Gambit (The Art of Creating) No. 3 - Donald Molosi

I hope it will be clear, upon completion of this project, that Gambit is interested in a multifaceted rendering of artistic indulgence. That said, Donald Molosi is an example of an artist I hope to become – standing readily at the point where art out-ranges technique or form. I am equally learning that artists can be good friends, irrespective of virtual distances. I am keen to call Donald my friend, especially because he is the quickest, so far in these series, to respond to questions. His energy overwhelmed mine.

Donald Molosi is a US-based, Botswana-born actor-writer. He wrote and performed a number of one-man shows which premiered off-Broadway including the noted Today It’s Me (2010)about the first African to publicly declare he had AIDS, Philly Lutaaya and Blue, Black and White” (2011)which earned him both a Best Actor Award at the Dialogue One Festival and a Best Solo Award off-Broadway. He writes afrocentric poetry and fiction and is currently working on a poetry collection articulating African identity within the continent as well in the Western context.

Donald wants me to come to America, so we can “conquer transatlantically,” together. I agreed.

Be sure to click the links to his stories on this page. 

 

EMMANUEL IDUMA: Is there sense in the idea that being an artist cannot mean being just one thing? That creativity transcends technique or form?

DONALD MOLOSI: Absolutely. When history’s legendary griots told stories they did not pause to ponder whether they were dancers, singers, actors, or performance historians. They just put out the art, and that is what art is—an energy that you never know how it will manifest itself, how it will opt to be birthed. In that way, our obsession with categorizing talents is a loss of some sort.

EI: It’s fascinating that your writing has a life of its own. It morphs across genres. Is this some form of textual justice, to be able to work in whatever genre befits an idea? This is considering the fact that your writing ranges from short stories to meditative essays, mostly poems.

DM: You know, I can sit here and say that my writing is separate from my acting, which is separate from my singing, and that is true on some level. But essentially these are all my instruments, and as such they play different tunes of my politics. The tune—the content—always picks its genre, its instrument. I do not decide what will become a play or a poem or a short story. Essentially, I write and perform from a mostly unconscious place and that is perhaps the reason for that lack of predictable categorization for my work.

EI: Why did you write the poem “Haiti Can Hold Me”? Do you have strong sentiments toward Haiti?

DM: My politics are global. I have strong sentiments about the world and Haiti is a part of the world. You will see in my writing and acting work that I jump from Haiti to Zimbabwe to England to Uganda; that has been my experience. I am not rooted. Sokari Ekine, a great writer and inspiration, was kind enough to publish my poem about Haiti on BlackLooks, and that rippled to its being published in New Internationalist and so forth until it reached Haiti itself, and I was absolutely humbled.

EI: And then you are, of course, not Haitian. Yet there was this feeling of being there, right in the middle of all the energy and chaos, the miraculous happenings. I guess every writer must evoke feelings, but how did you manage to do that so well in that poem?

DM: Thank you for the encouragement. My friends lost their families and possessions in the earthquake, and I was sad and angry about the losses and all the horror that the survivors endured. I wrote about Hotel Montana in the poem, and that detail is because one of my friends was frantically updating her Facebook statuses from Massachusetts begging people to rescue her aunt, who was stuck in Hotel Montana in Port de France, buried under rubble but still texting for help. It is that chaos that pushed that poem out of my heart onto paper. But I did not want to rant. Rather, I chose to remember the people who died in the earthquake in a way that honors them, but does not deny reality.

EI: Is it possible that a writer can deny reality in a work? Are you aware of that possibility?

DM:  Absolutely. The African’s humanity is something that is a part of reality. And its omission from narratives, propagated by Western media, is a denial of reality. I hope through my work to counter the idea of writers not being able to look past the spectacle of something like a disorganized African city or Haiti’s economic helplessness to the humanity of the people. I try not to deny the reality of a shared humanity in my work.

EI: Your story “We Have Known Ironies” in Saraba Magazine comes off as a direct relationship with the subject that has enraged and ignited us all. This interrogation of what it means to be African, what it does not mean to be African, what must not be considered—do you assume that it must be written of consciously?

DM: It used to make me livid. The idiotic idea that African identity is a monolithic block used to anger me, let alone the condescension that comes with it. But now I just look at that mentality with pity because it is ignorance. Authenticity is such a problematic concept and probably does not exist because of the unthinkable diversity on the continent. So, yes, it is a hot issue we should address, but only by diversifying stories of what it is to be African, to endow the term “African” with multiple narratives.

EI: Do you write with a theme in mind?

DM: I do not write consciously. I usually read things I have written only to find that I do not recognize them. What I will say though is that I am conscious of the shameless damage that art and performance have done to Africa’s humanity over the centuries and—more importantly—the need for work that humanizes Africa. So, although my work is not themed, I have been consciously publicizing only my Africanist work because it is an urgent call.

