What Is a Story?: Editor’s Note

      Umwana Ashenda Atasha Nyina Ukunaya.

      The child who doesn’t travel thinks their mother is the best cook.

        —Bemba proverb



In the second year of my MFA, I took a workshop class where our starting point was What is a story?

In the first few weeks of the class, we read stories and poems across genres of varying lengths and from various literary traditions. Often, the styles pushed against our preconceived ideas of what exactly constituted a story. In our discussion of pieces, we were often split in opinion. A piece half the class found brilliant, a masterclass on how to, the rest of the class found laughable. Unlike most of my classmates, though, I didn’t grow up reading books that centered me or how I experienced the world. My mother’s bookshelf, a spillover from her literature in English classes, featured landscapes in Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe and then expanded to seasons like fall and snowy winters that I couldn’t quite imagine. Those novels were my first understanding of what it means for a story to be. Later, in secondary school, we read Achebe and Orwell and Peter Abrahams. In the post-reading analyses, our teachers encouraged us to compare what we had read to the Zambia of our time. Like how the master gaslighting of the pigs mirrored our recently elected president’s tune or how Xuma’s life as a miner compared to what we might recall from our early childhood when we too had fathers and uncles who toiled in the copper mines. But we never read a book actually set in our Lusaka, with the crescendo of bus conductors, the bang of their fists against buses, the hawkers pulling us with their calls, the music competing in the stalls, the mangoes and guavas and sweet potatoes piled in the backs of vans. We didn’t see a fist in the air with chants of “The Hour Has Come” or contend with the spectacular scar that colonialism had left on us except through our own eyes.

In the last couple of weeks of my MFA class, we took to the pen and then, in turn, shared our own creations. Foremost, we were encouraged to ask questions that helped our understanding of the work rather than asking it to bend to our expectations. Bolstered by this idea, I wrote what would become my favorite story that year. It didn’t comply with the form of any of my previous work, nor did it stand alongside the stories by other authors that I most admired. Yet, in this unwieldy form, the story took its best shape, unfolding the characters and their lives in a way that served its purpose best.

The workshop and teaching approach is one I carry with me as an editor. I recognize how my early experiences of “story” leak into my reading of new work, and I try to step beyond myself, into the writer’s vantage point. I am especially keen to carry Zambian stories and writers into the world so that the Zambian student today learning “what literature is” may not only experience global literature but also the stories from their backyard. This was the first pull to editing for me, I wanted to be part of the people deciding, “This is a story.”

As a Shenandoah Editorial Fellow, I hoped to expand my editorial experience not only by affirming the story as I knew it but also by challenging myself to work with pieces that opposed my ideas on form, content, style, and genre. In my call for submissions, I said, “I would love to see work that decenters the Western lens through language and/or location. I think this is a crucial way to expand how readers envision ‘the story’ and engage with many literary traditions. I would love to see more work from the global south and work by women of color wherever they may reside.” My selections represent the stories that not only honored this call best but floored me with their style, content, form, and language.

In my selections, I wanted something I didn’t have on my palette already, not just from Zambia. I found this in the nanny’s searing observations in A. K. Herman’s “Small Castles,” the hilarious musings of the wives and mothers of Block 072 in “The Lance Corporal’s Door” by Shedrack Opeyemi Akanbi, the visually engaging “Portrait of Love in Five Acts” by Mwanabibi Sikamo, the battle of memories in Theresa Sylvester’s “Atonement” (published in the fall 2023 issue), and the rapturing of childhood innocence in “We Were Buried Before We Were Drowned” by Lucy Zhang.

I am so fortunate to have had such an overwhelming response to my call from writers all over the world, and my selections represent a tiny portion of the incredible talent which came in, reaffirming the need for more literary spaces such as Shenandoah where these writers and their stories can find a home. Each story, even the ones I didn’t choose, taught me something new about what a story is, and I hope for the person reading, the stories will be an opening to how much more there is to be read.

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is a Zambian attorney, writer, and editor. She is the author of The Mourning Bird (Jacana), unmarked graves (Tusculum University Press), and Obligations to the Wounded (forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press). She is also the winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize (2024), selected by Angie Cruz; the Tusculum Review Poetry Chapbook Contest (2022), selected by Carmen Giménez; the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award (2019), and Kalemba Short Story Prize (2019). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Overland, adda, Contemporary Verse 2, on Netflix, and elsewhere. Her creative practice has received support from the Young African Leadership Initiative, the Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellowship, the Hawkinson Scholarship for Peace and Justice, the Africa Institute, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She is the founding editor of Ubwali Literary Magazine, a current Miles Morland Scholar, and a PhD student at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where she is also an Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) scholar.