The Mourning Bird : A lively and unapologetic debut novel by Zambian writer Mubanga Kalimamukwento

The Mourning Bird Mubanga Kalimamukwento

Emerging Zambian author Mubanga Kalimamukwento is the winner of the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award 2019 with her debut novel The Mourning Bird.  There is no stopping Mubanga who won the Two Sisters long short fiction competition in January 2019 and received an honourable mention in the Dreamers Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home, in February 2019. Mubanga is also currently a Fulbright fellow and is a proud mother of two boys.

Published by Jacana Media, the novel The Mourning Bird, will be released on 1st June. The novel tells the story of an 11-year-old orphaned Zambian girl Chimuka through the 1990’s. Set in a period of political strife in Zambia, lively and unapologetic, the book explores Zambia’s state of affairs, pitted against child homelessness and the social consequences it breeds in a culture that is often unforgiving and remains silent.

Leading up to the release of her debut novel, we asked Mubanga about her writing career, creative process and inspiration behind The Mourning Bird.

What was the inspiration behind you writing The Mourning Bird?

I got the idea for The Mourning Bird during a conversation I had with a friend about the gender dynamics amongst street kids, after which I decided to write a book about a female street kid in Lusaka. Once I started, the image that came to mind was of a girl I used to see on the corner of Burma Road and Independence Avenue, whom I felt I had watched grow up.  It struck me that, when the biggest reason for child homelessness is the death of parents, I was fortunate because the death of my parents didn’t render me homeless. I had a family that prioritised education and pushed me to excel even when I faltered along the way. I wanted to plant myself in the shoes of that girl by telling a story that could be hers and forcing us to look at what kind of choices we made as a country since 1964 that Zambian cities have between 20,000 – 30,000 street kids.  I mean, we say, an African child is everyone’s child but, numbers don’t lie.

Chimuka’s story reflects the story of many Zambian’s but touches on issues that we tend to remain silent about, was your intention to speak about/open people’s eyes to issues that are swept away in a culture of silence?

Chimuka, the protagonist in The Mourning Bird interacts with versions of a Zambian that I think many people will be able to relate to. But she also exposes the things that as a people, we should be more open to having conversations about and finding lasting solutions to. I guess I always struggled with the idea of collective secret keeping to protect family names, loved ones and friends at the expense of someone weaker. I’m especially passionate about speaking out against sexual violence against women and children. But, no, I didn’t start The Mourning Bird thinking, “Oh, I’m going to unravel all of Zambia’s deep dark secrets.” But, with art, passions seep through, and I’m proud of that.

How did you build your characters and select their names and traits?

The short answer to that is; very slowly and with a lot of mistakes. In my first draft I just made them up as I went along, but as I read more work that I wanted my book to be sold side by side with, I re-evaluated my approach and added more meat to the bone that was my original characters.

What writers or other individuals do you draw inspiration from and why?

Everything starts with my mother, who taught English Literature and loved to write. The way she loved me unconditionally, how her words, her affection, and lessons have clung to me 21 years after her death, continue to inspire me. I’ve learnt a lot from reading Kopano Matlwa, Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Akwaeke Emezi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Fred Khumalo, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Ellen Banda-Aaku, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Panashe Chigumadzi.

At what age did you start writing?

I started writing when I was ten, right after my mum died. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that one minute I had a family and the next I didn’t. So, I made up stories where families were whole as an alternative reality to my own.

To what do you owe your consistency?

I think part of it is just my personality. I’m very competitive, and that manifests as me never giving up. But more than that, I really love writing. The catharsis I feel once a story reaches completion, even if it takes twenty rounds of editing (which is often), is a feeling that I repetitively seek.

How do you manage to balance a career in law and being a writer?

With very little sleep mostly. Writing my novel, I was in Court every day of the week, which meant I could only write at night when my kids were sleeping. A lot of the time that translated into a maximum of three hours’ sleep a night.

What is an average day in your life?

Every day is different, but I always start out with positive affirmations that vary from day to day to give me the energy I want to carry with me throughout my day. Court days are a whirlwind spent on my feet, asking questions and scribbling at the same time. Non Court days in the office are for research and legal opinions and weekends are for the outdoors with my sons. A constant feature is a book because the only thing I love as much as writing is reading. When I’m off work and I’m alone I spend my time submitting my stories to journals and writing fellowships and working on my writing deadlines.

From reading your short story “Womanhood” and looking at the themes of The Mourning Bird, I notice you touch on themes that many shy away from, what else sets you apart?

Well, I know many writers talk about social justice too, we just have different voices. I try to write from an honest place, using things I’ve seen, heard and felt and turning them into a caricature of words.

Everyone in the arts has a creative process, what is yours?

Once I have my idea, I write it down on whatever I have, paper or phone screen, then when I get to my laptop, I write a crap draft which is exactly as it sounds. I aim for 1000 words over my lower limit and write uninterrupted until I get to that word count. Then the real work starts, editing. Some stories come to me nearly complete, so editing can take about a week. Some crawl out of me, and it takes close to a month. I edit every day until the story is complete. After each edit, I run my words through an app called Grammarly and after each stage, I send it to friends who graciously give me their time and read my drafts. Their feedback helps me fix issues as I go along. Eventually, I get to a point where I’m happy with every single word selection. And that’s it.

Do you face any challenges with writing in the African context?

My writing experience has been positive. I’m so grateful that the Universe has consistently brought me people who have helped me hone my craft and get my stories read. I can only speak to my own experience, which continues to be very rewarding

What does literary success look like to you?

Part of my process of manifestation was going to bookstores, standing in the K section and picturing my work there. While writing The Mourning Bird, I did this a lot in airports. One time at O.R Tambo, I almost missed my flight just doing this. So, when my publicist emailed me the other day to tell me about a panel discussion I will be part of on June 18th, I thought, “Wow, this is actually happening!” But I screamed when I saw some of the authors on the list, like Fred Khumalo, who I admire deeply and was a recipient of the Dinaane Award in 2005. As far as dreams go, I am living mine. Just being able to write and earn from my publication is a success to me.

What is your favourite book of all time?

What a cruel question to ask a book lover! I don’t finish books I don’t love, so anything I have finished, I have loved. So, I’ll cheat on this one. Last year, my favourite read was What Happens When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, but Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun still tugs at me even after all these years.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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