Behind the Words: Resoketswe Manenzhe 

Posted by on Mar 26, 2019 in ABC's of Writing (for Beginners) | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Resoketswe Manenzhe 

Resoketswe Manenzhe, author, facing forward and smiling.

Resoketswe Manenzhe appeared in the seventh issue of Spry Literary Journal. She is an engineering graduate. She received her BSc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town in 2013. Although born in Gauteng, she was raised in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. She is currently in the process of writing her first novel.

Her short stories—”Southern Wind” and “Moths and Butterflies” have been published in The Kalahari Review and Review Americana, respectively; her poems—”A Song from Leonard” and “The Old Man at the Sinking Ship Brothel” have both been published in Bunbury Magazine. In the interest of separating the different genres she writes, she occasionally assumes the pseudonym ‘K. T. Marcus.

In this interview, Manenzhe speaks about gift economics, the importance of names, and the writing process.

Jeni McFarland: “Makoma” is an absolutely stunning piece: the imagery, the landscape, the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator, all are very captivating to me. I particularly love the opening, when you describe an idyllic landscape, which you bookend with the phrase, “some might call Taung beautiful.” It draws attention right away to a theme in this story, how beauty is subjective, depending on who you are. Can you talk a bit about the function of beauty in this piece?

I was trying to achieve two things with the opening paragraphs. The first was simply to avoid white room syndrome. Secondly, I wanted to immediately reveal Makoma’s disillusionment with her own world. I knew that throughout the story I would give her a somewhat indifferent tone; I wanted her to simply state the events as they happened, not (explicitly) offer her opinion. I wanted to write her as someone who had resigned herself to her own fate. But I also felt that since she couldn’t change the “big” things in her life, nor was her opinion welcome in that regard, she could practice small and subconscious acts of rebellion by expressing herself when it came to what she felt were mundane and unimportant things.

There’s a kind of practical arithmetic in this piece that I’ve never seen laid out quite in this fashion: how much livestock a woman is worth, and when to sell a daughter versus when to hold out for a better offer. I know you have a degree in chemical engineering, and I wonder whether this arithmetic is your engineering training coming out in the piece, or whether growing up, were you already aware of these kinds of social calculations?

My training as an engineer played a larger role in this piece than in anything else I’ve written. Like I said, I wanted Makoma to simply state events as they happened to and around her. That’s something I do a lot in my everyday life, whether in writing reports or presenting my findings—I don’t really have an opinion—things happen with my research and my role is simply to discuss them. Things are simply what they are, whether or not the results I obtained are in line with my hypothesis. I can’t change them, having feelings about them won’t change them. The reason I did this with Makoma was because, although I wanted her to have an inherent sense of feminism because she clearly recognizes injustice and feels it is something that should be rectified, she can’t quite articulate her sentiments in modern terms. It would have been somewhat out-of-place for her to explicitly recognize the injustices as injustices. She simply recognizes that something is wrong, and she notices a pattern, and that’s why she does what she does with her own children.

I grew up very much aware of this kind of approach to marriage and the role women played. But in my language, the calculations are much softer. It’s not seen as selling one’s own daughter, it’s like gift economics (if I understand the term correctly), the building of bonds, introducing one family to the other’s ancestors, etc. If I had to put it in Western terms, it’s like when fathers “give away” their daughters at weddings. It’s a soft sort of transaction, not really seen as a transaction but tradition. A benign sort of patriarchal practice, if such a thing exists. It’s malignance only becomes apparent when someone from another culture observes it, I think, maybe because they might not have any sentimentality regarding the matter and can therefore dissect the practice objectively.

Central to this piece is the ways in which women are viewed as either burden or asset. Can you talk a little bit of your own experiences with this treatment, as a woman, a person of color, a citizen of South Africa, and/or as a STEM student?

I’m the eldest in my family, and the only girl. I don’t remember when I became aware of this, but at some point in my childhood I came to understand that my parents were very lucky because they had three sons. I also understood that people who only had daughters were something to be pitied, and it was often whispered that perhaps, if these son-less people tried just one more time, they could be blessed with at least one son. However, I was also aware that my mother was considered very lucky to have at least one daughter. For the latter knowledge, I have my great-grandmother (named Makoma) to thank. There are far more widows than widowers in my community, and as widows grow older, their own daughters become their closest companions. Also, we don’t have homes for the elderly in my community. As people get older (and in most cases, become of poor health), they live with, and are primarily cared for by their daughters. My great-grandmother was one such woman. My parents love me a lot (I suspect that I’m my father’s favourite). I’ve never questioned their love for me, but growing up, I was always aware that sons were wanted, wished for, while daughters were merely a consequence of probability, and once had, could be cherished for their usefulness. It’s a very difficult thing to confront mostly because people love their daughters in my community. But I personally wonder things like: would I be my father’s favourite if he was confronted with an abundance of daughters? How different would our relationship be if I were just another girl, and he was left longing for a son? My parents and I have talked about it and my mother was shocked that I felt this way. But I still wonder if daughters are easier to have (and love) when moderated by a wealth of sons.

