It’s a real honor to speak to Tlotlo Tsamaase for this installment of Better Dreaming – her story “Behind Our Irises” is exactly the kind of short SF Better Dreaming was created for – packed with ideas, rich in symbolism, and fully engaged with the world of today. Better Dreaming isn’t intended to be a series of teases, a promotion of authors’ work, or anything like that: Better Dreaming aims to deepen the discourse around modern science fiction through close analysis and in-depth conversation. As such, it is a time-consuming labor of love for both myself and the writers I am engaging with. So I am deeply thankful of those willing to go on this journey with me.
RN: Tlotlo, I was absolutely stunned by this story. I think it’s brilliant, on many different levels. But one thing that really stands out for me is how you constructed this incredibly sophisticated conceit – of a corporation data-mining its own employees – that serves as a flexible metaphor for the exploration of colonialism in all its insidious complexity. It’s such an effective example of how a writer can use the tools of science fiction to turn a lens on our modern condition. Can you tell me a bit of how you developed this idea – where it sprang from initially, and how it grew into its final shape?
TT: Oh, thank you! I had this gem of an idea that I never got around to writing about regarding a surveillance system implanted in people’s minds. Then I started wondering what the ramifications of that would be, who would be in power to take advantage of that, and why would they do that, for what reasons, what’s their backstory? And I didn’t have the answers then so I shelved it for future use. I think the first time I started tinkling around with that idea was within the context of an abusive relationship in my story “ThoughtBox”, which was published by Clarkesworld, in which a man gifts his girlfriend a device so they can hear each other’s thoughts as a way to be closer; but the truth is it’s a control measure that allows him to keep tabs on her. So I’m keen on investigating or exploring how abusive systems may evolve with the advantageous use of technology, which is a bit sad because technology can have good purposes.
Secondly, I’d always wanted to write a piece that explored the insidious nature of some work places, to portray that the very standards and ethics they advertise to stand for are just a sham, but I also wanted to show how employees are abused and taken advantage off by their employers because of their socioeconomic status—they don’t have any option but to stay. Thirdly, I’d always wanted to write an expose about how some establishments use African cultures and other cultures as a product for their benefit with no regard or respect to the people involved, and how those people are basic tools and fodder for the system’s greed. But the idea felt too empty of genre and I didn’t know how the plot would work out; I suppose I explored it in a subtle manner in “The River of Night”, which touched a bit on sexual harassment which is a concerning topic in many establishments. When Wole Talabi invited me to write a story for Brittle Paper’s Africanfuturism anthology, I said yes and we had a chat about what I could write about. I remembered all these ideas and wondered if perhaps I could consolidate them into one story. And the summary I sent Talabi described it as a part-bionics story infused with work politics trampling over ethics, and what if offices could double up their profits by installing apps in their workers. His suggestions to emphasize this concept were quite helpful. At that point I knew there would be a horror element because I wonder a lot about villains when we read about them in media, the psychology that runs them—that what if they had a technology to get away with anything without being exposed by their victims, what kind of world would that be and how would it be? That’s how I attempted to begin to explore the answers in “Behind Our Irises.”
RN: I often tell people that, for me, I usually must have two or three ideas that merge into one to become a story. The “seeds” of storytelling, for me, always have to be hybrid. That sounds a bit like the process you describe above. Would you say this is usually the way you write? Or is every story different?
TT: Honestly, it varies. Sometimes, when I’m going about my day, or watching a film, documentary or even a music video, a lightbulb goes on for an idea I’d like to explore and that’s how a story starts. And it’s because I found something fascinating or inspiring about those works that triggers my creative need to interrogate them. And short stories are great fields for experimentation. Often, I note the idea down somewhere to revisit later when I need a story to beat out. Over time, the idea ferments in mind until one day it pours out organically. Sometimes, when I need to deliver a story, I forage for lines in deleted drafts of old works, a line that speaks differently when it’s isolated from the body of work, and based on that line, I have to follow other processes to build the story. Other times, it’s areas I wanted to explore, like speaking to our local folklore and myths. For example, when we were younger some elders would tell us that when we’re dreaming and we seeing a deceased relative or stranger on a train calling us to climb it, we shouldn’t or we’ll never wake up—it was such a visceral and frightening thing that I knew I wanted to write about but didn’t know how. But that’s literally how the Silence of the Wilting Skin started, from this line: “We have a train station that no one boards in our district. It’s decrepit and takes its passengers to and fro—somewhere. Somewhere no one wants to go.” It was a much bigger world than I expected as I thought it would end up as a short story; we absorb so much of the world and that’s what pours out of me onto the page. From this, I learned that some ideas refuse to be short stories, well, for now at least.
