In Gothataone Moeng's debut collection of stories, "Call and Response," the living sometimes invoke the dead. They call to the long-departed Batalaote people of Serowe, a village in Bostwana. "O Batalaote, Batalaote!" they say, asking for guidance, or at other times, surrendering with chagrin to customs out of step with modern life, especially in the capital city of Gaborone. The response can be a silent rebuke not to stray from the "way of the Batalaote," a way also upheld by elders to the frustration of the younger generation.
In Moeng's nine stories, so exceptionally written that sentences can shine and awe, the push-pull of the modern and traditional is a recurring theme, and her characters, mostly younger women, are caught in that psychologically turbulent, unforgiving space, their private and public lives splintered and feelings left raw.
The collection begins in Serowe with "Batalaote," a story narrated by 15-year-old Boikanyo, who defies her mother's instructions to watch over an ailing aunt and attends a wedding. There she is reunited with a boy named Sixteen and sneaks around, meeting Sixteen for trysts at the foot of a hill. Not a whole lot happens thereafter — and like some of the other stories in the collection, this one meanders a bit, trying to land on its thematic feet. The aunt eventually dies; Boikanyo ages out of school and moves to the city, and Sixteen, she learns years later, dies too.
Apart from vivid impressions of village life, we are also left with a salient idea that echoes through the book: the personal ambition of girls and women — so big it spills over the bounds of a small village, so intense it burns in a bustling city. "I also want to eat my youth," Boikanyo says to her cousin, expressing hunger for something other than what has been offered.
In "A Good Girl," a single woman, exploring her sexuality, is forced to live a double life while her father and brother are "permitted" to openly cheat on their wives. Two masterful stories, "Small Wonders" and "Dark Matter," offer us glimpses into what it's like to go against societal practices or expectations. Returning to Botswana from America, a struggling writer is flummoxed by questions on why she came back home. "My jaw got tired of speaking all that English," she says, eliciting laughter.
The long short story, "Early Life and Education," follows the life trajectory of Lerako, a young boy born out of wedlock, raised by his grandmother and then by his cattle-farmer uncle as his mother starts a new family elsewhere. The story is well told, fascinating social mores and all, but has the feel of a work in progress.
Nonetheless, Moeng is at her absolute best when she writes into the interior, often deliciously illicit, lives of her women characters, more of whom appear in "Bodies" and "The First Virginity of Gigi Kaisara." It's brilliantly obvious: The women in her stories want "to be immersed in a particular kind of dream," and despite the naysayers, including those ancestral ones, they still reach for that dream.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based writer and critic.
Call and Response
By: Gothataone Moeng.
Publisher: Viking, 304 pages, $27.