Janet van Eeden - 2011-04-06 Untitled Document
Title: Go Tell the Sun
Author: Wame Molefhe
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Review by Janet van Eeden
Wame Molefhe’s collection of short stories, Go Tell the Sun, is a subtle and gentle evocation of life in Botswana. Her stories are apparently very simply told and have an innocence in their narrative which belies their content. The subject matter of the stories is, almost without exception, very harsh and deals with some extremely brutal aspects of daily life in that country. Although the smells and sounds of Botswana come to life through Molefhe’s subtle recreations of the details of the often rural settings, the subject matter is always universal.
There is the woman who lives with an adulterous husband and who dreams of her own former love – also a woman. She married her husband to try and conform to society’s requirements of her, but she can’t forget her true nature.
Then there is the woman who is having an affair to console herself in a loveless marriage. She finds herself caught off guard by a dreadful accident.
The thorny issue of children outgrowing their parents’ culture is also explored in one story, and the stigma and fear created by the scourge of HIV/Aids is raised in another.
Molefhe shines her thoughtful light on these and other issues by using a central protagonist who lives through different scenarios. In this way she explores all possible facets of one character’s life and makes her go on a different journey in each story. All the stories are compelling in their own way and the collection is paradoxically, a gently disturbing read.
It’s the kind of collection I’d like to see prescribed for high school children of all cultures.
Q&A with Wame Molefhe
Wame, I loved your gentle style, which lulls one into a false sense of security before revealing what the stories are actually about. Did you set out to do this deliberately, ie lull the reader into a state of relaxation before bringing up such big issues? Can you tell me how you decided on this means of execution for your stories?
I wrote these stories at a time when my own life was in transition. The world I knew, that I had been comfortable (and uncomfortable) in, was changing. I was entering new terrain and trying to find my way around in the unfamiliar writing world. Rather than try to be complicated and trip myself up, I wrote the way only way I knew how – simply.
I wanted to create settings that a person who is not familiar with Botswana can see: woman, husband, child, home, happiness. Then I created little cracks.
The subject matter samples the society in which I live, but these stories are not unique to the society I call home. I used language that I was comfortable with.
I have sampled the more unsettling aspects of the society in which I live, but I do not believe they are unique to Botswana. To take the harshness off the stories, I think they had to be told gently and I have tried to create a sense of normalcy and people going about their business, but within this there are these currents of ugliness that people choose either to bury or to confront.
I do hope these stories speak of survival and strength.
You deal with subjects which are generally taboo in everyday society in Botswana. How do you think your readers will deal with these subjects? Do you have specific readers in mind (your “target audience” as marketers will call them) or do you just write what you feel is important at that time?
I write about what I feel is important. I think these things we call taboos serve to throttle us, especially when they are proclaimed in uncomfortable-to-challenge words such culture and tradition, and my favourite: “This is how things are done.” It seems almost sacrilegious to question them. When someone hurls that stone my way it fells me, so I respond by writing.
At this time, when Botswana’s Vision 2016 is calling on Batswana to be an informed, creative and innovative people, it is time to ask uncomfortable questions, to challenge this notion of “this is how things are done” so we can move forward, to ask why.
I love the things I associate with being a Motswana: respect for age, how we greet ... I honour and respect many of these “traditions” and I also challenge much of what is new and modern.
Reading these stories made me think that they should be prescribed reading in all schools, in Botswana and also South Africa, to explore these issue-laden subjects with our youth. Do you think the younger generation are going to be better able to deal with the thorny subjects you raise than older generations? For example, do you think there is progress as far as acceptance of same-sex relationships, the causes of so many of those deaths “after a short illness” which we all know refers to AIDS, and also the scourge of child rape, which is often not talked about, is concerned? Are our youngsters going to be more accepting of these subjects which older generations are loathe to discuss?
My initial reaction was to say I think the issues are too adult for schools, but perhaps that reaction does exactly what I say I don’t want to do, which is make some subjects taboo.
