Literatea is an interview series which brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.
In this conversation about the business of writing, the award-winning Zambian author Ellen Banda-Aaku shares invaluable advice on how to survive as an African writer and her crossover into screenwriting.
Ellen Banda-Aaku is a UK-born Zambian novelist, children’s writer, and screenwriter. Her works have been published in Australia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK, the US and Zambia. Her debut novel Patchwork won the Penguin Prize for African Writing; it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and has been translated into German and French. She was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2007 and won the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa in 2003. Ellen, who is based between Zambia and the UK, has, over the years, facilitated creative writing workshops in Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, and Zambia. She has judged numerous literary prizes such as The Malawi Peer Gynt National Novel Writing Competition, the Kalemba Short Story Prize in Zambia, and the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. More recently, she has created and written two TV drama series and produced a TV comedy series for the Southern African DSTV channel, Zambezi Magic.
MUBANGA KALIMAMUKWENTO: I’ll start with something easy: what are you working on right now?
ELLEN BANDA-AAKU: Over the past two years, I have been scriptwriting. I am currently writing a six-part mini-series titled To Let. Basically, different tenants move into a rented property; each episode features different characters, and the general theme running through the six episodes is love.
MK: Folks, you heard it here first. Ellen is adding script writer to her already gorgeous resume.
I have so many questions about this.
Is this a first attempt at script writing, or is this similar to the story of many novelists working on scripts for a long time but just never finding the right words? Our readers would also be curious about the difference between writing for film and for publishing. Could you talk more about that?
EBA: Moving from novel writing to script has been interesting. My biggest challenge has been getting used to the fact that scriptwriting is collaborative. I was used to writing a manuscript, and in most cases, what I wrote ended up in the final product being the published book or short story. With film, the script is only the first step in the process to getting to the final product being the film. So one writes the script, and by the time the actors, director, the film editors, and all of the other people involved in films, have made their input, things change. The final product is different. It’s often better but different. So I have had to wrap my head around the fact that what I write will change because scriptwriting is collaborative. It was not easy, but now that I am fully in the film production space, I am enjoying scriptwriting. The fact that last year I got the chance to write and produce a short TV series made it easier for me because I now understand the considerations a producer has to make to move a script from paper to screen. It means I have an understanding of why things change.
Scriptwriting is similar to novel or story writing in that the main factors, such as character creation, plot, dialogue, and all the rest, are present in both forms of writing. However, scriptwriting has a lot more focus on dialogue.
I have written and created two TV series, a 26-episode comedy, and I just finished writing a 120-episode TV series for South Africa’s DSTV’s Zambezi Magic channel.
MK: Firstly, congratulations.
EBA: Thank you!
MK: Secondly, how would you compare that collaborative element of scriptwriting to, say, working with editors at a publishing house or journal? Are there experiences from one or the other that you carried over? I’m especially curious about comedy, which I’ve found to be more demanding in fiction writing. What was that like for screenwriting? Also, about the series you wrote last year? What is it called, and where can I watch it?
EBA: The collaborative element in film is similar to that of, let’s say, a book editor in that everyone is working to improve the project. However, as creative projects are often subjective, differences do occur, so it is important that it is clear who has the final say. Perhaps where a publishing house may have a say in the way a novel ends is the same way a director or producer would have the final say in changes that are made to a script.
With a script, however, the collaboration tends to be more significant and varied as the parties or factors contributing to the final project are more. My experience, as I mentioned in script writing, is that collaboration was something I had to get used to but fully appreciate.
Let me give an example: I write a script for a show that is meant to be 25 minutes long. At the point of editing and putting together the episode in post-production, the editor finds it runs to 40 minutes (which happens). The editor has to decide what to take out to bring it down to the required time without losing the story. These are changes the writer wouldn’t usually be involved in.
The way I approached writing a comedy series is the way I would do with a novel. It starts with a funny story. Of course, humour is different in context and environment, which means what is funny for one audience is not funny for another. For this reason, I do think that it is a genre one has to be aware of the intended audience as one writes. Apart from context, language often has to be considered. What is funny, said in one language, can be bland and dry when translated into another language.
The series was called My Family Wahala—it was on DSTV’s Zambezi Magic channel 162.
MK: Thank you for sharing. Why Wahala? I noticed that My Family Wahala stars Zambian actors and actresses, which I love. Did you have any say in the title and casting? It would also be great to know what kind of research went into this project?
