited widely in and around London. I eventually came across the ‘Outside In’ platform, and the ‘Saatchi Art’ platform which then featured me a few times. This all happened back when I had a full-time job, and commuted well over an hour most days after work to my studio, and later to an artist residency with Free Space Gallery.

What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.

 

ABR: Aside from painting, do you do anything else to release your creativity? If yes, what are they?

SARKIS: I enjoy writing poetry and prose now and then. I used to write short stories often but haven’t written one in a while. The last one was based on a real-life event in Lagos and involved Pidgin. I was pleased with it but my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed it up. I still get worked up thinking about it! Now that’s where painting has the upper hand!
 

ABR: You’ll be going for your residency in Egypt soon. How did that come about and what are your plans afterwards?

IMG_20150829_175714
Mh Sarkis and ABR interviewer, Chioma Nkemdilim

SARKIS: The Gallery Manager and Managing Director of ‘Gallery Ward’ saw my artwork and invited me to join them as artist-in-residence at their base in Giza, which I am looking forward to especially as I understand Egypt is a culturally unique yet influential place, and a meeting point between Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, aspects that currently concern my work.

I look forward to seeing how the residency could inform my practice but at the same time perhaps give me a fresh start.

I can’t say exactly yet, but my general plan for afterwards is to continue taking things up a notch in terms of visual presentation.

 

ABR: What is your ultimate goal professionally?

SARKIS: I often feel wary about saying too much in future tense, also because I don’t feel there is an “end-point” or set goal. But at the moment the aim it is to take myself back home and keep me mobile. I also would like to solidify a connection between the places that have influenced me and mean something to me. I want to solidify myself. I want my work to continue hanging here in Nigeria, in the UK, and in Lebanon. If it trickles over their borders, that would be good too.

 

ABR: Where can we find your art work? 

IMG_20150829_154310SARKIS: Nike Art Gallery and Quintessence at the moment. Online, mainly within my Saatchi Art portfolio (www.saatchiart.com/sarkisartist)

For updates as well as artworks you can follow my Instagram (@sarkisartist) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/sarkisartist)

“Everyone talked about #Bringbackourgirls, but what about the girls who escaped, did anyone come to see them, to support them?”

Nelly Ating is a development coordinator, gender activist, journalist, and photographer working in Yola, Nigeria. We met with Nelly to talk about her work with internally displaced people in Northern Nigeria (survivors of violence, or people who fled their homes in anticipation of Boko Haram attacks), why she’s not a fan of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, as well as her personal writing, and her travels.

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Nelly Ating

ABR: Please tell us about your work with internally displaced people (IDPs) and how that came about. 

ATING: I work with the American University of Nigeria, Yola as a writer. The university identifies itself as a development university and partners with local organizations to identify vulnerable youth in Yola who need support.  One of those local organizations is the Adamawa Peace Initiative–an NGO that aims to maintain peace and create new avenues for sustainable development in the state.

In March 2014, the group decided to aid IDPs who were camping at the Emir’s palace in Mubi. I was just an intern then, but I heard stories of victims of the insurgency, and I wanted to see firsthand. Luckily, I was assigned to cover that story.  It became a routine, I was always assigned to cover stories about IDPs, and also help distribute food to them. The University fed more than 270,000 internally displaced persons who lived in and out of that camp in 2014 alone.

ABR:  Where are some of the IDPs from and how is the program helping reintegrate them into society?

ATING: Some of the IDPs are from Borno, Yobe, Michika, Madagali, Hong and other neighboring local governments. Some fled from Cameroon as well. The Adamawa Peace Initiative established a farming system to reintegrate the IDPs community. The first group of IDPs who benefited from that project, are now members of Bole Community where the university is located.

ABR:  What are some misconceptions about IDPs both in terms of media portrayal and what other people understand about them? What are the things you’d like people to know instead?

ATING: The media portrays IDPs as illiterate and incapacitated. But it may shock you to know that among these IDPs we have teachers, head masters, local government IMG_0976workers, village heads and so on. These people are picking up their lives notwithstanding the violence they’ve survived, they are creating small businesses to keep them going. Others are farming, and some volunteered to continue their professions in the refugee camps.

When the media comes here, they walk past all the educated IDPs, the ones who have set up shops, have become teachers and farmers…they go to the townships and look hard to take pictures of flies buzzing around hungry-looking people.

The conflict is not a religious fight, we have both Christians and Muslims living together in peace. The media attention is what this insurgency group [Boko Haram] feeds on, they need this publicity to instill fear in people.

ABR: Tell us a little about the escaped Chibok girls. Where are they now, what progress are they making?

ATING: Pure Joy! That is how I felt when I saw two of the girls who were very broken when we picked them up last year; enrolled in our Fall academic session as freshmen. I couldn’t help but hug them and whisper congratulations. They are really doing fine. They have been able to blend in the AUN community and continue their education.

