SUNDAY PROFILE With KAPALA CHISUNKA, Lusaka
WHEN she was only eight years old, Mubanga Kalimamukwento discovered the power of words when she witnessed a heated argument between her parents.
Although she was too young to understand what her parents were arguing about, she still remembers how her mother cowed after her father said something to her.
Mubanga later learned that her father had uttered an abusive word to her mother. It was then that she realised that words have power.
Mubanga decided then that she would use the power of words by becoming a writer.
She wrote her first novel when she was 13.
And when her mother died in 1998, she took to writing in order to cope with her grief.
“I realised that I enjoyed living in the worlds I created on pages,” she says.
When she was 17, Mubanga wrote another novel, but both novels she wrote as a teenager never got published.
However, the young lawyer, who currently lives in the United States, is now living her dream, after her novel, The Mourning Bird, won the 2019 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award.
The Mourning Bird was inspired by a conversation Mubanga had with a friend who was conducting research on street children in East Africa.
“I was reminded of how fortunate I am even though my parents died when I was so young. In particular, it was important for me to talk about HIV because my parents died due to AIDS-related illnesses. I am aware that many children who are orphaned by AIDS end up living on the streets,” she says.
Mubanga regrets that AIDS is still veiled in silence, secrecy, and shame, a situation she says compelled her to “break apart those uncomfortable conversations that we as a country are not having” .
She says the title came after the novel was done.
One of her first readers told her that a persistent theme in the novel was grief, and that it might be good to have a title that reflected it.
Later, her friend told her about how owls in many African traditions are believed to be omens, prophesying death, and that was what birthed The Mourning Bird.
She says a central theme in the novel is silence and the destructive power that it has on families in many African societies.
The novel illustrates sexual exploitation, HIV and AIDS, abortion, prostitution, suicide, mental illness and child abuse and is set in Lusaka in the 1990s.
“As far as the story itself is concerned, The Mourning Bird is not just one girls’ story; it’s Zambia’s shared destructive culture of silence about rape, infidelity, substance abuse and abortion. It paints a brutal picture of a patriarchal society,” she says.
Mubanga’s short story, Womanhood, has just been shortlisted for the SynCity Anothology Prize 2019.
Her other short story, Hail Mary, has received honourable mention in The Dreamers Creative Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home and has also been published online.
A few months ago, Mubanga won the Two Sisters Short story contest for her work Hiding in Plain Sight, which was also published online. Mubanga’s short story, Inswa, has been shortlisted for the Kalemba Short Story Prize.
Mubanga likes stories that trigger emotions.
She remembers crying when she read a book called Heaven by Virginia Andrews when she was 16.
“I admired that power on the pages. Now I won’t even finish a book if it doesn’t arouse similarly powerful emotions in me,” she says.
Mubanga says she gets ideas for her novels from everywhere, including conversations she has with others, and sometimes overhears.
She says she is always alert as she goes about her day and pays it a point to observe people. When she has an idea, Mubanga texts it to herself so that she does not forget it. Once home, she says she listens to what she terms as relatively busy music and begins to write.
“I write in bed with my headphones for first drafts, listening to Chidinma and Banky W’s All I Want is You’ and for edits, I listen to Pompi’s ‘Silence’. I can’t explain why, except that they are feel-good jams for me. I spit out the first draft without thinking,” she says.
For short stories, Mubanga writes 3,000 words non-stop while for her novel she wrote chapters continuously between 2,000-5,000 words.
She says she spends a minimum of an hour a day on hectic days on writing or until “I’ve wept all the words swimming in the darkest corners of my imagination” .
However, Mubanga says the real work starts when editing as that takes about a week to several months.
Mubanga, who usually recruits the help of friends and family with reading early drafts, says depending on the feedback the stories may shift, and sometimes change, completely.
“Once that is done, I start proof-reading it myself, over and over again, judging each word and sentence to make sure that the emotions I hope to inspire are really being captured. Then it is sent back to my initial readers for feedback. If most of them like it, then I hire someone to edit it professionally. Then I pack the story and move to the next one,” she says.
She says the most important advice she ever received about writing is “just keep writing”.
It is the same advice she shares with other writers because according to her, it is the only way to improve the craft.
Mubanga says she does a lot of research for her work, which takes various forms, including asking people questions about their memories, languages, music, as well as using the internet.
The mother of one says she relies a lot on her family for support as a writer.
Mubanga completed her secondary education at Kabulonga Girls before proceeding to Cavendish University, where she graduated in 2011.
She was admitted to the bar in 2013.
Mubanga has tried many things including modelling and baking.
“I’ve worn many caps and continue to do so. I was a model, I sold custom cakes from home, I braided hair in university, I volunteered for a faith-based AIDS orphan resettlement programme and I started a money-lending business with my friend in Kabwe. I’m an all-round busy bee,” she says.
SUNDAY PROFILE With KAPALA CHISUNKA, Lusaka