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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with writer/editor Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, author of Drinking from Graveyard Wells

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean sarungano (storyteller). Her debut short story collection Drinking from Graveyard Wells (University Press of Kentucky) won the Cornell University 2023 Philip Freund Prize for Creative Writing, was shortlisted for the Ursula Le Guin Prize for Fiction, and nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Collection.


Yvette's novel manuscript-in-progress was selected by George R.R. Martin for the Worldbuilder Scholarship. She earned her BA at Cornell University and her MFA at UMass Amherst.


Yvette's work has been supported by fellowships from the Tin House Workshop, Bread Loaf Writers Workshop, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She is the Newhouse Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Wellesley College and has taught at UMass Amherst, Clarion West online, and the Juniper Institute for Young Writers. She is the co-founder of the Voodoonauts Summer Fellowship for Black SFF writers.


Her work has been anthologized in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction 2021, the NAACP-award nominated Africa Risen (Tor) and has been published (or is forthcoming) in the Columbia Journal, F&SF, Tor.com, Lightspeed, FANTASY Magazine, and Fiyah Literary Magazine for Black Speculative Fiction.


Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)


You describe yourself as a Zimbabwean “Sarungano” on your website and elsewhere. In what ways is your identity as a “Sarungano” important to the stories you tell?

Sarungano means storyteller and comes from the Ngano storytelling tradition in Zimbabwe. Ngano, also known as Inganekwane, which translates to “fable or fantasy story,” was the first fiction form I heard told around the fire by my gogo and sekuru. In the Ngano my grandparents told, strange and magical things happened. These stories were fabulist and AfroSurrealist in nature but they also held a mirror to real world issues. I think of my work as doing similar work of using unreality and tapping into the deep well of the fantastic to tell truths about our world. 

I consider my work to be AfroSurrealist, leaning into the bizarre and absurd experience of being embodied as Black in an anti-Black world.


Is there a story from Drinking from Graveyard Wells that you are particularly proud of having written for the way it builds on Zimbabwean “Sarungano” traditions?

Ngano is a Zimbabwean fabulist form that works very similar to magical realism, usually set in our world with one or two uncanny or weird things happening and the characters don't react to the strangeness, so there is a lot of normalized magic and this normalized magic is used to critic systems of power.

Most of the stories in Drinking from Graveyard Wells have normalized magic but one of my favorites that does this is “Home Became a Thing With Thorns.” Set in an imagined world that’s a blend of America and South Africa, which have both seen increases in xenophobia in recent years, where immigrants have to pay a toll of the thing they love the most to the state to be allowed to stay and naturalize as a citizen. One character is an artist and has to give up his eyes, other people have to give up family recipes, their indigenous languages, histories, body parts, their joy etc.

I wanted this story to speak to the surreal and absurd experience of being an immigrant in America and how the state demands immigrants give up so much to be allowed the dignity of safety. It also deals with the exploitation of immigrant labor as we find out later in the story that the parts of themselves that these characters are forced to give up are being used for nefarious purposes.  


Drinking from Graveyard Wells includes varied cultural influences, including Shona myths, US pop culture, Christian parable, and disparate genres, including folktale, science fiction, and horror. Why is it important to you to tell stories that draw upon these varied cultural and literary influences?

I think it reflects my background. I’m Zimbabwean, grew up in a household that was a blend of Christianity and indigenous spirituality rooted in Chivanhu/Ubuntu with parents from different ethnic backgrounds. There were always multiple languages around me, multiple traditions that I can never claim to be one thing.  I grew up in a world that accepts the metaphysical as reality and that there are unknowable things in this world that cannot be measured or quantified. I’m also from a young nation still recovering from the ravages of British colonialism and American cultural imperialism.

All those influences make me who I am, a Frankenstein monster containing multiple worlds and I think that is reflected in the work. I’m learning to not see it as monstrous though, learning to think of all these influences as a collage that adds up to an interesting picture. 

 

What was the selection process like for assembling this collection? How did you choose which stories to include and how to arrange the collection as a whole?

When I was drafting the collection I had the privilege of attending a Kelly Link reading and got to ask her this very question! Her answer to this question stuck with me and guided my approach to assembling the collection. She said she thinks of the first story as an invitation, it sets the tone of the book and is a call to the reader to signal that this story is representative of what the collection will be like as a whole so I spent some time reading all the stories and picking one that I think captured the spirit of the collection. I selected “Red Cloth, White Giraffe” as the invitation. it has a character speaking from beyond the grave and deals with feminine rage at the patriarchal burial traditions. Kelly Link also said she thinks of the last story as a send off so I wanted the last story to feel like a farewell but also an invitation to the reader to visit the world of the collection again someday.  