 
ABR: You’re not a fan of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, can you tell us a little about why?

ATING: Whether we like it or not, our generation is changing gradually, women are beginning to challenge the status quo. A feminist friend of mine once said, “Women changed social science.” We can unchange all those ideologies that the female child is not as important as the male child. Education is for all.

But please tell that #BringBackOurGirls campaign group; they might be acting with the knowledge they have, but I still feel they act out of their own selfish interest. I haven’t seen them come to Yola to visit the escaped girls schooling in AUN. If you believe in fighting for education, first of all support what others are doing.

“Everyone talked about the #Bringbackourgirlscampaign, but what about the girls who escaped, did anyone come to see them, to support them?”

ABR: You’re a writer, photographer and traveler.  Tell us about your relationship to those three professions, how do they help you understand the world?

ATING: I enjoy creative writing– I can be inspired from a picture of the cloud. As a traveler, I yearn to understand what other people think. African culture is really outstanding. There is more to see in the world and write about.

ABR: Who are your favorite African writers/artists who have influenced your work?
ATING: Chimamanda Adichie is a prolific writer who has influenced my work. Asa’s music is also an invigorating influence, it is truly African.

ABR: What has your role working with IDPs taught you?

ATING: That the only factor that holds us bound is our mind. If you choose to IMG_0228dwell on a situation or your condition it might kill you, but when you see your condition as just a momentary step down, you can excel. Those IDPs are the most resilient people I have ever met.

 

ABR:  How can people get involved in terms of giving or volunteering?

ATING: Visit The American University of Nigeria website to support our work.

ABR: What are some upcoming projects you’re working on in terms of travel, development work or creative work?

ATING: South America is my next destination and recently I have been trying to blend creative writing with journalistic writing. I will be hosting a workshop very soon on that. I am also working on a documentary about child beggars in Yola.

A Writer’s Role Isn’t to Answer Questions but to Ask Them–Abdul Adan

Abdul Adan is Somali American writer. He grew up in Kenya and later moved to the US where he studied literature at Washington University. His fiction has appeared in several journals including Kwani?, African-Writing, and SCARF. His short story The Somalification of James Karangi, was published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books. His passions include chess, fiction, and Eurasian languages. The African Book Review had a conversation with Abdul Adan about The Somalification of James Karangi and his role of as an African writer.

ab pinABR: What inspires your writing?

ADAN: Very often the stories I write, and end up liking, are not born out of incidents, or places and people, but out of something I have come to call “the what if factor.” I look at reality as it is, and ask myself, what if it were otherwise? What if a man chased a dog down the street and bit it? Lately, the new “what if?” in my mind has been, “What if we had tails?” Perhaps, touching a lady’s tail, would be punishable by death, regardless of the circumstances under which the contact occurred. I hope a plot will come out of this.

ABR: Your story, The Somalification of James Karangi included in Gambit deals with the ‘somalification’ of a character, turning him into a real Somali man worthy of a Somali bride. While slightly comic, it’s an interesting idea that one can morph identity from one thing to another. What was your inspiration for it and to what extent do you think identity is a fluid, adjustable thing?

ADAN: The Somalification was inspired by an incident in High School. A friend of mine, a Kikuyu boy, tried to pronounce Somali words, and ended up choking. He probably exaggerated whatever irritation was in his throat, but at the end he did say that he suspected Somali children was strangled for weeks to enable them to speak their own language correctly. Almost a decade later, I decided to try it out in a short story. I have since thanked him for the idea, and he was greatly flattered. Everything else in the story was written to make the ‘choking scene’ possible. I speak about my own identity, which has shifted a lot over the years. I am now undergoing a third metamorphosis, learning to speak and think in Kazakh. So far it is going well. I will soon write about my Kazakhanization. Honestly though, I have no idea what drives me towards this theme. It keeps coming back. Some forces in the universe want me to keep changing and force identity changes in fictional characters.

ABR: Did you set out to accomplish a point through the story and do you try to accomplish something through your work in general? If so, what are you trying to accomplish?

ADAN: Often I aim to invite curiosity and conversation about the tackled subjects. In this, I am a follower of Anton Chekhov, who said

a writer’s role isn’t to answer questions but to ask them

I want to have readers lean back after a story and say, ‘come to think of it….’

ABR: As a Somali writer, how has Somalia, and more specifically being from the Gedo region which has Kenyan influences, influenced your works and what do you think the future of Somali writing will be?

ADAN: I must admit that Somalia’s role on me has been minimal. I have been an external observer for as long as I can remember. The Somali people, on the other hand, have had a great influence on my work. You have seen this in the Somalification story that you read. Being from Gedo, (part of Gedo is in Kenya), has made me more conscious of how outsiders (especially fellow Eastern Africans) view Somalis. There’s so much that can be done with the Somali story I think. Unfortunately, much of the English language writing about Somalis out there isn’t up to the task. Not many have been strong enough to capture the active, ever changing Somali spirit with precision. I worry those of us writing in English aren’t good enough to adequately tell the Somali story with all its colors. I hope to see writings that are innovative, both in subject and style, works that attempt to paint the Somali national and ethnic character. Giving characters Somali names or dressing them up as Somalis isn’t enough.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African novelists or writers?

