In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—J.G. Jesman
In “Mr Chilombo’s Wife”, your short story published in Volume 25, the narrator describes the goings-on of her day as we begin to see that something is off in the relationship between her and her husband. How did the idea for this story originate?
Over the phone, a relative informed me that someone we knew (in Malawi) had died in a hit and run accident. A woman. I didn’t know her that well but I was moved by the untimeliness of it all. It seemed unjust; like she’d been shoved out of existence. What would happen, I wondered, if someone died so abruptly they never noticed? Furthermore, how does such a death affect the bereaved?
What was your decision to write this story from Mrs Chilombo’s point of view? What was it like to create a woman who is essentially existing in the margins of her husband’s memories?
The story attempts to explore the love and grief of a controlling husband through the perspective of his deceased wife. The word “chilombo” in Chichewa means monster. Therefore, Mrs Chilombo is Mrs Monster. I was inspired by the idea of Frankenstein’s monster’s bride and her place in the novel; a supporting character whose existence would have been only in service to her husband. By placing the “traditional” woman at the centre of this story, Mrs Chilombo gets to reclaim her narrative.
It’s not too surprising that the 2022 word of the year—according to Dictionary.com— is “woman.” Clearly, women—mothers, daughters, wives, aunties, nieces and so on, have been existing on the periphery of men’s lives; Adam’s ribs if you will. This story is no different. We have a man who subjugates his wife and yet he is so devastated by her death that his life spirals out of control. Are his emotions a result of love or dependency—or both?
Each time I’ve read your story, I notice how I gravitate toward the tiny details that clarify what I think of as the story’s truth-telling elements: the fly-ridden dog of simple breed, the cassava that’s ignored, how “in Malawi it’s almost commonplace for people to die suddenly.” Can you share with us a bit about your decisions in “revealing” the truth near the end of the story? Was Mrs Chilombo alive in earlier drafts?
Mrs Chilombo was always a ghost of sorts. Even before “the revelation,” she was a husk of her former self. She was a grieving woman. A ghost in society and a ghost in her marriage. What was difficult to pull off was maintaining why she didn’t know that she had died. It was as if her sense of marital duty outweighed her acceptance of this fact.
Grief seems to be a recurring concept that appears in your work. What draws you to writing about loss and grief?
Mono no aware, in Japanese, is an idiom about the awareness of the impermanence of things. It’s a good philosophy. If life is a collection of losses, then grief is a testament of our endurance. Every so often it’s important to look at grief and death as reminders of what we have been through and what’s to come—I mean that in the least despairing way possible!
You published your first novel, Chisoni, or Conversations on a Plane About Life and Death (Penguin Random Press) in May of 2022. What was the process for publication like? How did this book come to fruition from idea to publication?
I am not a “trained” writer but as an animator/filmmaker; writing is a big part of the process. When my brother passed away some time back, I founded a blog to help me understand my emotions through studying the human condition. I had always been very interested in theology and I spoke to people of many religious backgrounds to find commonalities in how they dealt with loss—especially when reason fails. All of this “research” culminated in the start of a novel (in the course of about six months) which I continued to improve upon for some years. When it was done, I sent it to the editors at Penguin Random House South Africa, who I’m grateful to say, gave me a chance.
Tell us a little bit about your approach to writing short stories as opposed to your approach to something more longform, like a novel. Do they differ? How do you know when the form works for the story?
A short story is harder to put together, in my view. The reader is a lot less forgiving. One can judge whether or not they like a novel after a chapter, whereas the first paragraph of a short story can be enough to turn anyone off. A short story is truth concentrate. A novel is a carrier of multiple truths. I think the distinction is in how much the writer or the characters have to share.
Who are some writers that inspire you?
I really like the work of Richard Yates. Through his character’s struggles one sees that life happens on its own terms. In the short story format: Haruki Murakami (for his improvisation), Doris Lessing (for her study of details) and Kevin Barry (for reminding us all to have fun).
What projects are you working on now?
I am working on a short story collection to do with Malawian culture.
J.G. Jesman is a Malawian-British author and animator. His debut novel, Chisoni, or Conversations on a Plane About Life and Death, was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in May 2022. His short stories have appeared in the Fairlight Book of Short Stories and elsewhere. Jesman holds a master’s degree in film and media and has worked mainly in the video game industry. He founded a blog in 2014 centered on the human condition, exploring aspects of religion and spirituality. He is particularly interested in the pathos of things, and most of his stories deal with that theme.