WIRED TO THE HEART

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Tlotolo Tsamaase, a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and articles on architecture. Her work has appeared in literary magazines all over the world, and her latest, a novelette called “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born,” will appear in the forthcoming anthology Prisms, co-edited by Darren Speegle and Michael Bailey, to be published by PS Publishing.

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The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Our paths crossed years ago (2015, believe it or not) when I was reading submissions as Managing Editor for a certain small press. Out of all the submissions received, yours kind of punched me in the face. Hard. I can still feel it. I was instantly drawn to your prose, and the world you created. The story is one of incredible value. In fact, I was this close (I’m holding my fingers together until they’re almost touching) to having you sign with that particular publisher. My only hesitation was that I was constantly thinking, “This is not small press. This is something more.” But of course, I also wanted your novel to help launch the new science fiction line that publisher was trying to get off the ground (it never took off, and we have since parted ways). I even had a few artists work on cover options. Long story short (and I won’t go into the details of that particular project), as with most small presses, there was a long wait from the powers-that-be to make decisions, and after some time you pulled the novel and let me know you were going try it with an agent. To which I enthusiastically yelled, “Yes!” (scaring my cats) and “This needs to happen!” (or something like that).

What I’ve learned about you since then as that not only do you write fiction, but you also write poetry, as well as nonfiction articles on architecture. Your story “Virtual Snapshots” appeared in Terraform and was shortlisted for a Nommo Award, and you have short fiction published in The Fog Horn (“The Palapye White Birch” and “Eco-Humans”), as well as Apex magazine (“Murders Fell from our Wombs”). Your poetry has been featured in Elsewhere Lit (“Home?” and “Fetal Sundays”) and Strange Horizons (“Constellations of You” and “I Will Be Your Grave,” which was nominated for the Rhysling Award).

I mention all these titles specifically (and with links) because they too tell a story. They provide hints as to what your writing is like, and perhaps what it’s about. Your titles are as intriguing as that of your novel, which I hope to someday see in bookstores.

Now, I probably butcher your name every time I say it aloud, although for some reason typing it is not a problem at all (I don’t think I’ve ever mistyped it). I usually pronounce it, “Lot-lo Sa-mace” with both t’s either silent, or slightly emphasized with the tongue.

So, the questions:

Michael Bailey: How do you pronounce your name (and I apologize if I’ve said it wrong these last 4+ years)?

Tlotlo Tsamaase: Oh, the t’s are definitely not silent. Here’s how you pronounce my name Tloo-Tlo and my surname Tsa-mah-ah-seh. Using phonetic sound symbols, a friend advised that the first name is /tlōtʊ:/ Hopefully that was close to helpful!

MB: Later this year, a short novelette of yours will appear in the anthology Prisms, which I co-edited with Darren Speegle for PS Publishing, and I’m proud to say (not only from my mouth but have heard it from Darren as well), that it’s one of the most intriguing stories either of us has ever commissioned. Like your other published works, it too has an interesting title: “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born.” What can you tell us about that story?

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[ mock cover created in early development ]

TT: Thank you so much! The story is told from the male protagonist’s POV who, through guilt, reveals a secret to his close friend about how he betrayed his friend the time before they were born to explain. This line explains the gist of the story: “And who are we? Sexless souls warring to be born through the granddaughter—the way we want. My application to be born was approved several days ago … You choose who you’re born from, how, in what sex and all that shit.” The granddaughter of a household is pregnant with two children, and there’s a congregation of women in the kgotla deciding on the gender of these children and basically the roles they will serve in the eco-city they live in. Ultimately the decision lies with the sexless souls who, existing in a different realm, must fight and / or kill for the gender, ethnicity they want, as well as which family to be born in. The stakes: you could die and never be born.

MB: You have fiction published in magazines and anthologies around the world, which means you have a passion for short fiction (along with a passion for poetry). What first drew you to reading and writing short fiction?

TT: From a young age, I read children’s books and whatever novels we had in the house, which were adult titles like Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, etc. I loved creating with my hands, building tiny houses, or writing out stories for my friends and I to act out. In primary school, my Standard 6 teacher found creative ways to get us into reading more, so I’d go through a million books in a week. Eventually, I wrote long romantic stories that were darker than romantic but remained as unfinished stories. It was also during my university years when I chanced upon Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. From the first page, I felt so transported; his writing was intermixed with voice and longing. And Helen Oyeyemi’s prose was chilling but had some dark aesthetic to it. It entranced me so deeply I wanted to learn how to do that, so I began reading as a writer and reading short fiction. Then a writer friend advised that I start out with short stories, which is good practice for writing. That’s when I also began experimenting in poetry.

MB: What brought you to poetry?

