I wrote to Dango: “This, my friend, is a feat of spontaneous introspection, and that has been my aim for this project from the start. I always imagine that I am with you in a live event, speculating on the creative process.” I had, minutes earlier, received responses to the second batch of questions. And in my mind there is nothing more to be said. Except to add that in the hours following this conversation, I have looked upon my creative duty with a newer, fresher, outlook.
I owe you, Dango, a lot.
By certain standards, Dango is a relatively younger writer than most of the other writers in these series—he shocked me when he noted he never intended to formalize the study of his craft, that Voices of The Gods was his first story. But we find that what Dango expresses is not simply talent; a truckload of meditation enters the arena of his creativity.
Dango, a Malawian national, says he started writing one day after he read the quiet yet forceful command of an unknown author: Write! Africa Write! His hobbies include football and reading. He holds a degree in Economics and Statistics from the University of Cape Town.
Please be sure to click on the links to his stories in the webpage this conversation appears.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: What does it mean to live in Malawi today?
DANGO MKANDAWIRE: I think it means the same as living everywhere else and in every age that has ever been.
EI: Do you consider yourself an inside-outsider to Malawi? That, being a Malawian, there are things you do not understand about your country?
DM: Who has a country? What is a Malawian or a Nigerian or a Swede? There has been a lot of debate between my friends and I about this, about what it means to belong, considering the history of the lands we occupy. There was a time when—if you were born in a certain place—you spoke the language of that land, you ate the food of that season, and bowed your knee to the God of your fathers. Your idea of yourself was (and still is) partly formed by your wonder and ignorance of other people who were so different to you in clothing, manners, and tongue that it aroused feelings of “apartness.”
You and I, my friend, were born in the age of the Internet. We embrace any idea we wish. Boundaries are broken. We are the New Man, waves rather than particles, overlapping and fluid, constantly in flux. I am Malawian in the sense that I have a history here and am gladly attached to it, having a special affinity towards our beautiful lake and any confusions I have about Malawi are the same confusions I have about Chad or Australia or even the home of Superman—Krypton.
EI: Are you advocating that we listen for the sounds of inter-cultural dialogue? Is it dangerous being a wave, where the tempestuous notoriety of multifaceted existence could disorient you? I know we are in this age of the University of Google, the world being at our fingertips. But this vast reachability becomes unnerving when considered in the sense of everything-but-nothing. What do you say?
DM: You are right, Emmanuel. There is the danger of everything becoming nothing, and the truth is that the vast majority of people do not actually realize the knowledge resource that we actually have in the modern world. We take it for granted that there are documents that were sealed away, even for centuries, by an elite priesthood of knowledge from the general public that can be downloaded for free in an instant. There is the danger that we may lose the idea that anything can be sacred. But overall I do not see how—if we net all the effects together—we could be in deficit. These are exciting times my friend. It may be disorienting, but we are now waves.
EI: Are there things that you write about that, until the moment of writing, were unknown to you, unfelt, as it were?
DM: Yes. It’s almost like sitting in a trance between worlds not sure what the other side will communicate, and you just sort of find yourself expressing things you hadn’t known would come out that way. Some of the stories I started writing rather half-heartedly only to find myself grossly engaged in them while others, having initially the spark of excitement, fizzled out into my recycle bin amongst the other clutter. The surprises are wonderful.
EI: How do you go about the business of characterization? In my head, characterization is akin to life being breathed into the nostrils of a lifeless, yet already shaped, being.
DM: I like your analogy. It’s sharp. I take writing as an act of faith. I simply begin with an intuition and follow it through. That’s it really. I believe that the characters will live, for they were destined to live, to breathe. In Christendom we are told that God created men and women, but it seems even He didn’t have full control over them. Here pops up the issue of free will, which I am unqualified to discuss.
Anyway as the story goes, they rebel; they eat forbidden fruit and go about ruining themselves and are in need of a savior. They went rogue. Those are my characters. At some point they listen to me, obediently following my every pen stroke, but then they gain consciousness, rebel, and follow their own path, and all I do is watch from the recesses of my imagination. Sometimes I save them, redeem them from their calamity, but at other times I leave them wallowing in their ways. Some of them become great, transcending themselves and I am terribly moved by them. Others have repulsed me, while still others have been so overly boring as to make me question the reason of writing about them in the first place, but they act as the mesh and framework for truly interesting personas.
But back to what you said about breathing life into something lifeless that already has a shape: every story I write has background and some kind of theme that I am working with and pondering.
EI: I suppose “some kind of theme” presupposes the fluidity of your concerns, even their lack of theme. You don't necessarily work with attention-grabbing themes, do you? But then the question of what could become viral is something beyond our noses.
DM: I really do not think there is any way you could reliably predict that something will become viral. It’s like why we cannot accurately predict the weather. There are just too many things that have to happen in tandem and we can’t keep track of them. I have an aversion to sensationalism and will pick the kinds of topics that may not be the most hard-hitting to the senses, like rape or murder or war, but are the topics that you can quietly ponder for the rest of your life. I prefer stories like that.
