Which literary style best describes a world that is either dying or dead on arrival? How might one encapsulate the burning madness of neither accepting one’s traditional culture wholesale nor wanting it consumed by external forces that leave whole peoples’ skins erased?
Much of Tlotlo Tsamaase’s writing answers these questions with narrative structures that give only the impression of forward momentum, like running in place on hot coals. This sensation is strongest in “Eclipse Our Sins” (Clarkesworld), which joins unbearable heat with retributive and fatal suffering on a planetary level, but it also manifests in “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” (Apex), a trauma narrative constructed around menstruation, sexualized violence, and feminicide; “Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?” (The Dark), involving a woman plagued by her father’s demons, who recedes from the world and burns herself alive; and “Virtual Snapshots” (Terraform), a story of climate change, digitization, and poverty where the protagonist’s insights are given no future. In poems, too, like “Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” (Arsenika) and “I Will Be Your Grave” (Strange Horizons), Tsamaase treats death as the central human condition, around which life and love become estranged.
The texts of this Motswana writer achieve their disorienting sense of perpetual immediacy in part by beginning with a semblance of cohesion that quickly breaks down. What is established at the outset of these tales rarely provides a clear roadmap for what will follow, and often involves character details that will meet with contradiction in subsequent sections. Tsamaase’s characters also tend to treat a descent into incoherence as a coherent response to incoherent realities, preferring forms of sleeplessness and madness to a waking life of slumber in the face of societal erasure and violence. Her prose, like her poetry, prioritizes recurring images, terms, and themes over character, setting, and plot consistency.
Tsamaase’s latest published work, a novella called The Silence of the Wilting Skin (2020), is of a piece with all these narrative concerns: a text in which each chapter sustains only an impressionistic relationship with the chapters come before, while also advancing an agony and urgency reflective of a dying world. Character arcs and plot points that first appear with a certain internal coherence in one chapter often emerge differently in the next—if they are sustained at all. A “Dreamskin,” for instance, appears with established rules and a sense of direct narrative purpose in the first chapter, but those rules bend and the Dreamskin, this nightmarish harbinger of death in the protagonist’s culture, falls to offhand irrelevance as the story progresses. Likewise, a girlfriend is introduced and anticipated as a being of boundless joy, but when she shows up, she features mostly as a creature of sadness and uncertainty (and an atheist, curiously, in a world where everyone sees the spirits of their dead loved ones board a ghost train, and where other malevolent spirits abound), before fading entirely away.
To employ a narrative structure as disoriented as its characters feel in their cosmos is no easy feat, especially when those characters retain a conviction of their own internal momentum. Earlier this year I reviewed another work, The Hungry Ones, which, while ambitious, was also highly inconsistent in its treatment of plot and character, and not in a way that reflected a more overarching style or set of authorial concerns. Reading a text without character or plot consistency can be stymieing for readers, but the key, when experiencing texts with alternative logics, is to look for synchronicity of content and form, across modes.
Fortunately, Tsamaase does not lack here for worldbuilding concepts. All of these concepts are raised sporadically and inconsistently, each chapter an impressionistic thought-experiment exploring different facets of the world that Tsamaase’s characters occupy—but they provide sufficient thematic synchronicity to bring each concept into a kind of agreement with the others. The novella invokes ghostly trainlines, but it also entertains the idea of drinking the love of past lovers to keep one’s own love alive, and cultures where the living struggle to stay afloat because they also have to pay dues for the dead. It invokes shadow-less people and people-less shadows, the abrupt loss of skin-colour, sight, and opacity as normalized rites of passage for a dying people, as well as the idea of a spirit surviving—and remembering—multiple abortion-incarnations, and spirits who miss the train after death, and who are thereafter doomed to wander the Earth sowing misery.
This all amounts to a land of diminished inhabitants that is even further encroached upon, over the course of the novella, by malevolent spirits and/or people from The District on the Other Side of the City. This other side is an urban death-sentence of ever-expanding glass and steel structures and mentalities, populated by a people with a different blood, who live under a different sky, for:
The city was divided in two by the train: on the east side, the sun rose and set; on the west side, the moon rose and set. Two different types of people lived on either half of it. No one crossed the railway line. One side venerated the other side. It doesn’t take much guesswork to know which side that was: everyone wanted to see the moon, except me. It burned the dialect from our tongue, made us speak in broken accents, our mother tongue thick and deformed.
