Fiction as Philosophical Exploration: A Dialogue with Solomon Kobina Aremu
Solomon Kobina Aremu was born and raised in Ghana, West Africa. After completing secondary school, he moved to Nigeria where he studied at the University of Ibadan, completing his BA-Philosophy in 1990.
Following his degree, Solomon worked for Sketch Press Ltd, a group of newspapers at the forefront in the fight to restore democracy in Nigeria after a military dictatorship annulled the June 12th 1993 presidential election. With Sketch Press offices shut and guarded by heavily armed soldiers, its newspapers went underground, publishing from secret locations until it was no longer sustainable.
Solomon returned to Ghana and continued working as a print journalist and in public relations, managing the P.R. account of Guinness Ghana Breweries Ltd., before relocating to Toronto, Ontario, where he now resides.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Toronto and Kampala via email and WhatsApp.
Solomon’s manuscript, ‘The Rage of Lambs’, follows David Kuta after he arrives at his new boarding school, Mandela High. Kuta has high hopes and expectations, since Mandela High has an excellent reputation and alumni from across all strata of high achievers in various professions. However, after adjusting to the new environment and making new friends, Kuta quickly realizes that things at Mandela High are not what they seem.
Solomon talks about his changed relationship with reading, how writing stirs philosophical exploration, the nationwide protests that inspired him to write ‘The Rage of Lambs’, surviving the COVID-19 pandemic through mental toughness and sharp vigilance, a united continental vision, striving for better as humans, and the ways in which journalistic training helps create fictional characters that breathe and live on the page.
Davina: Where do the origins of your relationship with literature lie?
Solomon: I guess it starts with reading and my wild imagination. My parents fed me with story books ever since I could read at a very tender age and I remember I would spend hours not just devouring them, but being part of the fantasy.
I loved fairy tales, the Greek myths, the Reader’s Digest and African stories like Kweku Ananse (a crafty character in Ghanaian folklore). In secondary school, it was crime fiction and my favourite writer of that genre was James Hadley Chase. George Orwell’s Animal Farm also made a huge impression on me.
Davina: Any particular fairy tales, Solomon?
Solomon: Most of them. Especially the Brothers Grimm stories. Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood, Seven at One Blow, etc.
Davina: I’ve always been partial to The Ugly Duckling. (These days I enjoy it even more because I read it as a veiled commentary on nest parasitism. Hah!)
The first Ghanaian writer I read was Efua Sutherland. Did you encounter any Ugandan writing/literature as a student?
Solomon: I don’t remember if we used any Ugandan writers in school (my memory regarding such things is terrible, these days). But we used Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, and lots of Soyinka and Achebe.
Davina: In speaking about why he chose writing as his artistic medium, Andrew Chatora mentions a love for reading that began when he, too, was very young:
I love to read. I have a voracious appetite for reading, something which started when I was a little boy. Work commitments often distract me, but in recent years, I find the wheel has come full circle as I read more and more. Nothing beats a good book as a companion for quiet introspection. Besides, writers have to read prodigiously anyway; it positively impacts on one’s craft.
Writing also provides me with my escapism space where I become a recluse with my characters and their myriad world[s]. Many a time, I’ve regaled in unmitigated raucous laughter alone at the relationships amongst my characters, taking enjoyment in their limitless wit, biting sarcasm, acerbic humour captured in their mundane conversations. Writing is beautiful and liberating!
Would you say there are differences between how you read stories when you were younger and how you read stories now? In what ways has the writing of fiction changed your relationship with the reading of fiction?
Solomon: Yes, when I was young I read for pure enjoyment. Now, I read a lot more critically. I think about underlying messages, biases, whether the author is a woman, a man, or from a marginalized group, etc., and how that impacts their perception and my perception as a reader.
As for whether writing fiction has changed my relationship with the reading of fiction; from a writer’s perspective, yes, I do take special note of well-written dialogue— whether or not it rings true—as well as the use of unique, descriptive words and well-used metaphors that I can try to emulate without copying.