ADAN: Chuma Nwokolo, Chika Unigwe, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Mehul Gohil, Dango Mkandawire, Zukiswa Wanner, and Okwiri Oduor.

ABR: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?

ADAN: I am working on a bunch of things. A short novel and two essays about Kazakhstan, where I live now. The essays explore what’s perhaps the oldest of the Turkic languages, Kazakh, and compares it to Somali and certain variations of Oromo. We have been learning European languages and ideas for too long, and ignored nearly everything else. Being in Kazakhstan has been an educating and entertaining experience.

Liminality–The Inbetween Space  

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Hope Wabuke, whose poem “Leviticus,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between a parent and child.

ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

WABUKE: Poetry was my first love, but it took me a long, circular time to be strong in the work. I wrote my first poem when I was six. It was about an elephant named Elephy. More followed. Poetry was a sort of sanctuary for me. In my education, from kindergarten through senior year of high school, we only read white European and American writers, usually male, and finding Brooks and Giovanni and Lorde and Baldwin and Hughes and others gave me something that sustained me. I have played music for most of my whole life, and I was always attracted to the musicality of language. But I studied film and fiction writing in college and graduate school instead. The idea that you could get an MFA in poetry was beyond my comprehension at the time.

A few years ago, I returned to Los Angeles to spend time with my parents, who were both ill, and with my grandmother, visiting from Uganda. My grandmother was 96; I knew that might be the last time I saw her. I became pregnant and began to think even more about my body family—the growing of life brought up so many feelings and memories; it was a paradigm shift too, in terms of what I thought important, in my writing. My baby boy is probably my biggest inspiration. He opens up my world and makes it so much richer, so much more interesting and meaningful than I could have ever thought possible.

ABR: Your poem which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize has an interesting title, ‘Leviticus’ what was the inspiration behind the title?

WABUKE: Leviticus is one of the Books of the Christian Bible, in the Old Testament. It is considered the book of laws. A lot of the Mosaic code—and our modern sense of morality—come from that book. So I was thinking loosely of the law according to my father, what, according to him, are the rules for living. For him, it is working. My father comes from a culture where the measure of a good man is how hard he works. He started working on the family farm when he was three. He is now in his sixties. He has never taken a vacation. Like many immigrants, this is what he needed to do to survive in this country.
In The Body Family as a whole I reckon deeply with the Christian faith I was raised in—the book is organically becoming a feminist, decolonial revisiting of the Bible. When I was younger, I turned away from Christianity—not just because of the sexism and racism I experienced in Christian spaces in my own life firsthand, but also the larger systematic violence that had been done by people in God’s name—the European colonization of Africa, American slavery and other forms of racism, sexism, and genocide throughout history. It was only after I became a mother that I understood the importance of a spiritual belief system, of meaning larger than oneself—of the sacred. I realized, also, that the terrible things other misguided people had done in the name of God had nothing to do with my relationship with God. I did not have to give other people that power over my life.
I understood what it means, in times of terror to have a sustaining belief—for in what moment of first-time motherhood are you not terrified for the well-being of your fragile newborn? And so all this was there.

Continue reading “Liminality–The Inbetween Space  “

History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Bernard Matambo, a Zimbabwean poet whose poem “The City,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between spaces and people.

 

ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

MATAMBO: I started writing poetry in a serious way when I was 14. Before this I had always read everything near, and written short pieces for school or for myself. A lot of things were happening in my life at this age, sudden changes that led me to question a lot of what I had understood to be true and factual. Inevitably my understanding and reading of the world seemed to lack placement in the world around me. Poetry became a way of looking, a way of reading and synthesizing what was occurring within and around me at that age.

ABR: Your poem The City which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize seems to touch on issues of history, oppression, reclaiming spaces, and possibly how spaces can be a record/ keep the memories of peoples who have ever dwelt there. Can you share your inspiration for this poem and what you wanted it to be representative of?

MATAMBO: “The City” is part of a circle of poems I started working on in 2008. Part of my objective was to have the poems communicate with each other, thus creating a potential narrative arc when read together. Yet I also wanted each of the poems to standalone and exist without the others.

In this poem I was thinking of reclamation of internal and external spaces.

While the anguish of political oppression can be humbling, it can often too engage us with unsavory aspects of ourselves.

It often becomes effortless to dehumanize each other, for instance. I was thus interested in how a society would go about not only forgiving itself after the harder parts of a prolonged season of anguish, but also reconcile, reclaim and establish new selves. The physical scape in the poem then, is by and large symbolic of what has occurred internally within such a society during this prolonged season that has not quite ended. While it is not always palatable, history’s shadow will often hover over the future.

