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That signpost … it gave me the hovers. That’s what my mother called it when I hovered, unable to take the first step over the precipice and into my decision. I had it bad; my feathers were quivering something awful. But even mother wouldn’t flash disapproval in the face of the sheer magnitude of this decision. My indecisiveness was justified for once.
The doorwoman spotted me. I was a few paces away from her stoop, staring at the DNA-shaped building rising into the gold-strewn sky, my right hand rotating the ring on my left. She beckoned me over with one gloved hand, full lips curved into an artificial smile. It was a genuinely reassuring smile but still my bejewelled bare feet would not budge. Some people might be fooled into thinking she was organic, or even demi-organic, but I knew better. The smile of an android, even one as detailed as her, couldn’t convince me to do a thing. She was impressive for male-produced technology—almost as good as Venusian work—but not impressive enough.
Women flowed in and out of the brushed metal doors as fluidly as water in a babbling brook. The doorwoman gave a half curtsy at and talked to anyone that walked past, but every so often her almost black eyes would flicker towards me, waiting.
‘Um … maybe not today,” I murmured to no one in particular. I picked up my box and walked away.
—“Women are from Venus” from Imagine Africa 500
Tiseke Chilima’s story was chosen to end the anthology Imagine Africa 500. That means something—every anthology wants to end well. Five hundred years in the future, women have literally gone to Venus, and men to Mars. Had she taken the book title Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and made it a literal truth in her world?
Tiseke: “You’d be surprised that it became like that after Shadreck (Chikoti, the anthology’s publisher) didn’t like how I wrote it first time. First time it was more of a racial issue. Where the minorities were sent to Venus and the majorities were sent to Mars where it will technically be more comfortable. So the whole story was about race until Shadreck said, 'No it seems like you are attacking white people.' And I said 'Well it’s not. It’s a general story so watch me change it.' And I just changed that one thing about it and the story became different.”
It’s a sense of wonder story; its world is beautiful and strange. Tiseke has written another story set in the same world, 'Karma,' which isn’t available online yet, and she will eventually work on a novel version.
Tiseke: “The novel will have to go to Venus. Yeah! They’d be boiled. I have to think about that. How am going to explain how they survived at first? I’ve been working on that since the workshop and I’ve fixed some problems with the plot.”
I met Tiseke and some of the other writers at one of Shadreck’s regular workshops in October 2016 and was struck by the good-humoured banter between the men and women. I heard the kind of feminist thinking that I would expect from, say, a Clarion workshop in the USA.
Tiseke: “We still have some traditions here that sideline women entirely. So I’m not sure how to explain where feminism came from. You can see the divide especially with our parents. You can see our parents struggling while I can go and say, 'I’m not doing that, it’s not fair that I be expected to do that.' And my mother will be like,'You’re not expected but you kind of have to. I kind of want you to be free, but you shouldn’t be.' It’s a pretty recent thing. It’s a big cultural change.”
In July 2016, Tiseke was promoted—at age twenty-two—to the post of head of TV programming for a youth-oriented TV station, Timveni TV. You can see some of their clips on You Tube. Timveni’s website is at Timveni.com and then you can find Timveni TV on Facebook.
The experience of becoming one of the station’s core writing resources helped her recognize her feminism.
Tiseke: “Before I was promoted, they would give me lots of their project proposals to write, and information to edit. The more I read, I realized that some of things I was thinking about qualified as feminism. I guess my tomboy nature made me want to rebel against some of these cultural things more. Working with Timveni has really brought out the feminism in me.”
Like many of the Malawian writers I spoke to, Tiseke got an early start in publishing. In 2008, she won the Malawi Writing Union’s competition for secondary schools. The story was published but she didn’t find out until years later.
Tiseke: “I was probably thirteen years old. It was published I think in the United States. Years later somebody told me, 'I think I found your story somewhere.' I was like, ‘You lie!’”
She still hasn’t seen a copy and doesn’t know the title of the publication. When I say that’s kind of strange, she agrees and chuckles. “It was called ‘Be Careful What You Wish For.’ I wrote it because of pressure from my friends; I didn’t think the story would do anything. I easily forgot all about it, but it’s about an African girl who has a fascination about a war. So obviously it was a bit odd that she liked to fight, liked what the boys liked. She travels from Africa to England in a time of war.”