Davina: I co-sign: well-written dialogue is always a treat! I recently talked to a writer who quoted John Cheever to me; when asked whether ‘fiction should give lessons’, Cheever said:
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.
Is this, do you find, a common confusion?
Solomon: No, I don’t. Writing stirs philosophical exploration, whether you agree or disagree with a character choice, whether the ending leaves you feeling that a particular political or social philosophy prevailed in the end, which may be aligned to your own philosophy or may be different from what you may have preferred. The character’s way of looking at the world, which is like a philosophy of life, seen through their words and actions, is always woven throughout a story.
So I may be missing something but I don’t really agree. I don’t think a writer of fiction is necessarily attempting to imbed lessons; and one could say let the story and the characters drive the writing, not some pursuit of a moral, unless it’s a fable of course! Regardless, readers pull meaning from the theme or themes that run through writing.
I recently read a novel based on the American civil war titled ‘Lucifer’s Drum.’ The author does not set out to espouse a particular philosophy; from what I can tell, the story is driven by the plot and characters, but the themes touch on justice, compassion, beliefs, hate, racism, heroic deeds, and betrayal etc., without the writer forcing it down the reader’s throat.
In a sense, we cannot actually remove philosophy from any human endeavour. At its basic level, philosophy can simply be defined as the love of knowledge. My professor in school put it succinctly by saying, “Perplexity is the beginning of philosophical enterprise.” There will always be philosophy until humans have all the answers and writers will explore and often attempt to resolve these complex life questions.
Davina: I really enjoyed reading The Rage of Lambs because it was like travelling back in time. Many things about Kuta’s life in Mandela High recalled similar incidents from my boarding school experience. Even your descriptions of the arrangement of the classroom blocks induced much nostalgia! I smiled when I read about the entertainment shows (we had something similar on the weekends, too). Reading the scenes and characters, I might as well have been back in my own high school.
How much of the novel was based on recollections of your own earlier boarding schooling experiences?
Solomon: A lot was based on my experience, things I had read, and my imagination. I started writing when the military dictatorship of General Babangida closed down all universities in Nigeria, after many violent clashes between students and the military during nationwide protests, and we were stuck at home for months. Before that, I attended four boarding secondary schools in Ghana – two boys-only and two mixed.
When I was in form one, there was a protest in school because the authorities decided that three students were going to share a can of sardines at the dining hall instead of two students splitting a can. Meanwhile, the prefects each had a can.
I must admit I modeled some characters after secondary school year classmates, schoolmates, mixed up some incidents, and copied from the general layout of two of the school campuses.
Davina: The first time I attempted to write a teenage character, my writer friend (who reads most of my drafts) wrote back to say, “This isn’t a teenager, my dearest: this is a much older person masquerading as a 15-year-old.”
Solomon: I think the trick is to maintain consistency, and write them as close to what you once knew or now know. You already have a fair idea in your mind about this teenage character that’s, let’s say, called X. Remember a friend, classmate/schoolmate, neighbor, relative, etc., from back in the day, around the same age as the character X you want to develop.
So if X is a bully, loud talker, walks some way, looks some way, has certain mannerisms, etc., choose one of those old mates who closely or even remotely shares some of the above and focus on your memory of them and mimic them as much as possible anytime you are writing about X. That way you will not deviate too much from the personality of an actual teenager.
Davina: I’m curious about Kuta’s diction. What’s going on there?
Solomon: It was generally agreed that the Ghanaian education system was at the very top in the 60s, 70s, and 80s in West Africa. Ghanaian teachers were a sought-after commodity in neighboring countries. So we spoke very good English during our time.
Moreover, Kuta’s Dad being a diplomat and his mom a lawyer, too, means he came from the upper class of the society and that must influence the way he speaks. I honestly cannot say the same about the present-day quality of education in Ghana. There has been a huge decline.