 

You are pursuing your education in the US and have written that you needed to “unlearn” certain writing principles upheld in fiction workshops (“Reclaiming a Traditional African Genre: The AfroSurrealism of Ngano”). What advice do you have for writers trying to develop in creative communities in which the dominant aesthetic may undermine cultural influences central to their identities and craft?

I think Toni Morrison provided marginalized writers a roadmap for navigating that “unlearning” better than I ever could when she said, “ I stood at the border….claimed it as central … and let the rest of the world move over to where i was.” Like Toni Morrison said, claim the marginalized spaces you occupy as center and let the rest of the world move to you.

As marginalized writers we spend a lot of our time trying to translate ourselves and to make our cultural influences palatable but what if we stopped translating and stood our ground? Think about what is your intention and let it be your anchor, rough winds may blow but as long as you have your anchor as long as your claim where you’re standing as central, anything that seeks to undermine you loses its teeth and simply becomes a distant whistle.

I also think finding a community of first readers that understand what your work is trying to do and that center your intention is so important. Those are the people to turn to during times of doubt and who will help to ground you and bring you back to your center. 


Community plays an important role in your creative process and development. For example, you are a founding member of Vodoonauts, “a grassroots Afrofuturist collective for Black SFF writers” according to their website. In what ways is storytelling a social practice for you, and how is Drinking from Graveyard Wells embedded in a larger community.

I reject the belief that writers need to write alone in the dark hacking away at their laptops. My most exciting work happens when I write in community. I believe in Ubuntu, the southern African philosophy which loosely translates to “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” You can’t create in a vacuum, our work as writers is always in conversation with the world around us so why should we write alone in the dark?

Storytelling in the Ngano tradition has always been a communal practice of sitting together around a fire to hear the most fantastic story from an elder, a story that grounds you in community, in ubuntu. I always try to anchor my work and my writing practice in ubuntu. 

 

Which AfroSurrealist or Black SFF writers excite you and why? Which of their books is on your list of must reads?

Oh so many! This is a really exciting time for Black SFF, especially emerging African authors. I would recommend And This is How to Stay Alive by Shingai Njeri Kagunda, Jackal, Jackal by Tobi Ogundiran, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, Ghostroots by Pemi Aguda, anything by Helen Oyeyemi and Akwaeke Emezi. 


Learn more about Yvette Lisa Ndlovu:


Reviews

"A wry, subversive and magical collection by a powerful new voice. With sharp humor and wondrous imagination, Ndlovu deftly weaves fantasy and folklore with the contemporary moment to spin these enchanting, frightening stories of injustice and revenge. Watch out reader, these dreamy tales have thorns."―Mona Awad, author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, All's Well, and Bunny


"Drinking from Graveyard Wells is unlike a story collection you've read or will read. These wonderful, vibrant and beautifully executed stories of life, death, and the cultural ties forged in migration have the uncanny ability to render the world we live in more intimate and mysterious than we often imagine. A striking and original debut."―Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and How To Read Air


"In Yvette Ndlovu's stories houses disappear, ravenous ants feast on carnivore lollipops, and gods work at the bank. They're myths of political and social reality cut with bone and blood. Ndlovu is a true original, a literary force whose style is just real enough to feel magical and just magical enough to feel real. There may be no other writer quite like her at work today."―Jeff Parker, author of Ovenman and The Taste of Penny


"Yvette Ndlovu's tragicomic, sad, bold, and big-hearted Drinking from Graveyard Wells announces the arrival of a major talent. Ndlovu's realism, both magic and hyper, spins around a central truth: amid collective peril, we need storytellers like Ndlovu all the more, those who might help spirit us into some semblance of our collective tomorrow."―Edie Meidav, author of Kingdom of the Young


"Ndlovu's stunning stories drawn from Zimbabwean and African legend poise poignant questions on history, identity, and nationhood. This is a collection by a supremely gifted writer committed to preserving and reinventing ancient folktales to weave a modern lore. She deserves nothing but the highest praise."―T.L. Huchu, author of The Hairdresser of Harare and The Library of the Dead


"In a set of short stories that skirt the surreal, the supernatural, and the mundane, Yvette Lisa Ndlovu invites readers into a look at life in Zimbabwe, both past, present, and beyond. Drinking From Graveyard Wells is as mesmerizing and magical, as it is unflinchingly real in its reflections that pose questions at once personal and universal in their implications. These tales will stay with me, perhaps even haunt me, for some time to come!"―P. Djèlí Clark, author of A Master of Djinn and Ring Shout



Moriah Hampton, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI), holds a PhD in Modernist Literature from SUNY-Buffalo.

Her fiction, poetry, and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in The Coachella Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Ponder Review, Hamilton Stone Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, inspired by contemporary fabulist fictions.


 

 


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