Ntsika Kota speaks about his award-winning short story

27 June 2022 - 14:46 By Mila de Villiers
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Ntsika Kota, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story prize 2022.
Ntsika Kota, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story prize 2022.
Image: Supplied

Eswatini-born Ntsika Kota, 29, was announced as the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2022 on June 21.

Regarded as the world’s most global literature prize, Kota is the first writer from Eswatini to be awarded this distinguished accolade. 

Kota’s story 'and the earth drank deep' is premised on an imaginary hunter-gatherer society. Subjected to disease, the threat of wild animals omnipresent and reliant on traditional medicine, the community is afflicted by unforeseen death and societal fracturing.

Exploring hierarchies, violence and the human psyche, the story is described by the chair of the judges, Guyanese writer Fred D’ Aguiar, as follows: “The events unfold around a central ethical conceit with tension that accumulates, and a surprise ending leaves the reader with many questions and in a state of provocation. The deceitfully simple and straightforward style rubs against an artful orchestration of tension. The writer controls elements of character and plot to captivate the most sceptical of readers. The reader inherits a host of hot topics for discussion at the end of the story, all of which shine back at the reader’s world. Like the best parables, the result is an interplay between story and reality, invention and the quotidian, the writer’s imagination and the world of the reader.”

Here Kota speaks to Mila de Villiers. 

How did you decide on the title?

I wasn’t sure whether or how much of a role the title played in the success of a story in Prize contention, but I wanted to have an eye-catching title that spoke a bit to events in the story. I tried a lot of different ones, initially trying to keep it to three syllables.

However, those titles, although quite punchy, also felt somewhat generic. Things like Hunted or Death Comes and that kind of thing.

Ultimately, I went with a title that alluded to how violent events like those that happen in the story often leave no lasting mark upon the world. Blood which is spilled soaks into dry soil like any other liquid. The earth does not differentiate between blood and water. The world is indifferent.

I also chose to format the title all in lower case, instead of title case. Partly it was because the length made it feel a bit visually cluttered in title case. The other reason was to reinforce that sense of indifference. There is no inherent judgment of the hunter’s actions by “the world” or the narrator. What happens in the story just happens and then it’s over.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

Unfortunately, there is not much of an interesting story about where the premise came from. It was one of those idle thoughts that pops into all our minds now and again. Things like “I wonder how that car got a dent in such a strange place”, or “what if everyone was the same height”? The kind of questions that may not have a real answer but are fun to think about or talk about with others.

In this case the thought was, “Who was the first serial killer?”. Naturally, there must have been a first, and we could further guess they would have been born sometime around when, anatomically, modern homo sapiens first started wandering around the continent.

That would put the setting several hundred thousand years ago, long before the oldest cultures and languages currently in existence were born.

I thought whatever neurological quirks lead to that kind of pathological behaviour could just have easily arisen in the earliest humans. The only real ways they were different from us — besides environment — is that they spoke languages we don’t speak and had culture we don’t practice.

Essentially, the story grew from an exploration of that premise. How would a human behave in that early setting with their empathy sort of “switched off”, in a manner of speaking?

Your central figure merely goes by “the hunter”. Were you intentional about having an unnamed protagonist?

Yes I wanted, partly, to highlight how differently he views the world.

Generally, hunters do not hate their prey, they just need it to be dead so they can benefit from its meat to feed themselves. In that same sense, the hunter does not hate other people, he is just indifferent towards them. If gaining some benefit for himself requires harming someone, he has no problem with that.

In other words, not naming him explicitly was a way of showing he lacks some of the fundamental aspects of what we call humanity, particularly empathy. However, to avoid then casting the hunter as a villainous caricature, there is also quite a lot of detail about his thought process so the reader still feels he is fully human, just different from the others.

I’m a big fan of including dialects sans translations (as seen with nyala, ndvuna and buganu in your short story). What are your thoughts about the inclusion/exclusion of italics and/or glossaries?

I had this very conversation with an editor at Paper+Ink, who are publishing a collection of all five of this year’s regional winning stories. My preference is very much for allowing the reader to figure out meaning from context. I think it helps draw them in \to the world of the story better than footnotes or paging back and forth to a glossary.

I believe using context clues sort of mimics reality, where we don’t always have the answers and not everything gets neatly explained.

That being said, there is a fine balance between giving the reader space to figure things out and deliberately confusing them. I believe in-text translation and glossaries have their place, particularly when building a world that is highly intricate and completely different from what the reader has previously encountered.

Can you elaborate on the sense of prestige and inclusion the hunter enjoys when volunteering to participate in the hunting and killing of the jackal which mangled a young woman’s leg?

