People don’t think of it anymore as just a hobby for me – 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize Winner
South African writer and Chemical Engineering PhD student, Resoketswe Manenzhe was in Kampala for the Writivism Literary Festival this month. Her story, Maserumo, which would later be announced winner of the Writivism Short Story Prize had made the shortlist. She sat down with our contributor, Kakinda Maria Birungi, to talk about her art and the journey that led her to being on one of the most coveted lists for a writer.
How did you hear about Writivism?
Resoketswe Manenzhe (RM): I heard about Writivism mostly through Twitter, to be honest. And then I followed the account on twitter and also made friends with Keletso Mopai who was longlisted in the one of the previous years. So my initial contact with it was through friends I made on Twitter who were interested in writing, too.
Has writing always been an interest of yours?
RM: Yes. I started writing when I was 12 or 13 years. But the thing is, since I come from a typical African background and I might be stereotyping this, writing wasn’t seen as a viable option. So I was writing mostly for myself. My writing was never from a place of, ‘I’ll one day get published’ or anything like that, so I’ve always thought of writing as a thing for myself.
So when did you start to view writing as less of a personal thing?
RM: It was around 2014 and I was actually working as a full time junior engineer on a plant, which I really hated. And so because I was doing something that I really hated, I then tried to escape to something that I genuinely did love doing and that was the first time that I really took myself seriously as a writer. I started sending things out to online literary magazines.
What form of literature are you currently inclined to write?
RM: I used to write mostly poetry when I was in my teens and then I shifted to short stories. And now I have been trying to get a lot more into my novel. So my transition was from the shortest form and since then I’ve been pushing myself to do longer forms.
Why would you say you write; and have the reasons changed with the transition of the different forms of writing?
RM: When I was a teen, I wrote mostly because it helped me deal with how I experienced the world since I was in boarding school and I was having a hard time there: I missed home and I dealt with that through writing. In my early 20’s, I loved the world of academics when I was doing my first degree but I didn’t want to leave University with just the skill that was expected of me. So I wrote as mostly an escape from that world of academia. Now I write just because I want to, especially if I read something that inspires me with my own work.
You’ve mentioned before that Maserumo took you seven years to write. How was that process for you?
RM: Well, I usually write short stories and submit them; sometimes they get accepted and other times they don’t. Submitting is a lot of work and if you are a student, you are most likely taking away time from the academics to go through that particular process. When my stories get rejected, I file them away and so when ‘Maserumo’ got rejected, I just filed it away too.. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it. It was much later when I revisited. I don’t think it would be accurate to say there was a process to working on it though. I did a thing, kept it and 7 years later, I went back to it. Although I must say, when I wrote it the first time, I was a much different writer, more so a much different person. The first time I wrote it, it was a very serious depressing story and then the second time, I wanted it to be sort of funny.
Within the seven years, you’ve gotten your degree and now you’re pursuing a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Would you say these degrees have transformed you as writer in any way?
RM: They definitely have. When I was getting my undergraduate degree, we had a professional communications course in third year where we were taught how to communicate as engineers. And the thing with being an engineer is that you have to communicate often complicated ideas in as few words as possible because if you are verbose, the examiner is most likely to lose interest. So if you notice, in ‘Maserumo’, I didn’t do long paragraphs and that’s something I’ve done a lot in my work. I know nuance is a thing and it’s amazing but I believe that if people can’t understand what you’re communicating, then there’s no point in communicating. That’s the major lesson I took from my engineering classes: you can use ordinary words which are meaningful all the same.
With a background in engineering, how have you intentionally bettered your craft?
RM: I’m on a forum where people discuss form a lot, not as writers necessarily, but as readers. We ask questions like ‘Which book are you reading? What did you like about it and what didn’t you like about it?’ and so from that, I’m able to gauge things that readers don’t like and also that’s where I’ve learnt most of my writing terminology from. I take the precision taught and required in engineering and apply it in my writing. For academic journals and proposals, every single word has to have a purpose because the guidelines and requirements are very strict – going over the word or page limit is seriously frowned upon. I use this a lot in my writing -if a word doesn’t add anything to the story, then it doesn’t need to be there in the first place. And if something is ambiguous, then an extra word, maybe even something as simple as an adjective, definitely needs to be added (in science and engineering, clarity is very important).
Which writers do you relate to the most, in terms of their work?
RM: In my teens and early twenties, I don’t think I appreciated African literature as much as I do now. I currently have a profound appreciation for Tsitsi Dangarembga and Jennifer Makumbi. I gave an interview the other day and I talked about how there are some sentences you read in African writing which you wouldn’t find anywhere else. It’s the case with Tsitsi and Jennifer. I feel that their work has a lot of sentences where you can relate and they feel like you’re holding a conversation with them.
What’s your writing process like?
RM: When I have an idea for a story, I usually wait until I have a lot of other things to do (laughs), so that writing is mostly an escape from these other things. But I’m also one of those people who can sit and look like I’m supposedly do nothing, when I’m actually thinking; imagining a whole paragraph or a scene.
If you win the Writivism Short Story Prize, what do you think that would do for you?
RM: Well, even just being shortlisted has done so much for me as writer. The honest truth is that even though I had started taking myself seriously as a writer, I felt that people were not taking me seriously as one. Now I think the people in my life don’t think of it anymore as ‘this is just a hobby for her.’ I also feel like it has opened up my work to more readers because before, I felt like it was only my family reading my stories. Now I’m getting a lot more feedback on not just ‘Maserumo’, but my earlier works. Even in my department, my supervisor posted ‘Maserumo’ on the department online newsletter and people asked me about it. See, I’m usually the joker in my department (laughs) so people were like ‘Oh, you do actually have thoughts in your brain?’ (laughs)
Do you have any long term writing plans that we should look forward to?
RM: I’ve been trying for a while now to get my novel published. I also want to edit my short stories that have already been published and so my goal is also for a short story collection to be published.