I Write What I Want? Ntombikamama Moyo & Nathaniel Mpofu: In Conversation

When was the last time you bought a book – from an African author?

Facilitated by Alex Gwaze (Curator)

There is more to penning a story than simply narrating a chain of events. In the stories we tell exists our dreams, desires, mistakes, hopes and fears.  However, in recent times, “telling our stories” means something different for African writers. “Telling our stories” often means telling African stories to counter Western stories. While this task is commendable; engaging Western stories on a tit for tat/versus basis feels more polemic than pluralistic. If we want more African voices in the world, let them write as themselves without the hangup of whether their stories are African enough. Imagination shouldn’t be restricted to a geographic location. This is why I decided to arrange a conversation with two writers to get an idea of how they infused themselves into their original ‘African’ works.

Firstly, I contacted Ntombikamama Moyo. Ntombi is a Novelist and Scriptwriter who wrote the script for the 2020 National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) best feature film nominee, “$400”. She has written and published three novels: “Dear Crush” (2016), “Another Wedding” (2017) and In 30 Days (2020). “Another Wedding” was adapted into a television film for DSTV’s Zambezi Magic channel. In addition Ntombi has also written two feature films for DSTV’s Zambezi Magic: “$400” (2017) and “Gold Diggers” (2019). Ntombi is best known for romantic novels.

On the other hand, I reached out to Nathaniel Z Mpofu. Nathaniel is a Bulawayo Arts award (BAA)winning Author, Poet and Librarian. Since he began his career in 2015, he has written 10 books including the BAA award winner, “Inkless Quills” (2018), and the BAA nominated title, “Norovac and Suri” (2021). Apart from these titles, Nathaniel has published several poetry and short story anthologies. His short story, “The Enchanted Pen” won third place in the 2021 African Writers Award and previously his other short story, “Requiem for Africa’s Creatively Inept” was short-listed for the 2020 African Writers Award. Nathaniel is best known for surrealist writings.

This was their first meeting and in their conversation they talked about billionaires, superstitions, deadlines, coffee and writer’s DNA.

NATHANIEL: Are you good for virtual coffee?
NTOMBIKAMAMA: Umm … Virtual coffee sounds good… Just to get us started. I’m curious to find out how you started writing.
NATHANIEL: As far as I can remember I’ve always been artistic, and writing has been the easiest way to express that. However, the most convincing nudge to actually write was from J. K Rowling’s “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone”. Reading the book and watching how the book came to life, set me on my path. I just wanted to do the same thing, at least in words only. All through secondary school and the years that followed I began to harness that idea to write, even subliminally. Then I finally did it.
NTOMBIKAMAMA: Getting started is the hardest part hey. As for me, I write novels and scripts and my journey also started in high school. Somehow I always had the highest marks and my work would be showcased to the other classes. I was that girl who wrote stories and had other girls gather around her bed for storytime on Saturday afternoons. I was like their movie theatre or something.
NATHANIEL: There is nothing better than a good story. Don’t you agree?
NTOMBIKAMAMA: I totally agree. I love stories! Especially fairytales. I like to write my own fairytales. I think this alienates me from some “serious” writers, because for some reason people want us to write about poverty in Africa and all that gloom and doom stuff. That’s not for me. My characters are super rich and educated and insanely good looking. You gotta put some dreams out there to counter the news. That’s why I think of myself as a romance writer … but I do dabble with comedy and family drama.
NATHANIEL: Romance has always been a lucrative genre I think.  What’s the response from readers though?
NTOMBIKAMAMA: Response has been amazing. I thought I’d be writing for young adult females and surprise surprise,  men are coming on board. It gives me great pleasure to know that there’s a market for local romance. Instead of looking for romance books by Jackie Collins, I want people to look for Zimbabwean love stories. I want to people to see themselves clearly in my characters. See how we love, how we hurt and how we spend. (laughs) I’m tired of reading only about Western billionaires. We have our very own Zimbabwean billionaires and millionaires who will do anything for love. Why is romantic drama in Africa only for soapies or superstitious wealth gain. There is so much negativity attached to how Africans love on the TV.
NATHANIEL: Yeah, there does seem to be a trend in African writing that leads to sufferings and sub-humanity as part of our “natural” being. You know these days we’re not even allowed to love naturally, we have become digital copies afraid to catch feelings. Everything is now role playing, games and ‘out-smarting’ lovers.
NTOMBIKAMAMA: I find it frustrating to start from undoing others perception of you rather than just being your yourself. Even online you’re not yourself. Honestly I have no idea how to write what we want without having to relay our suffering on 50% of the pages. I wanna write whatever I want from my heart without feeling guilty for not representing “Africa” in a certain way …
NATHANIEL: “I write what I want” – Dambudzo Marechera.

