The Half-Life of Humour: A Dialogue with Rémy Ngamije
Rémy is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. He is the founder, chairperson, and artministrator of Doek, an independent arts organisation in Namibia supporting the literary arts. He is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first and only literary magazine. His debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S) in August 2021.
His work has appeared in The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, American Chordata, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Columbia Journal, Lolwe, and many other places. He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 and 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prizes. In 2019, he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Windhoek and Kampala via email.
Rémy’s story, “Granddaughter of the Octopus,” is about three generations of women living through love, war, and dispossession; he speaks about the rarity of the humour masterclass, how Ursula from The Little Mermaid was advocating for OnlyFans long before it became a thing, the ever-present dangers of Zoom dating, and the possibility that octopuses might someday rule this world (be very afraid!).
Davina: You mentioned that stories are important because they shorten the distance between the reader and the writer. How apt. One time-tested way of shortening said distance is through humour, which is what I love most about the narrator’s larger-than-life grandmother—her wry, incisive wit. Almost all my favourite writers, and characters, make me laugh long before they do anything else.
I was thinking, the other day, how slightly odd (or maybe more than slightly odd) it is that humour is so rarely deconstructed. Intensive three-day workshops and masterclasses on “how to plot like a pro” or “the three-dimensionality of characters” are widely known and commonly encountered. But for some reason no one is saying “this is how you provoke laughter” or “this is the anatomy of a good joke.”
There are of course the usual references to incongruity—how you must set your audience up; make them expect A but lead them to B, C, or D, or wherever else they might consider unsuitable and inappropriate. Although you’re technically getting this from YouTube, or through attending to patterns in your favourite comedian’s routines, rather than from the typical creative writing workshop.
Yet several writers have woven, and continue to weave, humourous stories. (I remember how, at one point, while reading Chuma Nwokolo’s Diaries of a Dead African, I was laughing so hard that I was also crying. My sister, who was in the next room, heard me. She barged into my room in a panicked fit; she assumed I’d just received news of someone’s death.) So there’s clearly a method or two. I guess what I’m asking in so many words is a) did you set out to tell a funny story, or was the humour incidental?, and b) if the humour was intentional, did it receive the same analysis, similar de- or re-construction, as the other elements in your story?
Rémy: Humour is a tricky element. At story temperature it can be either slapstick (which I hate), witty or ironic (which I adore), or my personal favourite: tragic. I love humour that is one laugh away from being sad or disturbing, the kind that deftly balances the truth in a story or the reader’s life. Humour like that can only end in two ways: in laughter or tears. A writer who knows the many faces humour dons will be able to make a reader do both: laugh so hard they cry, or cry long enough to see the comedy in the tragedy. Both of these things are wickedly hard to do.
I do not consider myself to be a master of humour. Maybe a delinquent student at best. When writing a story I do not intentionally set out to make it humorous. In Granddaughter of the Octopus I thought of the characters, the setting, the plot, and the timeline (all of the things you mentioned as being the staples of writing classes). After assembling all of them, I needed something that brought it all together, something which animated the action or the narration.
I think every piece of writing has a problem in it, one a writer must solve in some way. Some writers will use that high cinematic drama—like, the sad, artistic Sundance Film Festival kind only three people in the world appreciate. (We call that literature, by the way. Haha.) Some will use a dark tragedy. Or loss. Or grief. Whatever, really.
The goal for any writer is the same: to make the story work, and to make the reader read it. Humour, for me, sometimes presents itself as a solution because of its malleability. It can do so much: draw people together (romance), create a disaster (ah, the glorious folly of man), or make a grandmother larger than life (this is why we are speaking, is it not?) That is how humour presented itself in Granddaughter. It was the solution to a storytelling problem.
