Thanks for your time chatting to me Beaton. First question: Where did you grow up?
I was born in a village in Balaka, in the south of Malawi, and my heart has never left that place. Our family briefly stayed in Blantyre and Lilongwe, the earlier a commercial city and the latter the capital, between 1998 and 2002, and after that we returned to the village. That’s where I had been for a large part of my life at least until 2015 when I returned to the capital again for my first teaching job.
Life in the village had its own ups and downs. But I was young. Things that mattered most then aren’t those that would matter now. So, it’s not easy reconstructing my memories on the ups and downs back then because what I know is so long we played football made from plastic papers during the day, and there was the moon and stars in the sky at night that we played hide-and-seek under, I wouldn’t complain. Still, my parents were struggling financially, but as kids what do you do? You don’t even appreciate what your parents and the older siblings are going through to bring a grain bucket home.
Were there things growing up that still influence your writing now?
Death. 2005. One night my brother was in police custody waiting for bail the next day. Its callousness freed him from shackles, in blood and broken bones. Magical stories. We usually had stories of old men and women at the courts of village chiefs, accused of witchcraft. Then, there were thieves that used magical spells to break into homes. And our football games always had experiences worth keeping in writing. It all forms part of my writing today.
Can you remember writing down your early structured words at school?
I can’t. I can only suspect it was much much earlier in primary school. Maybe Standard 3. But after our family returned to the village in 2002, I made friends with some two guys. They could not write, but they always wanted to pen their ‘girl friends’. They used to buy me biscuits and sweets, say out loud what they wanted their letters to contain, and I would do the needful. Those were what I would consciously call my first structured words, before I even started writing compositions in class. I was in Standard 6 then. But a very deliberate attempt at writing came when I was in Form Two at Dedza Secondary School and we had received a new teacher everyone didn’t like at the time. He was a strict disciplinarian, and that’s the last trait of a teacher you would need when you are naïve. So, people were making cartoons and writing short stories about him and posting them at the board behind the administration block. I wrote a poem. I have forgotten the title but I kept referring to him as a vampire from the little knowledge I had read in Virginia Ironside’s Vampire Master of Burlap Hall. And, I never posted it on the board.
Did you have a love of words back then?
I had a brother who loved literature and read to me Macbeth, Scarlet Song and a lot of other literary works. As soon as I learnt how to read properly, I ravaged through all the torn books I found home. My father used to borrow some English novels and poetry collections from her sister – a retired primary school teacher. I read through every single one of them. As I grew up, I returned to the books that still survived. This love grew as I went to secondary school. I remember my English teacher giving me a 39/40 in a short story assignment. On the remarks, he wrote “Excellent work if you did not copy this from the newspaper.” I am still a keen reader of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. More of the reading now makes me feel more powerful in writing.
Did you go to University?
Yes, I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Education Language from The University of Malawi. I joined Chancellor College, a constituent of the university in 2010 and graduated in 2014. While there, I studied literature in African languages, English and French and this is where my real writing started. Not real as in real, but it’s from the bits of thought I put on paper this time that led me into realizing that I could write. There was poetry we read in class and I felt good. Henry Barlow’s Building the Nation. Jared Angira’s No Coffin No Grave. Niyi Osundare’s Not My Business. I can’t mention them all, but there are poets like Dennis Brutus, Chris Okigbo, David Diop, Frank Chipasula, Jack Mapanje, Bright Molande. And Christopher Crane’s War is Kind. And literary giants like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. And Sembene Ousmane. There are many that I got to know through my literature studies.
Soon I started writing my own poetry, short stories and essays. I shared most of the poetry on the social media and my friends kept saying it was fine – for whatever reason. One of my short stories was even shortlisted for a local short story prize in 2014 but it was simply not good enough to impress the judges.
This year, I was going through the poetry I had written from 2012 up to 2016 and decided it wasn’t worth keeping. It looked stranger to me, something not even closer to the poetry I read, so I got rid of it, from my computer as well as memory. But it was very helpful to have something to transition from.
Is writing your full-time job?
I really really wish it was. I would be sitting in my room, fingers tapping the keyboard of my old laptop, and smiling – knowing there was bread in the merriment. Unfortunately it isn’t. But what’s money? A coin stained in silver, gold, or paper with some politician on it, which we all leave behind after our days are over. So long I survive, it doesn’t matter that much (but it matters – I can’t publish a book if I don’t have a penny unless I win some damn manuscript competition – which doesn’t just happen!). I survive on teaching and everything in between. I am a languages teacher in Malawi, currently on a break. I’m studying for a Master’s in Comparative Education at Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua, China.
Tell me about your very first writing engagement.
I had been writing in an old exercise book and making noise on social media when I first read a friend’s blog. Mankhokwe Namusanya. I started my own. I won’t even mention it because it’s clad with spider webs now. But after that, something happened. Mankhokwe shared a writing opportunity on Facebook. Commonwealth Writers was calling for applications to a Creative Nonfiction Writers Workshop for emerging African writers to take place in Uganda in June, 2014. They needed 12 people from five East African countries. Malawi had two slots. I grabbed my computer and completed an essay I had been writing on Negritude. And submitted it. A month or so later, I got an email. I was one of the twelve in East Africa, one of the two to represent Malawi. I forwarded that message to Mankhokwe. He congratulated me, and finished with “I am the other one.” I would be with Mankhokwe at a writers’ workshop for a week! I consider that essay – a culmination of the experience I had gained through my few months of blogging - and the workshop my first writing engagement.
