When the Sensibility of Art Meets the Pragmatism of Science: A Conversation with Tlotlo Tsamaase

July 27, 2023


A photograph of Tlotlo Tsamaase
Photo by Lorraine Kinnear

Tlotlo Tsamaase’s science fiction “Peeling Time (Deluxe Edition),” which asserts a feminist agency and voice in a patriarchal and oppressive speculative world, was shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize for African writing. Tsamaase is a Motswana author. Xer debut adult novel, Womb City, comes out in January 2024 from Erewhon Books. Xer novella, The Silence of the Wilting Skin, was a 2021 Lambda Literary Award finalist. Tsamaase has received support from the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and xer story “Behind Our Irises” jointly won the Nommo Award. Tsamaase was a writer-in-residence at Casa Snowapple Writers Residency. Xer short fiction has appeared in multiple best-of anthologies, Africa Risen, New Suns 2, Chiral Mad 5, and other venues. Xe obtained a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Botswana and won an award for design architecture. Tsamaase is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Chapman University. In this conversation, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye chats with Tsamaase on the inspiration and aspiration of xer story.

Darlington: Congratulations on your Caine Prize shortlist, Tlotlo. I was excited when I saw “Peeling Time” and Mame Bougouma Diene and Woppa Diallo’s co-authored story “A Soul of Small Places” on the list. When I read the stories last year in Africa Risen, I admired the vision of the editors Sheree Renée Thomas, Zelda Knight, and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki in curating such remarkable works that situate science centrally both in the creative imagination and the future of humanity. Now, imagine my delight when I found out that Ekpeki, Thomas, and Wole Talabi were nominated for this year’s Hugo Award. This appears to be a great season for science fiction from Africa. How does it feel to be recognized as a writer?

Tlotlo: They’ve done a remarkable job; seeing so many different stories from Africans is beautiful. The recognition is very affirming and so surreal. I’ve been chasing this literary dream for over twelve years now. I feel so blessed at the recognition my writing is receiving, especially given the heavy issues and topics that my writing centers on. And it’s so amazing to see many more Africans reaching literary heights and, hopefully, more to come.

Darlington: In a 2016 article in which Talabi emphasized the usefulness of science fiction in Africa, he remarked that there is an unfair demand for writers of science fiction and fantasy to “justify and defend the existence of their work.” That is not necessary here, as I am in awe of the literary quality of your work. What I would ask instead is, how did you come to science fiction?

Strangely enough, studying architecture brought me to science fiction.

Tlotlo: Strangely enough, studying architecture brought me to science fiction. But there may be a more technically correct answer because I was and am still a film fanatic—in my childhood, I was into cyberpunk and horror films, where it all started. Whereas architecture was a culture shock because design and creativity were a new, demanding language I was learning. I loved the creative part of it as it challenged my imagination where there were no boundaries. I felt I had entered a new world where the unrestricted sensibility of art meets the confined pragmatism of science.

For example, I wrote the first few science fiction stories from this fascination regarding how much work goes into designing buildings. I wondered if humans could be designed the same way and how that would intersect with culture, poverty, gender issues, etc., and then I found myself writing science-fiction stories, but over the years, that has become fused with other genres. When I was an undergrad student, I would hunt for sci-fi books by African authors. They were tough to find, but those that I came across were very fun to read and learn from. Over time, experimenting with other genres felt like expanding universes by fusing different genres into one story.

Darlington: “Peeling Time” is an unusually engaging story. It begins with oppression and ends with freedom. Sewela’s recovery of her agency and voice is inspiring, especially because she had to struggle against the dark, tyrannical forces that inhabit Motsumi. It is intriguing how patriarchal oppression of women continues to sustain itself through culture. Still, it appears—as the women’s eventual liberation suggests—that you set out to offer a redeeming perspective to the problem of gender in Africa.

Tlotlo: That was precisely the trajectory I wanted to illustrate, from oppression to freedom, in conjunction with demonstrating one woman’s agency, which would usually be criticized and subdued, for she isn’t “palatable.” I was pretty depressed by the oppressing realities of Black women, especially with the high rape statistics and gender-based violence against women in Botswana and South Africa. There was this never-ending news of murders committed against Black women, often because the women said no or weren’t submissive to being controlled. And there would be protests and hashtags advocating against these issues, and then another woman would be killed, and another one. It was devastating seeing the aspects of culture that groom and enable this violence, and it feels like an unstoppable disease you witness in people.

I also kept seeing this violence-against-women narrative repeated in film, TV, and literature; most often, it was centered on oppression and sexual objectification of women, and often the women were characterized in a “palatable,” submissive tone. To me, it felt as if the women always die, physically or in some form of degradation. I’d find very few media that depicted women reaching their freedom, expressing their agency and self in such a gratifying and nuanced manner. I wanted to show a woman breaking out of that oppressive system, which meant I had to unpack that trauma and depict that unjust system.