Regardless of how humour is used—as the solution to the writing problem (intentionally or tangentially)—it still needs to be crafted. Written, edited, revisited, revised. That is often the hard part. For all of its uses, humour can be quite brittle. There is only so much you can hammer at a joke or a punchline before it breaks apart completely. Even if you try to mould it like a vase you might find out you are using bad clay (like those white American comedians Netflix is trying to sell us).
What is funny in real life might not be amusing on paper; what makes friends laugh might not have the same effect on strangers; and for a story, forever destined to be read in rooms in which it cannot read the room and explain or justify itself, the consequences are even higher.
In Granddaughter the grandmother’s character was not the issue. Such women exist all around us. The problem, rather, was how I would lead a reader from one end of the narrative to the other, covering vast stretches of time. Humour was the solution. Why? Because when it is genuine and delivered sincerely, time (and so many of the other forces one needs to contend with as a writer) melts away.
Have you ever been on a good date? One where you laughed? Like, one where you laugh-laughed. Not giggled, friend. Laughed. The kind where your uterus turned on the landing lights because, damn. Chances are high you do not remember how it started or when it ended. You probably recall sensations but not seventeen and a half minutes past eight.
Then think about the funniest kids at school, or the uncles who tell the most hilarious stories. It does not matter when the stories they tell happened (if they even did), all that matters is that they tell them as though they did happen when and how they say they happened. And if they are amusing and enthusiastically told, they will stick. Time becomes irrelevant. Friction is replaced with the premise or setup, and gravity gives way to the punchline or laughter. In Granddaughter there was no other way for me to navigate between all the happenings, traumas, triumphs, or truths without humour. Another writer would have found another way but, for me, it was the only way.
But in using humour, especially with the themes that Granddaughter covers, I had to be super wary about what was said, how it was said, and why it was said because everything fed into each other. The grandmother’s speech pattern? A choice. The wisdom she shared? A choice. But I had to handle all of these choices like some explosive laboratory chemicals. One stray drop and the story, the lab, or me would go up in flames. I like that kind of writing, the one where a slip means you are dead in the water.
Chuma Nwokolo’s Diaries of a Dead African, you say? Let me try and get a copy of this. I stan a good recommendation.
Then, if I may as well: my star sign is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, Slumberland, Tuff, and The Sellout rising. These two writers make me laugh at things I should not.
Davina: Stories that are destined to be read in rooms in which they cannot read the room. I like that. Imagine if we could ask books their opinions of how we read them.
Rémy: If library books could talk. My god.
Davina: I’m sure even your story will gladly admit that you made good choices. There are things the grandmother says, or is reported to have said, that make me nod and nod and nod and say, yes, yes, yes, you are so right. When, for instance, she says that we must not confuse the clouds we see for the crops we imagine will grow because of the rain we anticipate. I thought, “How true! How wise!”
I liked how she flits between and among subjects without losing me. How she will segue from talking about the power of buttocks, how you must know which parts of you a man likes if you wish to know what kind of woman he’ll replace you with, to casually mentioning that the narrator’s grandfather was frightened by her mind. I regularly found myself smiling or laughing, and thinking, “Kyokka bannange this woman! Anhaaah!”
I know what you mean about being made to laugh at things you should not be laughing at. Your Terry Pratchett and Paul Beatty are my Tom Robbins. I laugh and laugh and laugh, but then within all that laughter, I catch myself thinking, “Wait a minute. Is this…allowed?” One of his books opens with a wild dog falling from the sky using…wait for it…its scrotum as a parachute.
Rémy: If Wile. E. Coyote had read Tom Robbins maybe he would not fall to his doom all the time after running off a cliff while chasing Road Runner.
Davina: Surely not. Although that’s maybe not quite the point. Isn’t that kind of “duh,” that constant falling off a cliff, exactly, and ironically, what keeps you watching episode after episode after episode?
Rémy: I actually feel sorry for Wile. He is just trying to catch his dinner. While his failure is comedic, I feel it also needs a reward. All Road Runner does is run and say “Beep-Beep!”. Wiley actually places orders with the ACME Company, assembles traps and builds things. I think he should catch that damn bird at least once. Needless to say, my interpretation of that series would only be a couple of episodes long.
