Gothataone Moeng, CALL AND RESPONSE: Stories

Gothataone Moeng, CALL AND RESPONSE: Stories

Zibby interviews debut author Gothataone Moeng about Call and Response: Stories, a beautiful and sharply observed collection of short stories about women, young and old, grappling with modern life in postcolonial Botswana, where elements of traditional life still remain. Gothataone talks about the themes she enjoyed exploring – love, relationships, familial duty, and self-sacrifice – all of which speak to the universal experience of womanhood. She also shares her writing journey, from growing up in Botswana and trying to write a book at the age of 14 to pursuing an MFA in the US and finding a publisher mid-pandemic while back in her Botswanian village! Oh, and she ululates – which you definitely don’t want to miss!


Zibby Owens: Welcome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” By the way, I don’t know when this is coming out, but this is my very first podcast of 2023, nine AM on the first day back of the year. Here we are. Happy New Year. Thanks for coming on to discuss your collection of stories called Call and Response.

Gothataone Moeng: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: I’m excited to have you. I know people who are listening cannot see, but you are wearing the coolest giant hoop earrings, which I love. Mine are tiny today, but I have hoops of all sizes. I’m a hoop addict. Anyway, tell everybody about your collection of stories. Tell me about the writing process. What’s the book about? What are the stories about? I’m also curious as to the aunt in one of the stories and how she became the patient. I would love to talk about that one in a little more depth. Go ahead.

Gothataone: Call and Response is a collection of short stories set in Botswana, which is where I’m from. The stories are set mostly between my home village of Serowe, which is a village in the central district of Botswana. They’re set between Serowe and Gaborone, which is the capital city of Botswana. I’d say that the stories center the lives of women, both young and old, as they grapple with modern life in a society that’s still traditional, but it’s also changing very rapidly. These women and these girls have to self-define against the pressures of their duties to their families and to their communities. A number of the characters dream of bigger, maybe more romantic prospects for their lives. They feel very constrained by the smallness of their lives and the smallness of the village and the smallness of the country. I would say that these stories are universal. I think that they tell universal experiences of womanhood and girlhood. You have girls and women dealing with normal relationship issues, characters that are falling in love for the first time, characters that are dealing with complex family matters, characters that really want to be loved or reconsidering the choices that they’ve made in their lives, and just really normal, universal experiences of womanhood.

Zibby: There’s a lot about being a daughter, too, in particular, your first story at least, which I read carefully to discuss. There’s a family. The aunt is living next door. You had this beautiful imagery in this beautiful way that you write where there’s a wall between the daughter and the aunt, and they’re both facing the wall in their beds. She realizes that, actually, they’ve been sort of lying there looking at each other with just a wall between them. That was such a beautiful image. So lovely. Also, the obligation — this one niece, she can’t go to this wedding. She’s so excited to go. The mom is like, “No, you’re the one. You take such good care of her. You have to stay back.” Then the tension between her and her nephew — well, her half-sister.

Gothataone: Her cousin.

Zibby: Cousin. Sorry, cousin. What it means to have to fulfill your familial obligations and forgo some of your own fun and that deep resentment. I felt like I was totally missing out on this party myself. I was like, no! What’s going to happen? I can’t believe it, just how much you have to give up sometimes to be a part of something else when maybe you don’t want it in the end.

Gothataone: I think that that is a sentiment for a lot of women, probably worldwide, but I think particularly in such traditional cultures, as in Botswana, where as a woman, you do have to self-sacrifice sometimes. A lot of these characters do feel that obligation. They feel pressured by their duties to their families. There’s a push and pull between what they want for their own lives and the expectations placed on them by their families and by society. What is the right way to live within this community? That kind of thing.

Zibby: Interesting. You also use hair as an interesting theme throughout the book. Maybe I’m particularly attuned to this because, literally, one of my kids just finished a whole segment on hair at school and all the ways it teaches you about culture and identity and all of this. You start out with the aunt, whose hair, of course, is thinning. She’s very ill and everything. Then you go all the way to the end where you have Sadie cutting her hair off and upsetting her family. I felt like there was something about that. Maybe not.

