The Story Becomes a Fire: Chloe Duensing Interviews Editorial Fellow Mubanga Kalimamukwento

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is Shenandoah’s most recent Editorial Fellow in fiction. (Check out her editor’s note!) Intern Chloe Duensing emailed with her to discuss her life, her work, and what she is looks for as an editor.

First off, I wanted to offer a huge congratulations for the Drue Heinz Literature Prize! Your stories are so beautifully crafted about culture, struggle, and embracing literature as a medium to represent the artistic relationship between individual and place. Where does the inspiration come from, and do you have any advice for writers aspiring to explore their own identity?

Thanks, Chloe. It continues to be interesting and rewarding to hear my stories described in such generous ways by my readers. Winning the Drue Heinz Prize was my biggest and happiest surprise. Being the first winner from Zambia and Africa, I really hope it shows others what is possible and plants in them a little more courage to knock on all the doors they want opened.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, sometimes from outside of myself, sometimes from within. That inspiration tends to be just the initial spark, though. The story becomes a fire of almost its own creation. I am not certain if I consciously write about my identity, if at all. I write about women and girls a lot, of course, because those are the titles I have navigated and held in my lifetime, so I am drawn to those voices wherever they speak. My only advice to writers who want to write about anything is to read. I taught myself to write stories simply by reading, marveling at the genius I found there, writers’ abilities to make me feel so much, and using my admiration as fuel to write. I know as writers, we like to avoid clichés, but some exist for a reason: one is, “practice makes perfect.” Which isn’t to say I am perfect, but rather, that I am still practicing, and so should you.

Could talk about your background and personal journey when it comes to writing? Did you always know that you were going to be an editor-in-chief of your own literary magazine? Everyone has their own unique background in writing and editing, and I was wondering how literature and its creation has come to the forefront of your career?

When I was little, my mom and my grandma used to have me complete the crossword in Zambia’s Daily Mail newspaper every day. At first, of course, it was difficult, my vocabulary was so limited, but after a while, I figured out patterns in the clues and often finished them in one sitting without the help of my dictionary. At that point, I started exploring beyond the puzzle, reading the obituaries and the birthday messages, which were usually on the same page as the puzzle. I loved witnessing how much love was contained in those short messages; how they chose to name the person the message was meant for, or who it was from. I did that for years, just out of habit. Then, when my mother died the year I turned ten, the obituaries took a different shape in my eyes. I started to consider how old or young the person was when they died, comparing sometimes the image to the duration of their life written in text. Reading those next to the birthday messages taught me a lot about how joy and grief can sit side by side. More than that, though, something about losing my own mother, and seeing others publicly grieve and declare their love in this way made me want to write stories about them. I began conjuring stories about the living and the dead as depicted in those newspapers, imagining how their lives were going, or how they had been before this rapturing of the life they knew. When I think about Mubanga the writer, that was when she was born.

My gut response to your question about being Editor-in-chief, is, no, but that would be a lie. At secondary school, I think I was in grade 11, two friends and I started a school magazine. I was in charge of soliciting stories and photographs from our schoolmates and was somehow able to convince our headteacher to let us use the computer lab for extended periods of time so that we could type the content (which was submitted hand-written). We only run two issues on bond paper. Hopefully, this magazine lasts longer. That was such a fun experience for me. I had completely forgotten it until I started Ubwali, actually.

My first term in grade 8, my teacher asked us to write an essay about our Christmas holidays. It had been almost a year since my mom died, but it felt so raw still. This had been my first Christmas without her, and even though there was the traditional rice and chicken with too many bottles of Fanta with my cousins, all I could seem to remember at that moment was that she hadn’t been there. I almost burst into tears right there in class. My teacher (shout out to Miss Muwowo, 8BD, Kabulonga Girls class of 1999) noticed and said, “Mubanga, you don’t have to write something real. It can be made up.” That sentence was so freeing—to know I didn’t even need to look to my own life or the lives of others (like the newspaper), the fact I could escape the present and create a world of my making on the page. I am so grateful for that. After I finished high school, there was this long period of uncertainty for me, when I didn’t know when I would go to university, or how far exactly my dreams were, and in that time, all I did was read—every single book I could find. My first novel, I started writing during a particularly tumultuous period of my adult life. All this to say, there have been so many hard moments, and through them, literature has always saved me—I go to it and it comes to me.

The website of your literary magazine, Ubwali Literary Magazine, has the tagline “stories that nourish us.” I’d love to know about the origin of the phrase and what it means to you, as well as how it plays into the magazine’s mission and experience!

Nothing will make you as patriotic as leaving the land of your birth. I have always loved Zambia, but there is an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” way in which I love it now, not wanting to forget, even things that I once rolled my eyes at. As a child, we ate ubwali, Zambia’s staple, every single day, for lunch and supper. My sister and I would do a little happy dance when my mom cooked something different. Now, it’s my comfort food, on those biting cold Minnesota days; if I have had a particularly challenging experience, I return to this food I was so so sick of as a child. When creating Ubwali Literary Magazine, I wanted to call it something that was as Zambian as ubwali feels to me, hence the name and the tagline is borrowed from that feeling I get after I eat this food, hoping our readers will leave as content after reading some of the work.

In partnership with Shenandoah, the Hope prize celebrates Zambian prose and poetry and the winner is featured in both magazines. Can you speak a bit on how the prize first originated and your hopes for it in the future, and how you envision it evolving?

The idea for the prize was actually Beth’s idea, when I first reached out about mentorship in creating my own magazine. I had mentioned how important it was to me that the writers are compensated for their art and was trying to figure out how to do that in the long term. I was obviously so excited and honored for Shenandoah to support me in this way. The prize is named for my mother, Hope, who first introduced me to literature by African writers and taught Literature at secondary school level for a decade in Zambia. This prize is another way I honor her life, and keep her story and spirit alive through my work. She would have loved, loved, loved this magazine and the work it is doing.

Through generous donations, we are able to pay our writers a very small stipend and hope to be able to keep doing that, but the Hope Prize is an additional incentive for Zambian writers submitting to us, not just for the monetary prize attached to winning it, but also the additional prestige of being published in Shenandoah. My dream for the magazine is for it to grow beyond even my wildest imagination. Of primary importance right now, is to provide the literary community to our authors that I did not have when I first started writing professionally a few years ago. This takes various forms–the prize is one, but we will also run masterclasses at as low a cost as we can, we have been entering our writers into external prizes and also try to support their success beyond the magazine. Off the books, I mentor a few Zambian writers as well and would like to start an editorial fellowship in future.

With Shenandoah‘s 75th anniversary coming up this year, what is your most memorable experience from working as a fellow here? If you could pick out a few favorite moments, which would they be? We’re so honored to have worked with you and would love to share your words of wisdom with all future fellows to come!

The entire experience of reading and selecting stories was an absolute honor. I was overwhelmed by the quality of work I received in my call for submissions. As much as I hated sending out rejections, my favorite moments were being able to send acceptances, telling the writers what exactly struck me about their work and seeing their just as enthusiastic responses. In particular, I wanted stories from the places that can seem quieter in the wider literary world. I accepted some truly gorgeous pieces, a few from Zambia and other countries on the continent and one from Tobago. Everything I learnt here gave me the courage to start my own magazine for the writers I wanted to champion during my fellowship year.

For the incoming fellow–make it worthwhile, ask everything you ever wanted to ask, support the writers whose work you believe in, and allow the experience to teach you what it must.

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.