I had this idea, at the onset of writing Granddaughter, that the grandmother would be absolutely right all of the time, that she would be beyond the weaknesses of mere mortals, a moral Road Runner, if you will. But it was too boring to write in the end. There has to be the potential for loss or reward in a story to make it compelling. Those two things are what make characters do interesting things in any story.
“Here is a question I cannot answer: what is the half-life of humour? How do you know you are writing something that is funny now, something that will also be amusing tomorrow? I do not know. I guess that is why there is no humour masterclass, it depends on so many shifting variables.“
The grandmother in my story is aware of what she stands to lose and gain, and she acts in accordance with the potential risks and rewards. Sometimes her actions are wise, and sometimes they are folly. But I do not think they are as one-dimensional as saying “Beep-Beep” and running off into the distance. If that is all people did, there would be no point in going on dates, even the fun kind. I really do feel sorry for Wile. He reminds me of some people in the dating and romance game. I will laugh at the mishaps, but every once in a while I will think: Friend, I really hope this one works out. Humour also needs to be balanced out in some way.
Davina: But do people still go on actual physical dates, Rémy? I feel as if all people do these days is hook up online. If you could laugh with (or at) your companion, and not be penalized for it, then, yes, that would be a good date. A better date would perhaps be one during which you both speak honestly about all the ways in which you’re damaged, and are likely to damage each other, should you choose to “take things to the next level.” The best date would then I suppose be one during which you discuss damage control while simultaneously laughing about it, no? (I’m not speaking on behalf of my uterus here, ahem.)
Rémy: Yes, people still go on dates. What might have changed over time, and I can be corrected on this, are the modes facilitating the events leading to dates. Dating apps, chat rooms, Twitter threads – people can find each other in numerous ways these days. But while the digital world provides convenience of connection and reach, romance still has an analogue switch: a degree of encounter is needed. Sure, what constitutes a date might not be what we might have seen in films or read in books in the past. I am certainly not sharing my milkshake with anyone. What is mine will always be mine! But that first encounter still happens, even if it is Netflix, chill, and regrets.
I am not sure how such arrangements have functioned during the COVID-19 era, but I think when it is safe to meet people once again such opportunities will be taken. Perhaps even more so. Can you imagine dating via Zoom?
—Sorry, you’re on mute.
—Yes, I can see your screen.
—So, err, what do you look for in your ideal background?
I do not think this is the content we came for.
Davina: That’s enough, Rémy. I won’t have you talking smack about Zoom dating. Certainly not when I’m actively considering adding it to my online dating repertoire. At least you can see people, ideal background irregardless.
Remember when people had to wait in a particular spot for that one bus bearing letters, from the post office, from their lovers. If you missed the bus, you missed the letter, period. Were there no genuine connections? Was there no durable romance?
Rémy: You had me at letters. At least people wrote. This emoji, sticker, and GIF life is stressful.
Davina: While we are on the subject of proper love letters, isn’t it a pity that we write so few of them, these days? I was intrigued by the way Caleb Azumah Nelson spoke of his book, Open Water—as “a love letter to artistic expression and Black expression.” If you had to write a short letter to Black artistic expression, Rémy, what might it read like?
Rémy: Open Water is on order at the moment. I am eagerly awaiting its arrival in Windhoek.
The idea of writing an artistic love letter to Black expression is intriguing and frightening for me, mostly because I am still trying to figure out a lot about my role within the greater artistic realm. I am still learning about myself as a storyteller, as a writer, as a black and African writer. These identities are works in progress, and while I might have figured out enough about myself to compose a soppy love song, I lack the clarity and insight that would change the Earth’s tilt or spin. And those, I think, are the kinds of writings I enjoy reading and hope to produce in the future.