Gothataone: I think that hair is a very powerful and potent, maybe a metaphor for self-actualization, especially for Black women. We have to adhere to European standards of beauty. Hair is one of those standards of beauty where you really have to have straight hair, relax your hair. When I was younger, we all had to relax our hair. I remember when I cut off my hair when I was actually around the same age as the character in the story. My hair was very long. My hair was relaxed and very long. Everybody was shocked. My mother was upset. I had dreadlocks for a long time. People would ask me, “Why don’t you take better care of your hair?” just because it was natural, not because it was dirty or it was untidy or anything, but just because it was in its natural state. People think it’s dirty or filthy or whatever. In that story, the , which is the story with the character Sadie, she’s a character who is attempting to define herself for herself, who is inventing herself, essentially, who is trying to shrug off the definitions placed on her by other people, by her parents, her mom, her dad, her friends in boarding school. She’s trying to figure out who she is. Hair is one of the things that she uses. When she cuts off her hair is a way for her to start afresh, define herself, find herself. I think you’re right that it is used interestingly in the story.

Zibby: How did you get from writing these stories to here? How did you become interested in short story as a form? What are we doing here? Tell me your whole story. How did you start? When did you start writing? How did you decide to do short stories? I know you’re at work on a novel. What’s your story?

Gothataone: I was one of those kids who was always interested in writing. When I was maybe fourteen years old, I was always trying to write, trying to write a book. I knew that I wanted to write for the majority of my life, but I never really got around to it until I was in undergrad. I’m from Botswana, and so I did my undergrad education in Botswana. I did all of my education in Botswana. I came to the US in 2014 to pursue my MFA in creative writing. I moved here in 2014 to pursue my MFA in creative writing, which I did at the University of Mississippi. I think that the older story in the book, I wrote during that time. I’ve been writing stories ever since then. I chose to write short stories because I really love them as a form. Also, they feel to me, the perfect length, even though I would say that my stories are fairly long. I like just dipping into a character’s story. I like the fact that with a short story, you could tell many, many years within a shorter space of time. I also think that, for me, short stories feel much closer to my own temperament in that I feel like they’re very inward-looking. They don’t call attention to themselves. They kind of work mysteriously. They’re very inward-looking and don’t call attention to themselves. I think that is who I am in a nutshell.

Zibby: Interesting. Author as the short story form, love it. I worked with a woman named Leigh Newman, who also writes short stories. We had started our publishing company together. She would always say that even though they’re shorter, if you could master the short story, it’s the most difficult and a huge achievement to be able to pull off a short story. It might seem simple, but that is misleading.

Gothataone: I agree.

Zibby: What is the novel that you’re working on?

Gothataone: It’s very early days, so I don’t know if I can say much about what it’s about. It is set in Botswana. It’s set in Gaborone, which is the capital city of Botswana. It’s just about young people living in the city and trying to find love and relationships and find a way to live. What is the right way to live? It sounds very vague, but that is what it’s about right now. It is very early days, so it might change. I’m working very hard on it.

Zibby: That sounds great. Tell me the story of getting your book deal and having the book come out and all of that.

Gothataone: In 2020, I was living in San Francisco. This was just around the time that the pandemic started. I started querying. I knew that I had to go back home to Botswana because I thought that it would probably be better to be at home during the pandemic. If anything happened to me, I should be at home. I knew that I would be going home. I just queried a bunch of agents. By the time I got back home, I had gotten responses from some of them. I got my agent while I was back home in Botswana. We worked on the stories for a couple of months. My agent is Julie Barer, who is at The Book Group, who is a really incredible agent. I really love her. I’m so grateful to her for so much. We worked on the stories for a couple of months. Then I think May 2021 was when the book went out on submission. There was some interest from some editors. We eventually went with Viking. It’s interesting because I came to the US to become a writer. Then I had to go back home, and that’s where everything really happened for me, when I was back home in my mother’s house in the village. That was really interesting. I don’t think that it happened very quickly, but I think that I was very lucky in that I didn’t have to keep going back and forth with the editors and putting the book back on submission or anything like that. It just went on submission, and there was some interest. Then it got sold. Now it’s coming out soon.

Zibby: How do you feel about it?

Gothataone: I am excited and terrified in equal measure, honestly. I’m excited, but I’m also like, oh, my god, what’s happening?

Zibby: You’re a really beautiful writer. Your imagery, you really put the reader right there. I feel like I got this inside glance inside the homes of the characters you were writing about, both their internal lives and internal spaces, really. It was really neat. I have to ask, though, what does — I meant to google this. You used the word ululating a couple times. What does that mean?

Gothataone: I can’t actually do this, but it’s a sound that you make with your tongue. It’s a celebratory sound. It’s like, . People do that at weddings or at ceremonies where people are celebrating. That’s something that came up when I was in workshop with that story. People were like, “What is this? What does this mean?” Also, in some cultures, ululating is a mourning sound, so it was kind of confusing for some people. It is a celebratory sound. It’s something that you do to celebrate. In the first story, they do that because there’s a wedding. The character wakes up, and she’s hearing people ululating. Then she’s like, oh, this wedding is going to be great. That’s what it is. I did that, and it’s terrible. It’s very beautiful when it’s done by someone who actually knows how to do it. I wish I could learn.