EBA: I lived in Ghana for many years. Wahala is a widely used word in West Africa which, loosely translated, means trouble or confusion. When I came up with the concept of the show, I felt the word aptly encompassed the storyline. I came up with the title as I created the series. As a writer-producer, I was part of the casting together with the directors and another producer. The story was produced in Zambia; hence it naturally had a Zambian cast.
Apart from watching sitcoms, I didn’t do much research, if any. It was all fiction; I dreamt up the concept and title, created the characters and started writing the episodes. Once the characters are clear in my mind, the story flows.
MK: That makes sense. I was thinking of the show entirely through a Zambian lens and wondered why not Kafwafwa? But then, even Zambian languages are often mixed together in text as well as on the screen, right? Especially Bemba and Nyanja, so, of course, you could do the same mashup of languages across borders. I love that.
You’ve told me before how you like to completely suspend yourself from reality when writing, and it’s interesting to see that this continues even in your screenwriting adventures. It seems easy enough when my characters have roles that I have observed closely enough in real life to create fictional worlds out of, but what do you do when your character’s life is one you have no insight into. Say, career wise. Do you change them to fit what you already know or do you have to do a bit more digging. In My Family Wahala, for example, how much of Kenya’s work life as a lawyer is shown on the screen?
EBA: I always find myself doing less research than I would like to do, due to factors such as time constraints.
I believe that people are human before they are their professions or race or gender, so my focus in character creation is to make characters that are three-dimensional and believable, albeit dramatised at times.
For characters like Kenya, I didn’t delve into the life of a lawyer because it was more about her personality and how it affected her personal life. Meaning that no matter what profession she was in, she would have had the same personality and issues in her personal life.
Having made this point, I did ghostwriting for a company called Story Terrace in the UK. The way it worked was that clients selected a writer from a database. As expected, the majority of my clients were black women because they felt I would identify more with them, so they write their life better being from the same demographic group. Then I got a white male client who insisted he wanted me to write his story. Naturally, I was apprehensive because I felt I would struggle to relate to him and his story because we were worlds apart. He explained that he had been born and raised in East Africa, so he wanted a writer who had lived in Africa. It worked out well in the end, as we connected and worked well together.
MK: “People are human before they are their professions”—so apt! In fiction, what does your character development process look like and what are your wells of inspiration? How have these things evolved over the years?
What did Ellen the novelist or short story mastermind and children’s book writer, bring to your work as a biographer? How did you find yourself at Story Terrace?
EBA: For me, the theme or idea of a story comes to my mind at almost the same time as the character(s) that will carry the story. I am a strong believer in character. In my view, if you have three-dimensional characters that evoke emotions, they can carry any storyline. The character’s personality is what I develop first, and then I add other details such as the name, family details, profession, hobbies, and so on. I go for the personality first because knowing the character enables me to introduce the challenges and tension they will encounter as I write.
I sometimes develop characters and find they don’t fit the story, so I take them out and store them somewhere, hoping to one day find a role for them in another story. My characters are a combination of mainly my imagination with people I have come across either personally or through others. This method for character creation has always worked for me.
I applied for the position at Story Terrace when I got an email, I think via LinkedIn, to apply. I think my general creative writing experience helped my work as a biographer. What I took away from working for Story Terrace is enhanced listening skills. I also discovered that when one writes another’s life story, a strong bond develops between the writer and the person whose story is being told. It’s something that isn’t planned; it just happens.
MK: Thank you for sharing that, Ellen. This brings us to a crucial point for all writers: finances.
The pursuit of these storytelling dreams is not a cheap one. Writing full-time is not a luxury many are afforded, yet, the dream of being a writer once dreamt cannot be expunged. How have you maintained longevity? What resources helped you the most as a beginner writer, and what do you tap into now?
EBA: I have been writing for years and decided to do it full-time because I enjoy it. In my view, it’s not a career one should pursue if one is looking for money. I survive with whatever trickles in because I love to write.
If I had stayed in the career I was in before I pursued writing, I would have been more financially sound but probably had less job satisfaction.
MK: Words to the wise.
One thing that can be frustrating, though, is the balancing of writing and making money since the second is also inescapable. But when it comes to making money as a writer, much of that is held up in grants and awards and, and, and… That can be its own full-time job. How did you find the balance? Especially when you think about that would-have-been more financially stable career (if you do). What kind of work does it take to find balance in our world?
