AKO Caine Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Rémy Ngamije

2020 AKO CAINE PRIZE SHORTLIST

A DIALOGUE WITH RÉMY NGAMIJE

Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel “The Eternal Audience Of One” is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S). He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine. His work has appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Santa Ana River Review, Columbia Journal, New Contrast, Necessary Fiction, Silver Pinion, and Lolwe.

He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com

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BY SALIHA HADDAD

This conversation took place between Namibia and Algeria, via email.

Saliha: Hello, Rémy. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?

Rémy: It feels like winning a prize in itself. The AKO Caine Prize is one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world and to be shortlisted alongside such accomplished writers is astounding.

In some ways it affirms all the dreams the third-grade version of me had for wanting to pursue writing as a vocation. It retrospectively justifies the risks and sacrifices taken to be a storyteller, a career that is hard to pursue anywhere in the world, one that is extremely challenging and discouraging here in Namibia. So, for me, it is a personal triumph, the highest of highs. Also, as a Rwandan-born Namibian writer I hope my shortlisting shines a spotlight on writings from my dual heritages. The “small places of the world” are reading and writing; they have something to share. If they appear to be silent it is not because they are quiet, it is because they are struggling to break into popular airwaves.

I am happy to the first Rwandan and the first Namibian shortlisted for The AKO Caine Prize. But I am not content to be the only one of either. I look forward to being numbered alongside the second, third, and fiftieth writers from my backgrounds.

Saliha: I am happy that being on the shortlist fulfills your dreams in some ways, even though it is hard to be a writer in Africa and it takes lots of let-downs. But as you state, “the small places” also have something to share, stories to tell, and it is worth all the risks and sacrifices. When I started reading your story, “The Neighbourhood Watch”,  ‘Auasblick, Olympia, and Suiderhof (maybe Pionierspark)’ made me pause for quite a few minutes; I did not know what these words meant and I looked on the internet to find out their meanings. I was struck to find out that they were places in Namibia, and by my total unfamiliarity with them. And in a way I felt disappointed in myself for never having even had the curiosity to see what a country in my continent looked like, what places we could find there, or what characterizes it from  other countries. I grew up with my eyes always directed to countries in Europe or to the United States but never to places in Africa. I am familiar with Brooklyn, Soho, and Saint-Germain-des-Prés but not with Windhoek; the capital city of an African country. Your story made me take the first step to becoming familiar with Namibia. How did you become aware that stories are one way to make the rest of the world familiar with places they would otherwise never know existed?

Rémy: I do not think I actively set out to make the rest of the world familiar with Windhoek. That is a big task that one story cannot achieve. What people know about parts of New York, Paris, Madrid, or Moscow comes from numerous stories told over time, with each story adding to the mythology and reality of a place. The “big places of the world” have writers writing about them all the time. Then, with the writers, they are supported by visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers. They reinforce each other. That is how people know all the cities on Tatooine (a planet from Star Wars) or the suburbs of Gotham (from the Batman comics) but not, for example, Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. One story is not enough, neither are two. You need a whole web of stories—told through numerous mediums—to make a place visible to the world. So “The Neighbourhood Watch” will not succeed in making Windhoek public – it is not what I set out to do. I wanted to tell a Namibian story to a Namibian audience. I guess, then, if it struck a chord with many people there might be a bit of Windhoek in other places. I guess this is how people still feel at home in Middle Earth or Space Sector 237. The hope is that we shall excavate more and more for stories from small places. 

Maybe—just maybe—”The Neighbourhood Watch” will snag one reader who googles Windhoek’s suburbs to understand the story’s context, and another writer will publish a novel about Katutura, one of Windhoek’s suburbs, then we might even get a film and a song, and before you know it, Windhoek might be a storytelling metropolis. One can dream, can’t they? I might as well.

We need readers who do not use one of us—African writers—as a way to explain all of us.”

Saliha: It is true what you say.  There is a need for an accumulation of stories, spreading throughout different mediums, to make the otherwise small and unknown places familiar and big enough, worthy of more attention. However, I also believe that this task needs to start somewhere, even through one, two or three stories.  You say that your story was intended first for a Namibian audience. As I went through “The Neighbourhood Watch” though, it brought to my mind the kids here in my city; the children come, accompanied with an old man who would stay in the street, to our houses looking for leftover bread and some food every Tuesday. It made me wonder, does this old man and children have the same system as Elias, Lazarus, Silas, Omagano and Martin in going about the city? The story is about human conditions in Namibia but the themes are universal. Do you think that it’s an accumulation of intimate African narratives with universal themes that will ultimately break the cycle of shelving African literature as only literature about race? Is it the solution to many of the views reducing African stories as merely satire about politics and not the accounts of people as people? 

