The Foreign Language of Art
Architecture as storytelling, writing as design
Each mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. Today’s letter is from Tlotlo Tsamaase (xe/xem/xer, she/her), a Motswana writer currently living in Botswana. Xe is a 2021 Lambda Award finalist (with The Silence of the Wilting Skin) and Nommo Award winner ( with “Behind Our Irises”)--the first Motswana to win this award, and be a 2017 Rhysling Award nominee. Find xem on Twitter & Instagram @tlotlotsamaase.
This is an 8-minute read.
One afternoon under the notorious hot sun of Botswana, our professor who was teaching us a third-year design course took us into the cool whispery darkness of our local university’s auditorium, where we watched a documentary showcasing Luis Barragán’s famous architectural works. The auditorium was quickly filled with the heartbeats of students excited about skiving the exhaustive studio classes where we’d spend sleepless nights sketching, cutting boards, making models of our ideas, albeit incoherently at times.
We settled into silence as, slide after slide, we flipped through the transcendent and divine world of Casa Barragán, Torres de Satélite, Casa Gilardi—which were Barragán’s major projects. The pictures were breathtaking, in much the same way I felt when I paged through Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, which talks about a young woman, Miri, who mysteriously disappeared. Miri’s anorexia and addiction to imbibing non-food items, pica, is further reinforced by the manner in which her family home starves her of her sexuality by slowly castrating her from the world and reality. On a prose level, White is for Witching is explosive and quietly unsettling.
When I look at any form of art, I see it through other forms of art always with the same question: how did this artist create such work? For instance, I equated the magical realism in Luis Barragán’s cultural intuitive architecture to that of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ narration of Macondo and the mystical alchemy that existed within the Buendía family members and their preternatural home. The walls of Casa Barragán’s were splashed with tones of Frida Kahlo, and the scenes captured on the slides were laced with religious symbols and motifs, layered with intuition, plot and characterization to connect the viewer to place, to context, to the meaning beyond the five senses.
I mused: architects are transcendent poets, weaving their lyrical philosophy into the built environment that transfigures the metaphysical, surrealism and speculative into something so tangible and livable: a building. If they could do this with architecture, why must it be so hard to do this with words? How could I do this as a writer?
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Year after year, I struggled to find the answer to that question. Every semester, I would roam the aisles of shelves devoid of architectural books at the university bookstore where I’d use my book allowance to buy prescribed texts for students undertaking studies from the Literature and English departments. It was in that bookstore that I was introduced to Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and his surrealist works, and Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, which zeroed in on the oppression of women, which truly opened my eyes as I was navigating the exhausting, chauvinistic male-dominated industry.
I hunted for African literature spiced with sci-fi, magical realism, horror, etc, and, after joining a local writer’s workshop, my encounter with the prolific author Cheryl Ntumy was kismet: her novella, Crossing, was haunting and bewitching that I became a lifelong admirer of her writing and had her as a mentor for years to come. Again and again, I would look at the architectural stills of Barragán’s works, dazed by an artist’s ability to conjure majestic imagery and poetry into a building with the surrealist hand of a painter. Writing was a foreign language with its requisites: plot, pacing, signal posting, characterization, story beats, three-act structures, five-act structures, etc. I had many questions, how come some books are plotless but are exceptional in execution? What could I be doing wrong?
To find these lessons, I must backtrack. In our first year, I was a fish out of water, and passed by the skin of my teeth. In our second year, our professor taught us the fundamental principles of design, which were like training wheels to understand this foreign language of design. In our third-year, we had to step outside the comfort zone of rules and principles and lean into the unbound world of our creativity, which is where I felt most free, able to express myself on the canvas without restraints.
Every beginning of semester, we were given a design brief which detailed the facility we’d design and its location, which would be an existing site within the city limits or outskirts. After conducting a site analysis and having identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, we’d have to produce conceptual models as the beginning stage of our design to respond to those issues.
But, in our third year, we approached our design brief in a ritual atypical to that of previous years: we were to write a poem that symbolized our learnings from the site analysis we conducted. The site was located in one of Botswana’s oldest historical sites and the design’s form was meant to symbolize the unfolding of the painful history that was embedded in the land and the people. Design was a tough, foreign language that required the adept use of our hands to learn its dialect, not just with our tongues and creativity. Perhaps, subconsciously, this is how I’ve learned to approach writing projects.
Writing is design, a creative endeavor that sometimes feels like one is fading themselves into oblivion by attempting to be exceptional or something. One lesson I took from those classes, learn the rules and the craft to know how to break them. And so, I dissected the bodies of works I enjoyed to understand structure, technique and the anatomy of artists/authors’ magic that makes readers feel the way iconic creatives made me feel. Sometimes in breaking the rules, you fail miserably, and sometimes you don’t. And with each project—book, short story or poem—there are different approaches that it’ll need to become something. And to me, the blank canvas is a place that allows me to paint it with the various tones of genres until it is no longer a foreign language but home, a home that shelters our pain, our joy, our horror, our future. So that in the future, we are no longer foreign, but home.
Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer (xe/xem/xer or she/her pronouns) currently living in Botswana. Tlotlo’s novella, The Silence of the Wilting Skin, is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award finalist and was shortlisted for a 2021 Nommo Award. Xer story “Behind Our Irises” is the joint winner of the Nommo Award for Best Short Story (2021), the first Motswana to win the award. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best of World SF Volume 1, Futuri uniti d’Africa, Clarkesworld, Terraform,Africanfuturism Anthology, The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), Apex Magazine and is forthcoming in Africa Risen and Chiral Mad 5 and other publications. She was the first Motswana to be a 2017 Rhysling Award nominee. Xe is a 2011 Bessie Head Short Story Award winner.
Tlotlo Tsamaase is a member of PEN America, the African Speculative Fiction Society, SFWA, and Codex Writers Group. You can find xem on Instagram and Twitter at @tlotlotsamaase.