Interview with Mamle Kabu
When did you begin writing?
I did a bit of writing aged about 8 or 9 with illustrations but later I got embarrassed about it and threw it away so nobody would see it. I’ve always regretted that. In adulthood, I knew I wanted to write, I knew I would write, but interestingly, I felt I wasn’t ready, not experienced enough to be worth listening to or reading, till I was about 30. Then I felt ready and I started. But I think another factor was that that was when I stopped keeping a journal and I think the urge needed somewhere else to go.
For whom do you write/ who is your audience?
This is different according to different stages of writing. At the inspiration stage I don’t really have an audience, it’s just me and the story. As I write I do consider the audience in terms of technicalities, say, in using a phrase in a vernacular language, whether it’s necessary for it to be understood by everybody and if so, how to go about that. Then of course, if I want to try and get it published, I have to think during the writing process of issues like word length, how appealing it is to whom. But I’m not very good at that, generally I just allow it to come out before I start worrying about that, which is not always a marketable strategy. Generally, I write for people who feel things the way I do, who will discover things in my writing, who can basically appreciate it, regardless of who or where they are.
What prompts you to write?
Something I once described as a restless and rather inconsiderate urge lodged somewhere in my entrails. I don’t really know where it comes from or what it wants but it’s been there since childhood and it just doesn’t go away even when it is being crowded out by other pressures in my life. And actually it’s the only thing that’s always been there even when I was completely in the wilderness about ‘sensible’ career choices. The actual writing process is interesting and also a bit mysterious, it’s like “If you sit down, it will come.” I often write things I had no idea I was going to write when I sat down.
What was the inspiration behind The End of Skill?
I wrote ‘The End of Skill’ immediately after ending a year-long study on kente cloth, a project I did under the auspices of my day job as a research consultant. Two particular anecdotes I had encountered during interviews with kente weavers and custodians sparked the idea in my mind and also gave birth to the main character. One thing that really sank in through the study was how much kente is still a living tradition in Ghana and how wonderful that is, but at the same time, what that has cost in the face of modernization. That theme worked its way almost involuntarily into the story.
What was your reaction to hearing that you had been shortlisted for the Caine Prize?
I was in shock. I knew my story had gone in together with others from the “Dreams, Miracles and Jazz” anthology but still, making the shortlist with the rest of the continent for competition seemed like a pipe dream. Hearing I’d done it made me feel like a character in a book. An author’s pet that just gets her wishes written into the story! It was like fiction.
What are the challenges facing short story African writers? How can these be resolved?
In Ghana not only short story writers but writers in general face the problem of finding a reading public. Writing is easily classified as ‘difficult’ if it goes beyond the formulae of pulp fiction and then the reading of it becomes viewed as an academic exercise, which cuts out the vast majority of the reading public. The popularity of religious books and self-help books also helps relegate non-pulp fiction to the back shelves. How to resolve these challenges? Well to begin with there is the fundamental problem of low literacy. That would be a good place to start.
Why did you become a writer?
It seems to have been hard-wired into my brain from childhood that I should. I’m not quite sure why. It’s just something that wants to be done and suggests itself gently but persistently.
What are your concerns as a writer?
Money is an eternal concern, writing doesn’t really pay any bills at this point in my life. Linked to that is time, the terrible, recurrent frustration of having ideas that you don’t have the time to put down and develop properly. Finding publishing outlets for my work is also a concern. I’ve been very lucky but have also had a lot of rejections and they are so demoralizing.
As an African woman writer do you consider yourself a feminist? Or do you embrace feminism as a perennial issue?
I embrace feminism as a perennial issue, I’m not sure women like me have a choice in Africa really because otherwise we get labeled just for wanting half-way decent treatment. While being the type of woman who would automatically be classified a feminist by many, I object to the very concept of feminism, to the need for a label for people just wanting to be treated fairly. What do you call a man who stands up for his rights just as a man? A part of me feels that promoting the concept of feminism promotes the need for such a concept. I like my strength as a woman just to be a part of the way I am, like my height. I will stand up to be counted as a feminist if it’s required to protect women who are helpless to defend themselves but it is not a label I readily embrace just for the sake of it or for image purposes. I like to bring women’s strength out in my writing in a way that does not evoke labels but rather shows naturally and indisputably what they have a right to and are worth.
How do you yourself work – coping with job demands, marriage, living in societies other than your own? How do you fit in all those things into your life? How do you divide your time?
Living in Ghana (for the past 15 years) I feel I am back in my own society (after 10 years in the UK) although being bi-racial that is not always a clear-cut question. Anyway, coping with job and family demands and still trying to be a writer is so hard that it often seems impossible to keep being all those things at the same time. Economic forces are what make the decision really, if I didn’t have to worry about money I wouldn’t have any problem deciding how to divide my time! I would just write! Although I don’t think I would want to give up my work completely because it contributes so much to my writing. One of the reasons I’ve written mainly short stories so far is because I work freelance. So I fit my writing in between contracts. But it’s always hard to find long enough bits of time in between to finish my novel. As it is, if my writing urge wasn’t so strong it might have got pushed out by the other things by now, especially kids. It’s not easy to combine them with anything. Yes, the juggling act has been incredibly difficult.
What future projects/events will we see you involved in?
The completion of my first novel I hope, and others after that. I also want to write screenplays and get involved in film direction.
What is your opinion on the direction and momentum of African literature today?
I think more and more opportunities are opening up for African writers all the time. Today, any aspiring writer anywhere in the world can find opportunities to get published just by going on Google. He/she can submit a story from Ghana to U.S.A at the touch of a button. This is not to say it’s easy to get published, it’s not, but still, it’s a whole lot easier than it was pre-internet. Anthologies are being put together with calls for stories going out on the internet. This is how I have had some of my short stories published including “The End of Skill,” which is one in an anthology of 27 stories from all over the African continent, all of which were submitted via the internet (together with many others that were not included in the final selection). Literary magazines for African writers like ‘Kwani!’ in Kenya and ‘Sable’ in the UK are providing opportunities to new writers. So I think African literature is gathering more and more momentum and will have a much bigger international profile in the next decade or two than it has hitherto enjoyed.