In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ruth Mukwana
Your short story “Floating” in Volume 23 is about Timothy Okello, a young Ugandan refugee who learns that his father is the leader of an anti-government group that kills civilians. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this story?
I wouldn’t want the only takeaway for anyone who reads the story to be that this is an anti-government group that kills civilians. The group starts off fighting a liberation war but as wars go, they rarely remain true to their cause, and civilians are killed, and it’s the same story with this group. What inspired me? I’ve always been curious about freedom fighters who start off fighting for their people, for human rights, justice, but turn into war lords and unleash violence on the same people they’re fighting for. At what point does one cross that line? Given the multiple wars around the world, I often think about the price civilians pay and how far must it go before it stops?
One of the things I’ve always loved most about this story is how the relationship between Timothy and Ma changes. I’m curious—how do you as the writer make a healthy, loving, mother-son relationship crack apart in such a short span of pages? How do you know that your reader will have an emotional reaction to the evolution of the relationship?
I am pleased when I learn that a reader somewhere had an emotional reaction to the relationship between Timothy and his mother. The truth is I don’t know that the reader will. Timothy and his mother are both victims of the war and the choices Timothy’s father has made. The situation they’re both put in – a wife and mother who loves her son and husband, and a son who loves his mother, who has grown up believing one thing, and then learns everything has been a lie. It’s this situation that a mother and son find themselves in that helped me to cover so much in a short time.
“Floating” is the first piece of fiction that appears in Volume 23, and our readers really took its structure and compelling narrative, which feels both appropriate for a short story and also for something longer, like a novel. Did you ever consider sharing Timothy’s story in any other format?
“Floating” is actually a linked story. The other story is “Taboo” where we meet Timothy, his mother and father and Nana when they’re all in the refugee camp. For me, it has always been a short story but these days, I am considering expanding it into a novel.
It seems like such a long time ago, but in October 2020, you won an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. What has that opportunity afforded you?
I was blown away when I received this fellowship. First, it’s been a huge boost for my own confidence and this in itself is very important. Over the past months, myself and the other fellows have been introduced to several agents, editors and authors to talk to us about the publishing industry. This has been extremely helpful as the publishing world is very opaque to me. I have also been given an editor to work with me on my collection of short stories and I get to use the studios at the center which is such a gift to a writer.. Because we’re in the pandemic, we haven’t had in-person opportunities to meet, which I have missed. The center is reopening in September and I am looking forward to some in-person events.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
We’re still in the pandemic which has further exposed the gap between the rich and poor across the world. We have countries like the USA which has more vaccines than needed for the American population and at the extreme end of this, only 1.1 percent of the 1.3 billion people in Africa have been vaccinated. This cannot be acceptable. This year, 235 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. We stilll have children going to bed hungry, not going to school, people fleeing their homes because of conflict, violence against women has increased. Racism, discrimination and prejudice continue unabated. I guess I long for many things. I long for wars and violence to stop. I long for social justice and a world where all human beings are equal, a world where no child goes to bed hungry.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
War, violence, social injustices, class, poverty, love, family. I don’t think I have a story that doesn’t have these themes.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I don’t know if it’s a craft element but I struggle with endings and completing a first draft. I write the beginning and perhaps a bit of the middle and keep revising rather than ploughing through so that I can have a draft. For my most recent story, I forced myself to break away from this habit and rather than write the story from beginning to the end, I wrote the different scenes, developed the characters and plot, and then weaved all these elements together. I found that this also helped me to deal with those days when I was paralysed and couldn’t write anything.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I have a list of writers for every genre. Literary fiction is my favorite genre and I read a lot of short stories and short novels. Writing, and art, for me is a vehicle to drive change so I am particularly drawn to writer’s whose work teaches me something, that is dealing with many of today’s challenges. To mention a few writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jim Shephard, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Magda Szabó. I interviewed Maaza Mengiste for my podcast and I was blown away by her perspectives on the role of fiction to raise awareness on war, gender, and so on. I’d recommend her book, The Shadow King. Then there are my mentors and friends who find the time to read my drafts and give me honest feedback: Denton Loving, Libby Flores, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Keith Lesmeister. It’s a long list.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished a draft for a new short story, I am editing my collection of short stories and I am also working on a novel.
Ruth Mukwana is a Ugandan fiction writer living with her daughter in New York. She is a 2020 Center for Fiction fellow. She is also an aid worker currently working for the United Nations, and co-produces a podcast and blog on storytelling and humanitarian advocacy.Her short stories have appeared in several magazines. Her story “Taboo” was a runner-up in the University of Alabama’s Black Warriors Review (BWR). Mukwana is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (MFA). Listen to Ruth read from “Floating” on our YouTube page. You can learn more about her work at her website.