RN: Reading this I have such a strong sense of identification because you name two story “seeds” that are very prevalent in my own process: taking a line from another story, one that sometimes I abandoned, and using it as the seed for something else, and also what you call (and I love this phrase) a “creative need to interrogate” something you read or saw. I find that is so often the root of my inspiration.
Speaking of lines, in this story I loved this line in particular:
They are using our temporary hunger to lure us into something.
Set off in italics, it seems to cut to one of the core themes of the story: the way the temporary hunger of the main character and the other employees’ financial need is used to lure them into accepting the company’s invasion of their bodies and minds, and the resulting theft of what is most personal to them – including, it is implied, a grandmother’s recipe for chakalaka. This seems to me to be a fundamental strategy of colonialism – using a “temporary hunger” – often manufactured by the colonial power itself – as an opening to domination. Was that how you intended this line to read?
TT: Ahh, it’s so lovely to hear that you also have a similar writing process! And, yes, definitely. That was my intention. Temporary hunger is a metaphor for many things; it refers to people who’ve been unemployed, are poverty-stricken, have no prior education and no generational wealth. The struggle to earn a living is difficult, so they’re starving to survive, and the obstacles in their lives drive them to give up what is priceless. But on the other side of the coin, you have others who are wealthy and are driven by other reasons to support this corruption, they already have their essentials covered, and now they hunger for certain wants which reinforces the colonial rule.
I’d read a lot about multinational companies establishing their subsidiaries in countries that were tax havens for them. Additional to that was how top fashion companies and other industries were outsourcing cheap labor from some African states and other countries. And you’d find the work conditions in these places intolerable. The factory workers work long hours, are paid very little and are abused by their own people to supply to these foreign companies. And this practice is repeated in many establishments. So the people who are really benefitting from this corruption is the colonial power and I suppose the locals who support them, but not really because the locals upholding this corruption doesn’t really benefit them or their country because they’re feeding these establishments from the mouths of their future generations, thereby disrupting local development. Again people can’t exactly quit their jobs. Living is very expensive, prices are going up, salaries are either going down or remaining stagnantly low that one can’t fund their living on a monthly basis, can’t save or invest in something to one day be free from the system; so this practice really binds peoples, forces them to say yes to things they wouldn’t agree to if they had the option, forces them to keep quiet, take abuse, because for some losing a job is worse than losing a life. It is because of that temporary hunger that starves them for life, starves them from ever being free, from ever gaining power or being independent, so they become lifelong slaves of the system.
RN: Can we talk a bit about “freedom?” Because the way you address it above reminds me a bit of an earlier Better Dreaming conversation I had, with M.L. Clark. I wonder what an individual is, or even if there is such a thing as an individual. If I am “of” the world in which I exist, shaped by that place-time, what kind of freedom I left with? I do not think the answer is “none,” but certainly – to me – the fantasy individuality of the Western subject is a Cartesian farce.
Above we talk about temporary hunger – but I also think we are talking about (and so much of colonialism and capitalism seems to be about precisely exploiting this) the way in which individual action is constrained by reality – ad by reality, I mean real constraints created by capitalism and colonialism. As you say above: “people can’t exactly quit their jobs. Living is very expensive, prices are going up, salaries are either going down or remaining stagnantly low that one can’t fund their living on a monthly basis, can’t save or invest in something to one day be free from the system; so this practice really binds peoples, forces them to say yes to things they wouldn’t agree to if they had the option, forces them to keep quiet, take abuse, because for some losing a job is worse than losing a life.”