TT: Rumi! There is so much magic and beauty from Rumi’s poetry. Reading poetry, I found, comes with so many interpretations and by drawing so many meanings from the metaphors you’re able to relate and play around with words. I love Stone Bird Press’ Spelling the Hours; you just melt with the words. I attend local slam poetry sessions, and these artists are so talented; listening to a poet recite in Shona or Setswana and mix that with English makes their voice and language achingly beautiful. Going through these works teaches you what you can do with your writing.

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MB: What can you tell us about your nonfiction?

TT: I studied architecture at the University of Botswana, which is very intense and literally exercised my creative muscle. With that background, I wrote architectural articles for a local newspaper, Boidus. This included reviewing local designs and writing about built environment news. I would also write articles about people who had a creative background and were making a living out of their passion. It was a very enjoyable experience!

MB: Most of your short fiction (which sometimes dips into long fiction range), from what I have read, have a science fiction bent, but with so many truths hidden within. Is science fiction your passion, or do you find yourself writing other genres, or perhaps crossing multiple genres?

TT: Science fiction is my passion, and sometimes it tends to dive into dystopia. I have found myself writing in other genres like magical realism, which is quite an exciting genre to discover. Once before I dipped into fantasy, but by far my favorite genres to write in are science fiction and magical realism.

MB: You refer to yourself as a Motswana writer (Motswana being the singular form of “Batswana,” or also a person from the Tswana ethnic group in southern Africa). What can you tell us about your heritage? What is it like to write (or to be a writer) in Batswana?

TT: Writing from Botswana can be quite difficult in terms of character portrayal and showing various cultures as it’s writing from a non-western perspective, so it does feel difficult to fit in, especially if you’re writing from different genres or stories that don’t bow down to stereotypical representation. In some instances, the writing can feel like a process of erasure instead of creating a place of belonging. As much as that is a disadvantage, our backgrounds and culture are holy to us, allowing us to pour our experiences, background or culture into our work. Before you had to find a community online in order to interact with writers because locally there weren’t any authors to talk to or connect with. But the local writing community is growing: we currently have a book festival that invites authors; and just recently I was judging a local writing competition whereby we also get to mentor some of the writers. So we’re getting more and more people keen on writing, that’s really another way of preserving culture and showing the world our different voices.

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[ Tlotlo’s story “Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?” appears in the July 2019 issue of The Dark magazine ]

MB: The interviews I conduct are intended for all types of creatives (those writing fiction / nonfiction / poetry, those making music, designing books, painting, crafting; in other words, anything wherein the person involved is creating somethings from once-nothings). What would you like to share with those just dipping their toes into the ocean of creativity?

TT: It requires passion and discipline. I say this because I’ve had some writers who come to me with an interest to write or to learn how to write, but they don’t want to put in the work. They want shortcuts and mostly want their writing to be an instant money-making machine. Sometimes you have to do a lot of research, or you have to go through a draft a million times until you become sick of it.  When I started out, my writing was terrible. I spent years in novels’ pages, sleeping in their prose, pulling it apart until it bled into me, and I was saturated with a slight understanding of how to have a voice, which I returned with to my writing, and I failed and failed and keep failing by collecting rejection letters; instead of giving up, I used these rejection letters that came with constructive criticism as teachers. Working on your art can feel like war sometimes. But if you’re passionate about it, you will do anything to birth it into something. Having mentors is also good. I was in Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins mentorship program as well as Kate Brauning’s Breakthrough Writer’s Boot Camp, and both mentorships were very invaluable in learning about the industry and refining your work.

MB: What are you trying to tell the world with your own creations?

TT: My concepts tend to be sci-fi what-if questions that explore a limitless world and its impact on its characters. It looks at societal issues, deals with love and belonging. Lately my writing looks toward racism, internalized racism, as well as oppression of women and abuse of children, all with a sci-fi bent as is seen in “Murders Fell from Our Wombs.” But most importantly my writing tries to show multi-faceted characters with an African background appearing in genres they hardly feature in as main characters, like science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. There is freedom and sometimes happy endings that I hope readers will enjoy.

MB: If we were to look into the future, what would we expect from Tlotlo Tsamaase?

TT: Well, I would hope for my writing to be so successful that I can make a living from it. It would be wonderful if my writing could reach masses and inspire people as other works have inspired me.


Learn more about Tlotlo Tsmaase on her website, www.tlotlotsamaase.com, or follow along on Facebook or Twitter,


If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy some of the others. Previous interviews in this series include:

“The Hunger” with Alma Katsu
“Beginning to End” with Chuck Palahniuk
“A Little of Everything” with John Langan
“King of Illustrations” with Glenn Chadbourne
“Creator of Heroes” with David Morrell
“A Visit from the Tooth Fairy” with Zoje Stage

And coming soon:

“Not-So-Silent” with Tim Lebbon
“The Time It Takes” with Lisa Morton
“Poetry in Motion” with Marge Simon
“Spinning Yarn” with Josh Malerman
“What the Eyes Tell Us” with Daniele Serra
“Word Therapy” with Ramsey Campbell

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