I’ve Never Sought to Write Anything Political: A Dialogue with Derek Lubangakene

I’VE NEVER SOUGHT TO WRITE ANYTHING POLITICAL

A DIALOGUE WITH DEREK LUBANGAKENE

Derek Lubangakene lives in Kampala, Uganda, where he fundraises for a wildlife conservation nonprofit by day, and writes by night. He’s a voracious reader, an occasional sketch-artist, and a cack-handed origami enthusiast who loves all things Haruki Murakami, Samuel Beckett and Ayi Kwei Armah. 

His poetry and fiction have appeared in Lolwe, Jalada Africa, Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Omenana, Enkare Review, Prairie Schooner, River River Lit. Journal, the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology, and the Brittle Paper AfricanFuturism anthology, among others. 

His short stories, “Fort Kwame” and “The Cult of Reminiscence”, are longlisted for the 2021 Nommo Short Story Award. He was shortlisted for the 2019 Nommo Short Story Award, and longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Award. In 2016, he received the Short Story Day Africa/All About Writing Development Prize. In 2013, he was longlisted for the Golden Baobab Early Chapter Books Award. 

Find him online at www.dereklubangakene.com

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation was conducted via email between parts of Kampala and Nairobi, which made it impossible to include long, hand-written sections (alas!)

Davina: Official minutes state that you were absent (moreover without apology!) during the last general meeting of the Uganda Society of Haruki Murakami Enthusiasts (of which, as you know, I’m a Very Distinguished Member), but I’ll let you off with a slap on the wrist and a written warning, because you fundraise for wildlife conservation, which is a cause that’s very close to my heart. 

What’s that like, fundraising for conservation? 

Derek: I’ll preface by saying fundraising for wildlife, actually wildlife conservation in general, is an absolute labour of love. The monetary reward for working with wildlife, habitats and surrounding communities is dismal. You don’t go into this field to make money. Much like writing, I might add. This is not to be confused with tourism and its profitable value-chain. 

All the rewards in wildlife conservation are intangible, but they really count. You can’t put a dollar figure or quantify just how gratifying it is to see some of the things we get to see. Things that wouldn’t make sense to many people, but which do to us. I guess that’s why we keep fighting this fight. We’re idealists, the lot of us. But you have to be; it’s the only way you get up every morning and fight.

Davina: I know some writers who are making some good ka money from their writing, Derek, so perhaps you’re doing something wrong!

Derek: The majority of writers don’t make enough from writing for the monetary reward to be a primary motivator for writing. Very few writers, even big name writers, can live off only their writing. My point was conservation, like writing, requires you to be an idealist. Your motivations have to go beyond getting rich. If you do, kudos!

Davina: Do you find the human-nature-nonhuman categorization helpful, by the way?

Derek: Very. Nothing exists in a vacuum. We’re all integral in maintaining this ecosystem we call earth. One part can’t exist without the other.

Davina: In her dialogue with Mangaliso Buzani, Nkateko Masinga speaks of her fascination with Mangaliso’s connection with nature, “which comes through in your poetry as well as in your everyday language”:

I often feel that my own communication with the natural environment is blocked by an inability to pay attention, to focus wholly on one scene and absorb all its beauty with no distraction, which is something you also made reference to with regard to tending to your garden, playing with pets, and looking after birds. I can tell that these interactions with nature influence your writing, but I am curious about how the process of turning that silent meditation in nature into language comes about.

Do your reflections on wildlife conservation and/or the natural world turn up in your poetry? And do you ever feel yourself having to use different language when writing creatively, if at all, about wildlife, or nature?

Derek: I don’t much write about wildlife conservation in fiction. I’ve written an article or two about the subject, but I haven’t used it in fiction. As far as use of language, I’m not conscious of any change in the writing when writing about nature. 

There’s a difference, obviously, when writing non-fiction as opposed to fiction, the language and craft changes to suit the audience and subject matter. I don’t write much non-fiction, so I’m spared some of these considerations. 

Davina: I really liked your poem,All Fetishes Are Tenable”, especially how it ended up not being about what I initially thought it was about. I was thinking about that expression—“making love to each other’s…”—how I always trip on it; maybe it’s because there’s a part of me that’s stubbornly and unhelpfully literal, but the “making of love” has never made much sense to me.

I was introduced to the idea of the making of love via the romance novels my friends and I read in primary school. You know those novels in which the sex is never bad?—in which couples are always compatible: the men never suffer from erectile dysfunction and the women always get an orgasm. Yes, those ones. Because of those novels, I believed for a very long time that “making love” was the politest (and most romantic) way to refer to sex.

But, for a couple of years now, I’ve been looking for, to use a football-related colloquialism, dangerous substitutes. And where else to look but in the language of my foremothers?—the language in which sex is simultaneously dancing (“okuzina”) and an exchange of views, ideas, and information (“akaboozi”). So that, rather than the making of love, I might write instead about the making of music or, perhaps, the carrying on of conversations.

So, now, two questions, Derek: how easy (or not) is it for you to write sex scenes? Do you struggle with them? It’s hard for me to find a balance: either I insert too little or too much sex along the dotted line. And, two, when was the last time you looked for, and found, a “dangerous substitute” for an English expression that didn’t make sense to you? 

Derek: Sex scenes are troublesome for everyone. I can’t say I particularly struggle with them, but I sometimes try too hard to avoid writing them unless the story absolutely needs to have the sex scene.

In essence, every sex scene is different and challenging in its own way. But I’ve found it’s easier if I have developed the characters well enough, or if there is considerable build-up about the deed itself—like a Checkov’s Gun. The pay-off of a sex scene will work reasonably easier if there is tension and conflict built in earlier. A common mistake that hamstrings writers is they rush to get to the sex scene without the necessary tension and ‘catch and release’ strategies of seduction.

In as far as drawing a balance between too much and too little, it depends on what the story demands. This is where you draw the line between craft and a writer’s particular taste(s). Some stories will require very little, a line or two, and others a paragraph or more.