In the beginning of the story, it is his first time hunting big game, which is a high-status activity in the village. Even higher status is hunting a potentially lethal predator. As someone who seeks the acclaim of others (even while being otherwise completely indifferent to their feelings), the hunter recognises the opportunity to simultaneously spite Zungu and gain respect within the village.

However, his quest for high status is not linked to a desire for social inclusion in a meaningful sense. He does not care about other people and feels no affection towards them. He just wants the benefits that come with being a well-regarded member of the community, and he knows such an act of perceived valour is one path to gaining that regard.

Duplicity plays a central role throughout 'and the earth drank deep'. Did you deliberately employ a jackal (often regarded as a trickster figure in African folklore) as the perceived “villain” of your story?

Actually, no. That was just a happy coincidence. I chose jackals to play the role they did in the story — precipitating the attack — because I needed a predator that was simultaneously large enough to threaten adult humans, but whose social/mating behaviour was not pack-based.

Ultimately the jackal was a practical choice, but I’m very happy with the coincidental meanings it suggests.

You write the hunter “felt his skin tingling with excitement” when “the enraged jackal was intent on maiming him”. Where does his blood lust come from?

It is essentially the growth of the feeling he discovers in himself during the hunt at the beginning. The hunter is drawn to the spectacle in front of him, and he does not have the empathy that would otherwise drive him to help Mvubu instinctively.

However I wouldn’t say the hunter actively seeks to cause violence and bloodshed for its own sake. Rather, it is that when he is confronted by it, he enjoys it.

I think of it more like how rubber-neckers at accident scenes are drawn by curiosity to the carnage, but also reviled by it, knowing people may be hurt. The hunter lacks that second part, that revulsion, so for him it’s all excitement.

As we see later in the story, the hunter only decides to do great violence to gain benefit (or to avoid loss), but he otherwise does not seek bloodshed purely for enjoyment.

Please expand on the hierarchical roles you explore in the story.

When it came to choosing what kind of society the villagers lived in, I wanted to balance giving their culture an authentic feel with conveying the idea that it is much, much older than anything currently existing.

I chose to take aspects of existing cultures for authenticity, but also to fictionalise them to avoid a too-close association.

Anyone familiar with Nguni languages will immediately recognise the nouns and names used in the story, but might then find it strange that the villagers don’t keep cattle —they’re hunter-gathers.

That was to try to get across that the society in the story is much, much older than anything currently in existence, but perhaps shared some features.

In terms of the village hierarchy, it again borrows from Nguni cultures in having a single male leader. However, I kept those details somewhat vague, again to try to avoid a too-close association.

In other words, although the villagers appear Nguni, they are not really intended to be Nguni. They are supposed to be a (completely fictional) and much, much older predecessor culture. As such, I avoided laying down too many details.

As it stands, the village hierarchy is divided between older and younger members, with older people in leadership roles. There is also a division of labour between hunting and gathering, with hunting being a highly regarded activity, although detailed herbal knowledge (like the healer’s) is also valued.

Who are your favourite Eswatini/southern African authors?

In general, I don’t tend to have favourites. I usually engage very strongly (or not) with whatever is in front of me at a given moment. I’ve read a lot of books I consider to be spectacular works of art, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you who the author was or even the title, unless I had just read it.

That being said, I recently read Simão Kikamba’s Going Home, and I thought it was beautifully written. I especially admired Kikamba’s ability to deftly construct settings and diverse supporting characters with very little extraneous description.

Before that, I really loved Zinaid Meeran’s Saracen at the Gates. Meeran’s ability to construct a compelling plot in an incredibly humorous way, while still expressing the gravity of important events in the story was something I really enjoyed.

What does it feel like to be the first writer from Eswatini to be awarded the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? (And under the age of 30!)

It’s surreal. Not only am I not a professional writer, I frankly had no concrete ambition of ever being one. I wrote as a hobby because I enjoyed writing and later reading my own work. I submitted an entry to the prize because, although I knew I wouldn’t win, I knew that submission would motivate me to edit the story to as high a level as I could get it.

I reasoned I would benefit not only from the experience of editing a short story for evaluation, but afterwards I’d have a nice story to enjoy later. As far as I was concerned. I had everything I wanted as soon as I clicked the submit button, and I moved on.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that my story had been shortlisted, then won a regional prize and now this. It’s almost as if someone burst into my room as I was puttering away on a keyboard and shouted: “Hey. You’re a writer for real now. Surprise.”

More than anything, though, winning this award is a huge honour. To be recognised alongside the long list of towering talents who have been highlighted by the prize feels incredibly good.

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