Author of ‘and the earth drank deep’ and winner of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Ntsika Kota, had never seriously considered publishing his writing. In his experimental, prize-winning short story, he ‘wanted to explore the consequences of essentially switching off an anatomically modern human’s empathy in a pre-historic environment—right at the dawn of the human species.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
When I was young, I really enjoyed science fiction. Off the top of my head, I can name Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama books as two book series that made a huge impression on me. I loved nothing more than being transported to fantastic worlds—still do.
Without doubt, there are dozens of other stories that influenced me whose titles and authors I’ve forgotten. I’m sure if I had kept a reading journal at the time, I would be able to list dozens of books that showed me fundamentally new ways to look at the world, which is what I’ve always loved about science fiction.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
At this point, I’d say my life would be represented by some sort of free form narrative. Nothing with a well-defined plot or theme. The kind of story that is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive hero’s journey or anything like that. The sort of story that brings joy through calling the reader’s attention to the magic of ordinary things.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
My answer’s not very profound. I took issue with a comment on an internet forum. Being the internet, the point of contention was, of course, breathtakingly petty. The context is irrelevant, but the person said, ‘all x is not y’, when they meant ‘not all x is y’. The inappropriate use of that expression has always been a pet peeve of mine because it’s so unnecessarily vague.
When I was young, I loved nothing more than being transported to fantastic worlds—still do.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a satisfying answer to this question. It’s quite strange. For me, all the ideas and beliefs in my head feel like they’ve always been there in their current shape.
Whenever I read or hear about something that makes more sense than what I believed before, the new idea slots in and immediately feels old. That makes it quite difficult for me to ever remember where or how I picked something up;, unless I took special note of it at the time.
Some time ago, I briefly flirted with the idea of keeping a learning journal so I could keep track of all the interesting ideas I had encountered in a given day. In the end, I decided to abandon the project because it took frustratingly long to write meaningful summaries of everything I encountered.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
When I’m writing a continuous narrative (I spend quite a lot of time writing amusing, very short snippets with no connection), I always prefer to get the bones of the story fully put together before editing. I think the editing process should be treated as distinct process that works best under different conditions than writing.
Writing is a process for seeking an ending from a known beginning. On the other hand, I think editing is at its best when beginning and end are fixed. Editing optimizes the path already plotted between those points. It wouldn’t work well to optimize the path with one side of the story still in flux—not for me, anyway.
This year, you were the Africa winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for your story, ‘and the earth drank deep’. What was your process for writing it?
I wrote that story quite some time before I submitted it. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the details of the writing process for this story very clearly anymore.
I don’t remember exactly how long it took to write originally but I remember being quite excited, so I imagine I was adding up to a thousand words a day on the best days. That would mean it was maybe a week or two of work.
When it came to editing for submission, it was a matter of adjusting details such as word choice and sentence length, and double-checking big details. That kind of thing.
I’ve never considered myself as having a writing style necessarily. I would say on balance that my writing is driven by the attempt to allow a reader to inhabit my imagination.
‘and the earth drank deep’ tells the tale of a hunter in rural, prehistoric setting. What inspired you to write it?
A part of how I write is to pick on interesting ideas that cross my awareness. This story came from the exploration of one such idea.
For example, questions like: ‘If we could see radio waves, would WiFi routers emit light visible through walls?’ or ‘If humans were not the only sentient, earth-native species, what would the modern world be like?’
I wanted to explore the consequences of essentially switching off an anatomically modern human’s empathy in a pre-historic environment—right at the dawn of the human species. That lack of empathy wouldn’t necessarily drive someone to violence, but what paths would it allow them to take? What kind of decisions could they make?
Exploring the answers to those kinds of questions eventually led to ‘and the earth drank deep’.
And, were any parts of the story influenced by your life in Eswatini?
Not in terms of the plot, but when it came to naming the characters, and deciding on some of the nouns, I decided to use Nguni words. I chose to use modern cultures from southern Africa as the template for the villagers’ fictional culture, specifically Nguni cultures.
Although several thousand years old, Nguni cultures are still relatively young compared to humanity’s age.
The difficulty was in balancing the details of the villagers’ culture, so it felt authentic, but without adhering too closely to any culture that actually exists. If the fictional culture too closely resembled an existing one, the reader might mistake the setting as being only a slight remove in time from today, rather than the immense length of time in the past that I intended.