EI: Are you often conscious of how your words shape worlds? Is it always an intentional part of writing to define terrains of existence, one that accommodates the plot being configured?
DM: To be a master writer I feel is to build worlds of many layers, and the atoms of these worlds are words. The world as we know it has only 118 elements, and from these few blocks the whole creation resonates. I am conscious of every word when I write, whether it fits appropriately, whether it explains sufficiently, for if you misplace them you will create a whole different meaning. In fact that was what I was trying to convey in my story "Voice of the Gods," that an ancient line of leaders are chosen to rule on the basis of their command of language and are independent even of kings, because of the potency of the spoken word.
And yes I do feel that it is an intentional part of writing to define your terrain of existence. You are a builder, an architect of that world, and if you do not pay ample attention, it decays and ultimately collapses. Compare Earth to the moon or Mars. This is a better world. Brighter. In fact I find that it is when I have finished a story that I have the most trouble with it, because I now have the arduous task of reviewing every single word. Balzac said: “When the artist is giving the finishing stroke to his creation, the last touches require more time than the whole background of the picture.” The final touches are what highlight the work. Brevity and clarity in description. This is what makes a story timeless.
EI: In working out a story like "Scarlet Robe," do you contemplate the plot first, or the metaphysical questions? For instance, questions of essence and morality are raised in that story, asked so intricately that there are no doubts that you are as perplexed as everyone else about our common destiny.
DM: I start with an intuition and go with it within a theme, so I guess I think of the metaphysical questions first. I have to be interested in the story myself before I get to the point of writing it. It has to swim and vibrate in my head, make me want to drop everything and rush to write it. That’s the point I start writing. Initially I intended "Scarlet Robe" to be a much longer story, with more characters but somewhere I found myself leaving it as a short story.
EI: Incidentally, I have a similar writing process. The thinking always takes more than half of the time. The actual writing, if you ask me, is secondary. Do you agree that one becomes a better writer over the years because he has mastered the art of introspection?
DM: This is a truth. The writing is the end product. The bulk of the work is in your head, how you feel about it, what you think of it. Some seeds in nature spend years beneath the soil before sprouting. No one must despise the quiet phases and unseen intricacies of any process. It may appear futile and laborious, but those micro-systems are what make any work stand out. Your mind needs exposure.
There are certain illusions that befall the unexposed mind and the first one is usually that your idea is novel, new to the world. No it isn’t. Great writers rarely say anything new. I can see a few cringes from readers who are also writers who understand what I am saying. For the best writers, look at the amount of research and background work they put in and you understand why their work stands out. What they are doing is masterfully putting it all together. It’s almost like they are artisans with a heavily stocked tool shed and are able to cut the same pieces of wood we all have access to into shapes we could never replicate because we don’t have that particular tool. That tool could be knowledge or experience or some other resource gained with time and effort. This is not to rob any artist of their own creativity, but we must be humble enough to accept that we can hear the echoes of those who came before us. To be a good writer you must be a good reader. I do not think there is any way around this.
EI: Where do you draw the line between the worldview of your characters and your own?
DM: We must take human nature as we find it. I try, to my best ability, to be fair to my characters. There are some I strongly identify with, there are others I feel are fundamentally different from me, but they are what they are. Good or Evil, we are all people, and in my stories everyone must be given their time under the spotlight. A mirror can reflect the beauty of the auroras, but it can also show us things that frighten us, that cause us to turn away in shame. But all this is to be human.
EI: In reading your story "Voice of The Gods," we could come away with the feeling that the past is being retold; that although being retold it is still the past, quite dissimilar in the face of contemporaneity. What do you say to this?
DM: “Voice of the Gods” is dear to me because it’s the first story I ever wrote. When I was writing it I was trying to imagine a past that was not told and yet could pass as tangible. A past that was plausible, unfettered by mythology. You see, Emmanuel, it seems the dimmer the past, the more likely we tend to populate it with phantoms, beasts, and men whose faces we cannot recognize. I wanted the characters to be a little more familiar, accessible. I actually got so involved I picked up from the short story and wrote a whole novel of it. Only my brother has read it.
EI: Do you suppose we have lost something major, as Africans, given that most of what you describe has been replaced by newer ways of being, of initiation into society? Or should I be asking if these newer ways of initiation into society suffices as much as older modes did?
DM: Society is like a drunkard stumbling along a street trying to keep balance. You can sort of hear and understand what it’s trying to say and where it’s trying to go, but its speech is slurred and its steps are wobbly. The frustration we all face stems from our attempt to slot ourselves into society without being swallowed whole and suffocated by it, or to withdraw from it sufficiently enough without freezing from the cold. That’s the friction of living in society and it stays with us our whole lives. New modes or old, fundamentally this is the struggle. Losing here is gaining there. And if you wish to loosen this friction, a little contradiction is necessary in everyone. Just a little. It acts as grease.
EI: We hear a lot about style. What does it mean to you?