While at the writers’ workshop, after reading some of my works, a fellow participant, Angella Emurwon, asked if I wrote poetry. She said there was so much poetic language in my works and that she would introduce me to Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation which runs an annual poetry competition. That’s how I started attempting poetry on a serious level. At that writers’ workshop, I met several other skilled writers and editors. There was Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Lost and Found in Johannesburg’s Mark Gevisser!
Tell me about the other projects you are currently working on. Why these?
I have been working on a complete poetry manuscript and a chapbook, which I think are ready but can only be published once the earth grins at me: currently it’s not grinning. I have been submitting them to different international publishing houses and contest organizers but so far it’s just rejections. However, I have works from the manuscripts as well as nonfiction that have been published by different online and print literary journals, magazines and collections of poetry. There are also a lot that have been rejected. I am as well working on a nonfiction book from which a story that got me into the 2017 Writvism Literary Project’s mentorship program was taken, and a collection of short stories, which are all far from being ready of course.
The other very important project I am part of is Pen Avenue Malawi. It’s a literary project that was born in 2016 drawing its membership from its very pioneers. It successfully organized its first Short Story Writing Competition for Malawian university students of which I was among the judges in 2016, with the winners being announced in 2017. It also organized a literary excursion in 2017. One of its main objectives is to mould a literary spirit in the Malawian society and I want to be part of the revolution.
I also founded an online literary magazine just this year, Nthanda Review, a platform for writers from Malawi, Africa and around the globe.
What do you most love to write about?
War. Death. Absurdities of life. Religion. Poverty. Politics. Love. I am very thankful to these aspects of human life in their different realizations. I read about suicide and write. I read about genocide and write. I listen to people and write. I am inspired by almost everything – including a broken heart at times. Mine isn’t of steel, but even if it were, steel breaks too. My first poem to be accepted by an online poetry magazine, Last Night (The Voices Project), was written after watching a documentary on the suffering of civilians in war-torn Somalia. And there are times I just write, especially poetry, because I feel like writing. The meaning comes later.
What is the process of transforming that initial moment of inspiration, or idea, into actual words on paper?
Once you have the idea, the inspiration, the zeal to write overpowers you. I am not that type that has a specific time for writing. I will not wait for everyone to sleep. I won’t write every day. Whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, evening or deep into the night, what matters is the feeling. If I feel like writing, I write. I especially love writing when I am sad and angry – it’s easy being both if you are Malawian. I don’t know where the energy comes from, but it flows well.
Do you have a particular writing location?
I want to have one. It sounds nice hearing people say they love sitting on river banks and going to some hills to write. Or that they have a writing tent in the backyard or a writing room in their house. But I always write anywhere. Provided the noise isn’t too much to interfere with my meditation. I mostly write in bed (because I have never owned a home). Maybe things will change and I will have a writing room soon. I need one.
What are your plans for the future?
I just want to have my works published. I will start with my poetry manuscripts. I have two: one is a complete book while the other one is a chapbook manuscript. Currently, my focus is on publishing in journals, literary magazines and other platforms as I am distracted by academic and financial restraints. But I’m always submitting my manuscripts to publishers – and continue getting more and more rejections. I want the poetry, the fiction and the nonfiction to reach as many people as it can. After sometime, I will go into self-publishing (though I don’t fancy it, I feel it’s inescapable). But I still have time.
Name your THREE most favourite books and why.
It’s tough. After I mention the three, I will remember one more, and another one, and another one, and it will go on and on. But currently, I have my favourite three, yes. The best of them all is Matigari, a novel by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It bemoans the tragedy of postcolonial African politics and maladministration. I first read it in 2014 in two nights, because I couldn’t find a proper stopping point. The second one is The Last of the Empire, a novel too, by Sembene Ousmane. It is along the same lines as Matigari, but it doesn’t have a larger-than-life protagonist. But what happens is something that’s easy for an African to relate with. You should read it. The third one is Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins. I read it in two nights too because I couldn’t believe what I was reading wasn’t even fiction.
Lastly... what does writing MEAN to you?
Writing gives me many lives. I can be a bird in the tropical rain forests of Africa staring at the blood staining trees from the proxy wars because of the diamond and gold, or a mother, who, holding a baby in her arms, steps on a landmine in Somalia. I can be a religious statue shedding tears of blood over massacres happening beneath me in Northern Nigeria, or the black kid shot by police in Ferguson. I can be an American president staring at the moon kissing and caressing with the sun in broad daylight, or a monk in self-immolation protesting injustice. I can be a black-skinned immigrant burning, surrounded by angry men and women blaming me for their post-apartheid socioeconomic plight in South Africa, or a lunatic vampire suspect being charred by an angry mob in Malawi because I wandered off to a peaceful night in a cemetery when they found me at dawn. I love writing because of the fear it brings to perpetrators of injustice everywhere, but more because of the pain I get rid of when I write. It is activism.
Thanks so much Beaton, and thank you for your wonderful contributions to BETRAYAL and THE SEASONS. Don't stop writing!
For a little bit more info on Beaton, and to contact him, CLICK HERE.