Davina: I envy Kuta, Charles, and their schoolmates. I envy their self-awareness, and their political consciousness. At that age, in the all-girls boarding school I attended, it never occurred to me to make the kind of connections they make, between the indignities they suffer and the progressive putrefaction within their school’s administration.
Whenever water chucked in my high school, I didn’t overthink it. I thought that was a normal boarding school experience. I thought such hardships were meant to prepare us for adulthood; we had to be hardened and habituated for real life in the real world.
It never occurred to me to stage ‘a peaceful demonstration’ or ‘fight for my rights.’ What rights, oba, when I considered interruptions in the water supply, and punishments that were out of proportion with offences, to be necessary rites of passage?
If anything, during holidays, I loved to swap stories with friends from different boarding schools, about the various miseries and afflictions that we bore. It was a matter of pride, I think, to establish as quickly as possible who did and didn’t have the mettle for boarding school life.
Solomon: I find it interesting that we share a very similar situation across the African continent. I mean, considering our common colonial and economic heritage, we may make that assumption. It just shows that African experiences and problems are similar. Only the way people respond and react is different.
Growing up in Ghana, it was common for students to respond to what they viewed as unfair circumstances. It was common for students in secondary schools across the country to organize protests. The national anthem of Ghana ends with this sentence, “…and help us to resist oppressors’ rule with all our will and might for ever more.” The country’s motto is ‘Freedom and Justice,’ and we recited them twice daily, morning and afternoon, in primary school.
Between 1979 and 1992, the nation’s ‘revolutionary’ leader drummed his catch phrase, ‘probity and accountability,’ into every Ghanaian’s skull. Many former heads of state and high-ranking military and civilian government officials were executed by firing squad or served lengthy prison sentences and had their assets confiscated. The hierarchy in the school usually mirrored society with the prefects at the top eating at the ‘high table’ and getting special privileges.
I think humans have an innate sense of injustice; only how we respond, whether we even acknowledge injustice or push it from our minds, thinking, “well this is just the way things are,” differs in different periods, environments and levels of desperation.
The book is not just about the injustice within the school but wider society. When the students flee the police onslaught on campus to town, they are joined by aggrieved citizens chanting anti-government slogans about their economic and social conditions. So, in a sense, the school is meant to reflect society.
The extreme deprivation of the people living in an abundance of resources and a few at the top, enjoying the benefits, is a common continental dilemma – one which suggests that solutions must be integrated continentally to achieve meaningful and sustainable results. Selfless leadership is what is required. A united continental vision was already dreamt up over sixty years ago, after the independence of most African countries.
When it comes to the endemic problem of corruption as a cause of underdevelopment, the rich upper-class like politicians, employers, and those in authority who are well-paid, are the main culprits. Blame is mistakenly placed at the doorsteps of the poor working class. But what is the cause of this particular so-called ‘working class corruption?’
When the average income of a family of four only covers the rent of accommodation and part of their feeding bills, where does the money for school fees, hospital bills, clothing, transportation etc. come from? It doesn’t drop from the skies. As the saying goes, “water finds its own level.” If a police officer or a teacher or any worker’s child is very ill and has a bill of $100 (US) to pay and their monthly wage is $300 (US), they will find any means necessary at work to pay the hospital bill and buy medicine.
Pay workers a decent living wage and put measures in place to monitor productivity. Put in a punch-clock system and pay workers per hour. Find ways to provide motivation to workers, e.g., health insurance, and increase productivity, etc.
Then there are the educational, health, justice, transportation etc. systems to be overhauled. It is going to be a long up-hill battle considering all the time lost on the continent, but we will have to start somewhere.
However, reminiscing about your girls-only high school experiences, I think it has to do with the tendency, especially in Africa, to encourage girls not to be assertive – you know, girls must not speak up even when suffering all sorts of stuff while their brothers are allowed to. Even in adulthood, girls and women in Africa and other parts of the world are still at the receiving end of huge gender imbalances.
