Writer Keletso Mopai, tackles mental health, queerness and the undeniable power of the Balobedu Rain Queen, in her short story collection.
Keletso Mopai hails from Lenyenye, a township located 20km from Tzaneen, Limpopo. The township is well known as a place where Mamphela Ramphele was banished by the apartheid regime from 1977–1984. It is also the place where people speak Khelobedu which is not an official South African language, although it is spoken by over two million people. For Mopai, Khelobedu is more than a dialect – it’s a language, it’s a culture and a home. In an essay titled Can You Please Say Something in Khelobedu?, Mopai reflects on the history and erasure of her home language.
Mopai, who studied geology, is a storyteller and the author of the short story collection titled If You Keep Digging. Her works, both fiction and nonfiction, are published in highly regarded publications such as Catapult magazine, The Johannesburg Review of Books, and Brittle Paper, among others. Her short story, Monkey was shortlisted for the 2019 Brittle Paper Awards.
The title of your book is If You Keep Digging. What inspired it?
I’ve been getting different views about what the title could be about, and although all of them are valid, for me, when I came up with it, I was looking at the different and yet, similar characters in my book. The characters are often trapped in uncontrollable circumstances, often marginalised and ignored, so I wanted to “dig them up” and bring them to the surface so that people, or readers, could actually see and hear them.
Some of your stories feature mental health – why was it important for you to include mental health in your collection?
As a storyteller, I’m intrigued by how the human brain is so powerful and yet, very vulnerable. Growing up in a township I’ve witnessed mental illness at a very close range and I’ve always been curious. The only way I can understand and shine a light on such issues is through writing about them.
One of my favourite things about your book is the queerness of it all – what drew you to include queerness in this collection?
Besides, that queer stories make interesting stories, I’m a queer storyteller and I’ve seen how limited stories on sexuality, and so the choice to write about queer narratives that include queer love, as well as queer struggles, is something that came to me naturally.
In Blood of Filth, you tell stories about violence against queer womxn, in particular, by people close to the victims. What were you conveying in your stories about the nature of violence?
Blood of Filth is a story I’ve always wanted to write, and I just didn’t know how to go about it. I remember in high school I was told about a girl near my school who was gang raped, and I can recall how emotionally affected I was by that story.
Another reason I wrote that story was the need to know how families and friends of rapists or criminals react when they find out about the things people they love and grew up with do to other people. I mean we’ve seen it countless times how people close to perpetrators perpetuate their behaviour by doing nothing or by defending them. I think those are the two main reasons why I wrote that story.
Your stories are also preoccupied with location – why is that important to you?
To see characters truthfully, one needs to give them a place and they can be associated with everything linked to that place. It eases the difficulty of writing a story when you can see where the character lives – at least for me
Location is connected closely to language and to migration, are themes that recur often in the stories. Why is language important to you?
We live in such a diverse country and the most fun thing about using vernacular in stories is that you get to see a character for who they are, because of the language they speak. In one of the stories titled Fourteen, for example, we follow a miner working in a coal mine in eMalahleni, Mpumalanga.
Now, for a character like that to sound the part, they need to have Zulu/Swati dialogues for a reader to visualise them. If that character was written only in English, I don’t think it would have been believable, because miners that I’ve interacted with when I worked at a coal mine in Mpumalanga, spoke Zulu or Swati all the time, and some did not even know English. So again, from a storytelling point of view, it’s my duty as a writer to make my characters authentic and believable, if not – what’s the point?
Location also connects us with spirituality, tell us about the influence of writing about the Storm God in Becoming a God?
Becoming a God was hugely inspired by the Rain Queen of Balobedu. Growing up in Tzaneen, which is close to Balobedu, I’d heard great things about that queenship and I was inspired as a woman, and as a writer who wants to tell stories about her own people. How powerful would it be for a woman, a queer woman in particular, to cause a storm? Besides the abuse and traditional customs highlighted in the story, I wanted to show how power in an African family can exist, however mythical or real.
You tell one of the stories from the perspective of a white Afrikaner boy, and you tell it so intimately like you know him. What was the inspiration behind it?
Whuu! Monkeys is a very special story, besides being set in Limpopo as well, I enjoyed the challenge of writing through an Afrikaner’s eye, a young male character even more. The story was written out of curiosity. After the success of In Papa’s Name, I was intrigued by the ending of the story. The four black boys in the book are walking around in their neighborhood and they come across a flashy car and, out of the blue, two white boys in the back seat open the car windows and throw bananas at the four boys. That scene was so intense – at least for me – and I needed to find out why the white boys did that. Because they were kids, we couldn’t just assume that they were being racist. And so, came the character of Nicolas, who is white and lives on a farm with his family and has a best friend named Kevin, and an abusive father. The rest of the story basically tells itself. And I knew the responsibilities of seeing Nicolas vividly so that my readers would believe that, I, a Black woman, wrote a story about a white boy and all they could see was that boy, and his white family and friends.
What do you hope people take from your book?
I always say I want empathy. The characters in If You Keep Digging were created from a place of rage and concern for my country and all its issues. People should receive the stories for what they
This is an unfair question, but do you have a favourite story in the collection? If so, why?
It’s like picking a favourite child, but even though parents lie all the time that they don’t have favourites, I have mine; In Papa’s Name, which is the third story in the collection. I felt such sincere joy when writing that story. It’s a special story to me because it is set in Lenyenye, where I grew up, and everything was laid right in front of me when I was writing it and I was laughing the entire time. Another reason I admire that story is because it was the first story I wrote that gave me confidence as a storyteller. It got listed for major African prize for are and make their own interpretations.
What is next for you?
I want to study an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing, and I’ve been accepted to study in the UK this year. I want to write more books and tell life changing stories.
Get a copy of If You Keep Digging from www.cheekynatives.co.za