EI: Would rather write a poem, short story, essay, or a film?

DM: I wish I could answer that, Emmanuel. The narrative picks the format, really. Sometimes I write a one-minute song about a narrative and that works. Sometimes it needs to be performed constantly for six years and its aura comes from repetition, as is the case with one of my one-man shows. I do not write or perform from a conscious place, so I cannot answer that.

EI: Is there a bifocal range that being a writer and an actor accords you? Maybe you see from two “sides of the coin”?

DM: Maybe being an actor forces me to articulate emotional beats much more in prose, but I do not know because I do not really analyze my work. My friends who are writers comment on my protagonists in short stories as having the “actor’s eye” and taking in details about surroundings in a way that pans like a camera. I suppose there is something there, but writing and acting are so separate in my conscious mind. That is why it takes me a while to learn lines (a conscious act) from scripts I wrote myself (from an unconscious place). But when I perform I go back into the unconscious world.

EI: Have you ever hoped to remain in that unconscious world?

DM: Absolutely! It is full of lovely silence and flowing thoughts. I work it into my schedule. I have to have two days a week where I turn off the lights and sit in the dark in silence and scribble freely in the dark for a couple of hours. So even though I cannot—because of practical reasons—live in that world all the time, I visit it often.

EI: You were the first Botswanian who was off-Broadway. I recall reading about your award on Facebook and wondering if it was an award first for you or a first for Botswana. What did you think?

DM: I have worked extremely hard toward this passion for performance since I was 10 years old. I will not discredit my own tireless efforts, but I do dedicate this honor to the memory of Sir Seretse Khama, our heroic founding president. “Blue, Black, and White’s” success is a first for me and for Botswana, and since the show is a love-letter to Botswana, of course it proudly flies our Botswana flag high.

EI: This suggests a line of thinking: could a map of a nation turn out to be a map of the world? And what element would make that transition from the local to the international?

DM: Whether it be in books or performances, we Africans need to tell our stories in ways that only we can tell our stories and have them be enthusiastically consumed by our own people first. Only then, once we have legitimated our work on our own terms, will others pay serious attention. The awards I have won internationally are blessings and I am humbly grateful, but they were never the goal. The goal was to create work I would be able to justify to my people and ancestors and my consciousness, even before someone puts my name on the ballot for an award in a Western country.

EI: One more bit on this: Is it good reasoning to work with the ambition to “map the world” from a locality? It could be a distraction, you know.

DM: I am not convinced we always need to “go international,” as people say. We can legitimate our work ourselves if we set up the right structures and take our views seriously. This overly romantic idea of working abroad is not necessarily as good as it gets for the African artist.

EI: I recall having read Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Akin Ajayi, and Tolu Ogunlesi on the subject of structures. In all they did not mention more than ten literary journals within the continent. How can we build these structures? Do you think you’re playing a role?

DM: I am reviving my theater company I founded in Botswana to give a platform for good theater in Botswana to be seen by Batswana. I am hoping for more collaboration as a structural choice in how we create work. That is one way of setting up a forum outside of the government structures we mostly rely on in Botswana.

Journals all over Africa need to actually be good. I think the problem is that although we have many journals and theaters, only a few like Farafina, Saraba, Chimurenga, Kwani?, and a few more are actually consistently documenting excellent writing. We need even more that are like that, so that publishing on the continent has more of a legitimating voice before we even consider being legitimated by winning the Caine Prize or something foreign like that.

EI: Does being out of Botswana feel like being in exile? I use “exile” because I am thinking of necessity, you know, political necessity. But your reason for being out surely isn’t political. The point of this is to question if you ever feel cut off, shut out, too far away?

DM: Botswana is in me, wherever I go and whatever happens to me because I love my country. I was born there and went to school there. I have, however, always been an observer wherever I was. Even as a child in my grandmother’s house with family all around, I was watching and observing people and goats and cats so that I could imitate them later. So I don’t feel far from Botswana when I am geographically away, because I am always in my dreamland of sounds and shapes and lovely darkness.  

EI: And how does this influence your creative process?

DM: I suppose that even though I still feel very connected to Botswana, I do struggle not to nostalgically romanticize it in my work. It is not a distance thing. It is a matter of turning an insult into pride. It is the instance of—this is a true story—it is the instance of someone telling me Botswana is a strange name that sounds like a disease; it is that ignorance I encounter outside Botswana that makes me defensively love Botswana even more. It shows in my work, including my one-man show on Sir Seretse Khama, in which I proudly celebrate the Father of our Nation.

EI: You said in a BBC interview that you had a “chronically colonized curriculum.” We’re a generation that has to continually undefine. Is this a major thrust of your preoccupations?

