Linda Musita talked to Enkare editor, Carey Baraka about her short story, Squad, on Enkare Review this week, her writing process and feminism.
Inside Fiction: ‘Squad’ by Linda Musita
by Carey Baraka
First, your story, Squad, is in the form of a conversation between two friends. What was the writing process for this particular story like?
They are not friends as friends should be, are they? Anyway, the story took five months to write. I tried writing it in first person and it didn’t come out right. Third person did not work either. So I decided to try writing it in the same style as I wrote Kudinyana…more dialogue and less description. It worked. The tone I was looking for fell into place and it was easier (and faster) to pass the message I wanted to pass in conversation form than it was in proper, traditional prose. Plus dialogue is my strongest writing weapon. I also edited it a lot. It touches on a sensitive issue and I could not afford to be misunderstood. I also wanted the final product to have as much weight as possible because most readers think that anyone who writes a conversation from start to finish and calls it a short story is lazy. Not the case. This story took a lot of my time and feelings. I am glad I don’t have to deal with it anymore.
I also wanted it to be a double-edged sword in terms of interpretation. It doesn’t matter on which side of the fence someone is seated, they will be ridiculed or absolved in this little golden story. The editing did that.
The Femioso are modeled after my idea of a feminist cartel. The mafia of feminism. They look and behave a certain way in public and look and behave in a different way in private. My area of focus was friendships between women who make a lot of noise about women’s issues and rights. The women whose behavior suggests that they have a monopoly on feminism. These women who have declared public war against patriarchy and inequality yet they are not doing the bare minimum for the women close to them. Charity begins at home so it is important to interrogate how ruthless these women are in intimate relationships with each other. Is that okay? Some will say that women are like that. That we are built to be disloyal, natural gossips and liars. But is that healthy? Is it moral? Is it human? Is it really womanly? Is it okay to destroy each other in our inner circles and then go out to fight for the greater rights of all women when we can’t be gracious in the little human things that can make or break? Because the men we fight and address over women’s rights in public also see how we treat each in other in the not-so-public arena. If you are going to pick a struggle, think of the foundation of that struggle. Where does it begin?
And so in the end, these female friendships tend to be surface relationships, right? Is this what in an earlier conversation you referred to as ‘fantastic plastic?’
Yes. Fantastic plastic. Derived from a lyric in the Barbie Girl song by Aqua, “Life in plastic is fantastic”. I think we don’t have authentic friendships anymore. Very few women do. They vouch friendships on and through social media. Like I had said in that earlier conversation, our mothers and grandmothers had friendships that lasted lifetimes and secrets went to the grave. They stood by each other in the worst of times. They made real sacrifices for each other emotionally and financially even. They came out for each other they didn’t just talk friendship. They walked the talk. They lifted each other up and paid it forward. My mother’s friends are and were like family. I still call them auntie. One of them is my godmother and she is very involved in my life and the choices I make. Sometimes she is even kinder to me than my mother is. With that solidarity they were able to achieve many things for themselves and other women outside their friendships. They helped each other through school, they helped each other get jobs and promotions, they founded chamas, they started businesses, they did charity for women by women, paid school fees for so many girls and intervened in so many abuse situations sometimes getting themselves beaten up by other women’s abusive husbands in their efforts to rescue. They stood in harm’s way for each other. And I don’t know how that skipped our generation. These days we are impersonal, we get BFFs from twitter and when we meet we are in a rush to talk about other people and take photos of the food we are eating. Some of us don’t even know where our best friends live or who their family is. There is no real connection. It’s all “fantastic plastic”. And in my experience, the conversation in the story is a template of the conversations I had and have with all my female friends ( some of whom I eventually cut off). They don’t build anything. Also in the story you realize that none of those two characters really care about each other.
I guess that’s one of the effects of social media. Fantastic plasticism. And fausse relationships. In the end, we get situations such as “Braids got an STI from this C list guy on twitter.” It’s a travesty really, how social media has ended up defining our relationships. Isn’t this why we have real-life conversations that sound a lot like Twitter/Facebook chats, unlike our mothers and grandmothers who didn’t have social media?