I wanted to see a woman not die, a Motswana woman who makes it out without damage to the psyche or the self, because there is psychological damage and mental health ruination when a woman opposes the traditional role she’s supposed to fulfill, especially when it’s met with violent resistance meant to silence and subdue her. So, it was cathartic to tell a story about Sewela, who is this unmarried, childless, career-driven woman, and see her confidence unmarred by familial or societal expectations, and one who decides to fight against this monster—it’s risky to speak out and fight such systems. And I marvel at advocates who speak out against oppressive systems.

I wanted to see a woman not die, a Motswana woman who makes it out without damage to the psyche or the self.

Darlington: Your depiction of Motsumi reminds me of George MacDonald’s comment on human cruelty: “A beast does not know he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast, the less he knows it.” But Motsumi was not always a beast; he was a victim of abuse who took to traumatizing women. Is it possible to reimagine him in therapy?

Tlotlo: Man, that’s such a very complex question. Yes, and no. Honestly, it depends on the patient. It takes much work to enact change within oneself as it requires confronting and dealing with the trauma. And what is that trauma? Where did it come from? And if you learn about it, say in your forties, that’s forty years of unlearning you must work through. Doing that is a lot more complex than changing your behavior. The conditioning one must reckon with stems from what was implanted in the girl child and the boy child during their formative years, which sometimes influences their behavior in adulthood—add to that culture, genetics, economic status, familial relations, etc.

What I found, for example, was that in some Black men with abusive tendencies, something traumatic happened to them during their childhood. Still, because men are brought up not to express their emotions and to express their masculinity a certain way, it breeds within them conflicted personhood and values, affecting how they treat and relate to other people. And so you find that the language of violence is normal to them; it’s all they know and speak, and of course, how they express that violence varies. Some men recognize that and work on that change, but some are so overwhelmed by this illness of abuse that it’s easier to be swallowed by it than fight it, and others who are entirely enmeshed in this illness’s values don’t know or think they are a beast. And if you were also to deconstruct how this childhood trauma impacts some Black women in their adulthood, you could find the consequences are destructive too, and men face the abuse too.

The morbid aspect is the men who can intellectualize about abuse but behind closed doors are abusing people. And Motsumi does that. I can imagine him in therapy, but will he do the work to change? To heal? Finding that answer would be to write the story. I recently started reading Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare, which digs deep into deconstructing these issues.

Darlington: Let me come to a point you made earlier, which is that “Peeling Time” offers useful insights into how pop culture legitimizes female oppression and subjugation. I agree with you. But for a story that thrives on an inventive language, “Peeling Time” also contains critical perspectives that relate to the female characters’ experiences. Why was it necessary to include the commentaries?

Tlotlo: The story is a satirical representation of these oppressive systems and how they are processed in media and the public: the treatment of the powerful man and the victims. There are three parts to this answer. First, the idea for this story came to me while I was listening to a female rapper’s song that felt empowering. But there was a lot of criticism and backlash against the female rapper on how she explored female autonomy and that she’s not a good role model, etc. Other conversations declared that if male rappers objectify women, why can’t female rappers own their stories in their way? No matter what women do, they will always face criticism; whether a woman is fully clothed or not, even if she is perfect and abiding by all the rules, whether she wants to have a child or not—she will face criticism and violence.

Second, what I found morbid, for instance, is that every other day you learn about a powerful man in every industry who has several cases of sexual allegations against him, with lawyers lobbying his claims and reports denouncing the victims’ stories. The typical PR statement is meant to clean the matter up. Often the powerful man is protected, and the victims are left destroyed. And as I mentioned above: the powerful man can intellectualize this abuse yet behind closed doors is abusing men and women and in public advocates against oppression and abuse only for self-aggrandizing purposes. Motsumi does precisely that; he’s utterly intoxicated with his power and feels so invincible that he’s even gloating about working with a feminist he abused behind closed doors. I thought it was essential to characterize that because his victims are held hostage, watching this unravel, and powerless to do anything. Whom do they trust if the capitalist system supporting Motsumi also thrives from their subjugation?

Third, there are many women whom Motsumi held hostage. They are meant to represent the number of victims silenced after enduring emotional, psychological, and physical torture whom we either never hear about or are vilified during the reporting and lose the case. These victims often don’t have the same power as their abuser and don’t have the resources to protect themselves. Sewela becomes the one woman (who represents the small number of the successful ones) to fight Motsumi. Still, she also represents those with the resources to do so, which is a complex, nuanced topic.

