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In the year she was mourning her husband, Phetso Sediba faced, every time she left her house, a series of small wonders at the stubborn unchanging ways of the world. Some days the group of boys that met at the culvert across from her house surprised her, that they would still gather there, mornings before school and evenings before heading home, to smoke and talk loudly and jostle at each other, only falling silent when she walked past. The jacaranda trees in her neighbors’ yards still grew their wild purple blooms, their trunks home to the blue-headed lizards whose bobbing Phetso felt mocked by sometimes, and other times pitied by. Other days it was the primary school girls who astonished her, in their little gray skirts and heavy matching stockings, their shiny faces, their backpacks beating an unending rhythm on their backs, still trotting past her gate without seeing her.
Even here, under an acacia tree in the center of the Kgale View office complex, when Phetso had braved people’s swiveling stares and their tapering conversations to join the queue to the vendor she ate lunch from sometimes, even here, a wonder.
Gothataone Moeng was born in Serowe, Botswana. She was a 2018-2020 Stegner Fellow in Fiction. Her writing has also received fellowships and support from Tin House, where she was a 2019 Summer Workshop scholar, and from A Public Space, where she was a 2016 Emerging Writer Fellow. Her writing has appeared in A Public Space and the Oxford American, amongst others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Mississippi.
Karen Friedman on “Small Wonders”
In June, a friend texted me that her ninety-eight-year-old grandmother had died. Amid the family’s sadness, there was one bit of relief: New Jersey had just loosened the restrictions on gatherings and they would be allowed to have a small wake with timed entries and a socially distanced funeral service. The family felt lucky.
Rituals are a framework. Stand here. Say these words. There is comfort through the connection to those who have performed the same rites in generations before us. But what happens when tradition feels like a facsimile of the sacred or when it is simply not enough to usher in the promised peace and wholeness?
In our latest issue, “Small Wonders” by Gothataone Moeng, we are introduced to Phetso Sediba, a young widow from Botswana, who for a nearly a year has worn the same midnight-blue dress, cape, and veil every time she leaves the home she once shared with her husband, Leungo. It is a form of penance, of remembrance, but also a warning to others who believe the old superstitions about bad luck following the widow. Phetso has sought shelter in her widow’s clothes, using them as shorthand to keep others at bay while she mourns the loss of Leungo and the life she imagined they’d have together. She is an anomaly, because of her youth as well as her desire to adhere to traditions that others have let go. As Phetso nears the prescribed end of her mourning period, she struggles, unsure of what the traditions have meant and whether she is ready to meet the world without their protection.
We accepted Gothataone’s story before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19 or knew how much our lives were about to change. Still, it feels particularly well suited to a time when grief can no longer take its familiar shape, when we must rely on Zoom shivas and Livestreamed funerals. It is now, sadly, easy for us to understand how precarious our traditions actually are, how dependent on our willingness to believe in their meaning. And yet, I feel compelled to insist that this particular story ends on a note of hope—uncertain, but there. Just as Phetso waits to reenter the world, so we too will face what comes on the other side of grief.
I couldn’t be more delighted to introduce Gothataone Moeng to our One Story family and hope you love “Small Wonders” as much as we do. Please check out our Q&A for more information about how this story came into being.
Q&A by Karen Friedman
- KF: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- GM: In my first job when I graduated from university, I worked with an older woman who had the misfortune of being a young widow. She had married very young, and her husband died very early into their marriage. She would often talk about her widowhood, and one of the things that stuck with me from her story was how she would often be walking in the routines of her daily life, wearing the requisite mourning clothes, and how conscious she was of the way people looked at her, pitying and also obviously wondering how someone so young could be a widow. Her story kind of stuck with me, and I thought of it often over the years, especially when I started to notice that not too many women wear these mourning clothes anymore. As a writer from Botswana, one of the areas of interest for me is how, post-independence, rapid urbanization due to the discovery of diamonds in the country, and the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s to the early 2000s, have altered what had been lifelong cultural traditions and rituals. In my observation, over the last couple of decades, one of those radical changes is in the way people mourn. The idea of communal mourning and the very humane traditional systems that were put in place to adjust bereaved people into a life without the deceased person became unsustainable because of how many people were dying during the height of the epidemic, and also untenable because of migration to urban areas for jobs. I was thinking about how these ways of communal mourning and the care of the bereaved provide necessary solace, but how there is also a kind of inflexibility to the idea of delineating a timeframe to mourning, which doesn’t seem to take into consideration the individual process of grieving. It has actually been kind of strange revising this story at this time, with the Covid-19 pandemic, since so many people are unable to properly bury and mourn the people lost due to the virus.