Continue reading “History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future”

Still Waking from the Dream…

Dango Mkandawire lives and works in Blantyre Malawi working in finance even though he is sure, without a doubt,  that it is in Art where the soul lies. He is the author of The Jonathan Gray Affair, published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books.

AfricanBookReviewABR: Your story in the Gambit The Jonathan Gray Affair is arguably a coy and intelligent (certainly very practical) play on the story of David and Goliath, what inspired it?

DANGO: Interestingly, that part in the story alluding to David and Goliath invites quite a bit of commentary even though I didn’t expect it to do so as much. The story precipitated in my mind in fragments. During that time I was considering themes of courage and dignity and what these notions meant. What is Courage and when is it real and when is it fabricated and mimicked? Who is really brave and what constitutes dignity. How entrenched is bravery and courage within the troubling arena of Masculinity? Why do men especially, almost universally find it a deathblow to be referred to as a coward. These were the billowing clouds floating in my head. I decided to write a story around these themes set during a time when people feel amplified and often confusing and conflicting emotions – adolescence.

ABR: You mention in a previous interview that you make a point of choosing less drastic/ hard-hitting topics to center your work around. Do the quieter themes you choose to work with influence the depth of your work? That is, do you find you’re forced to pay more attention to character and style than you perhaps would if there was a dramatic resolution to anchor the narrative?

DANGO: I believe that the causes of events are always much smaller than the scale of the actual events. A whisper here; a  misunderstood glance there; a butterfly flapping its wings here; all these subtleties and nuances build up to events and then people act out their roles in the respective theatres of Life they find themselves in. This is ultimately what fascinates me about people and why literature excites me. How will he or she act in this situation…and why. It is at the crossroads, at the points where a change in the direction of a life is possible where we find some evidence and some insight into the true nature of people. This is what I try to explore and understand. So to me it’s the essence of things that is paramount. Whether it be a man standing in Tiananmen Square boldly facing a multi-tonne tank defying the State and all its powers at the peril of his life, or Pempheroyanga in The Jonathan Gray Affair standing upright before the taunts and clenched fists of a bully. The lessons learned condense to the same truths.

In addition, I feel I am in unnatural garb, as ridiculous as a bear with feathers, whenever I write about anything I deem too far stretched from my own experiences. Yes, it is the writer’s trade to stretch his own eyesight to encompass the experiences of his or her fellow people, but stretch too far and the string snaps. Personally I am uncomfortable and don’t trust myself in such situations. I cannot write in discomfort. So do I pay more attention to character and style? Possibly unconsciously. To me as long as the words gel and flow smoothly together and capture a reader’s interest for whatever reason that’s a good story. When I write I only ask myself whether what I have written is interesting or not, and that relates to the previous sentence. If it’s interesting enough I proceed. If it isn’t I discard, retreat, look around again, then proceed. That’s the binary procedure I repeat until I finish. It’s tiresome though rewarding. And what determines whether something is interesting? That’s a matter of taste and it would be pedantic to explain taste. If you like the taste of fish that’s what you like. You could try explain it but you would fall short. You like the taste. That’s explanation enough.

Continue reading “Still Waking from the Dream…”

We Cannot Cry for Independence and Yet Long so Much for the Nod of Approval from the West—Novuyo Tshuma

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and has lived in South Africa and the USA. In 2009, she won the Yvonne Vera Award for Short Fiction; her book, Shadows, was awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for the best literary work in English. Her short story Telepresence, was published was published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books. Novuyo is currently completing her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Visit her online at novuyotshuma.com.

Novuyo TshumaABR: What inspires your writing?

TSHUMA: A variety of things; life, ideas, people, spaces, lies, truths, truthful lies, fictional truths, perhaps a little compulsive graphomania…

ABR: Do modern African writers have a duty to fill in the spaces omitted, under-written or misrepresented by western media? Or is the African writer’s duty solely to represent his/her work as a manifestation of his/herself and not society?

TSHUMA: I don’t know who created this duty. The moment I hear ‘duty’ and ‘writer’ in the same sentence, I become hostile. To impose duties on a writer that she has not imposed on herself is to invite her to shackle herself, her art, her creativity.

I have also developed some aversion to the terms ‘Africa’ and ‘West; to me they are convenient ways of dehumanizing, and therefore putting distance between people and compassion, utilizing the ‘faceless’ they to pit people against one another instead of the systems that oppress us all; they are about systems and less about people, about power, its consolidation, or its acquisition. And writing is exactly the opposite of that, isn’t it? It is about discovering the humanity in people, crying or laughing with a character, seeing them in all their beauty and ugliness, or understanding their humanness even in the most socially strenuous circumstances. But. For the sake of ideological and political argument, let us go with these two terms for a moment.