“Writing stirs philosophical exploration, whether you agree or disagree with a character choice, whether the ending leaves you feeling that a particular political or social philosophy prevailed in the end, which may be aligned to your own philosophy or may be different from what you may have preferred.“
Davina: I’ve actually discussed this (encouraging girls to be unassertive) with a few ex-classmates. The idea that suffering in silence is a virtue—those subliminal messages about cultivating the ability to patiently endure pain and misery—and we go over this a lot.
It was always the nearby all-boys schools that were less likely to take things lying down. Even today, when I read a story in the papers about high school kids who bundled a head teacher and other staff members (and their belongings) onto lorries, and drove them off the school premises, it is invariably in an all-boy’s school where this is happening. I can’t remember ever reading about girls doing that.
So, when I’m reading about the goings-on in Mandela High, I’m thinking about all this, because even the peaceful demonstration there is led by the boys. I’m asking myself: where are the girls? But I’m also answering myself – I’m thinking that, probably, as it often was in my case, the girls’ fear of expulsion is overriding their fear of more suffering.
I’m imagining the girls acknowledging, even if only to themselves, how different life as an expelled girl is likely to be from life as an expelled boy. An expelled boy might someday receive praise; for courage, for standing up to power, while for the expelled girl, reactions to her defiance will likely take the form of “Eeh, maama! So you mean to say that you were the only one suffering? Weren’t the rest eating the same bad food? As for them they didn’t demonstrate? But why do you like to behave as if you’re special?!”
Solomon: Yes, indeed! That is the gender imbalance. It starts right from infancy through adolescence and teenage years to adulthood. That is why I made a conscious effort to include some of the girls and give them at least some minimal role. I wish I gave them bigger parts to play.
Davina: I was on the African Union website the other day. Earlier, I’d listened to a talk show on radio, during which the moderator scrubbed a government official regarding COVID-19 vaccines. The moderator asked why it’s taken so long for the government to buy vaccines: “What have you guys been doing since the middle of last year? You’ve just been there, fwaaah, waiting for donations from China and America.”
The government official offered the usual excuses, said the West had been hoarding vaccines, but that there were now firm plans to buy vaccines through the AU. I wanted to find out how this is supposed to work in practice. That’s how I ended up on the website.
Anyway, at the bottom, just above details of the AU Headquarters’ physical address in Ethiopia, there’s this:
An Integrated, Prosperous and Peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.
I couldn’t help but wonder at the irony, given what’s recently happened in Tigray. I thought of standoffs closer to home, too – Kenya’s alleged bans on imports from Uganda; the closure of the Rwanda-Uganda border; Uganda’s ‘interventions’ in the DRC. If we can’t get our act together as a community of less than 10 countries, what hope is there for a continental bloc?
I later perused a few Agenda 2063 projects: an integrated high speed train network connecting African capitals, a commodities strategy to extract higher rents, a grand dam to generate power to support current regional pools, the Single African Air Transport Market. Brilliant projects, all of them.
But is political integration always the solution to socio-economic challenges, and how long might be a realistic time to wait before The United States of Africa grants us African Passports?
There are always people calling in to talk shows to say we should cut ourselves some slack, that it isn’t possible to do in a couple of years what it took Europe and America centuries to achieve. That, generally, we’ve made ‘remarkable progress,’ considering how young our democracies are, and the kind of histories we’ve had. That we need to be patient with each other. That most of our challenges are down to the usual ‘teething problems.’
But, Solomon, how much slack is enough slack?
Solomon: Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who emerged as Ghana’s first leader after fighting to become the first nation south of the Sahara to achieve independence, was named ‘Most Consequential African’ of the last century. His ultimate goal was a united Africa in his lifetime, in the 1950s. He liked saying (paraphrasing), “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall follow.” I don’t think this message will work now. Times have changed and strategies must change too.
