I cannot thank memoir writers enough for allowing us readers to travel in time and space through their own life experiences. In Anna Choongo’s book “Cultivating Peace and Hope”, available on her website we catch a glimpse of what it was like growing up in Botswana and making Australia home.
When did you start writing stories?
My initial writing experience was in educational settings writing English curricula, short stories, and co-authoring plays. I started my career in Botswana, Southern Africa as a high school English language and history teacher, and later became a lecturer in syntax and semantics at a teacher training college.
My jobs ignited a love of literature and biographies, which in turn fired up my interest in becoming a writer.
When I migrated to Australia, I joined the Adult Migrant English Service (NSW AMES), an agency of the Department of Education as a teacher, and became a manager after a few years. During my work in AMES, I co-authored two books: English for Employment- Finding Work: Post Beginner, and English for Employment- At Work; Post Beginner. The books are for adult migrants seeking to find employment in Australia. I have also co-authored online books for overseas students in China studying English as a foreign language.
My memoir, Cultivating Peace and Hope is my first creative nonfiction book. I decided to narrate my story to reach out to other adults who had experienced trauma in their lives and had a story to share. I also wanted to fulfill my interest in using stories to engage and communicate with readers.
Were you encouraged to pursue writing as a profession?
In my career as an educator and linguist, writing was always encouraged as part of the profession. I discovered a mutual interest in the written word with many colleagues, and to that effect, we cultivated each other’s interest in pursuing writing. Colleagues and friends encouraged me to narrate my life story and eventually, I garnered enough courage to confront the vulnerability that comes with recounting one’s traumatic life events to write my memoir. I later decided to pursue writing as a profession.
How did writing your book help you heal wounds and process trauma?
Writing about traumatic experiences that shaped my life was a challenging process. Initially, I struggled to get in touch with suppressed emotions and expose hidden parts of myself to scrutiny. However, I always knew this was an exercise I had to undertake to facilitate my healing. When I started writing the initial manuscript of the book, I discovered that the more I got into the story, the easier it became to revisit my most traumatic experiences and deal with emotions I had kept buried for a long time. The process of writing the book helped me process my experiences and to heal the wounds I had glossed over and tucked away all my life.
What is your second book going to be about?
My second book examines the impact of poverty and HIV AIDS in the lives of people in Africa, particularly in rural communities, and the social-economic and moral challenges that face families and society as they deal with this. The focus is particularly on young adults and the daily challenges they face as they navigate this minefield and try to live normal lives. The story narrates the lives of two African brothers (Botswana) who are orphaned from a young age due to their parents succumbing to HIV AIDS. They are left to be raised in the village by a poor, elderly aunt who finds it increasingly difficult to care for them and provide for their needs. Eventually, the boys are adopted by a rich relative whose wife struggled with infertility. The boys are plucked from the village to a privileged life in the city.
The story closely follows the life of Kgosi, the elder of the two brothers, who receives an HIV positive diagnosis in his early twenties and is forced to confront a variety of issues, including the impact of his diagnosis on his professional life, his relationship with his partner, family disclosure, societal stigmatisation and learning to live with HIV. His story draws attention to the complex challenges of infidelity, gender violence and abuse of women, social acceptance, law and justice, cultural norms, and expectations. Dealing with these issues forces Kgosi to explore his self-acceptance, self-worth, and personal values.
This book seeks to delve into subjects that are often regarded as taboo in society and that often lead to considerable mental challenges, like depression and anxiety, for people who find themselves in such situations.
How did you decide to write a book?
Apart from my interest in writing my life story, my decision to write the book was also influenced by my observation of how society views depression and anxiety, and how many people, were hesitant to admit to struggling with these issues for fear of stigmatisation.
I started drafting the memoir a few years ago but did not have the time to devote to completing the first manuscript. In 2020, I stopped working full-time and committed to finishing the book. I enrolled in a self-publishing school in the USA to help me with the structural and technical aspects of publishing a book. The course was designed as a combination of online self-learning, weekly group coaching calls via zoom, regular one-on-one calls with a dedicated coach, and access to a community of fellow writers and mentors via Facebook. Over a seven-month period, the course guided me through the writing process and how to navigate the complex book publishing environment through Amazon KDP Select and IngramSpark.
My coach guided me through the initial steps of writing a book, starting with mind mapping, and developing a cohesive book outline to streamline the process of writing. The book outline greatly assisted me by providing a framework for writing each chapter and building up the story. Throughout the course, I had the opportunity to discuss progress and seek assistance from my coach and also through the weekly coaching sessions. I found the coaching sessions to be invaluable for problem-solving and obtaining constructive feedback on the writing process. I also had an ‘accountability buddy’ from the school mastermind community of writers, who helped me keep my writing motivation up.
My book editor, cover designer, and typesetter were all determined through recommendations by the self-publishing school. The mastermind community additionally shared invaluable feedback on things like selecting a suitable book title and book cover.
For anyone starting the journey of writing a book, it is critical to dedicate time to mind map your book idea and then use the map to develop a clear, well-planned story and chapter outline. This provides the initial framework for your writing process, crystalises ideas, and drives the writing momentum forward.
Book publishing is quite a complex process and involves many steps, apart from writing. Beginner writers have the choice of self-publishing or engaging an established publisher to help with the book. Even if you decide to self-publish, I suggest working with an experienced supportive mentor to help guide your writing and navigating the various stages leading to publishing your book. The mentor will help you with things like appropriate book length, writing style, establishing, and maintaining your voice during the writing journey, selecting an editor, selecting an appropriate book title, and the technical aspects of publishing.
Through my coach/mentor, I learned the difference between copy, content, and developmental editing and which type was most appropriate for my manuscript. This helped me when selecting an editor. A good mentor will also be able to help you find a good book and cover designer.
Thank you Anna, keep writing!