There are few things worse than receiving a love letter that is full of indecision, or one that has its imagery confused. So I do not know what my letter to Black expression would read like. But if it could sound like Sade’s The Safest Place. I would consider it a very good one.
Davina: But you were saying, earlier, about dating?
Rémy: Your kind of date would make for a killer scene in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s amusing Fleabag or Micheala Cole’s brilliant I May Destroy You. Both of them are excellent series, ones I admit I was reluctant to watch (I rarely watch series) but they were really, really good.
Davina: I haven’t watched I May Destroy You but Fleabag is on my to-watch list; it came highly recommended by a friend. But do go on.
Rémy: I think that level of honesty would require a brazen kind of intimacy, one that might not exist in the present world. Or, if it does, it might not be understood. I am certain the grandmother from Granddaughter would say something like “Never reveal all of yourself in one go, time will unclothe you in due time.”
But even if you had that kind of honesty, would you stick to it? In Granddaughter, the grandmother is aware of her own insights but she also knows her shortcomings. She confesses as much. I am not sure whether honesty is all the protection one needs in the world. It is important to have and to share, but it is not enough. Plus, I think romantic deception evolves at the same speed that truth does. It is a wild world out there.
Davina: Speaking of wildness, the narrator’s grandmother is described in the beginning as a wearer of bloody shades of lipstick. The beginning incorporates a comparison between the narrator’s grandmother and Ursula from the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, (which the narrator’s sons are watching on VHS), and is one of five sections into which the story is divided.
The middle carries lessons in the labours of love and kindness, the narrator’s family history of fuckable and unfuckable men, the loss of fathers and husbands to war, and the loss of land to mining and timber companies, but no Ursula. Ursula re-appears in the last section, when she’s dying and the narrator’s sons are cheering.
Reference to The Little Mermaid fairytale split my brain, so to speak; one half thought of it as a warning that the story I was about to read was so out-of-the-ordinary that I believed it at my risk, while the other half thought of it as an assurance that the story I was about to read was so out-of-the-ordinary that I had to believe it. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you.
Rémy: It does and it does not. As a writer, after choosing my narrative structure and working on it, I always hope it makes some sort of sense to the reader. At the same time I have little control over what they bring to the table. If one does not know who Ursula is, Granddaughter does not make sense. But if one does, then it does.
These are the hazards a writer runs when they tell a story: if the reader does not buy the initial premise (Mom: Once upon a time in a faraway land… Kid: When? And in which country?) it can be pretty hard to secure it later. So, yes, what you say makes sense. But it also does not. As the writer, I think, of course, I totally intended that! (Not.) But another reader might have a different interpretation or reaction.
Davina: Right. Different readers carry different tableware. So, yes, how I’ve cut and eaten your story is likely mostly about how I cut and eat stories.
Rémy: But, as you correctly state, Ursula appears at start and at the end. What about the middle?
So I ask: how much do you know about the sea witch? In the Disney version of The Little Mermaid we are not told where she comes from, how she became a sea witch or acquired her powers, or why she takes what she does from the merpeople who make deals with her. All we know is that she is a giant octopus, can cast spells, and knows what the men above are like. Look at this from Ursula’s song, Poor Unfortunate Souls:
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yes, on land it’s much preferred
For ladies not to say a word
And after all, dear, what is idle prattle for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man
How did she come to this wisdom? Was she ever on land? Did she once turn herself into a human and experience this hurt firsthand?
Then there is this:
You’ll have your looks! Your pretty face!
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!
Come now, Ursula was advocating for OnlyFans even before it became a thing. Power!
Ursula’s casting is intriguing, especially the octopus angle: they are strange, intelligent, and terrifying creatures. The grandmother has those same characteristics, I think. The narrator only knows what she is told by her, but what other secrets does she keep? The little the reader knows about this woman comes from what she says (or what the narrator said she said). In a way I guess the middle parts of the story are the exploration of the unknown world of this matriarchal octopus: love, loss, dispossession, assault, trauma, survival, sisterhood, and motherhood—these are just some of the things we learn about. But what else is there? So many questions.
