‘Writing is open to everyone, regardless of their background or where they’re from’—An interview with Eswatini’s first Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Ntsika Kota

The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec chatted to Ntsika Kota, winner of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his story, ‘and the earth drank deep’.

Jennifer Malec for The JRB: Hearty congratulations on winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Ntsika! What does the award mean to you, and how does it feel to be the first writer from Eswatini to win it?

Ntsika Kota: Thank you. It has been ages now since I found out but it’s still difficult to believe that I won an award of this calibre. When I submitted my story, I was deeply proud of it, but I still didn’t expect that it would even be shortlisted, let alone win.

Rather, I knew the process of submitting it would motivate me to elevate the story to the very best level I could get it. I felt that that alone would be a valuable learning process, and as a bonus, I’d have a nicely polished story afterwards. When I clicked the submit button I remember feeling proud, not just of the story, but also of the editing I had done to sharpen it for submission. As far as I was concerned, I had already gained plenty out of the competition.

You can imagine my shock, then, when I received word a few months later that my story had made the shortlist, and later, actually won. It’s a huge honour for something I wrote to be recognised alongside the work of such incredibly skilled writers from all over the world. I think it really highlights that writing, and art in general, is something that’s open to everyone, regardless of their background or where they’re from. The love of creating something is itself a very valuable prize.

The JRB: Could you tell us a little about yourself? I believe you’re a chemist, and you studied at Rhodes University?

Ntsika Kota: I was born and grew up in Mbabane, the capital of Eswatini (Swaziland, at the time), but for university I went to Rhodes in Makhanda (Grahamstown, at the time). As a child I always loved science fiction stories, and I was drawn to the sciences in general when it came to academics.

I enjoyed creative writing in school, but when it came to daydreaming, it was all about science and technology—building or discovering or inventing things. Then, one day in high school, one of my teachers set a writing assignment for the class. There was no restriction on the theme or plot, except that there had to be some link—however tenuous—with the title ‘Heavy Rain’.

I don’t remember all the details of the story I wrote—I’ve long since lost all my exercise books from that time—but I’ll never forget how intensely proud I felt of it. It detailed the plight of a farmer during a lengthy drought. Unable to produce a crop, his farm is ultimately foreclosed on, and as he and his family leave for the last time, his child watches their home recede through a dusty window as the first drops of a rainstorm fall.

I think that was the first time I felt genuinely proud of something creative I had done. For years after, I would remember that pride, but it didn’t dissuade me from the ‘sciencey’ path I had chosen for myself.

When I got to university, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to study natural sciences. The explicative power of physics and maths and chemistry were far too strong a draw to ignore. Ultimately, I fell in love with chemistry. I really enjoyed how messy it was—both in the theoretical and practical sense—while still explaining and sustaining so much of the world around me.

The JRB: You describe yourself as a ‘rank amateur’—and I believe ‘and the earth drank deep’ is your first published short story—but how long have you been writing, was it something you have done since you were a child, or did you take it up more recently?

Ntsika Kota: When it comes to writing, I was the dictionary definition of an amateur. Writing was just something I did because it can be a lot of fun trying to put ideas into a coherent form. It was also delightful going back to read things I’d written—months or years after the fact.

I started writing consistently when I was at university, starting out as a chemistry postgrad—I think in 2017 or 2018. Ever since high school, I had felt the occasional twinge of desire, wishing I could do creative writing again like in school. One day—nearly a decade after I wrote ‘Heavy Rain’—I was at my desk, in front of my computer and I had that feeling once again. This time, though, I suddenly realised something. It occurred to me that all the times I had been idly wishing I could write, there had never actually been any real barriers preventing me from doing it. So I did. I opened a document on my computer, saved it with a silly name, and started writing things in it.

Initially, I struggled to write consistently, so I set myself the goal of one hundred words per day minimum, every weekday. I made no restrictions on the type of writing. It didn’t have to be good, or particularly creative—it could just be a description of my day, or an idea I had—as long as it was longer than one hundred words. That’s how I managed to build up a daily rhythm. With that rhythm in place, I was in a good position when interesting thoughts struck to open that document and write whatever came to mind. That was several years, and about 240 000 words, ago. I still use a copy of that same document with the silly name.

The JRB: How long had you been working on this particular story, and when did you decide to enter it for the prize?

Ntsika Kota: To be honest, I can’t remember the details of the writing process for this story very clearly anymore. It was originally one of the things I wrote and then left in the digital drawer, maybe a year or two ago. When submission time for the prize came last year, I still hadn’t written a new story like I had intended. Instead, I went through that whole long document to look for a reasonably good story, and settled on this one. I decided that the submission process would be an opportunity to practice editing.

I can’t remember exactly how long it took to write originally but I remember being quite excited, so I imagine I was adding up to a thousand words a day on the best days. That would mean it was maybe a week or two of work. When it came to editing, it was a matter of adjusting things like word choice and sentence length, and double checking big details. For example, did early Homo sapiens have stone tools? Do jackals pair up or live in packs? That kind of thing.

That took a few weeks, partly because I also had to include breaks during which I didn’t interact with the story at all for a day or two at a time. I always try to put as much time as I can between re-readings. Even a few days can be enough time to mentally reset and spot new issues.