After secondary school, Tiseke then went to Bunda College of Agriculture to study Agronomy, specializing in Field Farm Management.
“I ran from agriculture. Ran. But a lot of the stories I wrote then touched on how Malawi was turned into one of the biggest agricultural countries in the world. I had another idea about the same time which agriculture could move onto different basis. So I think agriculture did creep into my fiction writing from my degree. Despite my best efforts.
“The third year I noticed I couldn’t keep up with the course as I’m not really a science person? So I had to put the writing aside and focus on not getting kicked out of school! I didn’t write so much. Naturally that took a toll on the skills and the imaginative, creative side of me.
“I think Shadreck’s Workshop [the Imagine 500 Workshops for the anthology] actually helped me out with that one. I got to be in the presence of writers, talking about writing for the first time. It got me out of my bubble where all I knew was what I read in books and that was in my head. The technical side of writing I learned through the workshop, especially the exercises. We’d have the same topic but everyone has a different perspective, and that just opened my mind to how many different ideas there are out there.
“‘The Rebuke’ was one story I started during the workshop and I made it a bit longer for my blog later, because I couldn’t figure out how to make it long enough for a short story. ‘Women are From Venus,’ I started writing after the workshop under a lot of pressure. I procrastinated for too long. It was the first of several stories I submitted to Shadreck. There were others that he didn’t like as much, which really annoyed me.”
For some of the writers in the workshop, science fiction was a real departure—but Tiseke seems to have been born loving stories of magic and fantasy.
Tiseke: “I knew pretty early on that I was going to be a writer or storyteller in some form. Dad would tell me stories at night. I could be half-asleep but as soon as he started to tell me a story I’d be wide awake, especially if it involved magic of some sort.
“My favourite writer when I was a child was Enid Blyton. I loved her books; I loved The Magic Faraway Tree where each level of the tree was another dimension. I didn’t like the Famous Five as much but I noticed if it didn’t have magic, I didn’t like it as much. Fantasy—things that probably wouldn’t exist but somehow do and make sense—that’s what I loved. Alice in Wonderland was awesome for me. It took me a while to like more realistic things.
“Mom tricked me into reading Harry Potter. Yep, tricked. She bought all four of them—there were only four at the time. And she told me to read it, and I said, ‘But there’s no pictures, I don’t want to read it.’ So she tricked me by bringing in the movies and said, ‘We’re watching this movie.’ I said, ‘You didn’t tell me it had magic!’ And she said, 'I’ve been telling you that for months.' So I said, OK I’ll read it.’”
“Then I went in a whole different direction. I went from Harry Potter to Danielle Steele. I soaked it up. That was where I started to love stories about relationships between people. My favourite was Kaleidoscope. I think I read it twice. I found fascinating as a child a long and taxing book. The relationships in those books are amazing. That influence is in ‘Women are from Venus’ as well, which is basically the story of a relationship.
“I feel like I really want to see writing become more serious. Especially taking it out of the traditional box. Where right now people only respect a story if it’s about some girl in the village who was raped or sold. That’s great, but it means people who don’t think like that are being sidelined. And our books are being treated like: ‘Well, that’s not African enough. You need to have this; you need to have that, that, and that for it to be an African book.’
“‘I’d really love it if people became more comfortable with what they want to write, rather than what they are expected to write. So that everyone can have more freedom and see how far and crazy they can go with their ideas. Even in the workshop, at first people were putting into exercises what they were expected.
“But when it was opened up, like: ‘You know what, guys? Write as crazy as you want to!’ A lot of crazy things showed up. It was fun; it was really fun, so I think people as writers would be a lot happier if readers would accept that Africa has more to offer than that.”
Since the October 2016 interview, Tiseke has decided to write another SF novel not based on the “Women are from Venus” world. She says, “I have put ‘Women are from Venus’ on hold at the moment as it is strictly African sci-fi and that’s not what I want my debut novel to be. Having grown up in both England and Malawi, I feel like I have one foot on both continents. I want that to reflect in my work and I think I will do that better with my current project. I hope to get it done by the end of this 2017.”
She is also focusing on her TV work and a freelance career.