Random aside: have you ever lived in a village?
Maybe it is just me, but there is always some woman on the periphery of communal life who is called a witch or something of the sort. The ones I know have always had one characteristic: independence (which is both despised and feared). I think the grandmother and Ursula both have it. And I think it is this independence that allows both characters to be witty, to be funny, to take men as they wish, and to not care about what other people think.
Even in the real world it is the same; independence of any kind remains a curiosity because everyone, in some way, has to be tethered to and defined by something or someone. To find people, fictitious or not, who have managed to escape such things is strange but also intriguing.
Davina: The last village in which I lived for a stretch is technically a civillage, given its proximity to the citified centre of Ugandan life. Barring distance from the Greater Kampala Area, everything else—the feeding, the pace, the electrification (lack thereof)—is quintessentially rural.
It’s not just you. There was much talk about witchery in that village, but it was taken for granted that the responsible parties, the majority stake- and share-holders, so to speak, were women. Every time I heard a story about “night-dancers,” I was made to understand that the person dancing nude in your garden, in the middle of the night, the person with the nerve to rub their naked buttocks against your coffee and banana plants, was more likely than not a woman.
Rémy: Ha! The Rubber of Buttocks Against Coffee and Banana Plants. Commonwealth Short Story Prize entry for 2022, anyone?
Davina: Hmmmn! Perhaps we should conduct a poll?
Rémy: No need. If you write it, I will read it.
Davina: But, as I was saying, thinking back to that experience, sifting through those stories within the same frame, I suppose what you say about independence makes sense. Perhaps some women night-danced in other people’s gardens. But perhaps the dancing itself wasn’t the issue. Maybe the issue was the cheerful unconventionality, the disreputableness, of daring to dance at night, and without clothes on, at that! Oh, the scandal! How will we ever rid ourselves of it?
(By the way, the language of my ancestors contains a word for women like the narrator’s grandmother: “nakyeyombekedde.” Women that are independent in a way that frustrates and frightens “polite society.” I’m trying to trace the history and evolution of that word.)
Rémy: Now I feel like we need to collect all the words that are used to describe such women and trace their origins. Maybe there is some primordial rubber of buttocks that served as a muse for such terms.
By the way, you have seen The Little Mermaid, yes? Do you have a favourite character? Or a favourite Disney song?
Davina: Yes, I saw The Little Mermaid. But that was a while back. I should perhaps re-see it, soon. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being one half this and one half that—so of course Ariel was my favourite. What I remember being left over, after I watched it, was a sense of wonder: what would it be like to be half-fish? And, later, when I learned of boys that are half-horse, I was even more intrigued.
What I’ve re-seen, several times, over the years, is Beauty and the Beast. I loved it. Still do. Beast was always my favourite character, and my least favourite part remained when he turned into a prince. Because I always thought, “Oh, God, not again. Why must there always be a prince?”
Rémy: Beauty and the Beast is a great choice. It has a good soundtrack.
Davina: My brother, who collects movie soundtracks (apparently that’s a real thing) would agree. I, on the other hand, collect portmanteaux; I’ve just added “barcafégrillestaurant” to my collection. No objection from you if I add “artministrator” to my collection, no?
Rémy: I had to look up “portmanteau” because I am an unwashed heathen. By all means, add “artministrator” to it. When Doek was in its final stages of incorporation I did not gravitate towards the conventional corporate labels like CEO or MD that would bring all the LinkedIn boys to the yard. So I made up my own title and that, really, is the long and short of it. Plus, it really does encapsulate what I do: being the administrator of an arts business is quite unconventional and exciting.
Collecting soundtracks is not only a thing, it is The Thing. I love film scores or soundtracks that have been composed or arranged with care. It adds to the enjoyment of a film or story. I find that arranging songs in playlists also helps to focus the writing process for me. It is especially helpful when it comes to selecting titles: Granddaughter of the Octopus. I would click on that playlist in a heartbeat.
