So That You Know Your Story Will Be Told: An Interview with Sabata-mpho Mokae

By Amanda Long, for The Fourth River

I recently sat down with South African writer Sabata-mpho Mokae, and discussed his influences, oral storytelling and how language affects the way a story is told and absorbed. Mokae’s debut novel in Setswana, Ga Ke Modisa, I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper, (2012) won the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana as well as the M-Net Film Award. He is also the author of the the biography The Story of Sol T. Plaatje (2010) and the poetry collection Escaping Trauma (2012). His youth novella Dikeledi [Tears] was launched in 2014. Sabata-mpho Mokae is a resident at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

The Fourth River: Can you start by talking about your writing process? What does the road between inspiration and a published piece look like?

Sabata-mpho Mokae: Once I have a group of characters sorted out, the book writes itself. I know my characters, I know how they behave, I’ve given each of them a background, I’ve given each of them a routine, a certain behavior, I’ve given them dreams, aspirations. As a writer the book is being dictated to me, I have the story and then I simply become a typist. I have my first draft sorted and then I keep it there and allow it to be there. I take it out of my system, I detox. I take ample time to detox, three months, sometimes four months and then I go back to it, now as an editor. I am now a different person from the one who was telling the story in the first place. The second draft is basically going through the new me as the editor of the first draft.

TFR: What other writers, teachers, or moments in your life influenced you as a writer?

SM: I come from a tradition of oral storytelling. I grew up in a village in South Africa, where the tradition was that every evening we’d have our grandmother tell stories to us – that is myself and my cousins – and it would be around the fire. This oral storytelling tradition was done by all families in the village,.

In the village, there are not many resources. There’s not much to do. So, you have to look for something to do that doesn’t cost a lot of money. One of the things was playing street football, but I wasn’t good at that, and the other thing was to read. I grew up in a village where the literacy level was extremely low, but my mother was a teacher and my father was a teacher, so I had access to books from a very young age. This also influenced my storytelling. It was no longer going to be just oral storytelling, it was now going to be the written word.

And then I read a book by Chinua Achebe, one of the greatest African writers, who died last year. His book, No Longer At Ease, was about how Africa is grappling with post-colonial politics and how the new ruling elite are now behaving toward their own people. The way Achebe writes, he tells a complicated story so well and in very simple text, that it made me believe I too could tell a complex story as simply as that. I started to think seriously about the possibility of being a writer myself.

Sol T. Plaatje was the first black South African to write an English novel. He started writing in 1910 but the book was published in 1930. I admire Sol Plaatje, because he spoke the language I speak, Setswana, and he was born on a farm not too far from the farm on which I was born. I’m from the ethnic group that he belonged to, and my ancestors went to the mission school that he went to. He was the first African to translate Shakespeare into an African language.

TFR: You have said “I tell these stories in the same language I heard them.” What role does language play in your writing?

SM: When I wrote my first Setswana novel, I had been writing in English as a journalist for over ten years. I came into contact with Sol Plaatje’s work and I understood the importance of writing in the mother tongue. When I write in Setswana, I don’t have the burden of translating my work before it gets to paper. When I was writing in Setswana for the first time, it came out so naturally and so effortlessly.

Some of my writer friends said I needed to write in English in order to reach more people. But Setswana is spoken by around six million people in five southern African countries. That is quite enough. I have met other writers who are writing in a language spoken by half a million people, and they are writing vigorously. So, that was enough for me. If I don’t write in this language, I’m losing out on whatever comes with the language. Each proverb, each idiom has a cultural value and historical background that my readers now have access to as a result of reading in Setswana. I needed to hold onto that.

TFR: How does translation factor into this? Do you plan to translate your work to or from English and Setswana?

SM: I’m working with two MFA students at The University of Iowa to see if my novel Ga Ke Modisa, I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper, can be translated to English. At the moment we are grappling with the first ten pages.

But I wasn’t very keen on it, because I had so much fun writing that book that I don’t necessarily want to go through a laborious process involving that story again. I want to have the beautiful memories that I have. I wrote every day, I wrote like I was possessed, because it was so fun. When I started writing it, there was a sense of freedom that came to me. I’ve never felt that way when writing in English, because I was writing in my first language, the language that I sucked from my mother’s breast. It was natural. I said to friends who were writing in English, “Gentlemen, if you express yourself better in Zulu than in English, then write in Zulu. You can get someone to translate it into English later or you can translate it yourself, but write in your first language. You preserve the language, firstly, and your use of language is richer and you express yourself better.”

We will see what happens with the first ten pages of Ga Ke Modisa. If it sounds really good, then I will take it forward and get the whole thing translated.

TFR: Your writing spans multiple forms, from biography, in the case of The Story of Sol T. Plaatje, to your book of poetry, Escaping Trauma. How and when do you as a writer decide what form an idea or concept will take?

SM: I write very little poetry, because I believe poetry is one of the most complicated and difficult forms of literary expression. I also believe poetry is the most honest, and that is why I only write a poem when it “happens to me.” I’m an African. I’m a spiritual being. I was brought up in a community that believes in spirituality. When people die, in my community and in a lot of African communities, we believe they are elevated to a level of ancestor and they visit us in our dreams. My poems happen to me in that way. Escaping Trauma was a collection of fifty poems written over ten years. I’d written poems, contributed to anthologies and journals, and after ten years of doing that I said, if I don’t put all these poems together in one book, I’ll never have a book of poetry.

And then with novels and biographies, I believe that you write biographies when you want to write about people you love and adore. You write novels when you want to write about people you hate. I think that I enjoy it more, when I’m creating a particular character, who I know will never be my friend if it was a real person, that I would never even spend five minutes with that person. My best characters are very bad people, corrupt people, perverts, charlatans.

TFR: What inspired you to write Dikeledi?

SM: With a lot of people having died of AIDS, we have many child-headed households in South Africa, and I wrote Dikeledi specifically for the youth. In my story you have a young girl, Dikeledi, whose mother dies right in her hands. She must now suddenly become a mother for her siblings. She is only sixteen, and she has to now stop going to school. We have many cases like this, but they are normally reported by newspapers, and newspapers give you cold hard facts, names and statistics. I wanted to zoom into one of these people. I took Dikeledi as an example of children living under these circumstances. This story highlights sexual violence against women and children and the cruelty of AIDS, because with AIDS people don’t just die, they suffer a long time, and leave people behind.

Besides telling a story, I’m also summoning people to a discussion about this issue. Every time when I have an opportunity to go and read Dikeledi to younger people back home, I tell them “I’ve written this book so that you know your story will be told and will be remembered in 100 years’ time, but also so that we can talk about this. It should not be a taboo anymore.” Atrocities continue when they are not spoken about, and I hope my books will help create dialogue.

Amanda Long is an MFA candidate at Chatham University. She lives in Friendship, PA with her husband and dog.