DM: To be honest, I have never formally or rigidly thought about things like style and technique, though they are without doubt important. I begin from a different angle altogether. I imagine myself split into two. I then imagine this other me sitting opposite my table listening to everything I write. If he doesn’t like the last sentence I have written, he frowns and then tells me to delete it. If he thinks I should spend a little more time on a certain section then I prolong that part. Ultimately if he likes it, I write it. That’s the rule I follow. If it’s not interesting to me, then why would I punish other people in reading it? But maybe that in itself is a technique. I do appreciate a little humor though. I try to be a little lighthearted at times, even when referring to things that are fundamentally heavy. Sometimes laughter is the only valve against misery and if you forget to laugh, or at least giggle, the flood of despair will sweep you away.
EI: I recall reading: “Agreed, there’s a lot of talent, but it is never enough.” Does this inadequacy stem from the number of people willing to hone their talent, the number of people who strive determinedly towards mastery? What does mastery even mean?
DM: Hmmm. Mastery. There is a story of a professor in psychology who every year in the first semester would tell his class to spend the first week reading Dostoevsky. He then based the subject matter of his course on the characters in Dostoevsky’s novels. Writing stories with many layers. This is mastery. You have to see the world from above, alongside the eagles. To do this you must elevate yourself beyond your own feelings and prejudices, beyond your opinions and beliefs. You must ascend. This way, though everyone who reads your story will relate to it differently, it remains relevant to everybody. Not everyone can do this. As a writer you are concentrating knowledge, every thought, feeling, emotion, and idea into points gelled by words, and to keep it all together requires a thorough mind.
Discipline. You have to take the time to cultivate your imagination, to feed it so it becomes fertile. I expose myself to anything that will arouse “thought bolts” in my mind, to keep it active. My interests range from quantum physics to Sufi Islam, to Japanese anime, to SpongeBob SquarePants, and my favorite program on television: The Penguins from Madagascar. Many cartoons actually make intelligent programming if you listen closely.
In short, as it has been said, “Conversation enriches understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” Take the time to think. Read.
EI: Before you studied economics and statistics, did you consider being a writer?
DM: I hadn’t considered it even fleetingly. I started writing relatively recently. A few years ago, actually. "Voice of the Gods" was my first story, other than the compositions I wrote back in high school as part of the curriculum. There are two people I have to credit for becoming a writer, or at least some sort of eager imitation. The first person is directly responsible for me being a writer and I really cared about that person; they really cared about me. That person brought it out of me. The second person, Joseph Tendai Milburn indirectly brought me here, after unknowingly teaching me probably the most important lesson of my life: “If you are brave enough to be yourself, despite how awkward it may sometimes appear to others, you will find your natural path in life and some happiness. You are who you are.” Observing Joe and his sometimes eclectic behavior made me, me. Thanks, Joe.
EI: How do you know when it’s time to write?
DM: The sparkle precipitates from nowhere. But it will come. I will just wake up one morning with a glow in my chest.
EI: Reading your stories, there’s a feeling of a mishmash of voices, as though your work is polyphonic. I felt this particularly in "The Times." I especially like stories that are occupied by the voices of more than a single character.
DM: My brother, Mgawa—who may be my most ardent supporter—was the first person to point this out. I feel no character is so colossal as to singularly cast his shadow on the full expanse of a story. Relational beings are what we are. So I try to have quiet voices, loud ones, gruff ones, squeaky ones, all kinds. The danger I have always faced by having all these voices is that the result is noise rather than music. This has happened a few times without me being aware, for in my head, the gel still holds. This is where my brother comes in as a maestro to help me put harmony to the notes.
EI: Is there anything about the label "emerging writer" that makes you feel responsible? Does it humble you because you are not in full glare at the moment? I suppose you wonder what it would mean to become a famous writer, what responsibilities it may entail, especially.
DM: Being labeled an “emerging writer” (if that is what I am labeled) would exclude me from a lot of responsibility, and the lack of responsibility in the early phases of anyone’s growth is a welcome and necessary part of a healthy evolution. Responsibility can breed bitterness. Ask all those who found themselves in a position where they had to assume it before their time. Even if they end up succeeding against the odds, they lose the glimmer in their eyes.
For now I am just happy to write stories that are entertaining. That’s my main aim. Would someone sit down for a good hour and read this stuff? That’s what I ask. As for fame, I cannot really imagine what that would mean. I think it’s a gift and a curse really. Pedestals are lonely places. Not much room to maneuver. One has to stand with a pose. It’s bad posture, harmful for your spine.
The Times, in African Roar 2011 anthology.
Of Winds and Reeds, in StoryTime (2011)
Scarlet Robe, in Saraba Magazine, Issue 6 (2010)
Voice of The Gods, in African Writing, Issue 8 (2009)
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
Short story entitled The Times published in African Roar 2011 anthology.
· Short story entitled Of winds and reeds appeared in StoryTime http://publishyourstory.blogspot.com/2011/04/of-winds-and-reeds-by-dang…. (2011)
· Short story entitled Scarlet robe appeared in issue 6 in www.sarabamag.com (2010)
· Short story entitled Voice of the Gods appeared in issue 8 on www.african-writing.com (2009) http://www.african-writing.com/eight/dangomkandawire.htm
Dango Mkandawire, Gambit, Malawi