DM: Yes. Through my Africanist work that forces me to do research, I am constantly filling gaps for myself because I dislike that as a child I was taught about Russian Czars before I learned about Seretse Khama in just as much detail. I dislike the fact that people in Botswana still take a day off work to watch  Prince William marry Kate Middleton, yet our own Botswana kings and Swati kings marry all the time and we do not even care. Do minds get more colonized than that? I mean, of course I do not regret having learned about the Czar and Rasputin and the lovely snow in Russia, but those things should never be taught in a Botswana school as substitutes for our peoples’ history.

EI: I consider your work trans-African in nature, and in that sense, I readily refuse to nationalize you. Do you permit me?

DM: I do. Haha. My work is trans-African, yes. African borders are a construct after all; they were drawn to serve European greed. So, yes, my work eludes borders on purpose.

EI: You have created mostly one-man plays and short solos. There might be so many reasons for this—cost of production, flexibility, brevity, etc. Is brevity in your mind the soul of wit? What attracted you to the minimal form?

DM: I love subjectivity. I love being able to follow one character’s ups and downs and present them undistracted by other characters’ stories. I do other ensemble work on short films and television, but they do not get as much press as my solo performances, so that may be why it looks like I do only solo work. For example, I was touring with an ensemble cast in Tanzania for four months last year, and I filmed a movie in Kenya and Tanzania last year as well. I was on a TV show in Vermont last summer, but none of these projects blew up in the media as much as the solo shows. But, yes, I love solo for its subjectivity and the fact that it is difficult to do!

EI: When did acting and writing become a marriageable possibility?

DM: My fiction writing is definitely not married to my acting. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, so if no one is going to write me a script about Hubert Ogunde, I am going to write it myself. That is the attitude that made me write more solo work.

EI: Maybe what you did with Seretse Khama’s life is akin to re-humanizing politics. I get these ideas about how politics must be given an interpersonal face, portrayed without the borders of public and private. Because I think that’s how we are going to make sense of its art. Is that silly?

DM: You are right. It is that attempt to chronicle the humanity of the man despite politics. I want to take him from a statue to an identifiable face and voice in time and space. It is a humanized story, not hero-worship, because humans find inspiration in human stories.

EI: Who are the artists that have influenced you most? Musicians? Painters? Writers? Are there those of this generation of writers and artists who move as older ones do?

DM: My friends are tired of hearing about my endless respect for the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina. I think they are the writers who showed me the possibility of artistically engaging with the 21st century through an African lens sparkling with intelligence. I obviously look up to people like John Kani and Hubert Ogunde who paved the way for my generation.

EI: How has the politics of all the places you’ve lived affected your writing, your creative process? And these are highly politicized places—Morocco, USA, United Kingdom, etc.

DM: Botswana is wealthy and stable, even more so in the African context. Growing up I only saw beggars when we visited South Africa because Botswana did not have any visible people who were that poor. That complacent, unperturbed mood was not good for my inspiration as an artist. I need to be ruffled by something, so all these places give me that vicarious ruffle. From Kuwait to Morocco to Zambia to Pakistan, I have found new struggles and passions of people that move me to articulate in art with certain grit.

February 20, 2012

 

Read and watch more:

Donald's writing:

Klorofyl Magazine

Saraba Magazine (Issue 8 and Issue 10)

Psyche-Revolution

New Internationalist

Pambazuka

Black Looks

Donald's acting:

On BBC, here

On YouTube, here, here and here

Broadway World

Botswana Guardian

Mmegi

http://klorofyl.com/magazine/current-issue/    (Klorofyl Magazine)

http://sarabamag.com/featured/saraba-10-the-music-issue/  (several Saraba issues)

psycherevolution.blogspot.com (Psyche-Revolution)

http://www.newint.org/blog/majority/2011/01/12/haiti-can-hold-me/  (New Internationalist)

http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/African_Writers/67657 (Pambazuka)

http://www.blacklooks.org/2010/09/a-revolution-of-the-mind-pigment/ (Black Looks)

Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma

http://klorofyl.com/magazine/current-issue/    (Klorofyl Magazine)

http://sarabamag.com/featured/saraba-10-the-music-issue/  (several Saraba issues)

psycherevolution.blogspot.com (Psyche-Revolution)

http://www.newint.org/blog/majority/2011/01/12/haiti-can-hold-me/  (New Internationalist)

http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/African_Writers/67657 (Pambazuka)

http://www.blacklooks.org/2010/09/a-revolution-of-the-mind-pigment/ (Black Looks)

Emmanuel Iduma​ was born and raised in Nigeria. Emmanuel is the author of The Sound of Things to Come. He received an MFA in art criticism and writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York.