Gothataone Moeng is a freelance journalist, aspiring filmmaker, and writer based in Gaborone, Botswana. She won the 2009 Bessie Head Literary Prize (short story).
“Singing in the Rain” is a beautiful story, what inspired it?
Thank you. The story is essentially a mashup of two stories. The initial idea that came to me was an image of a woman sitting inside a house looking out the window at children playing in the rain, chanting that ditty asking the rain to make them grow. It was going to be an exploration of how, when young, people wish to grow older, not knowing the kind of challenges that being grown bring. Then, while at a wedding in my home village of Serowe, I saw an older masculine looking woman. I immediately wondered whether she was lesbian. Then, since she was quite old, and lived in a pretty traditional village, I wondered whether if indeed she was lesbian, if she would even know or how she would navigate her life around that. So that’s essentially where that story came from.
What is your process in writing? Do you plan what to write, or to you plunge into the story then spend much time revising?
I actually do a bit of both. There are stories that come to me in chunks, if that makes sense, and I just write down whatever comes to mind and then revise later. Then there are those where I have something very specific that I want to say and I plan those.
How does being screenwriter and film maker influence your writing of fiction? Which are you drawn to more naturally?
I am more drawn to writing prose fiction. I have to say that I only tried screenwriting about two years ago, while I have been writing fiction for quite a while. When I have an idea for a story, I immediately think of it as a short story, though for some it becomes quite obvious that they would work better as films. Also, writing films becomes frustrating because it’s very hard to get them made here. I think the best way in which screenwriting in particular has influenced my writing is through the very technical way that scripts are planned. Where you know that at a particular point the villain/hero has to be introduced, at a particular point the conflict has to rise, at a particular point things have to get very bad for the protagonist and so on. It has been helpful with my children stories.
What is the state of writing in Botswana? And how does this state of literature compare to other African countries?
On the state of writing in Botswana, I wouldn’t say it is all doom and gloom actually, although things could be better. A lot of young people have shown real interest in writing—particularly poetry which, a couple of years ago, was all the rage in Gaborone. Also, a lot of my friends are very busy writing stuff, whether it’s novels, short stories, screenplays, stage plays, etc. So I feel very hopeful about the future of writing in Botswana. However, in comparison to other African countries, I do admit that we are lagging behind. I do think we need more literary journals (whether online or print) and more regular and consistent literary activities (such as monthly readings) to keep people writing, and to lure other writers out of their isolation, or “their little corners of ignorance” as one local poet likes to say. It is difficult to publish fiction outside of the educational market in Botswana, so having journals would offer diversity in the stories that we see coming from Botswana.
In your stories children feature prominently, so do issues of marriage and gender roles. How do you arrive at these issues, which you render beautifully and kindly?
I am trying to get out of it, but I mostly write what I know. Most of my protagonists are therefore women (I really do spend a lot of time with women,) and issues of gender and the position of women in society are the preoccupations of my sisters and my female friends.
Your story “Who Knows What Tomorrow Brings,” published in Long Time Coming (‘amaBooks 2008) looks at the unpredictability of change, how so suddenly Zimbabweans who used to be welcomed with smiles in Botswana are now being spat at, now labeled thieves and evil herbalists. In writing this story about the misfortunes that had befallen Zimbabwe, were you devising a social justice statement? In fact, this seems to be one of the preoccupations of most of your stories, whether you are writing about the role of children in society, the importance of women in patriarchal societies, and the issues of gender and sexuality in general: do you believe it is the role of fiction to deal with such issues?
This question is very difficult to answer because I have actually been asking myself the same question, of whether as a writer I should write fiction that deals with social issues. I do think that fiction has a role to at least make readers aware of such issues, but what I have noticed with a number of Batswana writers (I myself have fallen prey to this) is that this responsibility or need to talk about issues often ends up as a sort of burden. The message then becomes the point of the story and the story becomes quite didactic. We have thus had a deluge of stories about HIV that are very predictable, a variation of the Joe comes to town story, where a young innocent girl comes from the villages to the city, and is soon caught up in the fast paced Gaborone life and disregards advice from friends and family, etc. and then falls sick. My own solution to this is that I don’t make the issue the focal point of the story; I make the character the focal point and then explore how such a character navigates their way around such an issue. I do sometimes write stories that do not deal with any serious issues, but none of these have been published, so maybe it’s also a question of what people want to read.
Your writing colleague and fellow Motswana, Lauri Kabuitsile, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize. What do you think is the importance of this recognition to Botswana?
This is the first time that a Motswana has been shortlisted for the prize, so I really hope (selfishly, perhaps) that her shine will trickle down to other local writers and make people aware of, interested in, and curious about writing from Botswana. I was also really hoping that there would be a big deal about her in local media, considering the prestige of the Caine Prize, but that has not been so unfortunately. Local media is often dismissive of and indifferent to achievements by local writers, but somehow I thought it would be different this time.
You have also been published online, in places like StoryTime, the weekly ezine for African authors. What do you think is the importance of the Internet to African writers or to writers anywhere? How has the Internet helped your own writing?
I think the Internet is helpful in that it opens up the writer’s circle, and it avails more opportunities for the writer to get published outside of the traditional publishing system. African writers don’t really have access to lots of publishing opportunities, for example in Botswana, it’s easier to get published if you cater to the educational market, and this obviously can get rigidly prescriptive of what one can write, so the Internet (in the vein of online journals and e-zines) offers a solution for that. Personally, I am grateful that because of the Internet I have access to writing that wouldn’t normally be available to me.
How can writers benefit from the performance of their work in programs such as Stories on Stage. How do you feel about having your story selected for performance?
I am really excited that my story has been selected. It would have been great to be there for the performance. I think programs such as Stories on Stage are useful in that they expose a writer to a wider audience than they would normally have and it also gives the audience access to stories and writers that they wouldn’t have easily known about.
What are you currently working on?
I have been working on a collection of short stories on the theme of ‘negotiating identities’ since last year, which I was hoping I would have been done with by now. I really hope to have finished them by year-end.
What do you want readers of your work to know about you?
I want them to know that it felt really strange to be on the receiving end of questions, instead of doing the questioning. I work as a journalist for a local daily.
Emmanuel Sigauke grew up in Zimbabwe where he studied English and Linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe. He is based in Sacramento, and he teaches college composition, literature and creative writing at Cosumnes River College. He is a co-editor of the annual short fiction series called African Roar. He has published short stories and poetry in various literary journals and anthologies. He is also a board member of the Sacramento Poetry Center, where he hosts poetry readings every second Monday.