EBA: I wouldn’t call it a balance. Grants and awards are few and competitive. Not many writers can access them. Most writers just carry on making a living in whatever field they are in and write on the side.
I did some teaching or mentoring of creative writing and, as earlier I mentioned, ghostwriting.
MK: That’s true. Grants and awards are few and far between, especially when you look more closely at the entry rules. Accessing them is challenging, even more so, I think, at the very beginning of one’s career when most of what one has is self-belief and hope.
Still, you have won some of the big ones, which I imagine was great. Congratulations on that, by the way. What did that change as far as access is concerned? Did competitions make it easier for you to find a home for your work? Were the connections you made there long-term?
EBA: The very first writing I did was to submit to the Macmillan Children’s Writer’s Prize for Africa. Fortunately, I won a prize and the entry was published as a condition of the prize. It gave me confidence as a writer. I sometimes wonder if or how I would have carried on as a writer if my entry did not win. Having said this, I didn’t expect to win. At the time, I was trying to write a novel then I saw the call for the submission of children’s stories by Macmillan Publishers. I decided to enter to give myself the discipline to complete a full manuscript and write to a deadline. So winning encouraged me to go on. Most awards and competitions are one-off and remote so they are not spaces where one makes connections. What they can do is give a writer visibility and build their profile.
I believe winning a prize makes publishers pay attention to one’s work.
MK: I came to publishing in the same way. Through winning a prize that opened the door to publication. As you said, that was great for confidence. I love that self-reflection of wondering how you might have carried yourself if you hadn’t won.
But not all of them are won (unless they are), I’m assuming here. What do you do with your losses? Do you share them with anyone? Do you have any reflections to share about loss? I admire “not expecting to win.” I remember you telling me that when I was on the shortlist for the Dinaane Prize: to keep writing and not be concerned about whether I would win or not. Easier said than done for me.
So, what do you expect when you enter a competition or apply for a grant?
I’m also curious about this multi-genre work, was writing for children harder for you or easier?
EBA: The second prize I won was the Commonwealth Short Story. It was the second prize I submitted to. I was on a writing mentoring programme run by the British Council across Africa, where an experienced British writer was paired with an African writer. My mentor kept telling me that my short stories were not working because they read like a summary of a novel. ( To date, I still struggle with the short story genre!)
Anyway, someone told me about the Commonwealth’s short story prize, and those days it was 600 words. I decided to enter as I felt it was a way to work on developing my short story writing skills. When I was informed “Sozi’s Box” was the overall winner of the prize, I was shocked.
I do believe it was more to do with the subject of the story than how it was written. It was about how a child felt about her disabled sibling.
I have applied for a grant or two in the past that I didn’t get, but because I have sat on a number of judging panels of prizes, I am, perhaps, more accommodating of the fact there can only be one winner. It’s something I kept in mind the few times I submitted to prizes.
I prefer writing for children because I feel more comfortable in the voice of a child. I don’t know why, it just seems less of an effort than taking on an adult voice.
I am done writing novels, but there is a children’s book I plan on writing when I get the chance.
MK: It’s fascinating to hear since it was you who encouraged me to venture from the novel to the short story while I waited to hear about my first novel. You say you still struggle with the short story as a genre, yet your second entry won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? I call lies and their wives.
Your mentor was an experienced writer, but they were a British writer, and you were an African writer from a very specific point of view. Knowing what you know about writing, how much of that advice about your writing would you take to heart?
EBA: The mentoring program for me was very helpful. I do believe aspects of writing such as characterisation, dialogue, plot etc, cut across cultures, so for me, although my mentor was British, I took all the advice she gave me.
Indeed. I think the short story genre is challenging to write but is a very good genre to write in, in order to develop writing skills. In my view, it is easier to write more than less!
MK: Where can we read “Sozi’s box” and enjoy those award-winning 600 words ourselves?
I have no idea where “Sozi’s Box” can be found. It’s been years!
MK: What are you comfortable sharing about the children’s book idea for the future?
My future children’s book? I have my two characters in my head. A ten-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother. I see them in my head, and they keep popping up more and more, which means soon, I won’t be able to ignore them and have to start writing.
MK: Oh, I agree about writing more versus writing less. Even though I think I write leaner when it comes to short stories. Though not quite as lean as 600 words which is why I was dying to read your story. If I dig around long enough, I can usually find what I’m looking for, so watch this space, folks, for “Sozi’s Box”.