- KF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- GM: During the writing process, I felt most anxious about the accuracy of the cultural traditions that are evoked in the story. I still feel anxious about it, to be honest. It’s near impossible to find written records of these kinds of ceremonies, and my attempts to find information via historical records and textbook and academic papers were largely unsuccessful. I mostly relied on family members, especially my mother and my aunt, for details, but they would often contradict each other and would also revise things that they had already told me. Some of these rites have themselves obviously changed due to Christianity, and my sense is that the specificities of the ceremony itself depend on the region, how traditional a family is, what kind of church the family attends, sometimes the education level of the people within the family. I think class also affects what rites people are willing to observe.
- KF: The scene between Phetso and her friend, Stella, makes explicit the hesitations that the reader has suspected Phetso holds about the rituals. At one point she asks Stella, “Do you ever feel like even the elders don’t know what they are doing?” How much of Phetso’s disillusionment comes from her youth and how much from larger cultural shifts?
- GM: Well, I would say that the larger cultural shifts have made it possible for her to ask that question. The cultural shifts have caused a disruption in the continuity of knowledge of how, exactly, these rituals are performed and why they are performed. So people are kind of picking and choosing what they can do, which I don’t think is wrong, because it shows a culture that is adapting, but it can also feel arbitrary, especially since the elders don’t always seem to know why they are doing certain things other than the fact that that’s how they have always been done. But, also, because of her youth, these kinds of rites don’t hold the same significance for her, as they would for her mother.
- KF: From Mma-Tirelo to Stella to the man in the bar, your secondary characters are all so memorable and yet each draws out a different side of Phetso. I feel like this is a particular talent of yours—in fact there were so many great characters that we even had to edit out a couple in streamlining the story. I’m wondering if, as a writer, the character comes to you first or their purpose in the story?
- GM: Character always comes first for me. But in this story Phetso is fairly isolated, spends time by herself, rejects attempts by people in her life to talk to her, and so I knew that I needed to put her against characters who would draw her out. So I guess I was also thinking about their purpose.
- KF: You’ve lived and worked in the U.S., but are originally from Botswana. Can you talk a bit about how identity shapes your writing and if there are any particular challenges or advantages that come with having feet in two different cultures?
- GM: I don’t know if I would say I have feet in two different cultures. I am very much a Motswana—born, raised and educated in Botswana—and I have spent some years in the U.S., in grad school and in writing fellowships. So, you know, the U.S. is still very much a baffling and bewildering place to me, in ways both good and bad. I suppose Botswana is also baffling to me, in a different way, particularly my home village of Serowe, baffling and fascinating in the sense that I understand the façade, but I am interested in figuring out what’s underneath it. Or rather, the rationale for how the façade and what’s underneath it can co-exist. So most of my characters are from Serowe, and some of them live and work in Gaborone, which is the capital city of Botswana. Serowe has a lot of political and historical significance to Botswana and I think it’s a great setting for me to consider some of the thematic concerns I am interested in, such as changing gender dynamics, hierarchy of ethnic communities, the persistence of traditional cultures and how that encounters contemporary global culture, the lives of women, love, romance, personhood, religion and faith. I explore this through the lives of ordinary people, often women, who have great ambition and a yearning for something grander in their lives but are often thwarted by both their culture and the limits of their country. I think that the distance I got from being away from Botswana for extended periods of time has occasionally offered me the gift of clarity, just in terms of how to approach certain subject matters, and has, at times, made me bolder in terms of what I would write about. Being home, I have sometimes felt hesitant to write about certain subjects, and I am relieved of that hesitation when I am away. In terms of challenges, I mean, let’s face it, Botswana is not one of the sexy African countries. A lot of people I have met in the U.S. didn’t know that the country Botswana existed until they met me. I am just saying, good luck to me trying to sell a book of small and quiet stories about ordinary people in Botswana, LOL!
- KF: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- GM: I started working on this story in my last year of my MFA, which was 2016/2017, so I guess I have been working on it for almost four years now.
- KF: What are you working on now?
- GM: I am putting the finishing touches on a collection of stories, and I am in the early stages of a novel.
- KF: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- GM: I was tying myself up trying to figure out how much I needed to know about the novel in order to start writing it and someone told me, you probably know more than you think you do. Which doesn’t seem like much now that I have it written down, but at the time it was a big lightbulb moment. I swear I almost wept from relief.