Anyway, he was overthrown like other Pan-African visionary leaders with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other western nations. The way African leaders are thinking and behaving now, with their cap-in-hand beggar attitude to the same western nations who torpedoed that United Africa agenda, I think we should forget that dream for now. As things are, my candid opinion is rather that it is socio-economic progress that would ultimately inspire political integration in the distant future.
Davina: In A Landscape of Speech, Peter Akinlabi’s interview with Tade Ipadeola, the latter mentions ‘africapitalism’ and the “lurking danger in dressing Africa in borrowed clothes”:
Later in the interview, Peter says “it is interesting how Afropolitanism is becoming the new Pan-Africanism”; that “the realities of the lived experience in Africa” do not seem to support calls for a “move beyond ‘postcolonial determinations’”:
There is still so much in the life-world of former colonies that are conditioned by imperialism. For one the media in Africa, including literature and film, are still entangled in the web of postcolonial conditions.
In response, Tade’s says:
Professor Abiola Irele […] was also one of the first to recognize that African literature has since displaced what used to be the central tropes of the colony and the post colony with other tropes. The reality today is that empire is not what it once was and it was only natural that the writer would recognize this and engage with those phenomena that justify the labour of writing what is the truth about the people today. I’m happy you mentioned Esiaba Irobi in this context because apart from his essays, his later plays showed where his energies were being expended and he had moved away from interrogating the white man to scrutinizing the black man. One can say the same for the plays of Rotimi Babatunde or of Diran Bepo.
That idea of moving away from interrogating the white man to scrutinizing the black man reminds me of what Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, political cartoonist and teacher of philosophy, calls ‘Pun-Africanism of convenience’:
Western bashing majorly takes on two shades: one, those that speak back to the ‘West’ simply for its unnecessary and patronising interference in African affairs. Two, those that tell off the ‘West’ and draw on pan-African sentiments only when the latter talks about their excesses at home (Africa).
I would refer to the latter category as pan-Africanists by convenience or opportunistic pan-Africanists. While they might hold some genuine records in fighting imperialism, they cleverly use this as a curtain to cover their anti-African acts. Pan-Africanism becomes that house they run to every time they are confronted with their ugly side.
I sometimes like to think of Afropolitanism, africapitalism, and their near and distant cousins, as clothes. Which style of clothing do you feel it’s best to invest in?
Solomon: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, non but ourselves can free our minds…” the late Bob Marley sang. The late Afrobeat musician Fela Anikulakpo Kuti of Nigeria’s ‘Beast of No Nation’ encapsulates the mindset issue. It is like the reasons some people give for Africa’s present condition. The excuse is “Oh, there was 400 years of slavery, then decades of colonialism, so our problems are inevitable.” It is true these terrible things devastated the continent.
But I think after over 60 years of independence, our leaders could have done way better. Less stupid, and more creative and compassionate. Like universal access to health infrastructure, clean water, decent housing – that would make a huge difference to the African condition. The vast majority of people don’t aspire to be millionaires; most just want a decent quality of life.
Our elected leaders must be held to the highest standard of accountability and they must be made to know that! That would be my “style of clothing.”
Davina: Tola Rotimi Abraham says she’d like to believe that any distance she has acquired, and that happens to reflect itself in her writing, is mostly due to “the passing of time and an investment in education”:
When writing about Nigeria, I think often about this Chinua Achebe quote: “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting”. This means that no matter what you write about Nigeria, there’s such tremendous emotional energy expended. Therefore, I don’t think that writing about Nigeria, at least in the way that I do, can be healing or therapeutic. The best I can hope for is some type of moral clarity.
With stories, you can detangle rights from wrongs, expose privileges and interrogate misnomers. This is a gift inherent in all art. It’s not healing, but it’s a benefit. Your other question about how distance affects our perception is also really interesting. I like to think that thanks to the internet, and because all other members of my family still live in Nigeria, I’m still as connected to Nigeria (and by extension, to Africa) as I was when I lived there. Also, with social media, I’m plugged in 24/7. I follow conversations in real time and I’m actively engaged.
