This month we travel to the world of Botswana author Tlotlo Tsamaase, whose short story “Eclipse Our Sins” rocked me in a good way. You can read it at Clarkesworld. I featured this story in my last article at Medium, Part II of my Around the World in 80 Books series, which examines climate- and ecological-themed fiction from everywhere. I was so happy to finally touch base with Tlotlo and talk about “Eclipse” as well as her other writing and work. “Eclipse Our Sins” cries out against the grotesque evolution of our world and how nature has been suffocated in the hands of takers and users. It’s a brilliant, riveting prose-like story in which stark imagery comes alive, painting a crime-ridden place where evil-doings against natural landscape and culture go hand in hand.
Chat with the Author
Your writing includes fiction (mostly speculative or horror), poetry, and architectural articles. I attended an Ecocity summit in Vancouver, British Columbia, so I was drawn to that architectural aspect of your work and would love it if you could talk some about eco-cities.
I’m going to outright quote an article I wrote some years back for Boidus Focus, a local built-environment newspaper, which is a bit relevant to this question: “Eco-cities illustrate the scramble to reinvent cities in juxtaposition to their sibling-cities with a core focus on sustainability. Eco-cities are synonymous to built-from-scratch, self-reliant satellite cities that maintain an eco-friendly environment from which everyone can lead healthy and economic lifestyles. Ultimately, this would mitigate the congestion in urban areas. As such, there is the escalating environmental concern regarding global population, which is estimated to reach around 10 billion in 2050 from its current 7-billion state. On a larger scale, eco-cities have been experimented with, like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, PlanIT Valley in Portugal, Tianjin Eco-city in China, Amanora Hills in India, etc. Other African eco-cities are Konza Techno City in Nairobi (claimed as Africa’s Silicon Valley), Appolonia in Ghana, Roma Park in Zambia and Angola’s ghost town Luanda is Nova Cidade de Kilamba, amongst a few.”
The unfortunate thing is that sometimes these big ideas are hemmed in by corruption and an abandonment of the very sustainable ideas a country is trying to uphold. This keeps out the necessary professionals or even the issues on the ground – like poverty – and ultimately the eco-city either becomes a ghost town or less sustainable than it set out to be.
Can you describe what gives impulse to your fiction and poetry?
Firstly, writing comes from a place of passion. And most often it’s a need to process issues in our world – racism, climate change, gender-based violence, culture, technology etc. – in a way that is consumable to a reader through plot and characterization. But the interesting thing is manipulating our reality by exploring an alternative world and its ideas. Writing is also a blank page to paint your pain across, a very cathartic experience depending on the topic and themes. The beauty of writing allows one to read from different perspectives and see how the other side of the world lives or dreams. These, I believe, give me ideas that trigger me to start writing.
When I researched for a recent article at Medium, which goes around the world exploring eco-fiction, I walked away with great discoveries, which is how I found your story “Eclipse Our Sins.” The article spotlights 10-12 pieces of fiction from every continent. Trying to sample the continent of Africa is interesting, as works are so diverse. Some of the common themes I’ve seen include colonialism, the spiritual world, and speculative fiction such as Africanfuturism. Where do you write from, and how do place and environment inform your writing?
I write from many places. The thing about speculative fiction is you can bend reality and create an entirely different universe by either extrapolating our current-day issues or turning them on their head and seeing how that affects a family, a character, or even a village. Basically, I try to analyze the micro and macro parts of our world, whilst dissecting emotions through the lens of climate change. In one way, a writer can create a utopian universe, freeing its characters from the oppressive conflicts of our current reality, although conflict always rises. In another way, writers can process the dark side of our world. “Murders Fell From Our Wombs” comes to mind, a horror that explores gender-based violence in a murderous village. One tries to analyze the psychology of abuse, racism, and its effect on the person, the community.
My first year studying architecture was such a culture shock; we didn’t know what it took to turn buildings into reality. What it takes to root architecture to a place is the environment, the land, the people, the culture. A building either ignores these elements or embraces them. We’d go out to a site to analyze and document the culture of the area as well as the natural environment, such as topography, wind and rain, soil details, the patterns of people’s movements, their daily activities, local materials, culture, and rituals. If we didn’t respond in any way to this analysis, our lecturers called our designs “floating designs;” they could literally be put anywhere in the world and you wouldn’t be able to tell where they came from or who they were for. Our designs – as I try with my writing – had to be rooted to place, one way or another. If we ignored the place, it had to be for a good reason.
I try to explore that in some of my writing because that is how I was taught to process ideas and develop them. You have to ask yourself, what is this place where the character lives? What is their background, their motive, and their conflict? What issues exist that prevent them from reaching their goal? How did they grow up, what are their culture and rituals like? What would happen if you fused the traditional element of this place with technology? What would become of it and the people, and would it change them for the better or for worse? A person’s belief system also influences how they behave. You have to understand a character’s belief system, and most often it is tied to the land, the plants, the trees, etc. Also, nature is free. For example, a passive-designed building can use its environment for cooling (reducing heating and cooling costs). It can use deciduous trees to block the summer sun and let in the winter sun, or to redirect winds, etc. I could see nature as either a passive or active character in a story. Earth as a character that we abuse or love, which inspired the story “Eclipse Our Sins.”
Can you explain more what “Eclipse Our Sins” is doing and what motivated you to write it?
