Friday, April 26, 2013

MMUALEBE INTERVIEW SERIES: Cheryl Ntumy



Cheryl Ntumy is a freelance writer based in Botswana. She is originally from Ghana. Her first published novel was Crossing (Pentagon Publishers, 2010). She has published four romance novels with Sapphire Press. She also writes short stories, fantasy and science-fiction. Her latest novel is The Cupid Club (Sapphire Press, 2013).

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What is the importance of literacy
Being illiterate in the modern world is like walking through a minefield in a foreign country. There is so much information available at the touch of a button or the turn of a page, but an illiterate person is completely shut out and therefore at a disadvantage. Such a person can’t even begin to compete in a world where knowledge is power, and reading is the key to knowledge.


What is the importance of literature
For me the role of literature is the same as that of any other form of storytelling, any other art – to reveal the human condition, to teach, to entertain, to inspire. Stories use fiction to point out the truth, to show us who we are and who we could be. Literature opens minds and hearts.

What is the importance of reading for pleasure
Human beings have a natural affinity for stories. Reading for pleasure exposes you to worlds you might never venture into otherwise, but more importantly it allows you to let your imagination run wild. Imagination is the greatest gift we have – it’s what allows us to create and progress.

Please name one Motswana writer you think the (outside) world should read and tell us why
I don’t know many published Motswana writers. The one writer I’d really want people to read is unpublished, but has incredible potential. Tlotlo Tsamaase writes complex and fascinating science-fiction/ fantasy set in Botswana. I think she exemplifies the new wave of young African writers who are children of the global village.  In terms of established writers, Lauri Kubuitsile comes to mind. She’s been writing for many years and has really captures the spirit of Botswana in her work.

How important is getting published
That depends. If you want to make a living as a writer, getting published is essential. If your focus is on developing your skill and writing for the love of it, getting published is not as important. In this day and age, though, publication is simple unless you specifically want a traditional publisher. You can self-publish, you can create e-books, you can put your work online for people to read for free. It all comes down to what you want to achieve as a writer.

Are any of your books studied in local schools (at what level)
I have a short story (“White”) in an anthology called Lemon Tea and Other Stories, which I believe is part of the English syllabus at UB.

Have you ever been invited as a guest writer to any school
I was invited along with other writers to talk to students at Maru-a-Pula a few years ago.

Does the consideration that publishers want books that sell (mainly to fit the school syllabus) determine your themes
I don’t write for the school market. As part of the Petlo Literary Arts Trust, I learned that writing for schools is limiting, and there is nothing worse than writing about things that don’t interest you just to get published. I write what I like, and then I search for a publisher that shares my vision.

What are the common themes in your writing
My romance books deal with the ideas of being open to life, learning to trust, staying true to yourself and following your heart. My other work deals with spirituality, tolerance, self-discovery, and existential matters: what’s the world really like, who are we, why are we here, etc. I also enjoy exploring the unexplained.

Are you conscious of preserving a certain image of African women in your writing
I try not to let such concerns limit me – I write characters as they come to me, African or not.  With romance books you want the women to be strong, but even then it’s important that characters are human and relatable. African women don’t fit any set mould. Generally I prefer characters with more flaws, because they’re more interesting to write about and their stories go deeper.

How much, if any, of your work is published locally and how much elsewhere– and why
With the exception of the short story anthology and the work I did with Petlo, all my work is published elsewhere. Botswana’s publishing industry is incredibly limited. Any writer who wants to think outside the box or wants to be read beyond the borders of Botswana should publish outside – unfortunately it’s the practical option.

Do the local bookshops stock your books /Where or how are your books distributed
My romance books are in CNA – they’re published in South Africa and are distributed through South African stores. They’re also available online as e-books. The Petlo books are available at Exclusive Books.

Have you travelled/lived outside Botswana and do you think a writer must remove themselves from a particular space in order to either write well about home or create a sense of universality
I don’t think a writer needs to leave their desk if they have a clear vision. It depends on your subject matter. I’ve traveled outside Botswana and it helped me when I wanted to write about those places, but if you’re writing about Kanye, stay in Kanye. If you’re creating a fictional world modeled on 18th century London, then going to London might be useful. But with the information available to us today, a writer no longer has to travel to be able to produce good work with a universal message. Most writers who grew up in the information age have a universal worldview, in any case.