I digress, though. Fairy tales.
Davina: I was saying the relationship I once had with fairytales has changed dramatically because I’ve kept stumbling upon writers who have forced me to rethink.
After I read Anne Sexton’s Cinderella, I was never able to watch Cinderella movies the same way. That poem (the ending, especially) shook me:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
It was an awakening, Rémy. I felt so stupid. And so naïve. And so inconsiderate. I couldn’t believe it had never occurred to me, before then, that Cinderella or the prince (or them both) might at some point struggle with infertility. Because of poems like Sexton’s, I’m currently obsessed with the idea of rewriting the endings of some fairytales.
The other day, a man said to me: “I don’t care who cooks the food I eat at home, as long as my wife serves it to me!” There has to be something his wife does for him that no one else does, otherwise how will he know that she’s his wife? That sort of thing. And he was quite adamant about it, too. So, I thought, OK, this could go somewhere.
I began to imagine a Cinderella who discovers that, despite having a servant for every conceivable chore in the palace, she must still be the one to serve the prince. Or, maybe, for some reason, he likes her to take his bath water in a large basin, despite there being maybe a dozen bathtubs in the palace. What kind of happily-ever-after would that be? And so on.
Rémy: I generally have no problem with revisiting old stories like fairy tales. Purely as narrative acts they hold the same magic they did when they were written. What changes, I guess, is the ability for that magic to affect the reader. Readers change over time while stories like the Disney versions of Beauty and the Beast do not once they are rendered into a finite medium like animation.
Gradually, as people change along with their sensitivities they will develop a tolerance to a particular kind of story. And storytellers will develop more (and hopefully better) stories to make them feel the same (or a heightened) thrill or satisfaction when consuming a story. That is one of the gifts of being a writer, you have precedence to work from and the present to help write or tell different stories. That is why Anne Sexton can come along and tell Cinderella’s story differently. Someone, though, had to tell the original (whatever that means in storytelling).
But time eventually brings a different reader to all writings, someone whose morals and values have changed because of personal and global circumstances. I think what is problematic now has always been problematic; what changes is one’s ability to identify the problem or discuss it. I am sure someone, a black woman, read Pride and Prejudice back in the day and thought, ‘Well, damn, Austen, erase us completely why don’t you?’
That person was surely disenfranchised and did not have a platform from which to share their view at the time. Where there are stories there are silences, too. Writers have personal and social limits. So it might seem like Austen was just killing it when, actually, there was someone who was unable to voice their opinion. Today, though, we have the language and spaces to talk about the silences in that story and many others.
My hope as a reader is to find stories that help to fill in those silences; my goal as a writer is to bring me and the reader to the edge of others. Maybe in the world that is to come octopuses will rule the world (I would not put it past them) and my story will be flagged for containing “octopusogyny”. Do not ask…
Davina: …I wasn’t going to ask! I was going to say that my money is on carnivorous plants. They will someday rule this earth. You mark my words, Rémy, and mark them well. You may even use a red pen, if you’re so inclined!
Rémy: Carnivorous plants are good candidates for world domination. But I still feel like octopuses would, at the very least, be able to cook us in more interesting ways than we cook them.
But here is a question I cannot answer: what is the half-life of humour? How do you know you are writing something that is funny now, something that will also be amusing tomorrow? I do not know. I guess that is why there is no humour masterclass, it depends on so many shifting variables.
All I know is that both writers and readers cannot get to Tom Robbins and the hyena with the scrotum parachute or Granddaughter of the Octopus without first traversing the kingdoms of Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After.
Davina: Indeed! I can’t think of a better way to end this conversation, Rémy. Thank you so much for speaking to Africa in Dialogue about your story. Fingers crossed for the regional winner announcements.
Photo credit for featured image of Rémy Ngamije: Abantu Book Festival
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her.
She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.