How do we transcend that position of reliance on a system that abuses us? Can we?
TT: Ahhh, this is a tough one to answer, and I can never truly gain a fixed answer regarding it because it’s quite complex. I don’t think one can be fully divorced from a system (but I do think it’s possible), especially from a system that influences their livelihood and their being. When I think about how to transcend that position of reliance on a system that abuses us I think about how the self evolves over time from birth, influenced by this system, by the ripple effect of history especially an abusive system that has saturated so many cultures and has been passed down through many generations, the things we’ve inherited from our ancestors that have become us, shaped us, our habits, our thinking patterns, etc., or influenced us in any number of ways, and there’s also the element of how our environment has also shaped us, the families we were born into, their belief systems that color us, people’s ideologies that color us, the toxicity that still spills from them unbeknownst to them; and you’re born from a transcendent place into a rigid system that defines you and forces you into a mold and I’m digressing—but in a way you wonder, if you weren’t dressed in all of this and if you were free of all this dressing/influence, who would be the real you? How do you undress yourself of all these elements when you’re so submerged in them? Because beneath all of this thick padding is you, the individual, a tiny light of you sealed behind this dressing of barriers that separate you from reaching yourself. Maybe or maybe not, it’s still an area I’m exploring. There are so many things at play—at a micro and macro level and even a spiritual level, things like corruption for example that reinforce systems like that, xenophobia, or toxic systems upheld in family settings—that almost remove that power from oneself, which lack support/community to transcend. You can work at it to transcend it, but what about the other people? How many of them are doing the work to change and change it? You can be divorced from this but still live with people on this planet who aren’t and who are violently forcing you back into a slave. But to detract from this pessimistic path I am taking, I do think it’s possible to transcend that.
RN: One of the many sophisticated ways in which “Behind Our Irises” addresses colonialism is summed up in the statement, made by Keaboka in the restroom, just before he is dragged off by company security – “. . . they sell us – we are the products –”.
There are many different ways to interpret this statement, which is true of both colonialism proper and post-colonial late capitalism, where products are adjusted to more and more sophisticated micro-markets. In one sense, the main character was created by the system the company thrives in: put in a desperate economic situation, she is forced to make a “choice” – which is not really a choice – to allow her body to be violated by the company’s “updates” – and in this way, her subjectivity is “produced” by the system. But the corporate system also data mines her and her colleagues, which enables them to fit their products, stolen from the minds of their employees, more closely to the market, “colonizing” space that is interior to cultures not their own – and space that is literally interior to the minds and bodies of their “employees.” Can you talk a bit more about these concepts, and how you developed your critique of them?
TT: With slavery Africans were priced and sold like products for gain by the oppressor, and now establishments have alternatives and nefarious way to employ that practice. And the language and narrative around that is very deceptive and elusive. African cultures and other cultures are treated like products in various ways, whether as sexual objects, labor, cultural concepts, etc. The commodification of culture drives some of these trends, such as fashion, hairstyles, music, etc. For example, during the pandemic and lockdowns (even before this period) a lot of people were speaking out against the abusive structure of companies, and how they’re exploited, and typically PR statements are thrown out to put off the fire. I remember following a thread where POC authors talked of their negative experiences working for some of these companies, and their testimonies revealed how they were discriminated and exploited. And these companies for quite some time had advertised themselves as an ally for people of color. So you find many varying scenarios like this, and it was something I was responding to in the story. But this is not to say the whole system mirrors this type of practice.