I now find Africa’s obsession with the West to be frankly cumbersome, less a positive self-realisation by Africa of itself than a negative space of constant negations, like a bottomless hole that keeps emptying itself.

I am more interested in how Africa can independently relate to literature, irrespective of its origins, give weight to its own interactions and interpretations of the world in and of itself, without the West as a constant foil or a necessitated negative other.

And then, there is the question of how to do this; whose history, where, how much of the visceral inner conflicts to include? There is constant emptying but not enough filling-up. And empty holes quickly fill up with whatever winking debris may be borne by the wind. This cannot become a political tool that the writer is expected to ‘represent’; writers represent nothing but life, messy-life, complicated-life, with no patriotism to any party save for their writing and their craft.

If a writer follows her natural sway, what she reads, what she grows up reading, what she sees around her, what her eye loves, what her pen inclines towards naturally, that is to say, the freedom that comes particularly when one is a child, before one is cursed with ‘knowing’ and those boxes that say ‘do this and not that, no you are an African writer therefore, here is your cross’, there would be no need for classifications, for encumbering something as freeing, dynamic and imaginative as writing with all these politics.

Frankly, if we had strong inter-ties within the continent, robust systems, institutions, inter-economic relations, inter-literary relations, there would be no need to be so obsessed with the West. To me, this obsession with the West is more a reflection of the other side of the coin, what is happening on the continent.

So, we cannot cry for independence and yet long so much for the nod of approval from the West.

We need our own acceptance, our own approval, a positive, freeing thing, not a negative, accusatory, reactionary thing. To me, it is therefore not about the art, about the writing. It seems to me to be much more political, more an issue of power and access to power, less about the quality of writing, about the nuance in the African writer’s art.

In this sense, I am almost tempted to say the term ‘Africa’ is a fallacy, there is very little or no unity, Zimbabwe or South Africa as ‘African’ spaces would sooner be more concerned with the West’s representation or opinions of them than say with those of Namibia or Libya, fellow ‘African’ countries. Because the work has not been done. In this sense, for me, ‘African’ writer is a political term rather than an artistic one, or even an accurate one, one that I am fine with so long as it does not seek to define, condemn, or prescribe what I may and may not write; in which case I’d sooner be done away with it, and seek other, liberating forms of reinvention.

ABR: A theme in your story in Gambit, Telepresence, is the disconnect between digital relationships and physical ones. Could you talk about this? Is it becoming harder to effectively translate who we are across a screen? Or perhaps, is the problem that it’s getting much easier to do that, than to do so in person?

TSHUMA: I don’t think it is more a case of it becoming harder, rather than it is more of a transition into a virtual age where the nature and the way we interact has changed. Facebook started when, in 2004, Twitter in 2006. For those born post this, this form of interaction is normal, yes, for those born before, it may take a bit of habitual, conceptual and, for all of us on a biological level, evolutionary adjustment.

ABR: What do you think the future of Zimbabwean writing will be? What ideally do you want it to be?

TSHUMA: I think the future of Zimbabwean writing is bright. People are writing out there, I believe, there are so many different and dynamic stories to tell, and many eager, talented writers.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African novelists or writers? And have any influenced your works?

TSHUMA: I believe that most of what I have read, particularly those works that are to me memorable and that I go back to over and over again, have influenced me as a writer somehow, and more importantly, as a human being. I have spent the last year delighting over Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, which is unlike anything I have ever read before, delightful, inventive, and just gorgeous. Songeziwe Mahlangu’s Penumbra is a great book, lovely read, enjoyable. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names has this distinct Ndebele sensibility and aesthetic that blew me away. I am currently reading Tendai Huchu’s The Magistrate, the Maestro and the Mathematician and EC Osondu’s This House is Not For Sale. Some of my favourite books are not by African novelists; 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Waterland by Graham Swift’, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Shame by Salman Rushdie, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. They all expand my experience of humanity.

ABR: Are you working on new projects, could you talk about them?

TSHUMA: I am working on something, I am a superstitious writer so I cannot talk about it; if I do, I shall be struck by lightning before the day’s end.

To Belong Is to Never Have to Justify Oneself—Donald Molosi, A Conversation

Donald Molosi is a multi-award-winning classically trained Motswana actor and became the first Motswana actor on Broadway in 2010. He has directed three Broadway shows, “Today It’s Me”; “Motswana: Africa, Dream”; and “Blue, Black and White 2.” His short story Back to Love, was published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books. He is currently a columnist for The Telegraph, a weekly Botswana newspaper. We had a conversation with Molosi about Back to Love and the role of African writers today.

Donald MolosiABR: What inspires your writing?

MOLOSI: Human stories inspire my writing. My plays and my fiction always emanate from my being haunted by a story in me that needs to break out onto paper and be told. Stylistically, my work is–to a great extent–informed by the structure of traditional Botswana folktales. So I don’t follow the Aristotelian model of “good writing” as much as I keep faith with how the story or the play would be structured if my 93-year old grandmother were narrating it to me as a folktale.