NTOMBIKAMAMA: Exactly! What do you like writing?  I have this feeling you’re the one of those serious writers I was referring to earlier, am I right? (laughs)
NATHANIEL: (laughs) I wouldn’t say that. I just write. All writing is serious writing with the right system I guess. Given that a writer infuses a token of their spiritual DNA in their words. I think for me the most accurate explanation of what I like to write is from a song by Lauryn Hill that calls it: “makings of you”. I totally relate to that in my writing.
NTOMBIKAMAMA: That’s really cool … and poetic. Do you have a favourite genre?
NATHANIEL: If ever this phrase exists, it probably does – “African surrealism”. For my prose writing is surreal and African, not black. I have a fetish for creating the most unimaginable scenarios and worlds that exist within Africa. To the well organized mind fiction is always the missing adventure. As for the poetry, well it wasn’t my forte from the beginning of my career. I just grew into it. But when I do write poetry it touches here and there on religion, the politics of being black, and I have to say mostly on love. The reciprocated and the utopic too. This is what you do with your romance stories too, right?
NTOMBIKAMAMA: I wish I liked poetry but yeses … I know I’m gonna get in trouble. Especially with poets because they wouldn’t understand why as a romance writer I’d shy away from it … but eish … no.
NATHANIEL: (laughs) I hear you but it’s all about mood and who is reading it to you. There is nothing worse than being read poetry by someone who can’t read and you got a headache (laughs). I’m curious though … how good are you at reading at your book launches?
NTOMBIKAMAMA: Aww … I thought you were just about to offer to read me some poetry under a full moon. Oh well … just my luck (laughs).
NATHANIEL: You’re making me blush. (laughs)
NTOMBIKAMAMA: (laughs) You! Okay, let me answer, I read as much as I write. It helps me prepare and also helps to calms me down before a presentation. But what do I enjoy reading? I do enjoy reading fan fiction a lot. Fans write terrible grammar but they generally know the characters and stories better than the writers. And their take fascinates me. It inspires me to write better. Random question. How do you overcome writer’s block?
NATHANIEL: Deadlines! They will force you to put something down.

NTOMBIKAMAMA: I’m working on my next novel, a romance family drama type story. I’m hoping to finish soon but it’s looking like maybe end of the year. Another random question. How do you deal with criticism?
NATHANIEL: This is going to sound prideful, but I’m being honest. I’ve had criticisms about my book covers, and about not being out there enough. But overall I’ve never got any criticism worth considering though. Maybe I just generally disagree with any opinion that says I could have written something better. But I’m always working on improving every new thing that I write. Just remember, you grow up with your art and you can’t play to the crowd. You will get stuck at their age. So just know you can’t please everyone but you can be happy with your own progress as a writer. Before I forget, I would love to read the first draft of your new novel. And give you some “serious” constructive criticism before you publish. (laughs)
NTOMBIKAMAMA: (laughs) Eish … my book already has critics waiting in the wind and I’m not even done. (laughs) Are you working on anything, yourself?
NATHANIEL: I don’t really have the luxury of the day. I write at night. I try to force it. But honestly, sometimes I just don’t write. I just let it go and plan my story. So I can say I am planning something to write.
NTOMBIKAMAMA: That’s how it works hey. Half the day is spent thinking about what to write. I’ve always felt like the more thought you put into your story and the more you play around the ideas in your head, the easier it is when you write. But like you said deadlines force us to work. So how about we do this. By the time I’m done with the first draft and you have at least chapter 1 of what your planning written down. We can exchange drafts.
NATHANIEL: You putting me under pressure. But it’s all good I can work with that. That’s a deal.

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