The thing I always look out for is agency and reversal. By agency, I mean, the characters must always have a say in how they want the sex to go; that way I’m not overtly objectifying either party.

And reversal: I’m looking to upset any power dynamics that either character believes they have when coming to the deed (one character having all the power or the most to gain from the intercourse, but having that power taken away or abdicated at the end.)

Take the poem above; the admission of this shoe fetish is kind of double-edged; it can go either way of being totally emasculating or totally liberating.

Basically, sex scenes should reveal character in some way, or change it, otherwise it doesn’t serve a purpose to the progression of the story.

There are other considerations, like vocabulary, terminology (keep it simple!), and physical details (keep them vague and as broad as possible – you don’t want the reader to ‘check-out’ just because the physical attributes you’re describing are way too specific and probably don’t align with the reader’s tastes/preferences).

Anyway, the above are some of the guidelines which help me write sex scenes. I don’t find it too challenging but I only write them when the story demands it.

About the dangerous substitute? I can’t say I consciously seek these dangerous substitutes. Usually if something doesn’t sit right with my “writer’s ear,” I cut it out entirely. I haven’t really sought this out in reference to sex or lovemaking. 

My native Luo is quite literal; there are no subtle expressions for this subject. Not like Luganda, and other languages. For example, the most popular euphemism for sex in Luo is “goyo mac,” which is not very musical and when loosely translated means “beat (like a drum!) her fire.” It makes all the sense in Luo but not when translated.

I think it’s easier for other languages, but it’s not something I’d do. I keep the details/expressions simple. Keep the reader locked in on the deed without having to draw them away by using some quirky expression.

Davina: What an uncanny coincidence that you should mention agency! When I first read “All Fetishes Are Tenable”, walls immediately went up in my head because the impression I got was that one of the characters had little to no say; it didn’t seem to me as if they’d been granted the opportunity to consent. But after maybe the fifth reading, when my interpretation of the poem had evolved, the walls came tumbling down.

I’m curious, though, as to why you think the post should shift when we’re writing sex scenes. What you said about “physical details” – keeping them as “vague and as broad as possible,” because you “don’t want the reader to ‘check-out’” – I never worry about readers checking out while I’m supplying details about food or clothing or housing that might not align with their tastes; why should I worry that they’ll check out when the details I’m supplying are about sex?

Derek: My reasoning behind this has more to do with craft than, say, preference. I generally don’t overdo physical descriptions, so I feel like if it’s overdone in sex scenes it’s not really good use of craft and risks devolving from art into something smutty. That’s just my opinion, though.

Davina: Ah, OK, noted (and filed for future use). You mentioned that you have an “accountability partner,” who you prefer to think of as your “line-manager,” who marks your word-count progress. Does her job description include reading your works in progress? 

Derek: No one reads my WIPs. I write multiple drafts before I’m comfortable allowing anyone to read my work. The accountability partnership extends no further than asking if I’ve done my work for the day, if I’m progressing with the story. If not, then why, and what can be done to make the process more seamless? Etc.

Davina: Who reads the drafts you’re comfortable sharing, then?

Derek: I have a few friends who are readers, but not writers. These, I can give something and ask, simply, if they followed the progression of the story from line one to line end. If they couldn’t, which part(s) did the story lag? I never ask if they understood the themes, or anything craft-heavy like that. Just the basics. 

I know I tend to convolute middle-sections of my stories. As in, I try to fit in so much more than is needed. (Sometimes I forget that less is more!) Anyway, middle-sections are where I focus my critiques. A writer-friend critiquing my work might understand what I’m trying to do, but I need a pure reader to tell me if they understood, on a surface level, what I was aiming for.

Davina: I, too, have a) reader-reader friends, who are only ever required to establish if a story is “working,” and b) reader-writer friends, who are required to offer advanced levels of craft-related bullshit-detection, and [independently] pick up on two or three of the five things about a story that are [secretly] bothering me. 

But did you finish the stories that you wrote about needing to finish in order to meet the quota for the short story collection you wanted to self-publish? Is there something about those particular stories that you think will be better served by self-publishing?

Derek: Yes, I managed to complete all but one. The story I highlighted, with much despair, in this blogpost, is still my greatest anguish. Part laziness, part lack of narrative focus; this story ballooned into a novella of sorts and at this point I’m not motivated enough to finish it. I’ll get back to it soon enough, though.

I still met the quota and have since held back on self-publishing the anthology because I’ve got some interest from traditional publishing. I can’t say much about that for now but I’m hoping it goes the way of traditional publishing. Excusing the many gatekeepers, the merits there are boundless – save, of course, the long turnaround time between submission, editing, and eventually getting published.

Self-publishing has its obvious merits but only if executed well enough. Good editing, good PR, etc., but that’s a considerable out-of-pocket expense meant to be borne by the writer. One shouldn’t undertake this unless they’re willing to go all the way. I was at the time, still am, but I’ll wait to see how the traditional publishing ‘long-shot’ goes. 

Davina: Congratulations on finishing the collection and good luck on getting it published! But, bambi, don’t forget me when you start winning awards and becoming famous. I hope you’re not one of those writers who’ll start to suffer from that virulent strain of arrivalism whose symptoms we won’t get into right now. Hah!

Derek: I’m way too humble for that. And, ultimately, very grounded by the self-conscious awareness of my utter unworthiness for fame or acclaim.

Davina: That’s what he said! But we shall see about that when the day of reckoning arrives, Derek. Seeing, we shall see!

Like you, I write with music on—except that the music to which I write is very different from the music to which I edit. To borrow the Stephen King analogy that you used (“the first draft should be written in a closed room, the subsequent drafts with the doors open”), 30 Seconds to Mars, Eminem, Rebecca & Fiona, Cold Play, and Evanescence are my “closed room” music. 

Cécile Kayirebwa, Juliana Kanyomozi, Cinderella Ssanyu, Mafikizolo, Maddox Sematimba, Fik Fameica, Naava Grey, Tiwa Savage, Iryn Namubiru, Philly Bongole Lutaaya, Michael Jackson, Michael Kiwanuka, Papa Wemba, and Magic System are my “doors open” music.