 

ABR: You mention in a previous interview that the African’s omission from western narratives is a denial of reality. Do modern African writers have a duty to fill in the spaces omitted, under-written or misrepresented by western media? Or is the African writer’s duty solely to represent his/her work as a manifestation of his/herself and not society?

MOLOSI: The West has an unhealthy obsession with stories that strip Africans of their humanity. I think that most Western literature denies the reality that we are all human and possess diverse stories to be told in celebration of our shared humanity. African writers and artists do not owe anyone anything but to share their stories with whomever they choose. Naturally, without the burden to rebut, those diverse stories–if encouraged, published and shared–will force a re-imagination of Africa as portrayed in the West. We, as African artists and writers, deserve the room to be just that without the unfair burden of always being seen the lens that we are writing socio-political commentary.

We deserve the space to write about love and sex and glamor without some self-styled Western Africanist reading in it unfounded allegories of dictatorships, AIDS and wars. I am sick of that kind of Western condescension in how our work is interpreted.

 

ABR: At the start of your story Back to Love, you reprint Ama Ata Aidoo’s quote that “to call someone a wayfarer is a painless way of saying he does not belong.” Your story also seems to deal with a double consciousness inherent in Thero who leaves Botswana for America. And it’s interesting that Thero feels this duality of belonging and being an outsider even though he knows he’ll eventually return to Botswana. What do you think it means to belong? Does that change across spaces?

MOLOSI: Ama Ata Aidoo is my luminary in terms of how she boldly captures diverse African stories so yes, I wanted to honor her work and show that whatever credit I, as a young African writer, get is because I learnt from the likes of her. In fact, I met her and told her she was my luminary when she came to California to watch me perform in her play, “Anowa.”

There is always a double consciousness. We are born into it by virtue of having a colonial history where we were and are forced to have Western-friendly versions of ourselves as Africans. It is deeply ingrained, even in the school curriculum and so the condition of being African is to constantly balance what you are expected to be and what you are.

To belong is to never have to justify oneself and it is a feeling I sometimes get when I am in my home village of Mahalapye in Botswana. I also sometimes feel alienated from the same village because I have lived all over the world. That is the condition of being a postcolonial, world-travelling African artist one generation removed from colonialism.

 

ABR: As a Batswana writer, how has Botswana, influenced your works and what do you think the future of Batswana writing will be? What ideally do you want it to be?

MOLOSI: As a Motswana writer, my sensibility is very Tswana in a lot of ways. I am a citizen of the world and there are some works where I write about different parts of the world but always through a Tswana sensibility. There is a lot of talent in Botswana and when the world wakes up to that fact, the global game is going to change. The unfortunate thing is that there are authors in Botswana who are shamelessly failing to acknowledge some of our talents as unique and Tswana. Rather, Botswana authors who have a platform or are respected tend to perpetuate the same Aristotelian models of story and crush the dreams of young Batswana writers who may not write like they are writing for The New Yorker but still write in the voice and structure of our ancestors.

 

ABR: Do you have any favorite African novelists or writers? And have any influenced your works?

MOLOSI: I read a lot of African writing and I admire a lot of African writers. Ama Ata Aidoo inspires me in how she writes so boldly and challenges the ideas of Western feminism as a template that can be forced upon societies all over the world. She often writes about truly Fanti, nationally Ghanaian and continentally African forms of feminism. I find that refreshing and necessary. Other writers I have enjoyed lately are Brian Chikwava who in his book Harare North writes in Zimbabwean English that does not look to the West for grammatical approval. I like the work of Emmanuel Iduma a lot because of its beautiful density.

 

ABR: Are you currently working on new projects? Could you talk a bit about them?

MOLOSI: I am in rehearsal to launch my play, “TODAY IT’S ME.” It will be launched in April in Botswana and it is a biographical play about Philly Lutaaya, the first prominent African to declare that he was carrying AIDS. When he did that in 1988, the effects were nothing short of miraculous as Uganda’s AIDS infection rates plunged. A new consciousness was born out of his story and I will be performing the play throughout Africa in 2015. Information and conversations about the play is on Facebook and our fund-raising efforts are on Indiegogo.

Masking Rage with Silence: A Conversation

Yvonne Owuor
Yvonne Owuor

Yvonne Owuor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her story The Weight of Whispers was awarded the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2003. Since then she has been working on a variety of visual and literary projects. Her debut novel Dust was published in 2014 and is shortlisted for the Folio Prize.

Paul Ostwald
Paul Ostwald

Paul Ostwald grew up in Nairobi, Moscow and Germany and currently reads Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford. He works with amnesty International and contributes to both German and British papers.

The African Book Review hosted a conversation between Yvonne and Paul about Yvonne’s debut novel Dust, and the effect of Kenya’s history on the evolution of characters in Yvonne’s novels.

