The writer Tlotlo Tsamaase is making a name for herself in science-fiction, a literary genre known till now for being male dominated. As part our Limitless series, Botswana’s brightest contribution to sci-fi tells us how she is making space for her dreams to come true.
For Tlotlo Tsamaase, the relationship between fact and fiction has always been close and time has been the ultimate alchemist. Growing up between Serowe and Palapye, villages that rapidly grew to small towns with the establishment of the Morupule Coal Mine nearby, she had a front-row seat to the phasing out of one way of life to another.
Raised on a steady diet of local folklore, tales such as that of Pinky Pinky, the body snatching creature that preys on children who go to the toilet alone and the infamous Dimo a demon giant hybrid that devours humans, Tsamaase would grow up to read the works of Helen Oyeyemi, Taiye Selasi, Lauren Beukes, Toni Morrison, and Haruki Murakami’s works, to name a few. These authors would influence and encourage her to start her own literary journey into speculative fiction, science-fiction and magical realism.
The process of getting recognition is one she says she had to work hard at.
In a TV interview, the African-American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler was asked what drew her to writing. She answered quickly: “You got to write yourself in. Whether you were a part of the greater society or not you got to write yourself in…” That’s exactly what the poet and writer Tsamaase has done over the past few years. And in doing so, she has established her place in the Afrofuturist literary scene through her short stories and the publication of her debut novella The Silence of The Wilting Skin through Pink Narcissus Press.
The process of getting recognition is one she says she had to work hard at: patiently pitching her novella to publishers and publishing houses directly. The odds were stacked against her; she’s a female sci-fi writer from my home country of Botswana, a place so generally overlooked in global conversations it often gets mistaken for a province in South Africa.
She remained positive. “As much as hurdles exist though, there’s always, also, an open door somewhere, if you’re willing to keep looking and not give up,” she says. “It was a difficult and lonely journey finding a place in the publishing world, especially in the genres I write in.” Eventually, she signed a contract with literary agent Naomi Davis at BookEnds Literary Agency.
Now that I’ve finished dancing around the house, some news: I am beyond ecstatic to finally announce that I have an agent! The brilliant, sweetest, loveliest @NaomisLitPix at @Bookendslit for my adult sci-fi about a vengeful woman on a violent journey wrecking hell. pic.twitter.com/QPWbpnRVQ3
— Tlotlo Tsamaase (@TlotloTsamaase) May 25, 2021
It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Tsamaase as one of the characters she writes about; young women with large afros or box braids, usually choked by some kind of misogyny in the myriad of ways it shows up in our society. Her desire to write work that predominantly centres Black women came from a desire to draw from both personal experiences for inspiration as well as to explore and critique socio-political issues.
“We’re all so different in how we process the trauma caused by some male-dominated environments and how we react to it, or the decisions women make to survive in that world,” says Tsamaase. She adds: “Sometimes giving advice does more harm than good, as it can be ignorant of a person’s experiences.”
Tsamaase’s work is haunting because it speaks to the real possibility of the unnatural becoming one’s reality given the perversion and contortion of society today. “There are many suffocating rules on women, on how they must act, and they are always blamed for what happens to them,” she says. Her work deals with women’s reality of perpetually existing under the thumb of oppression, be it the power of the government or the power of a man. This theme is explored in Murder Fell From Our Wombs featured in Apex Magazine, a chilling tale of a young woman whose empathy also happens to be her curse. The tale, she says, was also inspired by a lack of female leads she identified with in thrillers and horrors.
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Tsamaase says she’s currently considering the possibility of pursuing an MFA while continuing to write short stories from Gaborone. The literary community there has been important for Tsamaase, giving her support as she hones her writing. Publications such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Terraform and Apex Magazine have been spaces that have allowed her characters to exist as they are, and by so doing, afforded her the opportunity to do the same, through her work, without fitting her into a pre-existing mould.
“Sometimes Africa tends to be seen as one culture, when in fact it hosts a wide spectrum of cultures, so it’s always so comforting to see work that reflects this,” she says. “All the work done by these communities empowers one to continue being productive and helps move us forward, collectively.”
With thanks to photographer Tumisang Ramakoloi and to Africa No Filter who made this series possible.