What kind of music do you prefer to not get distracted by while you’re writing?

Derek: I listen to Hard Metal and Boom Bap (a mash-up of old-school hip-hop and jazz played over Lo-Fi). I love these two genres because I don’t have to pay attention to lyrics which distract. For example, Boom Bap barely has any lyrics or continuous singing. It’s mostly hard, thumpy beats that keep you nodding, but focused.

I listen to these two only when I’m actively writing: punching keys or writing longhand. When I’m editing, I don’t usually listen to any music. I read aloud the work so music would be distracting.

Everything I’ve ever written about is very interior, very singular: the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of one individual, not a society. I’ve never sought to write anything political.

Davina: I can’t believe you still write your drafts in longhand, Derek! Most days, I barely recall what my handwriting looks like!

For years, I’ve told myself that I should write more by hand. Each year, for a couple of weeks, I go everywhere with a brand new notebook and mechanical lead pencil, and take notes of attention-grabbing things. But by mid-year, I have trouble finding the notebook. Worse, when I find it, I can barely understand half the things scribbled there, or why I thought some things cool or interesting when I encountered them, which renders a good percentage of those notes unusable.

Like you, “if I spend more than a few days without going through what I’ve written, I’ll have to infer at least sixty percent of what I think I actually wrote.” 

There are claims that when one occasionally writes by hand, one recalls more, is less likely to get distracted and more creative; although the “more creative” bit is apparently tied to the kind of pen and paper used.

Have you managed more creative creative-writing via longhand? And are you particular about the pens and paper that you use?

Derek: Yes, I still write first drafts in longhand. I find that most of my work finds its initial outlet through longhand. That said, I wouldn’t say I’ve managed more creative writing via long-hand as opposed to the keyboard. I’ve managed what I can manage. In that, I don’t know if the results would’ve been different if I’d gone straight to the keyboard.

I haven’t really tried to create first drafts via keyboard. Call it superstition, or a reluctance to change, but I never try any other way besides writing first drafts in long-hand.

I love how there’s a sense of connectedness between you, the writer, and the work on the page. Besides, writing longhand allows you to be messy. Creativity is messy – you can’t see this on a well-typed page on a word processor. There’s a finality and a tidiness about word processors that seems counter-intuitive to creativity. The keyboard can be too formal and impersonal. Somehow divorced from the very act of creation. 

Also, there’s nothing I hate more than seeing the red squiggly under-line indicating a typo on a typed page.

Davina: But I LOVE those red squiggly lines.

Derek: They make the whole process mechanical. It’s limiting in some ways.

Davina: Ach. But Derek. You’re proving to be the consummate party pooper. If I’d known this earlier, I would never have bothered with you.

Derek: But! Nowadays, I write long-hand just to get started. When I’ve gained a good-enough momentum, I’ll write on the keyboard and only go back to longhand once I’m stuck. It’s more and more becoming half longhand, half keyboard. I’ve developed an acute fear of accumulating a cumbersome stack of pages and notebooks.

If I’m particular about writing longhand, I’m particular only about one thing: the pen has to be fountain ink. I’ll go as far as a roller pen—that’s it. I like working with ink and leaving inky smudges on my hands. It’s a sign of work well done.

Davina: Stealing what you can and making it your own is usually what constitutes research for you, unless what you’re writing “requires some technical explanation,” in which case then you’ll manage “a short peruse on Wikipedia”:

I feel like too many writers spend too much time here. Worse yet, ninety percent of what you research doesn’t even make it onto the page. Why waste too much time on it?

But does Wikipedia really offer everything you need, research-wise? It seems to me, from readingFort Kwame”, that perhaps you did more than simply Wiki it. 

Tell the truth to ashame the devil, Derek: how much research, on anthropology, glaciology, evolution, and ethno-linguistics, went into that story?

Derek: Truthfully, it’s only Wikipedia. I don’t have what you’d call a “science mind.” I’m not good at grasping complex science-y things. What I’m good at is making assumptions. I lack the mental acuity or frankly the interest for very science-y things. If a short video or a five-hundred-word article can’t explain it to me, I don’t want to know.

To take the example of Fort Kwame, I already had an idea of melting glaciers and orbital cities, etc. I wrote the fast-paced, espionage plot-elements of the story as it appears, but had to research the science that would make this world possible. What are all the climate change people telling us? The glaciers will melt, mass migrations, etc. 

I Wikipedia-ed that and used my imagination to project the worst-case scenario of all this coming to life (that is, if we don’t reverse climate change) in a few thousand years in the future. That’s it. I don’t have textbooks on the stuff. It’s why I didn’t dive too deep into the science bit.

FYI, some of the words there are purely made up. Trust me, if someone challenged me to justify some of the science in Fort Kwame, it would fold poorly. My only saving grace was good story-telling. People will excuse anything as long as it’s well told. That’s what comes first.

Look also at “The Cult of Reminiscence”. All I Wikipedia-ed was nanotechnology and cryopreservation. I’ve never read Drexler’s Engines of Creation.

These stories work because they’re not science-based or based in facts; they work because the science acts as a scaffold for the story, not the story acting as a scaffold for the science. I mold the science to fit the story, not the story to fit the science.

Davina: Imade Iyamu’s interest in creating an alternative/speculative African reality was spurred by the old Japanese science fiction films she watched with her Dad: 

I remember, in one, there was an invasion of aliens and the aliens were speaking Japanese, subtitled in English, and this was their first time on Earth. It was strange to me, so I asked, “How come they know how to speak Japanese?” And my Dad replied, “Well, how come all other aliens know how to speak English?” Honestly, that shook my world. It was the first time I ever considered the possibility of a future framed from a non-white, non-western viewpoint.

What about you, Derek? How did your expedition into the world of sci-fi begin? Were you always aware of the possibility of a future framed from a non-white, non-western viewpoint, or did you, like me, simply assume that aliens know how to speak English because that’s “just the way things are,” “the natural order of things?”