Paul: Dust is your first novel. You’ve been writing short stories for years and you’ve had great success. Is Dust a crime story, a tragic love story, a historical drama, or even an epic poem?

Yvonne: When I set out to write Dust I was very clear about what it should be. But then, when Kenya exploded in late 2007, the story acquired it’s own life and it wanted to be told. Something was unleashed and suddenly all characters began telling me their own stories. My characters are very musical, before I see them I hear their music, the songs they love and the ones they hate. Each character tells an own, different story of fear, longing and admiration.

Paul: Like Nyipir, the father of the murdered Odidi Oganda, his trade is storytelling. He notes that three languages have defined Kenya since it’s independence. English, Swahili and Silence.

Yvonne: I haven’t looked to deep into other societies, but we Kenyans are very good at covering our rage up with silence. All these years since the independence people were infuriated, about the land others had stolen unpunished and the vile things that happened decades ago. And as I heard them and understood what they said, I wondered: How come nobody ever said anything? Yet the rage acquired a space of silence in which it was unnoticed, it was kept and sustained for decades. Yes, we’re good with silences. It might be the most Kenyan language of all three.

Paul: Nyipir is an incarnation of Kenya’s independent history. But he concludes that he owes no allegiance to Kenya and even begs his daughter to forgive him.

Yvonne: The characters startled me by the things they said. Maybe the Kenyan ideal was broken at the end. Yes, we did not treat these memories the way we should have. History has lately been removed from the Kenyan syllabus. Nyipir in particular aims to retrieve the memory of his father, who fought for the British colonialists in Burma. He feels that the dead generations are not treated with the dignity we owe them and he has a point there.

Many Kenyans feel detached from their heritage, like the sister of Moses Odidi. When she eventually returns to Nairobi, she seeks something that’s supposed to make here feel complete. She had experienced the world through her brother, and now she’s discovering herself through his death, the empty space he’s left. There is a young generation that has lost something that defined them.

Paul: Is that why many of your characters have a place they long to be? Odidi as a boy always dreams of a Far Away.

Yvonne: All of them have a place of longing, somewhere they want to return or have never actually been. I think everybody does, I think there’s an idealised place. For me it might be Middle Earth from “Lord of the Rings.” “Lord of the Rings,” I go back there to reconcile. I’ve not met a single person who does not have a place of secret longing. Even if they maybe fully content in the Now, even the contentment within the Now speaks to something else. If you sit down and talk to someone for long enough, everyone has a place he longs for or a place where he feels something needs to be completed. They need to tie up something there.

But there’s something more to it. Digging deeper you sometimes discover that people can be places, too.

Paul: Ajani, Odidi’s sister, falls in love with Isaiah Bolton who has come to Kenya to complete his own father’s history. What knits them together?

Yvonne: There is something very powerful about the two. Someone once put it  “a fatherless man and a brotherless woman.” It is a wound that binds them together. Isaiah’s father used to own Wuoth Ogik, the home of Ajani’s family. Nyipir was his servant for long years. But he knows little of his father’s colonialist history, that is why he has come to retrieve him. So has Ajani come to find out who her brother really was.

Paul: But how do Kenyan readers react? Your friends, people you know?

Yvonne: It’s very interesting. Among the younger generation I’m amazed by their, not only openness, but their embrace. A lot of them say “we did not know about this, although it’s part of Kenyan history.” And I say, “OK, look, a lot of this is fictionalised but the core elements are there, look it up there is information available in the archives.”
But on the whole, among peers, response is been amazing. It’s interesting to go into bookshops and find that, although the price is exaggerated I think, it’s sold out. The launch party attracted so many people that the New York Times correspondent kept on asking me “how is this possible in Kenya?” Well, it is…and it’s great.

Paul: Another thing that reappears in your novel is the question of “what endures?” The characters seem to answer “starting over again.”

Yvonne: Yes, they do. And memories. Our memory is like dust, things evaporate. But then again, everything begins with dust. And that’s a message not only to the Kenyan people.

There’s a difference between forgiving and simply forgetting. What happens with the power and energy of forgiving is that when you meet that particular memory, you don’t meet it armed to kill, you may meet it to say “You’re there. That’s you’re shape, that’s who you are.” The chance to start all over again and our memories is what defines us, it might be all we have. And it’s all we need, if you think about it.

Black Women Be Like: An Interview with Andiswa Maqutu

Andiswa Maqutu describes herself as a pan-Africanist and feminist. She is the author of Black Women Be Like and the founding curator of the eponymous series that consists of stories, poetry, visual and audio art to be produced by black African women from around the continent. Whether exploring a lesbian couple in South Africa, or travelling around Asia as a black woman, Andiswa’s writing is a magnificent lens that captures so much of what it means to exist, on one level as a relational human being, and on another, as a black woman negotiating societal tensions. What could become a futile exercise in double consciousness instead becomes a work of art and genius in Adiswa’s hands. The ABR had a brilliant chat with Adiswa about Black Women Be Like and more.