Do you write from experience/real life
I find writing from real life repetitive. If I’ve already lived through it, it’s not exciting anymore. I get an idea, a sort of “what if this happened?” or “what if the world was like this?” and run with it. My experiences or the experiences of people around me help in terms of building characters, exploring certain situations or tapping into particular emotions, but mostly it’s all make-believe. 

Does the writer have a duty to bear witness to the times (and space) they live in
No, that’s the duty of a journalist. A fiction writer’s only duty is to the story, in whatever form it may take. A writer will bear witness, consciously or unconsciously; the finished product will reflect the spirit of the time and space the writer is in, because those things are part of the writer and inevitably spill into the work. If you live in a war zone and write a love story set in paradise, that vision was still born from war. I’ve yet to read a story that doesn’t in one way or another mirror the world at the time of writing. But to me writing is a sacred art. Tapping into the pool of universal imagination to create something that will affect others is already fulfilling your responsibility to the world. Other writers begin with a purpose or a message, and that works for them. But I find that when I focus on the story, all the other stuff takes care of itself.

Do you think women writers can help resolve some of the debates or issues concerning our development
Women writers are already tackling the major issues. When you write about women, about their internal and external struggles, you make a statement. You show women that they are not alone, you create awareness. Writers can inspire change and development in others, but it’s up to their readers to turn that inspiration into action.

Are you a member of any local writers group or association and has this helped you in any way
I am a member of the Petlo Literary Arts Trust, although I’m not as active as I once was. The group has been an enormous help – through our projects I wrote my first play, worked on another play which has since been published (Sechele I), developed my short stories, met other writers and artists, learned how to organize and facilitate a workshop and made contacts in the media and arts world. Being part of a group gives you the opportunity to share your work with others and get valuable feedback, and to get involved in promoting literature and local writers.

You write in English. Do you read any poetry, fiction, news articles etc in Setswana – if not, why
I’m from Ghana, so reading Setswana is very difficult for me. When we worked on Sechele I we wrote Setswana poetry and used proverbs, which we subsequently translated into English for the book. That gave me insight into the story so that I could write English scenes from a Tswana perspective. I would read more Setswana if it didn’t take me an hour to get through one page!

Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write – who
I don’t think about the audience. I only think about the story. When I’m done with the first draft and about to begin rewriting, that’s when I consider the audience. With romance that would be young women, a few couples, some older women. Some of my other work is for teens, young adults, or adults. When I sit down to begin a story I’m always writing for me.  If I wouldn’t read it, I don’t write it.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as writer
The biggest material challenge is making a living, which is a daily struggle. But the toughest part emotionally is dealing with the belief that you’ll never be as good as the writers you admire.

What if anything in your background has enabled/encouraged you to become a writer
I’ve always known that I wanted to write, it’s not something I had to think about. I’ve always loved words. My parents are both educators and I grew up surrounded by books; perhaps my love of books is genetic. At some point I learned that if you express your wild ideas out loud people will lock you up, so I used writing to say all the things I couldn’t say in real life.


*An introduction to this series of interviews is here

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

MMUALEBE INTERVIEW SERIES: Lauri Kubuitsile


Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time, award winning writer with more than twenty published books. She was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize and twice won the only Pan African prize for children's writing, The Golden Baobab.

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What is the importance of literacy
I think that’s sort of basic- people’s lives become very limited without the ability to read. Literacy means you can be a lifelong learner.


What is the importance of literature
Literature helps us record our stories. For writers, I think it helps us to see and understand the world in a clearer way. For readers, literature allows them to live an infinite number of lives in one lifetime.

What is the importance of reading for pleasure
You learn about other places in a more real way. It helps you to develop empathy. It engages your mind in ways films and TV cannot.

Please name one Motswana writer you think the (outside) world should read and tell us why
Wame Molefhe. I think she has a unique way of telling a story that is always firmly rooted in the soil of this country but not pedantically or clich├ęd.

How important is getting published
It was more important before I got published.

Are any of your books studied in local schools (at what level)
Yes. Primary and junior secondary.

Have you ever been invited as a guest writer to any school
Yes but only private schools, sadly.

Does the consideration that publishers want books that sell (mainly to fit the school syllabus) determine your themes
No, never.  All of my prescribed books (the ones written only by me) were written with no intention of being prescribed.