Zibby: You just did it right then.

Gothataone: It was bad, though.

Zibby: I don’t know if it’s bad or good. It sounded good to me. For all the people listening, I bet you most people have no comparison set for a good or bad ululater. You are the crown jewel of the ululaters around.

Gothataone: Good to know. I don’t think my auntie would think that that was good. People can do it very well.

Zibby: Well, I think it was fine. I thought it was very interesting. It’s like cheering. It’s so interesting how every culture celebrates their great days, their wonderful times, the sounds, the cheers, the ancient rituals. When you’re writing, where do you like to write? How do you do it? Paint me a picture of where you like to sit, the whole process for you. Do you have your characters sort of mapped out? Do you just dive deep into your mind? What’s it like?

Gothataone: I like to write in places that I feel very comfortable in, so my bedroom, for example. I usually write in my bedroom. Sometimes I have a desk in my bedroom. Right now, I write at my kitchen table. My table is usually really littered with books and notebooks and different versions of the stories that I’m working on. It’s not a very tidy space, but I feel like I know where everything is. I’ll waste some time every time trying to find the right version of the story. I write mostly longhand. I will type and then print stuff out and then work on stuff longhand. I can’t do the public space. I can’t go to a coffee shop. I can’t go to public spaces because I like to feel very comfortable. I like to be in pajamas and slippers and cozy socks, so I prefer to write at home. It was kind of hard when I was home. I went back home for the two years during the pandemic. I had to work from home. I was living in the village. People just come in and out all day. People just come in and say hello. They want tea and everything. It was kind of distracting. I got around to getting up earlier in the morning and working in the morning so that when people come, I can still be welcoming and a good host and a good daughter. I was living with my mother.

Zibby: It was like you were living out what you were writing, the same familial obligations.

Gothataone: Exactly.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Gothataone: You need religious faith because for so much time, you spend by yourself. You’re working. You can put in a lot of years into your work, but you don’t know if it’s ever going to see the light of day or if anybody’s ever going to be interested in the work or in publishing it. You have to just have the faith that what you’re writing matters and that it will be meaningful to somebody at some point. Maybe just the fact that it’s meaningful to you should help you sustain the faith to continue working. I would say just keep the faith, is my advice.

Zibby: I love it. What do you like to do when you’re not writing short stories and having tea with all the people in your village?

Gothataone: I really like dancing, but I’m not a club-going person. I like playing music at home and just dancing by myself at home. I don’t have a lot of hobbies, honestly. I like watching movies. That’s it.

Zibby: Do you like to read?

Gothataone: I like reading. I like low-stakes gossip. I like chatting with my friends and just gossiping in a really low-stakes manner.

Zibby: I love that. What do you do for fun? I like to gossip. That’s perfect. Me too. Low-stakes gossip, I love it. That’s hilarious. I’ve never thought about it that way. What do you like to read? What are some of your go-to books? What form? Do you love to read short stories? Who do you love? What authors? What books?

Gothataone: I love a lot of short story writers. I really love Edward P. Jones, Alice Munro. I never know how to say this last name. Maybe it’s Galante. I like Tiffany , this Ugandan writer named Doreen Baingana, the writer Bessie Head, who is from Botswana and actually lived in Serowe, which is where I’m from. Right now, I’m actually reading a short story collection called Sustainable Living by Elsa Nekola. It’s a collection of stories set in the Wisconsin area. I recently finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, which I really, really loved.

Zibby: Wonderful. Awesome. Can you pronounce your name? Say the title of your story again. People have been asking, can you repeat the name of the book at the end?

Gothataone: My name is Gothataone Moeng. My book is Call and Response.

Zibby: Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you for kicking my new year off with this wonderful conversation. As we’re sitting here talking, I’m like, this is just the coolest thing. How would our paths, necessarily, have crossed in life? I don’t know. I was just thinking of you sitting there opening the door for the villagers with the tea with your mom trying so hard to get your work done and what my experience in the pandemic was like. Here we are chitchatting about this book coming out. It’s so cool, just amazing. I’m really inspired by you. I think it’s wonderful. The stories were absolutely beautiful. I wish you all the best as your book comes out.

Gothataone: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Gothataone: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Gothataone Moeng, CALL AND RESPONSE: Stories

CALL AND RESPONSE: Stories by Gothataone Moeng

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