Derek: To be honest, when starting out, I didn’t much dwell on the possibility of non-white, non-western sci-fi narratives. I wasn’t conscious of the race thing; I just enjoyed the story, or didn’t. Simple as that. Besides, to my knowledge, non-white, non-western sci-fi voices/narratives didn’t exist back then (saying it like this makes me sound dated, but you understand what I mean; AfroSFF and all its progeny have only come to the fore in the last few years). 

When I started writing, I heavily borrowed from western narratives, especially regarding tools of the trade and basic story-telling. Other writers obviously borrowed from traditional African folkloric narrative styles: bonfire storytelling, cautionary tales about the hare, and Walumbe, and all that. I never went that way because it was too familiar and I never wanted to do anything familiar. (Silly me! I didn’t know better: the familiar is all anyone ever needs.)

The western narratives didn’t really resonate but they were characterised by well-told narratives, whose execution I thoroughly envied. That is the basis for my writing. My only motivation was to learn from what I thoroughly enjoyed and write the best story I could write. We all start out mimicking the work of writers we admire, and that’s exactly what I did.

I’ve never sought to label my writing or be a catalyst for any kind of paradigm shift. I was just grateful enough to have something to mirror and learn from, whatever it was. 

Davina: You say that “AfroSFF and all its progeny have only come to the fore in the last few years,” but Tade Thompson argues that “Africans have been writing science fiction since at least the 1920s, and have produced bodies of work in literature and sequential art to the present day, work which has won critical acclaim and literary awards”; that African SFF only “began to shift into traditional territory, becoming concerned with futurism, space travel and the environment in the new millennium”:

…the first African SFF books are arguably Gandoki (1934) and Nnanga Kon (1932)—with honorable mention to Thomas Mfolo’s Chaka (1925).

Derek: I’m shamed by my ignorance of this. But let me compound on what I said about AfroSFF only coming to the fore recently. It’s only recently that you can buy African books, not just SFF, anywhere nowadays. 

Earlier, you were stuck with the books which were readily available or passed down: purely western narratives. There’s nothing wrong with that. I believe we all learnt or were drawn to write by reading the works of Steven King, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Ursula Le Guin, etc.

Davina: Innocent Immaculate Acan spoke of “a disconnection between the culture of our forefathers and the culture of now”; she feels “speculative fiction can help in bringing both of these cultures forth”:

I really think if we choose to explore our culture, especially among the youth, as something that we can understand and relate to, something that can be integrated in our pop culture, then we can re-create our cultural identity, so that it’s something that is fully us and ours.

Are there things that you feel speculative fiction does better (for you and/or your readers) than other genres? 

Derek: I don’t think it’s any writer’s place to try to be this bridge, at least not consciously. I believe you run the risk of becoming preachy or even, God forbid, erudite. The best any writer can do is write the best story they can, and hope for good readers. If readers and critics draw these comparisons between the culture of now and your forefathers, well and good.

It’s my opinion that no fiction writer’s work is best served by actively trying to dictate or even influence pop culture. If it’s social commentary or satire you aim to write, go for it. Otherwise just try to write the best story you can write. Sometimes that means you have to borrow heavily from the narrative styles and the language of your forefathers; other times it means you write freely, and passionately unhinged. 

I stand by the mantra “write with no attachment to outcome.” (I can’t remember where I heard that.) Thing is, you never know just what will become of your writing. Better to spare yourself the anxiety and disappointment of writing with the hopes that it will become this or that. But that’s just me.

For context: when John Cheever was asked if fiction should give lessons, he said, and I quote, “No. Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I don’t think there’s any consecutive moral philosophy in fiction beyond excellence. Acuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important. People look for morals in fiction because there has always been confusion between fiction and philosophy.”

That said, the easiest way Spec fiction can bridge the two is in its suspension of belief – the same way our forefathers used highly speculative folklore to tell something immediate and present. Something that resonated.

Davina: But, why “God forbid, erudite?” Are you being sarcastic, again, without my permission, Derek? 

Derek: Most erudite people are preachy. I can’t stand preachy people. Too bad I’m one of them.

Davina: (Chuckles.) TJ Benson’s response, to a comment about the recent waves of afrofuturism and afrocentric speculative fiction vis-à-vis the timing of the release of his book, was that he didn’t believe it was a coincidence:

A lot of us writing in this genre are millennials, the generation promised in primary school rhymes to be the ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ and we have found that most governments ruling over us have not concerned themselves with our futures. So, consciously or unconsciously, we are beginning to dream up alternate realities and futures for ourselves. I think the success of the genre owes largely to the horror of the times; the more bizarre an era the more adventurous its people would be in seeking pleasures to hide in.

It’s interesting, you know, that TJ made that connection. That “leaders of tomorrow” talk was a fixture when I was growing up; I believe there was even a line like that in a stanza of my primary school’s anthem. 

And yet here we are now, in a tomorrow still presided over by yesterday’s leadership. Does the idea that you’re possibly one of many Africans that are dreaming up alternative realities and futures, because their leaders can’t be bothered to, resonate with you?

Derek: Not really. Despite my dissatisfactions with our leaders, I don’t write to reimagine the future I was promised. It’s well within other writers’ rights to believe they can, and if they do, they should go ahead and write accordingly. I, however, don’t let the everydayness of politics and or socio-economic dynamics/themes filter into my writing. Not consciously at least.

That said, I’m well aware that nothing exists in a vacuum; my characters have to exist in the world as it is, but I don’t consciously seek to write this way. Everything I’ve ever written about is very interior, very singular: the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of one individual, not a society. I’ve never sought to write anything political. 

Davina: Hmmmn. I like to think that the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of one individual is as “political” an idea as, say, good governance (or lack thereof). The distinction exists because?