I follow a lot of true crime documentaries, and I always find it disturbing how serial killers over time finesse their crimes so as to not get caught; they need to feed their dark addictive hunger. By understanding the system and studying its weaknesses to find its loopholes, they come up with startling creative ways to get away with their crimes, but only for so long. And I found that synonymous with the villains in “Behind Our Irises,” because they are still mutilating your growth. So I was curious in exploring that villain in the story as a multinational company whose shareholders and directors were outed for sexual harassment, discrimination and exploitation, and because they were caught before, they’ll do anything to avoid it happening again because PR statements are ineffective, and the consequences of going to prison are high, as we’ve seen with some heavyweight industry people in this climate. Ultimately, they have this hunger and addiction they need to satiate, which replenishes racism, colonial rule or xenophobia, etc. Markets are competitive. Companies have to keep adjusting and revolutionizing their products for their consumers and to stay relevant; but for some, they finetune their practices as shortcuts so they don’t get caught. The technology they use allows them to control and exploit their employees both for profit and sexual pleasure, because for a very low price they’re able to use their employees to diversify their products to appeal to the trends and win awards and become more powerful. And as with some power systems, they target people who have weaknesses to use to their advantage. People they target don’t have the option to say no, and ultimately become colonized again whereby now the body is fully possessed and under their control—this system of colonization also becomes revolutionized and disturbingly “sophisticated” over time.
RN: Here is probably my shortest question in this conversation: Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with architecture, and how it relates to your writing practice?
TT: I studied architecture, and it was a culture shock because you’re learning a new language: design, creativity. Every semester, we’d be given a design brief, such as what we had to design, a cultural center for example, and a site where we’d locate our designs. We’d conduct site visits, perform detailed studies of its environment–the people, their movements, the activities, the existing ecosystem, the culture, the issues and benefits, etc. From this we’d have to come up with ideas and express them with conceptual models and drawings, and then develop that over time into a functional building, which is the most difficult thing. It was a very rigorous and challenging process to develop your voice through design. The fascinating thing about it is you could touch your idea, cut it up, eliminate some parts (kill your darlings, ha!), construct it with different materials to communicate something, manipulate it over and over in that creative factory until it became something. Sometimes, you’d have to scrap the whole thing and start again and again under suffocating deadlines and your breaking heart. Writing is quite similar, and I think I built my stamina for writing from studying architecture. Additionally, it was hammered into us in our design classes and presentations, that we can’t separate our designs from the setting, environment or culture else our project would be termed “floating designs” because you can’t tell where they belong, which I sometimes struggled with in writing. So when it comes to writing, it’s become a subconscious act to personalize the environment—mother earth, natural elements, and the issues terrorizing it—and to dig further into the culture. It forces you to see the world differently, which is great for conceptualizing stories. There was this saying one lecture used to quote to us that “Engineers know everything about one thing, and architects know something about everything.” They study things foreign to them to know them intimately so they can design them. And writers are quite similar, I think: they are the architects of storytelling.
RN: Again, I feel this strong sense of recognition, reading that response: I remember that I was once asked why I chose to study literature in university, and I said I studied it because in order to understand literature, you need to understand a bit of everything a book can touch upon: psychology, history, sociology, biology botany, and a hundred other fields – you need to, as it is put so well above, know “something about everything.”
I asked the question about architecture because – although I never studied it myself – I have always felt drawn to it, and I have often said that if I were not a writer, I would want to be an architect. I think for me this comes from a desire to shape something – a space for people to live in, something that improves their life, something that can ground their experience and help them to see differently. I do believe that architecture does that when it is good. And I believe it, as well, about writing.
While we were conducting this back-and-forth, “Behind Our Irises” won the 2021 Nommo Award for Best Short Story, sharing that honor with “Rat and Finch Are Friends” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo. How wonderful – well deserved, and a huge congratulations! Tlotlo, I want to thank you for taking so much of your time to join me in this conversation. It’s been a privilege to speak with you – and as I said a few times above, I read some of your answers with a deep sense of recognition. That’s been, really, one of the joys of this Better Dreaming – a feeling of commonality and community in the way we think about our craft and, often, about the world.
TT: Ahh, I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. That’s the best articulation I’ve seen so far about how writing/architecture can be good. And, actually, I initially wanted to study literature, but I had to settle to studying it own my own and taking up electives when I was studying architecture.
Thank you so much for the congratulations and for this lovely discussion, it’s been such a fun and intriguing experience and a huge honor to speak with you!