The ending has a kind of gorgeous darkness to it. I can see Makoma’s act of killing her daughters as a kind of mercy, and yet I find the last line, the echo of the names, to be a little ambiguous. How do you intend the ending to be read? Does Makoma regret killing her daughters?

Makoma definitely regrets killing her daughters. I initially started the story with her killing her last daughter and then going on to narrate how she came to be in that position. But that read (at least to me) like she was committing this horrendous act and I was retrospectively trying to justify the murder. It was a conflict for me because what she does truly is unforgivable. But she’s also a product of her world. She’s trapped and she honestly thinks it’s the only thing she can do to prevent her daughters’ fates, because she believes their fates are fixed. And she can have no say in their lives once they are allowed to fully enter the world. But it’s also really twisted because like everyone else in her life who has power over her, she has all the power over the infants, and she stifles them the way she’s been stifled. She feels guilty only about the crime of killing them because it’s the only crime she recognizes. So I suppose it’s ambiguous in a sense.

Often times in writing circles, I hear talk of finding an ending that feels both surprising and inevitable; I feel like you accomplished that perfectly. When you started writing this story, did you know Makoma was going to kill her daughters? Did you write towards that ending, or did you discover the ending as you wrote?

I knew the ending before I reached it because that was where the story started. It was inevitable.

Makoma’s daughters are buried unnamed. Throughout the story, Makoma’s sisters’ names are never admitted either; this seems to make the argument that Makoma lives in a society where women aren’t important enough to be named. Makoma even says her name “has never been important.” Yet, the names of her sons are also never listed. Was this choice intentional, and if so, why?

I discovered when I was eleven that traditionally, for my people, fathers are the ones who name new-born children. But Makoma was named by her mother, which is an anomaly of sorts. [I’ve since regretted not exploring this further in the story. I was a bit blind here because I intended the story for a local audience and didn’t feel the need to hammer it in]. Makoma is the only woman whose name is given for the following reasons: in my community, married women get referred to as so-and-so’s wife. The actual word we use doesn’t directly translate to ‘wife’ but to something like ‘beloved.’ It is somewhat like how, after western weddings, the officiator can say something like, “I now pronounce you Mr and Mrs John Williams.” Through colonialism, the taking of one’s husband’s name has taken a more western fashion i.e. women often take their husbands’ surnames now.

Secondly, as soon as a woman becomes a mother, as a sign of respect she becomes known as so-and-so’s mother, and it is often only her peers who can address her by her first name. Thirdly, because children born to the same clan were likely to be named after common ancestors, some confusion could arise if someone spoke of, say, Makoma, and there happened to be five Makomas in the same generation. And so, people could speak of her as “Makoma waa Tau,” in which case Tau could be either her mother or father. If the father is polygamous, Makoma’s mother’s name is more likely to be evoked. [This is another aspect of our naming system I have since regretted not (explicitly) putting in the story]. The women in the story are akin to children, they belong first to their fathers and named as such, and later belong to their husbands and named either as that or by the names of their own children. But since Makoma is the one telling the story, she doesn’t name any of the children because, if her own daughters died nameless, why should other children have names. By default, she names her sisters through their husbands. But as I’ve already said, the opening paragraphs serve as some kind of small rebellion (and victory) for her. And she gives her own name, not her mother’s or father’s. And it is only until much later that she gives her husband’s name. Her name, as she sees it, is the only thing her mother was allowed to give her; this, against convention. And so, her daughters’ names are the only things she can give them—in secret, in repentance—in the afterlife where they won’t have to forfeit those names upon marriage.

When you published this story, you were working on your first novel. What’s it about, and how is it coming along?

I’ve finished the novel I was writing. I went through the querying process and got very far with one publisher in South Africa. They eventually decided not to publish. But they were very encouraging and very helpful with their feedback. I’m honestly very thankful the novel didn’t get picked up. I’ve since expanded the story in so many ways and I realise the draft I had before was simply not ready. I have a million other stories swimming in my head and absolutely no time to write them. But I’m having so much fun with the things I am doing. And I’ve actually fallen in love with engineering now, mostly because I’ve returned to the academic world. Writing is still the great love of my life, however.

About the interviewer: Jeni McFarland holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Houston, where she served as a fiction editor for Gulf Coast magazine. She is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, with an essay appearing in The Beiging of America (2Leaf Press), and fiction in Crack the Spine, Forge, and Spry Literary Journal. She’s currently working on a novel.