What are the common themes in your writing
I have no common themes really, whatever comes comes. I do tend to hate injustice in any form so that often shows itself.

Are you conscious of preserving a certain image of African women in your writing
No.

How much, if any, of your work is published locally and how much elsewhere? – and why?
In terms of books, most are published in South Africa, with 7 soon to be 8 books published locally, I have two books published off the continent, 1 in USA, 1 in UK. The market is small here and no one is working to try to improve that.

Do the local bookshops stock your books? /Where or how are your books distributed?
I’ve seen a few of the titles (2)  at Exclusive and my romances are at CNA. Distribution is handled by the publisher.

Have you travelled/lived outside Botswana and do you think a writer must remove themselves from a particular space in order to either write well about home or create a sense of universality
Yes, and no, there are many fabulous writers who prove this.

Do you write from experience/real life
Sometimes and other times not. If it is from a personal experience, I always take a bit and let my imagination take over after that.

Does the writer have a duty to bear witness to the times (and space) they live in
No. A writer’s only obligation is to tell a good story. Any prescriptions tend to hamper that.

Do you think women writers can help resolve some of the debates or issues concerning our development
Individually, yes. Together, doubtful.

Are you a member of any local writers group or association and has this helped you in any way
I was a member of WABO and it helped me only in that I met other writers.

Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write – who?
Yes, it depends on the project

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as writer
Trying to make enough money so I don’t have to work another job.

What if anything in your background has enabled/encouraged you to become a writer
 I think English as a first language is an advantage since there are more markets for English writing. And I’ve always read a lot.


*An introduction to this series of interviews is here

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MMUALEBE INTERVIEW SERIES introduction

For the next month I will be posting interviews with published writers who are either Batswana or based in Botswana. Who also happen, by some genetic roll of the dice, to be women.

There is a saying in Setswana, Mmualebe o bua la gagwe which is  a concept that assumes a state of full and total freedom of speech - that everyone is not only entitled to their opinion but has the right to voice it, whether it be wrong or ill-spoken.

The questions I have asked the writers are quite simple, not particularly exhaustive but I'm after creating a local baseline of a writer's experience of working and living in Botswana. I'm curious as to whether there are common themes, any preoccupations with a communal agenda, whether their literary politics is personal or nationalistic or both. And because we don't have Botswana based poetry or literary journals (except perhaps the fairly new and online Kalahari Review) most interviewers tend to ask us about ...everything really, except writing. We get asked to comment on happenings in the country, our travel, or how long we've been writing rather than what or how so I wanted to begin to steer the conversation towards the work of writing.

The bulk of my questions are general. There is lots I don't get into - cultural constraints, the lack of a creative writing program at the university, the absence of literary awards in the country(other than the Bessie Head Literature awards), writing in English versus any of the vernacular languages, markets as defined by locally based multi-nationals and  independent publishers, the influence of the oral tradition of storytelling on contemporary literature, and regrettably I don't get to sink my teeth into their individual works which would no doubt give you a truer sense of these accomplished women.

These questions and their responses are really a meet and greet, an invitation to dialogue further with these totally cool women who are writing of all in things, in this country of ours.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS BOTSWANA - lat 24S & lon 25E

"Botswana has a literacy rate of over 80%, with women literacy rate at 83%, higher than that of men. In 2002, the gross Primary enrollment rate was 100%, while the net enrollment rate was 81%. In fact, Botswana has a high percentage of women holding highest positions in the civil society and corporate sector, compared to some industrialized countries such as Japan. Currently, we have a Motswana woman as one of the Governors at the World Bank; another Motswana woman (a lawyer by profession) has been recently appointed to the International Court of Justice, the Hague; the Bank of Botswana Governor is a woman; we have at least two women as High Court Judges; several of them as magistrates; one of the two Deputy Vice Chancellors of the only University in the country is also a woman; we have several women as Professors and lecturers, others occupying the positions of Deanship/Head of Departments at the University of Botswana; and recently, women have been given the opportunity to join the army. Notably, in Botswana, more girls graduate from the University than boys, and the enrollment rate of girls in Primary schools is 49% compared to 51% of boys. Since education is relatively free, what is needed is dedication and commitment. Currently, the government of Botswana is sponsoring nearly 40,000 students in tertiary schools both in the country and overseas..," Dr Bora Thuga Manatsha, 2009 excerpt from here.

