On “Atonement”: A Conversation with Theresa Sylvester


Associate editor Moriah Katz and author Theresa Sylvester discuss the creative process behind Sylvester’s short story, “Atonement,” featured in volume 73.1. of Shenandoah. Read “Atonement” here.


Who are you and how did you find your way to writing?


I’m a Lusaka girl. I was raised in a suburb called Olympia Park and attended the primary school in the area. Like most government schools, it was poorly funded at the time, and we didn’t have a library until I was in grade five. I remember the first time me and my classmates walked into that small room filled with donated books from overseas and seeing a shelf of storybooks. We were beyond excited.


Without a shadow of a doubt that school helped mold the writer in me. Those who have known me since then will tell you I was always writing short stories and poems. There were many detours over the course of time, but I am here now and can confidently say I’m a writer.


What is your relationship to Midnight & Indigo? How has publication in that space informed your writing?


Midnight & Indigo will forever hold a special place in my heart. Everything about them appealed to me. They champion Black women writers and their website had this beautiful, clean aesthetic. They accepted “Cracked Flowerpots”, the first short story I wrote as an adult. I was just thrilled. It felt like they were saying “yes, you deserve a seat at this table of talented Black storytellers.” Midnight & Indigo is home to me and watching them grow as a journal gives me so much joy.


There is a theme across your work of the adultification of young girls, often in relationship to the men around them. As a storyteller what interests you about this dynamic?


In “Atonement”, I wanted to show what happens to girls who are taken in by relatives, only to end up being mistreated by their guardians. Also, I wanted to tell the other side of the story about how blind the children of these guardians are to their parents’ shortcomings. This dynamic interests me because I saw it happen around me when I was growing up. The children in those homes were around my age, but they had to become grownups [so quickly] because of the situations they were in.


“Atonement” takes place in Lusaka, a city that is described as something like a beast or ominous force. What is the role of location in the story’s development?


Lusaka is the capital city of Zambia. Life there is fast compared to the other provinces in the country. It’s quite common for people to migrate to Lusaka in hopes that they’ll make it big. But it’s also common for people who weren’t raised there to get caught up in that fast life and end up in really unfortunate situations. I use the city as a backdrop to show how different Taona was when she arrived for the first time in comparison to when she returns as an adult, if that makes sense.


Could you elaborate a little bit more?


There’s a part where Taona comes to Lusaka for the first time. Maya and her mother pick her up and Taona is looking around with all this excitement, because this is her first time coming to Lusaka. All she knows is that it’s this big, beautiful place that she’s heard about from Maya when she visits her in Chipata.


I wanted to show the city through Taona’s eyes, how grand everything is in comparison to where she’s coming from. I wanted to show how Lusaka is also known, in some situations, for sucking the life out of people.


What is the importance of background characters in your writing, and background in general?


Background characters reveal the true nature of the protagonist. I love it when the protagonist observes other people, especially for the first time. I pay attention to what they notice about others and then I use that to build their personality.


What role does class play in the interactions between characters?


Class plays a big role in “Atonement”. Maya and Taona are cousins, but clearly of different classes. We see that Maya likes that her cousin speaks good English. Taona shows her off to her friends when Maya visits. At some point, Maya’s mother even makes a reference about the family in Chipata using plastic cups to drink tea. Maya won’t say it, but she thinks she’s better than Taona because of her financial situation.


Throughout the story, we see hints of Maya’s obsession with purity, as passed down from her mother. What is this obsession indicative of? And what is its effect on the protagonist and her family?


I think we still live in a society where girls are raised to be pure while boys are not. I find that mothers simply pass this way of thinking on to their daughters because their own mothers taught them that this was the standard for girls. This was certainly true for me growing up in a home where the older girls were always teaching you something about how to run a home, even before you’ve reached a mature age. You’re just in constant training of how to be a perfect wife in the future. I tap into that when I’m crafting my characters. It helps to make the writing authentic, I think.


As to how that dynamic affects the family, Maya’s mother was so focused on raising the perfect daughter, but wasn’t putting the same energy into raising an equally perfect son. We find out that Limbikani impregnated two girls from the same neighborhood. It makes you wonder how the standards are different. Where’s the purity for the boy when it’s expected of the girl?


How would you describe Maya’s relationship with God? How does this relationship compare to that of her family members?


Maya is newly born-again Christian. She believes that if Taona forgives her for what happened in the past, she will be unburdened from carrying this guilt around with her. Her pastor tells her she will physically feel the relief [when Taona forgives her], but then Taona doesn’t give her the forgiveness that she requires. Taona also reminds Maya that she has to forgive her own father for abandoning the family. In a way, they are all stuck in this web of hurt.


What is the importance of names throughout the “Atonement”?


I tried to be intentional with the names in the story; they are symbolic. Maya means “praise”. She was her mother’s pride and joy. Limbikani symbolizes strength. You get a sense of that side of him when he stands between his mother and father in a moment of conflict. Taona is “to see, experience, or witness”. She has seen and been through a lot for someone her age. I tried to be as intentional with the names so that they could give a brief characteristic of each person.


Writing is a career change for you. What was your path before?


Before I moved to Australia, I was in Zambia. I worked for a multinational corporation. I’ve always thought I wanted to be in the corporate world but we relocated and I had to start all over again. Moving gave me the time and freedom to write. Getting a publication here and there confirmed to me that writing is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.


Yes, it is! I’m glad you have the time and resources to write how you want to, and are finding homes for your work. What’s next for you?


I’m currently working on my novel while building my short story collection. The goal is just to keep growing as a writer.

Theresa Sylvester is a Zambian writer based in Western Australia. She is a 2023 Faber Writing Academy Scholarship recipient (Allen & Unwin Australia). In 2022, she won the Quarterly West Prose Contest and the Black Fox Writing Contest. Her stories appear in Black Warrior Review, midnight & indigo, and in Australia’s Rockingham Writers Centre anthology.