Derek: The conflict usually has nothing to do with governance or socio-economic dynamics. My crises are mostly existential (that’s not to say that existential crises cannot be political) and also deal with existential angsts. Existentialism largely dictates that each individual – not society or religion or state – is solely responsible for giving meaning to his or her life and living it passionately and sincerely. 

My stories begin with characters realizing that their absolute certainty, about the person they thought they were, is after all not-so-certain, not-so-absolute. There’s a sense of dread, disorientation and anxiety that comes with this realization. Things quickly turn meaningless and valueless. You see, the ideas they were sold, about who they were, have betrayed them. A government can’t do that to you unless you were utterly powerless to begin with. 

All my characters start off believing they are gods: all powerful, all knowing, etc. This, obviously, a result of heavy-handed mollycoddling by their parents, or by exploiting their childhood talents early and realizing they were special. I’ll focus on mollycoddling. This, any child psychologist will tell you, is grounds for raising your brats to a heightened sense of godhood. My Luo has no equivalent for mollycoddling, but I believe the Baganda call this “ekyejo.” 

I’m over-romanticizing this but it’s the only way I know how. Anyway, this sense of godhood persists until your parents who planted it into you betray it by dying and leaving you to your utter powerlessness, or by pulling the rug from under you. Or, worse, you try to raise your kids with a heightened sense of godhood and they eclipse you. And do to you what Zeus did to Cronus.

Basically, if anything is political about my writing, it has more to do with family than with state. Though one could argue that family is state. Anyway, my characters never rely on the government for anything. Their heightened sense of godhood lends them a kind of self-reliance, even in their obvious near-ruin. That is, until this “self-reliance” is checked by their own self-sabotage or the well-intentioned malice of their loved ones.

Davina: Duncan, the protagonist in The Triumph of Loss, is a self-involved writer who, among other things, “treats everything as a metaphor for something grander,” caries six unfinished novels and two hundred rejection slips in his rucksack, questions a street-preacher about free will and predestination, and can’t seem to recall that the child he has with Hadiya, “the love of his past life,” is called Luke. Duncan also suffers from serious “daddy issues.”

Long after Duncan’s claim that alcoholism is the only literary thing about him, and that he doesn’t have the constitution for suicide, that line “Kafkaesque, but without the literary merit” stays with me. 

The other day, I was re-reading Kafka’s wonderfully strange story, A Hunger Artist, which is about a professional faster, who is replaced in the end by “a young panther.” Before his death, the hunger artist admits that he’s always wanted people to admire his fasting.

I’m curious: why a golem? Why not, say, a leopard?

Derek: A golem served the literary purpose. I needed something Protean. Moldable. Inanimate. A leopard just wouldn’t do. I know a golem isn’t really native to Africa, but I was grasping and it was the nearest literary device within reach. If it works, it works. I don’t bog myself down with specifics. 

I make it a point not to shackle myself by sticking to only themes, experiences, settings, etc. which might be construed as purely Africa-centric. I’ll use whatever device helps me tell the story easier. I’ll borrow tropes from diverse cultures, and go as far as contextualizing them, but if that’s not possible, I’ll write it as is. All within reason, though. 

Davina: There are two Duncans (one in Origami Angels and another in The Triumph of Loss), and there are two Marcuses (one in Origami Angels and another in The Unfinished Manifesto). There had better be a reasoned and reasonable explanation for this.  

Derek: (Laughs.) I’d like to say it’s unconscious and purely accidental, but let’s just chalk it down to laziness. I’m very lazy at coming up with new names that “work.” Sometimes the “new” names will come off as “trying too hard” or “too exotic.” 

For example, I’ve created characters with names like Balthazar or Lancelot or Zipporah, etc. 

Davina: Balthazar or Lancelot? But, really, Derek!

Derek: Those names sound cool when put on paper…but I’ve never met anyone named Balthazar or Lancelot. A Zipporah, once, but she never liked her name – well, the biblical implication of it. 

You’d think having exotic, cool-on-paper names is a merit, but in as much as I don’t want to write a familiar story, I want a familiar-enough name that will make a reader go: “I know a Duncan and he’s exactly like that.” I need this little grounding in reality.

On the flip side, as far as craft goes, names are the last thing I think about when I’m writing. Mostly because I’ll change them so many times it’s not worth getting worked up about…at least not until much later when I can’t help it.

I’ll usually start with the situation/conflict then, if I have to, I’ll give the characters “place-holder” names; names I know I’ll change later on. Only, it doesn’t always go this way. I’ll use a name like Balthazar for the duration of a story, then when it comes to changing it, I’ll debate this for a long while, and, ultimately, in desperation, will go for a name that I’ve used before. 

It’s just lazy. But at least it’s a step up from when I first started writing and would name all my protagonists Derek. I don’t need to overstate just how weirdly narcissistic that is.

Davina: You are unbelievable!

Derek: I used to name all my protagonists Derek because I misunderstood what Chuck Palahniuk said when he said “all art is a self-portrait” (I think this quote is also attributed to David Foster Wallace or Jack Kerouac). Anyway, I used to write myself into all my stories just to try and infuse some “heart” into the story! I still do. 

Everything I write is still autobiographical, but not entirely or exactly literally true. (In any case, a true autobiography is impossible; man is bound to lie about, or to, himself.) 

Still, there are many things in my stories that I can point to, that in some way embody trains of thought I’ve long-since derailed or even still entertain. In essence, I create a ‘me’ character for every situation/crisis. I look at these characters as stages in my own evolution. Is that weird?

Davina: No, weirdly, that’s not weird at all. There’s a half-finished story on my desktop whose protagonist is really, let’s be honest here, a past, un-evolved version of me. But to the nth power. A very uncivilized me that I feel really sorry for.

Derek: It’s why you’ll notice characters with introverted and anxious temperaments in many of my stories. It’s because I’m anxious and introverted, among other things. I’m now much less obvious about it because I’ve had people who’ve known me personally come up and ask if I was writing about them or myself or someone we both know. Safer this way, I think.

