In conversation with Esnala Banda

Esnala Banda made a big splash on the Zambian literary scene in 2019 when she published her debut poetry anthology, Sketches of Paranoia. The anthology was nominated for two Ngoma Awards, one for outstanding poetry and the other for most creative female writer. She took home the Gwendoline Konie Award for Most Outstanding Poetry.

She shares, “Winning a Ngoma Award was very surreal because of the fact that my book only dropped in October, and the awards were in December. My publishers decided that we should go ahead and submit because we had test copies and initial copies out. Surprisingly, Sketches of Paranoia got nominated for two awards! It was a very surreal experience, as well as an enormous reminder that your dreams are valid!”

If you cut me open, what you’ll find are words, because I honestly love writing. I love the writing craft and the challenges that come with it.

Since then, she has worked on her follow up poetry book, Hot Chocolate and Deep Freezers which was published in 2021. On publishing her second poetry collection Esnala says, “There was definitely pressure for the second book to surpass the success of the first. I think that’s normal especially if there’s a lot of traction and a lot of noise around it. However, I would have to say by the beginning of 2020, my second manuscript was pretty much done. It just needed a few tweaks. It’s a collection of poems I had written from 2018 to 2020 that I took time putting together.”

For this project Esnala went through about six or seven working journals looking for poetry that fit the theme because she had already titled this project. The theme came first and she would write all the poetry that fell under the theme in one notebook. She eventually stopped writing when it felt like a complete body of work. The title Hot Chocolate and Deep Freezers, may seem odd but the author explains, “Chocolate and deep freezers has been like a long standing inside joke between one of my friends and I. That’s our code for when we’re having deep conversations and heart-to-hearts.  In terms of relating it to the book, hot chocolate because of all the warm and fuzzy feelings that you get with hot chocolate. Deep freezers because it’s a metaphor for where you put away the emotions that you want to keep but you don’t want to deal with.”

Themed around love, Esnala’s second anthology is a stark contrast to Sketches of Paranoia which addresses darker, more sombre themes. Hot Chocolate and Deep Freezers digs deep into emotions and celebrates the complexity of love, the author shares, “I think it was definitely a very vulnerable thing to do. If you read my dedications, it does say that I’m writing certain people into eternity.” She continues, “We don’t take as much time to talk about love in the way that I express it in the book, in its raw honesty and beauty. What it is, whether it’s reciprocated or not, and whether it makes you feel happy or not. But these are the realities of the lives that we live in. I think it’s important to open it up so that other people are also okay with being vulnerable with themselves. For me, this project was really a lot to do with being vulnerable with oneself.”

The poems in Hot Chocolate and Deep Freezers are short form, a change from Sketches of Paranoia. Esnala confirms that this was no accident. “The style of poems featured in the book is intentional. With my last book we did have long form poems. With this book the poetry I was putting together was mostly micro poetry and we thought it would be easier for people to digest, especially considering the topics. It’s great if you’re going to do a long piece that makes people vulnerable, but being a spoken word artist that’s where I feel long form poems that touch on these emotions belong.”

Being a writer can be challenging but over time Esnala has found ways to combat the proverbial writers block by participating in writing challenges and using writing prompts. “The micro poetry challenges do help. I haven’t done one yet this year, but I like to do a month dedicated to micro poetry and just explore different aspects of writing. Last year I used writing prompts every day and that was actually very interesting for me.  I like to take a month just dedicated to writing, it helps me stay disciplined, because there are definitely long periods where I go without writing.”

Writing for work, pleasure and as an author is her life but it can be challenging. When asked how she finds the balance in her creativity she muses, “If you cut me open, what you’ll find are words, because I honestly love writing. I love the writing craft and the challenges that come with it. So, it doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s for work, whether it’s an article. I do have a passion for journalism still but I am definitely focused on print media and that’s why I write for Amaka Studio and other magazines. I love writing profiles, I like to talk to people, and just find out about other people’s lives. That keeps me on my toes because I constantly have to reinvent how I write.”

As for what is next, Esnala shares “I’m actually not sure. Right now, I’m still thinking of my next product. It might be different. I am considering writing letters and opening up that side of myself, much like I used to do on my blog, The White Lily Speaks. That format is basically letters to other people addressing different issues that are in my life. It would be along the lines of social commentary on a personal level and not necessarily political, not current events, but some sort of social commentary.”

Whatever she decides to go for, one thing is certain, we look forward to Esnala’s next vulnerable and relatable body of work and the adventure that it will take us on.

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