Tola also speaks of the “myth of safety that living in America creates.”
What is it like for you, thinking or writing about Ghana/Nigeria while living in Canada? Any thoughts on that kind of emotional and/or psychological distance vis-à-vis physical distance, if it exists for you, and on the myth of safety?
Solomon: I am not writing now. I wrote this manuscript when I was an undergraduate, long before I came to settle in Canada. In my opinion, however, as far as a ‘myth of safety’ in living abroad, it is just a matter of this system here being better at holding most people accountable for their actions or inactions when it comes to corruption and other misdeeds. Maybe, in some ways, that greater accountability engenders a feeling of safety, generally.
But, of course, we all know the stories of people from what are stereotypically viewed as unsafe lands, the lands of ‘corruption, wars, poverty and violence,’ who come to experience the ‘western dream’ and get shot and killed in the streets or racially profiled and harassed, etc.
So, while I have not experienced harassment or racial violence directly, we know ‘the promise of the west’ is sometimes a myth. No matter how long one stays in another land, I guess there will always be certain experiences that cannot be duplicated away from ‘home,’ like the food and hanging out with childhood friends. There is a certain intangible social safety network. Another emotional angle I experienced during this pandemic is not being able to attend my big sister’s funeral in Nigeria because of travel restrictions.
Davina: I’m sorry that you weren’t able to attend your sister’s funeral. I experienced a good part of the so-called first wave while I was in another country; the thought that I might not be able to attend the funeral of a loved one traumatized me a lot – much more than the thought of contracting the virus.
My aunt died this year, and my cousins weren’t able to travel back because, among other things, they couldn’t obtain vaccination certificates in time. Like a good number of other people I know, they had to attend the burial of a loved one via WhatsApp video calls or Zoom meetings.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shocked and injured us in so many ways, and it may be years before we fully understand its more subliminal impacts. For some, the way towards restoration has been through remaining present, no matter how bad things get, while for others the way towards restoration has been to mentally check out.
I’ve relied on a combination of both – attending to all the ways in which emergency responses have been bungled one day, but then completely losing myself in a Netflix binge the next day. What has your preferred approach been?
Solomon: Sorry about the loss of your aunt; my wife and I had a similar situation when her sister passed away. It’s been a complex learning experience. It reminded me of a saying we had back in high school: “Everyone for themselves, God for us all.” It has required some mental toughness and absolutely sharp vigilance.
I have always been a germophobe, considering the way people conduct themselves in public, so it was not too hard for me to make the conscious transition to avoiding contaminated surfaces and such situations. But this COVID-19 virus is a different ball game.
Even though the science world was trying hard, the worst aspect for me was the lack of faster and more detailed information breaking down the characteristics of the virus – how long the virus lingers in the air, how long it survives on different surfaces, can it migrate a foot or two from the initial point of contact on a surface? That way, people could also use their common sense to devise solutions based on their particular environment and peculiar situation.
That lack of clear information also fueled a gazillion conspiracy theories. People were reposting, sharing, and defending anti-vaccine scientific stuff which contained words and terminologies they couldn’t even pronounce or understand. When I shared a picture after taking my first shot, a former work colleague called me a moron for getting the vaccine. I immediately blocked him on my phone.
So, yes, it’s been a crazy ride and it is not over yet, especially with how ridiculous the Americans are behaving south of the border and how close the interactions between Canada and the US are. The Americans have politicized the COVID-19 pandemic: masks, vaccines, distancing, etc. There is a surge in many parts of the US, especially in the Republican-controlled areas.
Unfortunately, Canada shares one of the world’s longest borders with the US and there is a great deal of movement of commercial, industrial, professional, and tourist personnel across the border. Anything going on there has a huge potential to affect us if not managed very well.