The JRB: Without spoiling the story, because I think anyone who hasn’t read it should do so, it revolves around a hunter who develops an unsettling relationship to death …

Ntsika Kota: The whole story is an exploration of a very specific kind of ‘what if’ question. The kind of question that doesn’t necessarily have a real answer, but which is a lot of fun to think or talk about. For example, questions like ‘If we could see radio waves, would wifi routers look like lights you can see through walls?’ or ‘If humans were not the only sentient, earth-native species, what would the modern world be like?’

When this particular question popped into my head, I wanted to explore the consequences of—essentially—switching off an anatomically modern human’s empathy in a prehistoric environment. That lack of empathy wouldn’t necessarily drive acts of violence, but it would certainly allow someone’s decision making to take them down paths you or I would never agree with.

The JRB: The judges praised your story for ‘putting “evil” on display without interrogation or judgement’, and it’s this that gives the story such power, I think. The restraint of the writing leaves a lot of room for a reader to respond to the character of the hunter. 

Ntsika Kota: In exploring the premise, I wanted it to be an exploration of actions and consequences, rather than an overtly moralistic or cautionary tale. That’s part of the reason I chose the title ‘and the earth drank deep’ and the all-lowercase title format. It was in reference to the indifference that the narrator—and by extension the world—shows towards the kinds of violent events that are depicted in the story; when it is spilled, blood soaks into the soil as readily as water does. The earth does not discriminate between the two.

Maintaining that indifference is also why I tried to avoid describing the hunter’s actions with any explicit opinion one way or the other—only to describe his motivations. That way the reader is free to lay down judgement (or support), or remain a passive observer.

The JRB: The overriding attribute of this story, rather than character or plot, is a feeling of unease, which is very subtly achieved, I think. Was this atmosphere something you worked on? It’s difficult to pin down how you achieved it.

Ntsika Kota: It’s certainly something I wanted to achieve, but there’s no way to know if I stumbled on it by luck or skill. If I had to point the finger at a particular element, I would say it was maybe the hunter himself. I avoided giving him a name like the other major characters to separate him from the other villagers. Using human names allows a reader’s natural tendency to anthropomorphise things to imbue characters with emotion and humanity. With the hunter, I think this process is partially prevented from working correctly because he is not given a name, only a goal. He is the hunter, and like a literal hunter he is willing to do harm to receive benefit. Not out of a sense of hatred—hunters do not hate their prey—but out of a sense of necessity, unburdened by empathy for the prey.

Although the reader is unable to attribute to the hunter the full gamut of human emotion, they get insight into his thought process. From his inner thoughts, it is clear that the hunter is, despite his unusual nature, still very human. He still has feelings, just not empathy for others. Essentially, the reader becomes intimate with the hunter in a way nobody else is. This intimacy with a character whose motives are so alien is, I think, part of what creates that mild discomfort or unease.

The JRB: I imagine you’re a reader—your writing suggests you are!—who are your favourite authors, and who are the writers who have influenced your work?

Ntsika Kota: Yes, I do love reading. I’m nowhere near as voracious as I was when I was in school, but I do still enjoy the occasional story. I tend to engage very strongly with whatever is in front of me, but a few months down the line I probably couldn’t tell you what the title was or who wrote it. So, it’s difficult to know which of those countless stimuli had the greatest effect on me.

That being said, I’ve certainly got some broad strokes I can paint. I’ve always loved sci-fi. The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Octavia Butler, Peter Watts, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K Le Guin, among others, have been an important part of my life from childhood all the way to adulthood. 

Outside the realm of science fiction, I recently read Saracen at the Gates by Zinaid Meeran and absolutely loved it. Meeran’s ability to write with such humour while creating deeply human characters and impactful plot beats is something I really hope to be able to do one day. It’s a difficult balance to get right and Meeran gets it very right indeed.

A while ago, I read Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. It was the first time, I think, I ever saw indigenous religious imagery being used in a kind of magical realism setting like that, and I enjoyed it deeply. Obioma’s ability to weave the spirit world into the modern human world in the story was very satisfying. That seamless weaving of real and fantastic elements is something that I would like to be able to emulate one day to write the afro-futurist story of my dreams.

Finally, although it’s difficult to pin down specific influences, some of the style I used in this story definitely came from the old masters Achebe and Ngũgĩ. When I first encountered their books as a schoolchild, I remember noticing how different their writing felt than Western writers, despite being in the same language. I’ve always thought it was something about the use of rhetorical questions, and maybe appeals to common knowledge. Either way, I certainly had that style in mind when working on the narrator’s voice for this story.

The JRB: What’s next for you, writing wise? Do you think you’d like to bring out a short story collection, or a novel?

Ntsika Kota: If you had asked this exact question maybe four months ago, my answer would have been unequivocal: no fancy plans, just puttering away at my keyboard for fun and that’s that. Today, though, the answer’s not so simple. My main goal is still to keep working on my craft, to keep improving and bringing my skill level up as high as I can get it.

In the afterglow of this award, I’ve also had conversations and thoughts on the subject, and I’ve decided that I want to try to publish something, or at least explore the possibility. It would likely be a novella, rather than a short-story collection, but that could well change. I have two longer form stories that I wrote in 2019 and 2020 that I might revisit for the purpose, and I’m currently working on something too. That being said, I’m determined to keep something of an inward focus. I want to make sure that writing always remains an act of joy that I can share, rather than an eternally driven obligation or target.

In short, I’d like to bring something out, but your guess is just about as good as mine as to when and what it’ll be.

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