I wanted to tackle that head-on and not censor the reality of it. I felt it was important to talk about this because I think of the thought processes of victims who won’t speak out against someone because of how a system treats their abuser and then having to watch their abuser grow more into power and gain support. And to paraphrase an essential point that Henneh Kyereh Kwaku, a great poet, had brought to my attention is the work that is in progress or needs to be done: what do we do with the pioneering works of these powerful people who have this history of abuse? How can we treat their material that is still accessible to the public in a way that is sensitive to the victims and is also honest about the creator’s past?

Darlington: “Muthi-tech,” which you described as “part-hardware part-virus that transmuted a typical laptop’s software to edit abstract things that stood outside reality’s frame once you poured something—anything into it,” is an interesting device. But what is more interesting is that it was created for the purpose of exonerating men from crimes they commit against women. It is sad that society will always find a way to perpetuate patriarchal oppression even in the ideal world of science fiction. I want to know more about Muthi-tech; how did you come about the idea?

I’m always curious about the psychology of criminals and the lengths to which they go to commit their crimes.

Tlotlo: Within my stories, I’m always curious about the psychology of criminals and the lengths to which they go to commit their crimes, and I wonder what if they had a type of technology to get away with their crimes? What reality would that be? With “Peeling Time,” I remember getting the idea of writing a story about women trapped in rap songs, and I found it mind-boggling how to execute that. I wondered how a body in our physical realm could be trapped in an abstract realm, which resonated with how death transmutes one, for example, into the ancestral realm. I knew then that a medium would be required to facilitate that transportation. I knew that a device or something “supernatural” could serve the purpose. And as a Motswana, I grew up hearing stories about witchcraft, the use of traditional medicine for good and evil intentions, and the existence of baloi. So, in a way, it felt easier to assimilate the essence of that into the story.

Then I wondered about the criminal, Motsumi, and what lengths he’d go to commit his crime, why he’d want to commit this crime, and what his goals were. In exploring his identity and discovering that he is an artist, filmmaker, and animator, the tools and technology he used to create his work are his most active part. Hence, they became his weapons, but I knew he needed to use them without leaving behind evidence that forensic investigation may catch. Motsumi’s problem is that it takes a long time to produce his work, his career is dead, and he’s run out of ideas and desperate for a new project. I thought about the theft of culture and identity for one’s profit.

All these thoughts fused to form muthi-tech, muthi being a composition of traditional medicine and unknown destructive substances that are misused for ill will, which connects Motsumi physically to his technology to produce this theft of identity without leaving behind evidence of himself.

Darlington: You have a superb imagination, Tlotlo.

Tlotlo: Thank you, Darlington.

Darlington: Your characters consider death as a continuation of life. I suppose an aspect of your culture inspired the idea in the story. There is a similar belief among the Igbo that birth and death constitute the regenerative cycle of life. Even Motsumi craved immortality, and that eventually destroyed him. But I am intrigued by his insane love of power, which led him to harness the energies and identities of his victims to create multiple versions of himself. How do we reconcile the fluidity and annexations of identity in the story?

Tlotlo: Thank you. That’s such a beautiful analysis; this is a deeply interesting question and very complex to answer. The fluidity and annexations of identity are a difficult balance to find, especially in short form, because I have many ponderings about this that can be expanded in long form. Some lines and sentences mentioned by characters offer a window into the possibility of exploring everyone’s identity. There’s so much to be explored in the fluidity of identity, especially of each character, as so much informs identity, so one would have to tackle every part of that identity—languages, ways of thinking, genetics, experiences, gender, values, beliefs, self-expression, etc.

Given that Motsumi harnesses the identities of these women, he is consuming them into his being, and what does that mean for him? That would require another story, basically deconstructing each hostage, and the effects and consequences of that hostage’s identity on Motsumi, while deconstructing his identity. I would wonder, for example, where Motsumi’s values shift and why if, for example, the identity he’s absorbed overpowers a specific part of him. Is there a reason for that weakness? Also, I would find that even though Motsumi has held all these women hostage within himself, what would be the resultant power dynamics? And what would have become of him if there was no outside force like Sewela to end Motsumi?

Lastly, I predict Motsumi would feel possessed by the women. The interesting part is exploring the idea of the fluidity of gender, consuming women’s minds, deconstructing masculinity and toxic elements of culture, and what change that brings in him and to him and the other characters.

Darlington: Now, you’re leaving me with more questions.

Tlotlo: I’m searching for answers too.

Darlington: So lovely chatting with you, Tlotlo.

Tlotlo: I’m delighted, Darlington.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is editor of The Good Teacher: An Anthology of Essays in Honour of Teachers as well as curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories and Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. He is also co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction. Anuonye was awarded the 2021 Amplify Fellowship of the MasterCard Foundation and longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award.