I included a story about same-sex relationships after reading about a married American man who spoke of how he married a woman although he had always felt drawn to men. I remember thinking about his wife and wondering how she felt. And so I extended this into marrying the wrong person to marriage in general. People stay married – perhaps not in such drastic circumstances, but they stay unhappy because they are afraid. They want to do the right thing for other people, and sacrifice themselves in the process.
My wish is that the younger generation will deal with issues better than mine. The reality is that they are faced with so much. They are exposed to so many more things than we were at their age.
I confront HIV/AIDS in Botswana. Even though our former president was vocal and brave in dealing with it, fear and stigma persists. But now there is a generation of children who were born with HIV. They are teenagers and there is every chance that they will live normal lives.
How are your stories received in your home country? Do you think your stories are important to create a more realistic idea of what Botswana is really like, unlike those written by Alexander McCall-Smith, for example?
I have not really shared my stories – yet. Rereading them in preparation for the recent Northern Cape launch made me realise how much easier I find writing than speaking. I suppose this is why I write. These were no longer words that belonged to a writer hidden away in Gaborone. I had to take responsibility for writing what I had written.
I remember thinking perhaps I could have said this less directly, but it is done and there will be more stories.
Botswana can be painted in many colours and shades, and different people’s “realities” are different. And of course, with fiction we can make the world whatever we want it to be.
I liked the way you linked the stories by having the same female protagonist’s name in each one, though the stories are by no means a continuation of one another. Each story goes in a unique direction, but the names of characters are often the same. Did you consciously try to explore all facets of one character’s life and so make her go on a different journey in each story? How did you decide to write these stories in this unusual but compelling way?
A voice in my head was whispering, “But no one will publish a short story collection” and so I thought I would have interlinked stories arranged in chronological order, and maybe they could masquerade as a novel.
But my writing is not that well ordered and ideas came at different times, and so that plan had to be shelved. And yes, the idea was to use the character called Sethunya to represent any Motswana woman. Sethunya means “flower” and Botshelo means “life”. Ntsimane I have used to mean man, any man.
Have you always written short stories? I see that you have written children’s books before too. Please could you tell the readers of LitNet how you came to be a full-time writer?
I was at a point where I was beginning to enjoy my regular work less and less. I entered two writing competitions, and won first and third place.
I was naive enough to believe I would win everything I entered. Of course, the first rejection nearly stopped me writing forever. (Rejection and I are friends now.) In 2008 I was invited to attend the Caine Prize for African Writing Workshop. Later that year I was due to receive a certificate for 20 years of loyal service. I began to dread waking up on Mondays and I could no longer justify staying in an environment where I was not “growing”. I left – without a concrete plan. It was a big risk, but I am great believer in good things coming to you if you try.
Could you talk us through your creative process a bit, please? How do you decide on your stories and subject matter?
I think I write the way I was taught to write in school. I choose a topic, for example, “Cheating is not a good thing. Discuss.”
Most times I know how the story will end when I start writing.
For example, “Who do you tell?” is about keeping secrets. Who keeps secrets? Cheaters. Thieves. I try different scenarios. What about using marriage as the setting? Cheating by a spouse. But the cheating man story has been told many times. How about a cheating woman? What if the man is younger? Maybe this is too much drama for one story ... Discard this idea and start with a “normal” relationship.
Then I name the characters. I love this part, because I use Setswana names, because I understand what they mean. Then I write. I leave the story for a few days then I go back and try and organise it.
How do books such as yours sell in Botswana at the moment? Is there a large reading public or do you market your work more in South Africa and beyond?
My observation is that the educational market is the only real reading market in Botswana. Unfortunately for me, it has become an unreliable, volatile market. If government says it has no money, then school books are not bought.
I hope my book will travel outside Botswana, beyond the continent to wherever people read.
What do you have up your sleeve next? Do you have a novel you’re dying to write or can we expect another collection of short stories soon? How do you decide which project will be next?
I’m relieved that I was able to write these stories and that they were published. They have opened up the space for new stories. I cannot seem to divorce myself from stories about women. I hope to find enough words to write longer stories that may become a novel.
My most recent stories focus more on changes that I see happening in Botswana’s political arena.