Our assistant editor, Uchenna Emelife, posed five questions to all the authors shortlisted for the 2023 edition of the Isele Prizes. The questions stretch from their writing processes, to the themes they are most drawn to, their inspirations, and more.

See Kharys Laue’s responses. She is the author of “Fall / Between Words“.

Uchenna Emelife: Could you talk about the shortlisted work, its writing process and what informed it?

Kharys Laue: Writing “Fall / Between Words” was a messy process. There was nothing clean or ordered about it. I’ve never been able to write chronologically, which is to say, none of my work begins at the beginning and ends at the end. All my writing comes in fragments. For this piece, I allowed myself to lean into the chaos of that. The story component of the essay – my fall, my relationship with language, my father’s death – I wrote first and all at once. It came in one of those rare moments of inspiration. A year later, I returned to the piece. I found it was missing something, the voices of those who had been there when my father dropped me. That was when I conducted the interviews with my family, and my sister sent through the photographs she had taken of me soon after my fall. The research came last. Both the interviews and research brought a whole new dimension to the piece I could never have anticipated. At that point I was working under a tight deadline, and so the rewriting and reordering went quite quickly, about two weeks. I spent hours moving sections around to see how they spoke to one another. That was possibly the most difficult part of the process, figuring out the right order for the fragments. In the experimental form of the piece, I’ve tried to preserve some of the chaos it originated from. 

UE: How do you tell a work is ready to meet the world? 

KL: The truth is, I can’t tell by myself. After finishing a first draft, I’m so immersed in the piece that I find it impossible to tell whether or not it works. I’m lucky enough to have readers, people who I trust with my work, and usually they can tell. One of my readers is my partner. For the past eight years, he’s been the first to read everything I’ve written. He can see what I can’t. He’s a musician and not a writer, and sometimes I think his perspective is more astute for that, based on intuition rather than any technical ideas of how something should be written. It was through him that I knew this essay was ready.

UE: What does writing mean to you? 

KL: Writing for me means a way of thinking, of giving form and accessibility to ideas. What I love about literature – the short story and the poem and the creative essay – is the way it grounds abstract ideas in narrative shape. It’s part of the reason why I chose English Literature over Philosophy. All the ideas are there, just in a more accessible form. In my essay I make reference to an aphasic patient who, describing their condition, explains how they “know it but just can’t sentence it.” I really like this phrasing. I write to “sentence it,” whatever the “it” might be. There’s joy in this process, but more often than not it’s just hours of reworking the same line over and over again.

UE: If you could only write about one thing, what would you write and why? 

KL: I don’t think I have one particular thing I would like to write about. It could be anything, really. I’m much more interested in how something is written – its rhythm and flow, the texture of the language – than in what’s written. For me, the form of the telling matters more than the subject itself. In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Georges Perec writes about a street. Nothing happens on the street, or at least, nothing but the everyday happens. He drinks a beer. Cars pass, people come and go. But every sentence is crafted, arresting. So maybe that’s what I would write about if I could write about only one thing: a street. The challenge would be to hold the reader there, not with the content but with the beauty of each sentence.

UE: Whose works speak to you? Why? And how do they do that?

KL: I’m particularly interested in experimental minimalism and so I find myself drawn to writers who work in this form. There’s Anne Carson, for instance. It seems to me that she’s one of the greatest living writers out there, and I find myself returning to her work again and again. The power of her language has definitely influenced my own work. There’s also Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Lily Hoang. Through them I encountered the fragmented experimental essay for the first time, and that such a form was possible, that it existed, was a revelation to me. Then there are these South African authors: Mangaliso Buzani, Dimakatso Sedite, Damon Galgut, and Kobus Moolman. What all these writers have in common is a preoccupation with the sentence. They know how to reduce a line to its essential parts, and they bring to their work the unexpected and the surprising. Language comes alive in their hands. 

About the Authors:

Uchenna Emelife: Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, a bookseller, and a human rights advocate. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. Uchenna Emelife is as well an advocate for Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and anti-Sexual and Gender-based Violence. As a fellow of the African Youth Adolescent Network (AfriYAN), he has been contracted for various virtual campaigns to support the cause by Education as a Vaccine and United Nations Population Fund (UNPA).

Kharys Ateh Laue is a writer and editor living in Cape Town. She has written for various literary journals, such as PleiadesNew Contrast, and Brittle Paper. In 2017, her story “Plums” was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa prize. She is the senior editor at Botsotso and currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. Her first book, Sketches, is set for release in April 2023.