Davina: Despite how determined Mandela High students initially are not to participate in violent acts, what starts out as their ‘civilized’ display of displeasure and unhappiness quickly descends into an outpouring of violence from them and the police. Later, the army, which is typically assumed to have a monopoly on violence, is called in as ‘reinforcement.’
The idea that, in some circumstances, violence is ‘the only language that people understand’, especially people in power—who have become powers unto themselves, that there’s nothing as coherent and logical as untamed ferocity, that cruelty and brutality can be championed as the ‘most effective’ way to communicate, interests me deeply.
I wonder: what does this say about us, who love to think of ourselves as ‘the most intelligent species’ on this planet? Is our ability to inflict so much pain on each other, to be so cruel and brutal to each other, a function of our intelligence?
Solomon: Davina, that is the age-old puzzle, the unsolved question of humanity. Maybe it is actually due to our ‘superior’ intelligence. After all, so-called lower animals exhibit violence only to eat, to protect their shelter, their young or themselves yet humans, despite our ability to reason, commit atrocities against each other.
With our high intelligence, we are able to constantly devise new ways to inflict violence on each other and even improve upon them. From slavery, through the gas chambers of the holocaust and dropping the atomic bomb during the second world war, to mass killings in acts of terrorism across the globe.
As you rightly point out, the students set out without any intention of being violent. They only did so as a reaction to the police brutalities. Lambs are among the least powerful and most harmless creatures. And yet they have been pushed into a furious rage as the title of the manuscript suggests.
Davina: That answers a question I’ve been meaning to ask, Solomon, about why that title: why lambs, of all animals?
Solomon: Even a cornered chicken with no possible escape route fights back. You know, the ANC comes to mind. Many say without the decision to meet violence with violence in South Africa, change may never have come. I personally do believe in peaceful resistance.
But we need to be practical when fighting for justice and change. If we think on a more micro level and someone keeps coming to your home shooting another one of your children each time and each time you march peacefully with your signs, protesting their brutality, I don’t think any among us would say meeting force with force would be wrong – to protect and defend.
We certainly do not seem to be the ‘most civilized’ species. We can be kind, good and helpful to total strangers, we can also be brutal and there seems to be an unending need to divide into insular groups, like our ethnic groups, where those outside the group are the enemy. This is what has led to some of the worst human tragedies, the genocides. We ask, “How can such a thing happen?” But it happens again and again.
We should not glorify and romanticize violent rebellion and yet I still come back to my point regarding the natural reaction to fight when you are being violated again and again and peaceful means have not worked.
If we take the lives of two American civil rights icons for example, I think there is a certain point to Martin Luther King Jnr’s ‘peaceful resistance’ and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary,’ depending entirely on the particular conditions.
We need to be careful about promoting or justifying violence, and yet I would not want to judge a victimized group that has been violently oppressed when seeking justice, if they resort to violence as a defense.
In The Rage of Lambs, the peaceful protest got out of hand; the peaceful approach was not given enough of a chance. And yet, in the end, it seems the violent end is what precipitated serious attention and concern; it almost seems like lives had to be lost in order for anyone to take the issues seriously – and yet, again, we would not want to encourage students to take up arms or sacrifice their lives.
There is no easy solution to the fight for social justice – what are the boundaries? How far can we go or should we go? No one knows it better than those who feel the pain.
Davina: I think what baffles me most is how people, across different times and spaces, seem destined to repeat the same mistakes. I really struggle with this. Sometimes I think that maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand why this is so. Couldn’t we simply, I don’t know, unlearn some behaviours? It sometimes seems so straightforward—and it certainly looks like we have the tools to manage that kind of unlearning—and yet we don’t.
I think a lot about hierarchy, too, which seems to me an idea that we are irreversibly invested in. I think that, maybe, we will never rid ourselves of the desire to assign ranks to each other, no matter how arbitrary the reason, because we secretly long to dominate each other.
David Benatar thinks that “unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated” – that “a dramatically improved world is impossible” because “the lessons never seem to get learnt.”