Davina: One of my friends is convinced that she’s the protagonist of one of my short stories. No matter how many times I say, actually, no, madam, this story isn’t about you, she refuses to believe me. But people! Hmn! 

Derek: Besides, writing myself into these stories limited me in some way. I lacked the skill and the imagination to tell-all on myself, least of all with grace and finesse. “Write what you know,” they tell us writers. Well, what do you know more about than your own secrets and inadequacies? 

Back then, I didn’t know the secret formula to do just this – one third autobiography and two thirds imagination – so I ended up censoring myself. This is what happens when you transcribe your experiences, instead of re-imagining them. You limit your possibilities and become enslaved to what others will think when they interpret what you’ve written too literally. Fiction is just fiction, but obviously not to everyone.

Davina: Obviously! Ditto my friend from before. 

Derek: I’ve since had to shift the frame of reference to give myself the freedom to write without limits, or concerns about offending those near and dear to me.

Anyway, about the names; with some obvious differentiation of character and setting, I’ll recycle a name I’ve used before. It’s cheating, but I’ll also borrow some characterization from previously-used characters. If you notice from the above examples, the Duncans are protagonists and the Marcuses are father figures. 

Davina: I noticed.

Derek: I still try to consciously name my protagonists D names. The M for father-figures is purely coincidental. My father’s middle name starts with M, but I’m not writing him into my stories. He has none of the authoritarian personalities my M characters usually have. Nor do I wish him to.

Davina: It’s always nice to read about characters doing things you once did or still do; I get so excited, whenever I meet characters with whom I have something in common, that I want to reach into the story and hug them! 

Every reference to video games in Origami Angels lit me up! What’s cooler than making a collection of origami Mortal Kombat characters?! MK is a perennial favourite of mine! Did (or do) you play video games?

Derek: I haven’t played video games in forever. I wasn’t much of a gamer even when I played. I miss it, but I can’t be bothered to pick it up right now. As in, I won’t indulge anything unless I can experience the full range of its – for lack of a better word – experience. As in, I badly want to play God of War, but only if I can start from the original game on a PS2, not the PS5 experience now. I can be anal that way.

Davina: You mentioned that you’ve started sketching again:

I didn’t know just how much I’d missed sketching until I started doing this again. I now try to push myself to at least carve out ten, even twenty minutes daily to sketch whatever; a shoe, a desk, a face, it doesn’t matter. I’ll slowly work my way to the bigger stuff.

I hope “the bigger stuff” in this case refers to a graphic novel in which Spellcasters like Mikaya fight side by side with Cryomancers like Sub-Zero!

Derek: Yes, the bigger stuff means “graphic novel.” My literary ambitions started with wanting to draw comic books. But I wasn’t that talented; I needed lots of training, which, in light of everything else, didn’t seem feasible enough to pursue. So, I abandoned it. Life is too short, so I’ve chosen to actively pursue mastery of words instead.

Davina: I would very much like to be a wyrmrider, from a small village north of the White Nyl, in my next life, if that’s OK with you. To whom must I apply for this to happen?—and will I have to pay an application fee? 

Derek: I don’t know. 

Davina: Also, what does deathstalker meat taste like, oba?

Derek: Must be like crickets, but sharper, tangier-tasting. I don’t know.

Davina: (Laughs.) I think you meant grasshoppers. You really were serious when you said you don’t bog yourself down with specifics, weren’t you?

But let’s not dwell. Moving on. You wrote about how the Covid-19 lock-down was “one of the few good things” that happened to your creative life last year; about having thrown yourself fully to your writing, and how this helped you survive.

You also mentioned a deep yearning to explore Nairobi; optimism, for you, manifested as wanderlust. Why would travelling to your least favourite city in East Africa fill you with hope, Derek? And what is it about Kigali and Dar-es-Salaam that makes them your favourite cities in the region?

Derek: I believe wanderlust is an inbuilt instinct in all writers: this strong impulse or longing for the unfamiliar. That and procrastination (I’m being cynical here!). Much in the same way I was being cynical when I said all that stuff about Nairobi and Kampala, etc., in the blogpost you’re referring to. Anyway, my reasoning then was borne from desperation. Like I said, I didn’t know what to do with all this free time I now had.

Writing is for most people a side hustle. And side hustles are characterized by tight, efficient time. You’re more likely to focus/work faster when you know you only have one hour before bedtime or before having to get to work. When writing has always been a side hustle, time-management-wise, it takes a lot of discipline to adjust to the newfound challenges of full-time working. That’s something I really struggled with.

So, why wanderlust? Its attraction was twofold. One, the long bus-ride would provide the ultimate environment for meditative procrastination, basically daydreaming about characters, settings, etc. And, two, for the introduction of tight time management. Nairobi is a fast-paced, efficient hub. I’d definitely learn a lot from being in that ‘pressure cooker’ environment. I said it’s my second-least favourite city purely out of spite, for my procrastinating persona wouldn’t love it there. Not entirely.

It’s ironic; as I write this I’m transiting through Nairobi after spending a wearisome but worthwhile week in the Northern Rangelands of Kenya, and all I can think is why can’t I spend a little more time here. I’m in a weird peace despite the bustle and concrete jungle aesthete. But I guess that perfectly sums up wanderlust, doesn’t it?—the nostalgia of watching a place recede through your rearview mirror haunts far worse than anything you can ever imagine.

Anyhow, about Dar and Kigali, they suit my procrastinating nature properly. Kampala suits me the most, but Dar and Kigali are obvious favourites because of the aesthetics.

Derek Lubangakene © Suzy Fox
Derek Lubangakene © Suzy Fox

Davina: Which aesthetics?

Derek: As in, these places are much more beautiful because you don’t belong and their allure is fleeting. There’s an appeal to the unfamiliar, and we – I – tend to overestimate the value of the unfamiliar just because it’s exactly that: unfamiliar. 

Generally, we have a more beautiful country than our neighbours, but we don’t get to see enough of it. And that which we see, we’re suddenly confronted with the fact that it hasn’t lived up to its potential. Rwanda, for example, has done lots more with what little they have. We, on the other hand, haven’t added much value.