This sense of brokenness is not just confined to accents, though; it also extends to the whole of the protagonist’s struggle to convey a notion of self, and a narrative trajectory, that remains constant in a relentlessly shattering world. From the beginning, the protagonist has already lost the names of the people she loves and loved; she knows them only as Girlfriend, Brother, Sister-in-Law, Grandmother, Grandfather, and Neighbours 4295 and 4301-5. And from the beginning, too, her life—and her brother’s life—are already acts of transgression, disruptions of the cultural norms maintained by people on her side of the tracks; and the protagonist takes as a matter of course that, for these disruptions—the love of two women, the bearing of a child out of wedlock—some retribution or atonement will be due.
The story’s more active narrative disruptions, then, begin with the above Dreamskin breaking “the rules” by visiting the protagonist instead of her dying grandmother. But were the rules of pre-death visitation really “broken”? Readers will have only just come to learn these rules as the protagonist herself comes to realize that these Dreamskins, spectres of death, destruction, and clear-eyed reality, were never beholden to such things in the first place. Whatever their own logic and inner drives, though, after our protagonist’s interaction with one of them, she undergoes a series of bodily transformations that echo the collapse of reality as she thought she knew it. Unable to risk telling others what has happened to her, lest she make herself the target of people on her side who would chop up her elevated body for parts, or otherwise see her as cursed, she draws upon insomnia to try to maintain control.
Sight, skin-colour, skin, faith, and hope are next to vanish for different characters over the course of the text—sometimes with a sense of inevitability, as part of a predicted generational destiny, other times with a sense of urgency tied to the encroachment of men from the other side of the tracks. Without any pomp or circumstance, those people cross the line that supposedly no one crosses, buy up property, and build right over the train-line that carries our protagonist’s ancestors. (This is not questioned. There is no lead-up. It simply happens and is mourned.)
Yet, for all this brokenness and contradiction, there remains a consistency to the thematic impressions themselves—and not just within this text, but also in conversation with Tsamaase’s other work. Certain images and concepts reverberate across her writing, including:
Skin, peeling and losing colour, burning, (super)natural wrath, womb and uterus, menstruation, modernity, madness, insomnia, sleep, ancestors, blindness, translucence, transgression, loss, death, love, ghosts, the city, the village, being “woke.”
Other aesthetics echo, too. In The Silence of the Wilting Skin, the protagonist declares:
I prefer to only see my family dead, for we see them in their true identities. The only time we ever become us is when we’re dead; when we’re dead we become the still-Black font of sky. My dead family calls the color on them still-Black hoping it will still itself onto our bones. But we don’t refer to them as dead to their face, they are still here, they are still a part of us, more than we could ever be.
In “Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves,” Tsamaase’s speaker states:
She peeled off her face and said, “I’m tired of living.”
Encouraged, I peeled mine, too.
We walked naked, our bones knocking against each other.
The job of the dead is easier
Than the job of the living.
Similarly, the crush of industrialization and the retribution of natural/supernatural forces in this novella also appeared in “Eclipse Our Sins,” where the protagonist communes with the voice of the Earth after learning about the heinous violence done by man:
“To live is evil,” Mama Earth’s air-voice says. “Do you see that now? Now tell me, what must I do?”
Stop them please.
“How must I stop them?” She asks. “Don’t you remember this? Remember we have been here before?”
There are so many memories in my head. We became man, the machine that decimated the planet, hastened its way toward its end. The phantom of our thoughts rose from our limbic systems as we slept and night’s tentacles fed into our nervous system. Anxiety and depression grew like the urban sprawl of our cities into the marrow of our bones.
“What else do you remember?” Mama Earth asks.
Our home villages were gone, replaced by cold foreign skyscrapers, its mother tongue guillotined.
Western audiences are no stranger, of course, to an artist’s canon being variations on an impressionistic theme (take, for example, David Lynch’s relentless revisiting of the image of a haunted, traumatized woman throughout most of his cinematic work). But the intensity of loss and the all-encompassing trauma of death in Tsamaase’s prose and poetry, to say nothing of the tightrope of erasure and recrimination pressures from both within and without a given protagonist’s community, has and will continue to pose a substantial challenge to her readers.
Nothing about The Silence of the Wilted Skin, in other words, can be considered an “easy” read, even when engaged without expectations of consistency along the usual lines of character and plot. This novella is, however, a read that will get under your—ah—skin. It’s an itchy read—one that, for all its narrative imprecision, can leave imprints upon the flesh as good as if an otherworldly spectre had touched you there. In doing so, it curses you to experience a deeper awareness of the traumatic disintegration of narrative agency that exists in ever so many parts of our hurting world.
Which is, I suspect, a goodly portion of Tsamaase’s larger point.