On April 27th at our Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have recently published their debut books. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
The stories in Call and Response, Gothataone Moeng’s debut collection, play on the dichotomy between tradition and modernity—contrasting village life in Serowe, Botswana, with city living; challenging definitions of femininity and success; and reckoning with the tension between collectivism and individualism. Accomplishments are complicated by generational expectations of what it means to be women and girls from Botswana—explored through childhood friends growing up and apart, three sisters negotiating who will caretake for their aging mother, and a girl’s first sexual experience. With each story, Moeng invites the reader to face the world’s contradictions and assumptions, and learn something about themself in the process.
Theda Berry: Where were you when you found out Call and Response was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Gothataone Moeng: I was home, in Serowe that year. It was late-ish, around 10 p.m., when my agent called me with the news that there had been an offer made. I remember I was with two of my older cousins who had come over to iron their clothes for some event they had to get up early for. I took the phone call in my bedroom, then came back to the room in which they were ironing and just carried on as though nothing had changed. I think a part of me just didn’t believe it. So, I didn’t really do much celebrating that night.
TB: There is slightly more time spent depicting weddings than funerals in these stories—although there’s collective grief that permeates many of these characters’ worlds—and you often use “ululations” in the context of those weddings. As a reader, I found it fitting that the word has equal connotations of grief and joy. When you think of ululations, are you thinking of celebration, loss, or a bit of both?
GM: In the Botswana context, ululations are celebratory. So whenever characters ululate in these stories, it is in a celebratory mood. Although, I suppose, even at weddings, when people are celebrating, there is sometimes some sense of loss of the daughter that is being married away.
TB: “Small Wonders” stands out as the story most directly focused on grieving and the rituals of mourning, which you spoke about with Karen Friedman when it was featured in One Story Issue #269 in 2020. Revisiting this story in Call and Response, I noticed a change in the final line: Instead of Phetso wanting to “step into the renewed air, feel it edifying on her skin, feel the world right and undepleted,” she desires to enter “a redeemed world.” Why did you make that change? To you, does this change the meaning of the ending, or is it just a more subtle shift in language? How did you approach revision for this piece and the other previously published stories included here?
GM: I don’t necessarily see this new ending as a change in meaning. In my revision process, I am always trying to pare down in places where the language might feel overwrought, where it over explains, where it doesn’t feel precise or accurate. So, I think this is one of those places where I was aiming for precision and subtlety.
TB: You also spoke in that interview about the challenge of trying to make sure the cultural traditions included in “Small Wonders” were accurate; was that the most difficult story to research in the collection?
GM: I would say the longer story, “Early Life and Education,” was probably the more difficult to research. It was, to some extent, more interested in historical events and in presenting a dynamic of ethnic hierarchy that required more sensitivity in the way it was presented.
TB: Several of these stories were previously published, but some appear here for the first time. Were these stories, like “Dark Matter” and “Early Life and Education,” written later, or were you working on them alongside others in the collection? How did you decide they fit with the rest?
GM: I was working on these stories alongside the others in the collection. I didn’t initially have a sense that I was working on a book. I was just following an interest in certain characters and certain situations, but realized at some point that most of the stories were interested in this tension between modernity and tradition, and traditional village life versus a more urban life in the city, and the tension between individualism versus communalism. Most of the stories in the collection deal, in some ways, with these tensions.
TB: I read in another interview that these characters are similar to women and girls that you know. “Early Life and Education” is an exception to the other stories in a couple of ways, in terms of form and because it focuses on the book’s only male main character, Lerako. Was the writing process for this story also an exception? What did you hope to gain from his perspective?
GM: I was very interested in writing about the cattlepost, which is, traditionally, a male territory. I had attempted to write about the cattlepost in another story, “When Mrs. Kennekae Dreamt of Snakes,” but because that character, like myself, actually, has never been to the cattlepost, it was a very mysterious place for her where she projected all her insecurities about her marriage. I thought having a male character would allow me to really go into the cattlepost and think through some of the questions I was interested in exploring, of masculinity, ethnic hierarchies, personhood, and the lasting impact of colonialism.
TB: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?
GM: I have been in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the last six months, which is a very beautiful town but kind of small, so I am just looking forward to partying in a big city and meeting the other debutantes.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer and music journalist. She is currently an editor for the vinyl record company and music magazine Vinyl Me, Please and a reader for One Story.