Brittle Paper’s Writer of the Month for June is Mali Kambandu!
Kambandu is a Zambian writer. She stole our hearts with her short story “When There Are No Words” published last month on Brittle Paper. When she is not working in Communications at a UN agency, Kambandu explores her deep love and fascination for all forms of storytelling. In 2018, she won the Kalemba Short Story Award in its inaugural year for her piece “A Hand to Hold” and was also shortlisted for the Writivism Short Story Award for “The Photograph.” Her writing has appeared in Gyara Journal, African Writer Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Menelique, and Maapilim. In 2020, Kambandu sat on the judging panel for the Kalemba Short Story Prize and has also served as guest editor for Lolwe Literary Magazine‘s Issue 5. In addition to her literary accolades, she has written short films, documentaries, and feature films, such as The President’s Job Description, Old-time Love, Long-time Love, and Ulendo wa Rose.
Kambandu lives in Lusaka with her husband and two children. She love to serenade her family with stories, including silly and bizarre little tales at bedtime or during school run. The bigger stories, though, are written at night, during her witching hours when the house is quiet and the owls aren’t.
Now, let’s chat with Kambandu!
Mali, congratulations on being the June Writer of the Month! How does it feel to know your piece, “When There Are No Words”, made such an impression on Brittle Paper and our readers?
Honestly, the feeling that my story or my words made an impression on someone never gets old. I am always stunned, and very excited that I was able to convey some of what I felt in writing that story or capturing those emotions with someone else. So, I’m really thrilled and very honored, because I know Brittle Paper receives so many submissions, and being identified for publishing couldn’t have been easy.
We chatted before this interview, and you mentioned that the three greatest influences in your life as a writer have been books, films, and courage. Can you explain how these three things contribute to your writing?
Books were a huge influence, of course, because my parents encouraged us all to read. They bought my brother, sisters, and me a lot of books of different types. Our excellent schools in Harare also ensured that we had plenty of reading material to learn different types of narratives, writing styles, and storytelling techniques – all of that happened in those earlier years.
Later, when I was in high school, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and to this day it remains one of my favourite books. The story is so far away from my experience as a young African girl, but the journey the characters go on, the detail with which they’re written, and the heart of the story really captivated me. I think that’s what influences me – the emotional reaction to a piece.
Films also made an impact on my drive to tell stories – watching stories unfold on screen sparked my imagination. Films showed me that there were no limits to how far your stories could go; an important lesson for me to learn. Also, speaking of film, I took up screenwriting after college and that really influenced my writing by forcing me to incorporate that visual detail, that action that we eventually see on screen. It was enlightening to learn and relatively easy to incorporate because it felt very natural to me. Not that the writing is easy – by no means!
And finally, Courage – writing is extremely personal and you’re so vulnerable. It took me a long time to gain the courage to share my work and be ready for whatever came. I am continually pushing myself to be more courageous not just in sharing my writing, but in other aspects of my life. I’m always fighting courage because it’s easier for me not to be brave!
I’m sure many writers can relate to this, especially the courage part. I have to ask though, by drawing such rich inspiration from books and film to prompt your writing, what are some of your favorite lines from literature and film that really struck a chord with you?
It’s not so much ‘lines’ but scenes, moments in stories that have struck a chord. Like the scene in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing when Marcus and Marjorie end up in the ocean and feel that connection to their ancestors and homeland, and finally they have gone home. But one of my favorite scenes – in writing – is this from To Kill a Mockingbird:
It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled apprehensive.
Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.
Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.
I love this because we start reading this from Atticus Finch’s point of view, but by the end, it’s really Boo Radley’s perspective – Scout and Jem are his children and he has witnessed these big moments in their lives from his front window, and he was there when they needed him. I love the emotion that arises in this moment, that’s what makes it memorable for me.
That’s a beautiful reference, and while we are on the topic of memorable writing, you were selected as Brittle Paper’s Writer of the Month because of your May piece, “When There Are No Words”. We usually receive tons of submissions centered on grief but what made me really fall in love with your piece when I reviewed it was how subtle it was. This wasn’t a woman grieving by crying her eyes out or cursing the heavens. This was a woman taking very methodical yet emotional steps to try and navigate grief by going through cultural routines. What motivated you to write this?
I think I wrote this last year, around June or so in 2021. Collectively, we all experienced some kind of loss in 2020-2021 or were acutely aware of the loss others were experiencing, and I had been thinking about loss and grief for a long time. I also thought about how we express grief in our cultures as Africans and the story grew from there. The character in this story had gone through all the collective activities around death where we mourn, grieve, and lay our departed to rest together. She stood outside of that to acknowledge her individual loss. I didn’t realize the meaning of this story could relate to more than the grief from death, but someone dear to me read the story recently and told me that it spoke to her as she is grieving one chapter of her life as she moves into another. I appreciated seeing it from that perspective, too.
Your protagonist is giving such a relatable form of grieving. She needs to do this one thing because she needs to feel like she is handling her grief, and that makes her loss take a tangible form. And it’s something her husband doesn’t immediately realize. When he finds her in the bathroom, and he meets her at her emotional and mental level, there’s such a beautiful show of comfort and love between them. It almost gives the reader comfort knowing she now has the support to fully grieve.
There is a new short story being published on Friday and, as our readers will see then, it also has such a subtle approach to heavy topics. What is it that you want your work to speak to, especially when you envision a reader encountering it?
I’m not such a smart writer that I actually know how to answer that question! [laughs] When I think back to the stories that I’ve written over the last few years, I see that the characters are all in very particular and painful situations and as the story unfolds, we see how they react and handle those situations. I think I like exploring the ‘how’ in my stories. That we’re all so different and how we deal with these situations is different and I like my stories to show that. It might not be my intention when writing, but I see that, upon reflection.
On that note, without giving too much away, what can you tell our readers about Friday’s piece?
I love this story. I was inspired when watching my son and his friends, and I hope I captured the essence of their beautiful child-like nature. It’s about people who walk different paths in life, but as we all know, we’re essentially the same.
Mali, this was a beautiful interview, and it was great chatting with you. Before we go, I always end with the same question.
Apart from your writing, what is one thing about yourself that you want to share with our readers?
I’m a huge Disney junkie. It’s quite embarrassing but I love the classic Disney movies (like The Jungle Book) and the Disney-Pixar animations. I love the old Winnie the Pooh cartoons. I love it all! I bought myself a Princess Tiana doll, just for the heck of it [laughs].
Well on that cheery note, thank you for being our June Writer of the Month and for this lovely interview.
For more of Mali’s work, be sure to check out Friday’s story, and for more interviews with our writers, check out our last month’s with Damilola Salami.