Maybe ‘aesthetics’ isn’t the right word. I don’t know what the right word is. Maybe envy would best suit what I’m aiming at. 

Davina: Maybe. Away from beauty, the Pat Barker quote you include in one of your posts – about how continual rejection drove her back into the basics of who she was, “a woman, Northern, working class” – it really interested me.

You wrote that you, too, often regress into the core of who you are: “a man, a Luo, a Christian existentialist…” 

What’s on your mind, re: Luo manhood/masculinity and Ugandan manhood/masculinity? And what is it about Christian existentialism that appeals to you?

Derek: There’s an awesome line in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts: “My culture taught me all the wrong things well.” I believe it’s the most poignant line that describes all debates against ‘masculinity.’ That’s not to say everything wrong we know about masculinity our culture taught us. It’s just one of the fallback positions many take when defending anything perceived as ‘wrong’ with their idea of masculinity. I don’t. Not necessarily: the ‘their’ in the previous sentence is intended to highlight the subjective nature of all definitions of masculinity. 

I might as well add, there’s nothing wrong with masculinity, broadly speaking – not especially with the way it’s wantonly attacked nowadays – but there are obviously many things wrong with how we define many aspects of masculinity. Better sociological minds than mine know where to take this argument. I’ll stop here.

Are there differences and similarities between quote unquote Luo masculinity and, say, Ugandan masculinity? Yes, and no. Masculinity, the way I view it, is subjective. These subjective definitions change from level to level. By levels I mean exactly this: 

There’s the masculinity I embrace when describing the man that I am; there’s the masculinity I embrace when describing what my family thinks of the man I am (or should be!); there’s the masculinity I idealize when describing what it means to be a Luo man; there’s the masculinity that I look up or down on when describing what it means to be a Ugandan man; it goes on and on and on. 

How I describe masculinity changes in each stage, but it’s never written in stone. What masculine traits I attribute to being ‘my own man’ may differ from what traits I attribute to being a family man or Luo man, etc. That’s not even accounting for the influences culture or tribalism and stereotypes may impose on my definitions at each or all levels. For example, Derek, his own man, can cry, whereas Derek, the man his family needs him to be, can under no circumstance show emotion, etc. 

These are not rules I follow, obviously. You can’t over-compartmentalize your life this way. I say this to mean that whatever definitions I come up with, at whatever levels, are malleable. That’s not to mean I can be flaky with them. I should always endeavour to hold myself accountable. Because, above all, men can’t be flaky and unaccountable, even and especially with their own definitions of themselves.

Ideally, masculinity should be fractal, as in, one attribute, say ‘fortitude,’ should be easily representable in all my definitions, starting from how I describe myself as a man, as a Luo man, as a Ugandan man. But that isn’t always the case. I guess that’s where arguments like toxic masculinity come from; because people are broadly defining what they believe is fractal but really isn’t. 

There are some situations where chauvinism and aggression and competitiveness are virtues, but not always. One needs to know where to draw the line and sheath this proverbial sword lest he run the risk of tyrannizing those whom he thinks he’s helping.

Tribal stereotypes characterize Luo men as brash, silent types. Sadly, many of my people live up to this stereotype. That’s where that Shantaram line, my culture taught me all the wrong things well, comes in. In this case, it’s not even my culture, per se, but someone else’s interpretation of my culture. 

What’s funnier is when people perpetrate these stereotypes then find out, after actually getting to know us, that we’re actually softies. As are all men everywhere. We are capable, with one arm, to keep the wolves away from the sheep, and with the other cradle a lamb. Finding that balance only comes after truly exhausting your own self-awareness. For lack of a better word: finding yourself.

Christian existentialism is my most comforting sense of morality. It doesn’t demonize despair the way most Christian theology does. Why is this important? It urges an individual, once exposed to the idea of despair, to aim for something higher, to try and come to the full realization of his infinite side (Kierkegaard, the godfather of Christian existentialism, defined an individual as the necessary synthesis between the finite and the infinite. The infinite in this case stands for the striving to align yourself to godhood, to the full realization of your potential. But this is my interpretation). 

We all fall short of coming to the full realization of our potential; hence despair is a human condition. But once we start to despair, and we know we’re despairing, it’s a check to tell us to change alignment. How? Evaluate your actions with a kind of divine scrutiny: be constantly aware of the potential consequences of your actions.

Davina: I have Shantaram! (I stole it from a friend, but please don’t ask for details; suffice to say that the love of books has led me to do many unscrupulous things!) I’ve been meaning to read it for a while now; I must really get to doing that this year! The reading group guide, alone, compiled by Macmillan, makes one’s mouth water.

Do you belong to any reading group type collective, by the way? 

Derek: Not really. All my attempts at joining one, local or online, haven’t really proved fruitful. Any good leads from your side? 

Davina: The book club to which I belong is currently filled to capacity. Although there’s no harm in starting another one, you and I, and then charging people a fee to join. 

Derek: That seems like a good plan. Sign me up.

Davina: Right. I’ll get started on the paperwork. I’ll be sure to include, in our book club plans, the writer friend who sent me a WhatsApp message round about the end of last year; included in her message was a link toThe Cult of Reminiscence”. The message read: “You Davina! Read this story and tell me what it’s about. Me I don’t understand it. But these are your kinds of things so you read and explain to me!”

I laughed. Because, really, bagyenzi, my kinds of things? Meaning what, exactly? But also, she didn’t even first greet me properly. Since when is “You Davina!” a greeting? SMH! Children of these days have no manners! 

Anyway, kasita you’re here: first explain bulungi what that story is about. Obviously, it’s about nostalgia. But, then, what is it really-really about-about?

Derek: I totally understand your friend’s frustration. “The Cult of Reminiscence” suffers from being two things at once: a philosophical study on nostalgia and a speculative fiction exploration of reanimation. Plus, the story, like many of my other stories, doesn’t really ‘end.’