It’s been years, I know, but you remember what the story was about. What would you change, if anything, about the story? When you read words of yours from a long time ago, do you ever find yourself editing? Thinking, ugh, not that word, not that line there, that sort of thing?
EBA: “Sozi’s Box” was about a child’s thoughts as she walks in a funeral procession behind her parents to bury her younger brother, who was disabled. She observes how he was different and how people reacted to his being different. Her brother was called Sozi, short for Misozi. I would not change the content of the story; maybe use different words. I don’t know, but I’m sure I would find lots to change, as is always the case when one looks back over old work. It happens even with current writing; every time I read over my work, there is something to change. The secret is knowing when to stop. Knowing when a piece of work is done and has to be let go.
Indeed, that is why short story writing can be challenging. One has to use less words to tell the story. No room for meandering.
MK: Thank you also for sharing your two characters with us. How much of your work do you typically share before publication? Do you have early readers? Writing partners?
EBA: I don’t usually share my work. I write it alone, then let it out into the world, mindful that some readers will like or feel it and others won’t. My role is just to put it out there.
MK: “Knowing when to stop.” For Ellen, how do you know when to stop?
EBA: When I start making changes to my writing, I end up returning to what I had originally written.
I believe knowing when to stop is very important in creative writing. A writer needs to be mindful that there is nothing like a perfect piece of writing because it’s subjective. I know of writers who have been writing a manuscript for years and just keep changing it. It’s like it’s never ready. That is why I encourage writers to submit to competitions and the like. Because when the deadline comes, one is forced to let go
MK: Ah, yes! The merry-go-round of words. We’ve all been there. Two things come to mind here for me.
First, the revision process. What does yours look like? Is it different from story to story across genres and forms? Or have you struck magic––something that just works for you no matter what? Inquiring minds want to know.
I do think the failure or refusal to submit might be rooted in fear for some. If you don’t submit, then they can’t reject you. But you are so right. If you don’t submit, then you can’t let go. And also, if you don’t submit, then you won’t get published (at least by those publishers).
Second, you, the writer, feel the story should stop “here”, then an editor says go a little longer or reign it in. What do you do?
And since we are on the topic of publishing and other forms of madness, I know you’ve published traditionally as well as self-published in the novel form. How did you decide on which route to go, and what advice would you give younger Ellen, knowing what you know now about publishing?
EBA: I encourage writers to submit because no matter the outcome, as a writer, you have added to your writing portfolio. It is a full body of work, be it short story or novel, that you can submit somewhere else after revising or not. I do think working on a piece of work in an effort to win something is a plus because you hone your skills and add to your volume of work.
I tend to spend some days thinking about a story in my head. Then I type it out as it flows in its raw form. I then print out the gibberish and rewrite and revise it in hard copy. I then go back and type, referencing my hard copy. That is what works for me. When it comes to editing, I try and stay away from my writing for a while to give myself space from it. I then go back in and read through. I revise as I go along.
If an editor suggests changes to a manuscript that is about to be published, a writer needs to decide what they want to do. If they don’t want to make the changes, it could mean the publisher doesn’t go ahead. I think writers should keep an open mind and consider all the consequences of deciding whether or not to make suggested changes to a manuscript.
Self-publishing is becoming more popular these days. I think the perception that if one self-publishes it’s because they couldn’t find a publisher is changing. I would still advise younger Ellen to get published by a publisher and then, having gotten published, consider self-publishing. I am not good at marketing hence my reluctance to self-publish. Ultimately, both publishing options have pros and cons, so writers need to do their homework before deciding which way to go.
MK: Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, Ellen. As always, it’s been a pleasure learning from you. I’m looking forward to reading more of your words. You know Zambian goodbyes can be long and lingering, and though we are an ocean apart, I have to ask if you have any final words, jokes, or reminders for Doek! readers and writers? Do like the aunties after a braai with the family, not knowing when we will see each other again.
EBA: My final words are mainly for new and aspiring writers: read and make a conscious effort to find time to write. Finding time to write can be the biggest hurdle to writing. I have come across a lot of people who want to write, but life gets in the way.
In my view it takes what I call the three Ps to have a chance of succeeding as a writer: passion, perseverance, and professionalism.
To African writers: let’s go out there and tell our vast and varied African stories well!