Solomon: Someone once said the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing. Take this devastating COVID-19 pandemic, for example. About a hundred years ago the Spanish Flu was estimated to have killed 50 million people after infecting 500 million worldwide.
From the way we reacted to this pandemic, it seems we learnt nothing. Just look at what is happening in the USA. Maybe we can answer this question after the next inevitable big pandemic hits the globe again. That is when we will know if humans learned any lessons from this catastrophe.
I understand where Benatar is coming from; he sounds fed up with how messed up the world is, but I also think we always need to strive for better, believe that things can improve, and can change. It does seem like destiny sometimes, but that seems somehow fatalistic.
If you do some brief research of human history, you will find that the world was once more egalitarian, where sharing and cooperation were the norm. This changed only within the last 10,000 years, moving toward more hierarchical models.
I think so far as humans live together in organized communities, some form of leadership will be required across various aspects and this renders hierarchies unavoidable – president/citizen, and business owner/CEO/worker, religious leader/followers. The key is to find ways to narrow the wide economic disparities between leaders and the people.
Davina: It’s hard to believe The Rage of Lambs was written while you were an undergraduate! The events therein seem much more recent. But I suppose this mostly has to do with what you said, earlier, about similarities in educational and social experiences due to common colonial and economic heritages that defy the passage of time.
How did you arrive at the decision to submit The Rage of Lambs to a writing prize, years later? And should we now expect a revival of your fiction writing, given the favourable impression it’s made?
Solomon: I asked two friends early this year if, because of the pandemic, they were bored and had time on their hands to read a manuscript I wrote decades ago. They both liked it and one of them sent me the link to the James Currey Prize for African Literature competition.
Yes, Davina, I certainly hope to get the inspiration to start writing again. It’s such a great feeling when you have an idea in your head and your creative juices are flowing.
Davina: Indeed! I always feel very Christmas-y when I get what seems like a good idea for a story. I look forward to all the time I’ll spend going over plot scenarios, and vetting characters.
In what ways do you anticipate that your work as a print journalist will serve your fiction writing?
Speaking of the journalism he studied at the university, Nick Mulgrew says one of the first things he was taught was that “objectivity is an unattainable ideal”:
On reflection it’s probably the best thing they could have told us: you have to aspire to something that is impossible. That paradox creates a good deal of generative self-reflection. In practice, it foregrounds the constructed and mediated nature of news, and of stories in general. But more importantly it’s a reminder that a story can be a way in which a power dynamic is expressed. Exposing this dynamic, often within the story as it is being told, can be a winding path – but it is the one that I personally believe – at least at this point in my life – that leads closest toward both an accurate and compelling depiction of the world, or toward the fullest and broadest realisation of one person’s perspective.
Solomon: I think any form of writing requires interest in the human experience, in the issues and problems of the planet, and that can be explored through fiction, non-fiction poetry, journalism, or many forms of art.
The aim of journalism is simply to reveal the facts to the best of their ability in a fair manner. That is how to strive for objectivity even though, of course, there is no such thing as complete objectivity and news organizations can be influenced sometimes by the big-spending advertisers not to mention the subconscious biases and influences we all carry.
So this training in objective reporting, I think, can benefit fiction writers in that you want to stand back at a distance from your story and characters – not judging or proselytizing through them but simply letting them breathe and live on the page.
Generally, I prefer the world as it is today with all its imperfect news to one without mass media where everyone would be cooking and consuming their own news. Could you imagine, Davina!
I basically finished The Rage of Lambs before my journalism career. Who knows, maybe it would have been written differently if I was already established as a journalist. I hope my years in this field have improved my language and broadened my perception about life, in general, which will benefit my creative writing in future.
Davina: What plans for the prize money?
Solomon: It would be nice to give it to my dear mom if I win.
Davina: Sweet! Best of luck to your mom!
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 James Currey Prize for African Literature.
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.