Forty-seven years later, this is the place I call home. A landlocked country in Southern Africa about the size of France or Texas (I don't do well with square kilometres), located just above South Africa with Namibia and Mozambique to the west and east respectively. 

Poetry is a big part of the culture here, as is traditional dance but of course you can take Zumba classes if you prefer or study capoeira, join a heavy metal band or become a rap/motswako star. Yes, this too is Africa.

Our traditional cuisine is simple organic fare - sorghum, beef lots of beef, phaletshe (pounded corn not unlike palenta but way better tasting :), morogo (dried bean leaves, greens etc) but with 5 or 6 major shopping complexes just within the city you can eat Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Indian or whatever cuisine you are after, for the right price. No, we do not have a Macdonalds but we do have Nandos (ask Mila Kunis or any Brit what that is). Ok, I'll stop with the free advertising, the point is since gaining independence from the UK in 66, Botswana was previously the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, a lot has happened. We did not inherit much infrastructurally from the British - a few kilometers of road, inexplicable tea drinking in 40 degree centigrade weather, conservative clothing totally unsuited to the summers here, as well as the English language and perhaps that is how it should be a clean/erasable slate. Our very own tabula rasa, to do with what we wish.

Do I have a pet elephant? No, go read a book strange little man. I know its confusing, the storybooks and movies have us Tarzaning across some homogenous jungle in loincloths and the truth is we do have lots of wildlife and conservation parks. I heard somewhere that we are home to one third of the world's elephant population but, and this is important, we do not have a mahout culture - as a rule we don't train them and ride them etc. We stay away from the wildlife and our defense force handles the national anti-poaching programs. Locals respect nature from a friendly distance. Visitors here want to stroke the animals, get upclose to You Tube lions, sleep in tents out in the ope etc. To each his own. If I lived in New York in a small bedsit I suppose I might yearn for that kind of nearness. Maybe.

We practice high value-low volume tourism. Fewer guests, lots of money - an admirable attempt at environmental impact control. This means it can get quite pricey and is generally booked out months in advance for the really swanky luxury camps. The camps are out in the North where its green and gorgeous which means very little contact with local people, they understandably much prefer arable land that they can feed off or eek out a living from. In the past I've had friends fly into the capital city in the south-East spend a couple of days to get a sense of the people, drive to Maun via a number of small towns/drive into one of the neighbouring villages and back to the city and then fly into the Okavango/Chobe region. I said it wasn't cheap, but its worth it if natures your kind of girl.

I speak iKalanga, Setswana and English which is an official language here, I dabbled in KiSwahili and recently sat for my first exam in Portuguese, I have been known to read poetry out loud in Spanish even though what I know of the language amounts to 10 words, I carry a pocket book of basic German but thats not going anywhere fast. I travel a little bit more each year and just like to understand and be understood, only in the most literal sense. Most people here speak 2 languages but more and more people are learning French or Chinese etc at least in the city. There aren't many courses on African languages that I know of but the logic here is simple, the Chinese set up their Confucius Centre, the French Alliance Francaise, the Portuguese their Instituto Camoes basically if you want your cultural presence to be felt here you finance it.

Which brings me to a little known but important fact. No, we do not have an arts council so the next time you receive a legitimate request for funding from Botswana don't think diamonds - the artists,writers don't see that cash, not much of it any way. To be clear its a matter of priorities, I'm no art historian but I assume this a not unusual phase in the development of nations - there is a point where building schools, financing healthcare, strengthening defense, economically developing the local space is seen as entirely separate from any role art could play and therefore no funds for the 'afro-hippies' who want to host cultural festivals or writers residencies or start a children's read-a-thon or give the National Writers Association a place to work from. As political anniversaries go Botswana is 47years old, a pre-teen by country standards and she is unfortunately exhibiting some of those stubborn traits in this area. She knows whats good for her but she's not ready to dig deep and make it happen.

The city is home to 250 000 or so people, the country 2 million, each with their own story to tell about what its like to be a Motswana right now but if you have a question whose answer isn't on wikipedia just comment below and I'll try and get word back to you. 
Go with rain, my friends. Thanks for stopping by.