It was an amalgamation of many things: climate change, crimes, fear, pain. It came from a suffocating pressure-cooker moment of being inundated with scorching news reports of police shootings of Black men, gender-based violence, Black women being murdered horrendously, pollution, deforestation, toxic buildings we throw people into because of budget cuts, corruption, the raping of the environment, oil spills, racism, killings, xenophobia, endangered animals – it was all too much. I saw Mother Earth as a very wounded but angry soul, finally empowered to avenge her pain, which younger generations unfortunately have to bear. It was a deconstruction of how our current pleasures (peoples’ greed for wealth and power and materialism) sacrifice the future generation; the main character laments in one scene:
Mmê Earth, You used to be so healthy for us . . . until we destroyed You. I understand now why You want to purge us from Your womb. But it is unfair. How come we are the ones to suffer for the before-generation’s desires that smoked our future? I hate them. I hate them all.
Much like in my short story “Murders Fell From Our Wombs,” which explored curses in a village setting as well as the stereotypical representation of women, the environment is an antagonist. In “Eclipse Our Sins,” the environment is also an antagonist and somewhat of a savior as it retaliates against the abuse it underwent. I wrote “Eclipse Our Sins” to explore how we abuse the Earth and people similarly. I’m quite a fan of true crime. It’s devastating to hear how people go missing or are murdered and found in horrid, random places. In addition, I am a Black woman – you can imagine the layers of abuse Black women go through. So I was fed up and this was my catharsis. In “Eclipse Our Sins,” at least you are safe from people’s evil acts because Mother Earth enacts punishment instantly and the question becomes: Is that to create a utopian world? But everyone’s definition of utopia is different. I also meditated on the fact that the ground, the trees, the air, the natural environment see everything about a crime. I wondered what would happen if the elements had the voice and power to stop something like that from happening. And if these elements have power, then there is power in illness. Depending on what you believe in, the root cause of a disease or illness may go beyond the physical symptoms – the mind is a very powerful organ. So in this story, characters’ sins manifest as illnesses in their bodies; what you do can destroy you.
I love how the story delves into climate change along with other pollutions. I love this line: “Warning! Pollutants rife in the air, in the city: carbon emission, racism, oil spills, sexism, deforestation, misogynism, xenophobia, murder…” How important is it for writers to recognize our natural world in terms of human experience, and how have you done this in other writing, such as “Eco-Humans?”
“Eco-Humans” is actually when I learned that you can design every detail of a building to respond to sustainability, weather, or the sun, whilst managing the costs to build and run it. So I wondered: What if humans were just like buildings? What if the environment became so toxic that every part of them had to be tempered in order to survive? What if all the elements that used to be free – air, sunlight – could no longer be easily absorbed into their bodies? Of course, you’d have companies trying to profit from this. How would poor communities survive? What if you could control how much air they could breathe? And what if it became too expensive to do that? If you manipulated them biologically as you did buildings, to be eco-friendly, what would that world be like?
I believe studying architecture has forced me to consider the natural environment because it influences our lives. It becomes saturated with culture, our actions, etc. Without it, we are nothing. The actions we impose on our environment are similar to the actions we impose on people, hence why there are parallels between pollution and say, racism. We abuse the Earth and now it’s retaliating the way people would. Writers are just like architects, designing and creating worlds. In class, we were taught to design buildings that responded to their environment and climate. That response could be conforming or opposing but we needed to have a valid reason for it. I see writers in the same way; they create and design written works, situated in different parts of the world, perhaps always responding to something.
You have a new novel out, The Silence of the Wilting Skin (Pink Narcissus Press, May 2020). The cover and title alone are intriguing. Can you describe this novel? I imagine that COVID-19 changed the way you were able to participate in readings and signings?
The Silence of the Wilting Skin is about a young woman trapped in an oppressive African city that’s erasing every part of people’s identity. The nameless young woman living in the wards slowly begins to lose her identity: her skin color peels off, people become invisible, and the city plans to destroy the train where they bury their dead. After the narrator is given a warning by her grandmother’s dreamskin, things begin to fall apart. Struggling to hold onto a fluctuating reality, she prescribes herself insomnia in a desperate attempt to save her family. It explores personal identity and the various ways we experience loss.
Here’s a beautiful summary from Publishers Weekly: “Through magnetic prose, dream logic, and lush imagery, Tsamaase delivers a fierce political message. Suffused with both love and righteous anger, this atmospheric anticolonialist battle cry is a tour de force.”
COVID-19 definitely changed things. Everything was done virtually and is still being done virtually so, really, bless the internet!
Does this story happen in a specific place?
The story doesn’t take place in a specific place, but it does take place in Africa. Parts of the setting are based on our city’s urban planning issue. For example, the train tracks that divide the two cities in the novella are based on the train tracks that, in a way, divide our city. This has led to traffic congestion and a lack of ease of movement on both sides for pedestrians and vehicles. Of course people can move in and out of these sites; it’s just that certain things could be accommodated to make it easier for both parties. That’s the train you see on the cover. Secondly, some beliefs in the story are based on myths we heard as kids. For instance, we were told that when we dream and see someone dead in a train calling us, we shouldn’t get on otherwise, we will never wake up. Hence the dreamskin people and the dead people on the train, and the ancestral realm that speaks to the spirituality and beliefs of some African cultures. Thirdly, some of the structures that are described come from traditional African architecture or Western architecture; hence why you see two cities on either side of the train.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for this lovely interview!
I have a couple of forthcoming projects. The only way to find out is to head over to my website and subscribe to my newsletter or join my Patreon, which is where I provide sneak peeks of upcoming works, releases, and where I post details of my work and process. Either way, you can contact me to say hello, tell me how your day has been, or send in questions.
Thanks to you too! I enjoyed getting to know your writing and you a little better.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.