Gothataone Moeng on her first collection of short stories 'Call and Response'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Call And Response" is a collection of short stories that reveals the world as lived by girls and women in a village and in the capital city of Botswana, girls and women who seek lives that might reach beyond or around traditional ways and current circumstances. Here's how the author begins her story "A Good Girl."
GOTHATAONE MOENG: (Reading) One sun-dazed October morning, in the year I was 9 and given to daydreaming, I watched my mother stab the soil in the potted plants on the veranda. She was stooped over African violets and wax begonias, quiet except for the huffs of angry breath spurting from the tight line of her lips. It had been only two days since my older sister Boitshepho's return home from God knows where, and she and Mama were still staying out of each other's way.
SIMON: "Call And Response" is the first book from Gothataone Moeng, whose work has appeared in the Oxford American and A Public Space and who's a recipient of a Wallace Stegner fiction fellowship. She joins us now from Provincetown, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.
MOENG: Thank you for inviting me. I'm so excited to be here.
SIMON: Well, we're excited to have you. And you know both small-town life and big city life in Botswana, don't you?
MOENG: Yes. I was born in Serowe, which is where my family is from. I spent a little bit of my life in a much smaller village called Makalamabedi in the northwest of Botswana. And then, at 13 years old, I moved to Gaborone to go to boarding school there. And I lived there for 14 years or so before I moved to Mississippi, actually, to Oxford, Miss., for graduate school.
SIMON: In the story, which I loved, which you just read the introduction, "A Good Girl" the central character is, but says - I wrote this down - (reading) we wanted to love, but we'd been warned love was dangerous. A bright, burning flame, it would lick us alive.
What do warnings do for young people?
MOENG: I think depending on the kind of person the young person is, the warnings can keep them away from pursuing those kind of romantic encounters.
MOENG: But also, I think they make those romantic encounters much more attractive and alluring, right?
MOENG: 'Cause, like, you want to know what your parents are keeping you away from or what - you know, in this case, the brother is telling you, like, guys only want women for certain things. And so you are kind of curious about what those things are.
SIMON: Yeah. And in one story, there's a 12-year-old girl who tires of taking care of her sick aunt. She calls her the patient. I wonder, does she feel that death is kind of being rubbed into her face?
MOENG: I think when she is at that age, it's more that she's, like, really ashamed of her aunt dying. She had these ideas of her aunt as this kind of glamorous figure in her life who kind of, like, sweeps in once in a while, tells her all of these stories about life outside of the village, you know, encourages her and gives her these ideas of the world as a bigger place. And so when her aunt falls sick and is essentially sent back home to die and she sees her as this sort of pitiful figure who has not lived up to the ideals that she had, she's ashamed of that.
Also, I think that she knows what her aunt is dying from. You know, her aunt is dying from AIDS. I think that is a subject that most of the people within the household understand, but they don't really talk to each other about it because at the time - the story is set in the mid-'90s in Botswana - there was so much stigma about people dying from AIDS. And so...
MOENG: ...She's really ashamed of her aunt. It's only when she's much older and she has been able to travel herself, then she's able to kind of look back and reassess her treatment of her aunt and just see it wasn't just her aunt. It was - there were so many other people that were dying at the same time. But then, she realizes, oh, there was so much death pressing against me all the time.
SIMON: Have you known these characters in these stories, more or less, one way or another?
MOENG: So the stories, so many of them, I stayed in my home village of Serowe - and that said, specifically, in the "Botalaote" - which is where I'm from. All of these seem very similar to women within my own family - you know, my cousins, my sisters, my aunties. So for sure, I would say that, yes, I do know women like this and girls like this.
SIMON: Yeah. I've read that you went back to Botswana during a part of the pandemic.
MOENG: I did, yeah. I went back home. And I went - actually went back home to Serowe to the village to live there with my mother. It was a really wonderful time. It was kind of a humbling time just because (laughter) - it was interesting that I was back home. And, you know, when I'm not in Serowe, I do feel kind of nostalgic and homesick for all of these ideas of - that I've just been saying, of being in a village. People can come in and just drop in. But when I was home, I was noticing so many of my mother's friends would just, like, drop in.
MOENG: And then, you're expected to, like, drop what you're doing and make them tea and do all of that. And I noticed that I was getting really frustrated, and I could not figure out why. And I just noticed, oh, it's because I haven't lived in the village for so long, and I've lived - you know, I was, like, essentially living by myself when I was living in the U.S. But I quickly went back into the fold. I really enjoyed spending time with my mother and my older aunties, who - you know, it kept me in a lot of really great gossip (laughter). But it'd be (laughter)...
SIMON: You were a little behind on that, I guess, weren't you?
MOENG: I was a little bit behind (laughter).
SIMON: Wow. I want to ask you about your story "Small Wonders," which I liked so much. A woman loses her husband in a car accident...
SIMON: ...And wonders, you know, how can the world go on? My life has just been put on hold. Does she begin to feel that she's expected to play a certain role as a widow?
MOENG: Yeah, I think that she does feel that way. She participates in this tradition wherein widows have to wear these mourning clothes typically a year or less than that if the person is young. And her mother's saying, you know, there has to have been a reason why our people did this. What's interesting is that once she has actually gone through the year of mourning, she is reluctant to take the clothes off because she thinks that the clothes keep her to her husband, that they keep his memory and the idea of him alive...
MOENG: ...In some way for herself and also for other people who may not know her and may not know him, but because they can see that she's wearing those clothes, they understand immediately that she's mourning somebody that she loved. So for me, what's interesting is that she really participated in this tradition only out of obligation. But then, she understands at the end that it has offered her something that she wasn't expecting. And I think that in this story and in the other stories in the collection, they're the way in which the characters or the - you know, some of the women are trying to move away from these traditions that they feel are out of step with their modern life. But they also sometimes find that the longing for some of those customs offer them something that they cannot get from modern life.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, modern life can be a terrible jumble, can't it?
MOENG: Yeah (laughter). It can be chaotic and very lonely (laughter).
SIMON: Yeah. "Call And Response," a book of short stories and the first book from Gothataone Moeng. Thank you so much for being with us.
MOENG: Thank you so much. This was so much fun (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF ANIRUDH RAVICHANDER'S "WHAT IS LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.