Conversations that sound like chats and sound weird without emojis because the emoji has become the gauge of emotions. If you don’t punctuate with an emoji or a certain number of emojis someone feels like there is something wrong. Like you are not responding the way you should. And they will ask you if they have offended you or ask why you are moody or salty all of a sudden, for lack of an emoji. Yes, the world is changing and the internet and social media are becoming central but maybe they won’t work for everything. They, alone, definitely won’t work for friendships and relationships. I also feel like they won’t work for feminism, women’s rights and women’s issues in Kenya or Africa. Here the women who need the empowerment that will put all of us on a level playing field are not on social media or partakers of the web. They are in mashinani and they need us to go get them first. They need to be educated actively on their rights and this may mean that feminists will have to clash with the men and the not so smartphone friendly and google search friendly problems around these women. This requires strategy. Not an attractive prospect and maybe that is why some prefer to battle men behind handles and profiles, not necessarily a bad thing, but what are the results? And this is assuming that the mashinani women are not empowering themselves already. There is a disconnect between the feminist on the internet and social media and the one on the ground. They never meet. And the one who is doing things on the ground doesn’t identify as feminist. She just knows what is just and unjust, and what is fair and unfair. She works hard to ensure justice and fairness and does it in a way that recognizes that societies are different and the approach has to be informed by strategy. She knows that she can’t talk to or scream at patriarchy. She interacts with it actively on a daily basis, probably in every aspect of her being and she knows patriarchy does not listen to anything a woman says. It swats women’s opinions like they are flies. So she does more by actively digging her way out of the hole than someone else does by trying to create space for herself in that hole. She probably does not have time to write silly short stories about two hateful women in a restaurant.
But you have to admit, there is a certain importance in writing these silly short stories. Unlike the Femioso, isn’t it vital for the mashinani woman to read these stories? I guess what I am asking is whether you would describe yourself as a feminist writer.
Yes women need to write more stories about women. Honest stories. I don’t know that I can trust men to write as women or about women…well maybe Abubakar fired a good shot in Season of Crimson Blossoms.
Mashinani women need to read these stories but the feminist writer does not always write for them…their writing is mostly high-high and academic. That can change but it will need some level of interaction with the other women. I noticed though that the mashinani women watch Mexican soap operas a lot and I was curious so I dug in. And it’s interesting how soap operas are written these days. Stereotypes have been killed. Women characters are mostly powerful and not the typical women soap characters who lived for a male otero and the day he will marry her. There are soaps with female drug lords who annihilate and outsmart men like nobody’s business. Women characters who are single mothers and are working hard and surrounding their kids with male influences that are a million times better than their baby daddies. Women who run businesses. Women who choose to be single and are not castigated for it. Women who get out of bad marriages. Badass women who commit crimes that are not of passion and go to jail for other things aside from killing a rival in love. And the soaps don’t all end with a wedding. Maybe if we wrote similar stories within our context. Things that they can relate to.
I am not a feminist writer. I am not a feminist. I don’t think everyone should be a feminist. I don’t think only feminists can fight for women’s rights, women’s issues and empowerment. Affirmative action is not exclusive to feminism. No one should make it seem that you have to join the club to be in the game. Some things are seen by a naked eye and if they are wrong and unjust they need to be fixed by everyone, feminist or not. I am a woman. I will do more for a woman than I will ever do for a man, boils down to who I recommend for jobs, pay rent to and who I buy groceries from. I am a human being. And I am a writer.
Away from feminism, and writing, just to wrap this up, let us talk a bit about your reading. Are there any books and/or writers who have affected your writing?
Finally! The best part! Edgar Allan Poe for how he did not hold back on his imagination and his pain. He is my active and consistent go-to guide on how not to bullshit your readers. Aside from him I read a lot of other writers (dead and alive), I can’t say that they affect my writing as much as dead old Poe. Most times they scare me out of my writing because they are really good storytellers. If I had to start naming I would have a list as long as 1990 to 2017. Do you have enough tissue paper or papyrus reed?
(c) Enkare Review, 2017