 

Andiswa Maqutu

ABR: What inspired Black Women Be Like?

MAQUTU: Black Women Be Like-The Book, was inspired by my experiences as a woman who is black. It was driven by the conflict I had with my lived experience as a black woman in the 21st century, and the stories I had read and watched about black African women in short stories, books, films and music videos.

I believe the way to get a nuanced story about any people, is for those people to tell their authentic stories themselves. Even in stories that are purely from the imagination and may never take place in this realm, an authenticity needs to be tapped into. And if a storyteller wants to venture into the experiences of another person, she should do the necessary research.

But I struggled to find stories about women who looked like me and had similar conflicts to mine, even though I had read many stories about black women, especially African women. I mainly saw four recurring typecasts of black African women in the creative literature I read; the struggling, mystical and asexual grandmother raising her many grandchildren while dishing out pearls of wisdom or curses to strangers, the [perceived] oversexed jezebel who sleeps with army generals or older men to survive, the educated professional who is rude and proud, and the meek but passive aggressive black Muslim girl.

In her paper titled, Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and Their Homegirls: Developing an “Oppositional Gaze” Towards the Images of Black Women, Dr Carolyne West explores these stereotypes in American media and how they have narrowly evolved over the years. And I realized that it is not a problem unique to black women on the African continent, while the recurring stereotypes are sometimes the lived experiences of black women, particularly in Africa’s developing nations, they are not the only images of black women that exist. So I wrote the anthology with the intention to share stories of my experiences as a young black middle-class woman in South Africa.

Black Women Be Like-The Movement, was inspired by my desire to get other black African women writing their own stories, to get the nuanced story of the black African woman.

ABR: What was the process of writing the collection? Are they based on your experiences or on those of other people and was there any emotional/ personal journey that occurred as you confronted and wrote about these issues?

MAQUTU: The process turned out to be more emotional and conflicted than I had imagined. I usually carry a little black book to write down story ideas and experiences that I can explore in the form of short stories or poetry, so I can capture the emotion of each moment in the moment, so I had a list of potential stories and decided to choose the experiences that were closest to me for good and bad reasons.

I had intended to title the book When Black Women Speak for Themselves, because I felt that was what I was doing as a black woman who had been written about and yet had never seen her stories told. But I felt that title was too loaded and would distract from the content of the book, so I decided on Black Women Be Like, playing on the memes circulating social media and perpetuating stereotypes about black women.

I also wanted to shy away from exploring themes and experiences that presented new haughty extremes to combat existing stereotypes about black women. It was more important for me to share stories that were close to me, authentic and I could write well.

So the process of writing the book was me wrestling with trying to creatively write out my experiences using the characters in the book to explore internal conflicts, and worrying about how the book would be perceived because I am a woman who is black and aware of it. And I could have easily been labeled a number of things including angry black woman and/or using empowered black African women in my stories as a feminist trope and gimmick.

Each story has at least one of my experiences. The first and last stories titled My Favourite Aunt and Kulula Izila, are both inspired by my mother and her sisters, who have been my opinionated and empowered role models. .

The story When the Jacarandas Had Begun Rotting was inspired by friends who are lesbian and by the events and brutality against lesbians in South Africa and on the continent. I wanted to explore some of the forgotten ways black women are oppressed and how they fight back, love and are loved. I had my friends read the story to ensure I hadn’t explored it from the point of view of heterosexual privilege.
Out of Africa, is about my experiences and thoughts on my trips overseas during 2014. I was really emotional transferring that piece from my little book into a short story because the experience of the racism and otherness was fresh. I could still remember sitting on a bench outside the Ayasofya in Turkey, with people watching and pointing at me. On my visit to Istanbul, I experienced, for the first time, the kind of racism that made me fear for my life.

ABR: There’s a thread of dissonance that runs through the collection, especially in the essay titled Out of Africa. Dissonance between how the protagonist is perceived based both on her gender and skin color, which is different from how she perceives her own self as a human being. Do you think that dissonance is reflected in black women today? And with regards to the dichotomy between how the protagonist sees herself vs. how the world sees her, is there any point in trying to reconcile both viewpoints? Is there a stage when one should be more important than the other? And is there a way to utilize both to one’s advantage?

MAQUTU: There is definitely that dissonance reflected in black women, and particularly young black women right now. And that’s one of the conflicts that I experience as a young black woman that I feel is not explored enough in creative writing, even by black women writers.

Black women are an acute reflection of how perceptions about both race and gender have changed very little, and where those perceptions have evolved, they have only evolved narrowly.

Black men are grappling with a similar conflict to what white people and previous oppressors of black people are; that these people (women and black people) who were supposed to keep quiet and do as they were told, now want to exercise their right to control their own actions and also have opinions about the status quo…as equals.

Continue reading “Black Women Be Like: An Interview with Andiswa Maqutu”