Like some of the other things I’ve written, “The Cult of Reminiscence” stops at the point where no more can be said. Despite this, I believe it fulfills the promises it set out for both premises – nostalgia and reanimation. It just doesn’t bind them together into a neat little bow. It wasn’t intended to do so. 

Does the story eventually betray itself? I wouldn’t begrudge anyone that assertion. Like your friend, I have people who have read it and demanded a definitive ending for Jahzara’s quest to overcome nostalgia, or for the reanimation attempt at the church. But that’s not what the story set out to tackle. 

I could explain it further, but that would reveal the cogs working behind the face of the watch. The magic would be spoiled. Besides, one should never explain their work beyond the scope of the work itself. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Davina: I suppose it depends. There are readers for whom an explanation from the writer might indeed “spoil the magic,” but there are readers who might need the explanation in order to understand the story, and perhaps the characters, better. Is the reader who requires an explanation very different from the reader who insists that listening to a poet recite a poem helps them ‘understand’ it better? Perhaps not.

(Plus, of course, a writer’s idea of what does or doesn’t lie within the scope of their work doesn’t always overlap with readers’ ideas of the same.)

Anyway. Your stories are populated with characters grappling with depression, fear, anxiety. Reading your stories, I thought back to “Poetry as Prescription”, the dialogue between Nkateko Masinga and Musawenkosi Khanyile, in which they discuss among other things the similarities between the poet and the psychologisthow both have “a common appreciation of the power of words.” 

I’m including here a section from the end:

Nkateko: “…I realised that even in my favourite ghazals or sonnets or villanelles I was looking for that stab of the heart, that gasp-inducing line. It was like Adam and Eve seeing their nakedness for the first time, I swear! Even now, I deal with shame (for the things I love and do not love) daily. There are times I want to denounce my earlier work and start afresh with a new name. Is this just part of life, to be shamed into denying our emotions, to be shamed out of expressing what we enjoy until someone else endorses it? How does one break out of this loop and live authentically?”

Musawenkosi: “How does one live authentically? That’s a difficult question. It’s a journey of accepting oneself. Accepting the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. A lifelong journey. Inauthenticity is born of our struggles with accepting ourselves. We become inauthentic when we struggle to accept the parts of ourselves we don’t like. We begin to use a voice that isn’t ours when we don’t like our own. We begin to write about subjects that are trendy in order to increase our chances of being seen. 

“…

“It’s such a brave thing to wake up every day and choose oneself. And that’s what we need to do every day. That’s what authenticity demands.”

Derek: I’ll quote Jean Rhys: “My life was peopled with fears. Writing helps put a face to these fears.” That said, I’m not preoccupied with the subjects I write about. All art is a self-portrait, but not in this. 

I’m a cheery chap, all things considered. Yes, I’m often dour, I harbour some really strange ideas, and suffer time-to-time from despair, disillusionment, psychological displacement, etc, but isn’t that the artistic temperament? How I write is just how I write. 

Try as I have, I can’t really write things that aren’t in some way dour and dark-humoured. Any attempts to write the opposite usually end in farce. Same way, readers drawn to dark material can’t stomach reading light-hearted stuff.

As a writer, is writing sad endings the culmination of my authentic self? I don’t think so. I don’t identify with it either. Fiction is powerful, but books are just books. They shouldn’t be held up on some pedestal. Especially when trying to define one’s authentic self. 

I wouldn’t advise looking solely to books, even ‘authentic’ ones as helpful material for your mental health. Seek help if you need it. Otherwise, you run the risk of being introduced to the wrong ideas just because you’re suffering from a wrong temperament.

We tend to romanticize books, like that saying in Karate movies: “When the student is ready, the master appears.” You hear people claim that a book came into their life right at the moment when they needed it. Maybe they are right. But they leave out the part where they had to do the ‘heavy lifting’ themselves. 

Books won’t help you define your authentic self, whether you’re a writer or a reader. Only you can do that for yourself. The most books can be are guides, road maps. You have to walk the walk yourself.

Davina: I like the bit where Canaan is scoffing about human nature and failed swabs at transcendence:

He said I should read Milan Kundera. Revival is like the dreams Slavic emigres have when they leave their countries. They all dream the same dreams because their souls hunger for rootedness in their native soils.

(Transdescendence is incidentally also the title of your first novel, “which tells the story of Sydney Obol, a seventeen-year-old nighttimer, who yearns to escape the fate of becoming exactly like his wretched father or worse surpassing him…”)

Dialogue on the Art of Composition, the fourth part of Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, opens with Christian Salmon quoting Kundera to Kundera; Kundera says that “encompassing the complexity of existence in the modern world demands ellipsis,” without which “you fall into the trap of endless length”:

There are anthropological limits—the limits of memory, for instance—that ought not to be exceeded. When you reach the end of a book you should still find it possible to remember the beginning. Otherwise the novel loses shape, it’s “architectonic clarity” is clouded. 

You described Transdescendence as “HUGE,” but said you didn’t get a say in what size it should be. “BOOKS WILL BE BOOKS,” you write, “they’ll do whatever they want to and there’s damn well nothing you can do about it. They’ll be as big or as small as they wanna.”

You said you couldn’t “cut anymore (except line edits)” because “it has to be this. Varied and large enough to make you laugh/cry for days, and or hurl as a weapon should you spot a burglar rearing his ugly gob through the back window.”

Kundera suggests that, actually, there is something you can and ought to do, otherwise you risk overloading your readers’ memories.

Derek: I get Kundera’s reservations. I don’t really think they apply to Transdescendence. Mostly because I think it comes down to craft. The characters in the book are few and well-rounded. The story is very straightforward and there are few sub-plots, which I endeavour to close off. 

There’s a risk when the story starts to be about too many things. Which is not the case with the book I wrote. There, thematically, everyone is running away or to the same thing. Thematically, what I whodunit I resolve amply. I think it’ll be okay.

Photo credit for featured image of Derek Lubangakene: Suzy Fox.

Davina Philomena Kawuma

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.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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