Your Commonwealth Short Story Prize win was especially remarkable because you have a non-literary background, and actually have a degree in Chemistry. What did it mean for you personally to win the prize?
More than anything, winning this award is a huge honour. To be recognized alongside the long list of towering talents that have been highlighted by the prize feels incredibly good.
This win was all the more rewarding because the reason I first submitted an entry was to motivate myself to look at my story with a new, more critical eye. So, as soon as I clicked submit, I felt as if I had already gotten quite a lot of benefit from the competition. I had learned a few of the bad habits I have, and I had a story that I genuinely enjoyed. So, to actually win was beyond delightful.
My goal when I write is to weave a sort of tapestry of experience using sensory impressions, thoughts and emotions.
You’ve described yourself as a ‘rank amateur’ who submitted your story on a whim and had no ambitions for a writing career. How have your thoughts changed since winning the prize?
I’ve also surprised myself somewhat since winning. I never seriously considered publishing anything I had written. Now, I’ve sent manuscripts of novellas I’ve previously written to several literary agents and publishers. Time will tell if it comes to anything.
However, one way or the other my desire is still to hone my skills and become the best writer I can possibly be, published or not.
How would you describe your writing style?
To be honest, I’ve never considered myself as having a writing style necessarily. I would say on balance that my writing is driven by the attempt to allow a reader to inhabit my imagination. My goal when I write is to weave a sort of tapestry of experience using sensory impressions, thoughts and emotions.
So, my choices are often motivated by whether, at a particular moment, I’m trying to get across an emotion or the sensation of being in a place, or to get across a character’s reaction to their environment.
And which three writers would you say have influenced your writing the most?
Firstly, I should say that I’m of the school of thought that it’s not really possible to reasonably determine cause and effect when it comes to human behaviour and beliefs. I think we may all be conscious of the things that have made the greatest impression on us, but not necessarily what has the greatest influence on us.
For ‘and the earth drank deep’, though I’ll say that I definitely tried to mimic the styles of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o— Ngũgĩ ’s use especially, of rhetorical questions and appeals to common sense.
I’d say my life would be represented by some sort of free form narrative. The kind of story that is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive hero’s journey or anything like that.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
A few months ago, I was watching a livestream interview of author Nana-Ama Danquah on the Instagram page, @bookfantastics. Towards the end of the stream, I asked her if it’s better to write for oneself or for an audience. I don’t remember the exact wording of her response but essentially, she said it’s by far more important to write something you love.
Her response echoed how I had always felt about writing when it was just my hobby. It didn’t particularly matter whether anyone ever read anything I wrote—only that I enjoyed it. That’s something I never want to lose sight of.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
This is quite a self-centred response, but I’m quite excited to see how (and if) my writing career develops. Certainly, I’m excited to increase my skill level as much as I can, day by day and year by year.
I’m also quite excited to read more of Sofia Mariah Ma’s work. She was the Commonwealth Short Story Prize regional winner for Asia this year with her story ‘The Last Diver on Earth’. I really enjoyed her ability to quickly and efficiently build a rich version of the near future. I eagerly look forward to seeing what she does in the future.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
When I was a teenager, one of my favourite TV shows was Air Crash Investigation. I loved the combination of technical detail and human factors. A while ago, I came across a blog on Medium that is essentially the same concept in text form. It’s written by an author named Kylan Dempsey, who goes by the handle Admiral Cloudberg.
A similar type of in-depth narrative non-fiction that I enjoy is a blog called Damn Interesting. Articles on Damn Interesting dive deep into fascinating, but little-known events in history.
What I really enjoy about both of these blogs is not only the high quality of writing, but also the discussion of some of the most complex events in the world, in very accessible language.
I never seriously considered publishing anything I had written. To be recognised alongside the long list of towering talents that have been highlighted by the Prize feels incredibly good.
What are you currently working on?
For a few months now I’ve been working on some long form (novel-length) work. The way I write, it’ll probably be quite a while before I have even a first draft. Regardless, I am enjoying the process.
Question from Aiwanose Odafen: When you’re not a writer, who or what are you?
I try to follow my interests and desires as much as I can, while trying to better myself at every step. I don’t know if that’s a satisfying answer. In short, I guess I’m an ambitious layabout.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Describe the scene around you right now, as if you were in a story. Where are you?⎈
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