Rémy: I agree completely with you. I think any good story is told intimately, as if to one person. In that intimacy one can talk about the truth about reality (its hardships, its small triumphs, its loves, and its losses). An intimate story has small details which pin it to a specific place and time, to a particular group of people. This is achieved with characters, plot, setting, and language. The ultimate goal of all of this, I think, is what I have noticed: the more intimate the story, the more universal it seems. As though a street scene which takes place in Lagos could be any street in Windhoek. As though a London flat could be Capetonian. I am not sure of a good way to put this but I think the considered and honest focusing of a story results in amplification. Will this be the solution to ensuring African writing takes its rightful and equal place in world literature? I do not know. But it seems to have worked for Western stories, so why not ours? Of course, for that to work, we also need to develop readers who are open to reading African literature widely and deeply. We need readers who do not use one of us—African writers—as a way to explain all of us. No one would dare to say a writer from Ireland or Germany is “the voice of a generation” for all of Europe but people have used that title to avoid having to engage with the inherent nuance in African literature. I think African writers are doing their part. Really, I do. We need readers to get on board. And after that, we need them to work at changing African realities so that we, African writers, can have new material to work with.

Saliha: “We need readers who do not use one of us—African writers—as a way to explain all of us” wise words that hold so much truth. And readers do have an essential role in not grouping all writers of the same country or continent under one writer’s works. It was actually the case for me at the university when studying literature. We have studied Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S Eliot and Eugene O’Neill individually, with all their distinctive voices as individual writers, poets and playwrights even though they are more or less of the same period. But when it came to African literature we only had Chinua Achebe and “Things Fall Apart”, and we were told many times that it is the representative of African literature. I took it to be the truth until personal research. Speaking of intimacy, in your story when the five characters are staying in their headquarters on Friday and Saturday, the choice of words you make is intriguing because you do not mention “sex” as such. For Martin in particular you use the expression “to make the spit”, though as readers we understand what it means. For me it was drawing my attention as to the fact that the children are just children even in the street where they see and experience many things, so we still see their innocence even in brutal circumstances. Was this your intention or do you write without intending to draw any particular reaction from readers?

Rémy: Your university experience sounds a lot like mine: American and European literatures were accorded nuance while African, South American, and Asian literatures (on the scant days they were discussed) were spoken about in swathes and generalities. Only later, like you, did I discover my own reading independence. I have since come across exquisite writers from Africa and the rest of the world. There is plenty of resonance within world literature, especially when it comes to dealing with privilege, its power and its blind spots – I cannot accurately tell you whether it was a Mumbai street scene or a Rio De Janeiro slum which provided momentum to the story but I sure as heck know it was not Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemmingway. I think the answer to your question—as far as intention is concerned—is found within all of the writers I have followed and the books I have read since teaching myself to unlearn things from the Western canon. One of them is this: if you immerse yourself in the story thoroughly, like an actor who becomes the character they embody, you take on the setting, time, and characters so completely that some of the things you write are scripted and some are ad-libbed or freestyled. The success of the latter depends, really, upon whether the writer is completely invested in the world they have created. Their characters develop autonomy, their settings develop politics and prejudices, time moves along of its own accord. So it is with the language of the story. I did not have to fight with this story because I was not trying to fit it into Victorian England. I did not have to worry about whether it would be highbrow literature or some street tale told by people in a crowded taxi. Thus, I do not know whether I “intended” to write that way at that particular point in the story. What I do know, though, is that once those words, written in that way, were on the page they felt right. They felt like Martin and Silas. They fit the tempo and the rhythm. Your question is like asking a painter if they intended each individual brushstroke in the exact way they did. I am sure they held the brush and put every splash of colour on the canvas, but I doubt they would be able to account for each dab of paint. I wish I had a better way to answer you: I intended it (subconsciously) but I didn’t (consciously) – but the words are on the page and that all we can see so I take responsibility (and credit) for putting them there.

Saliha: Wow, I can’t begin to tell you how your words are inspiring and eye-opening. And I think this is an approach—though maybe not deliberate—many storytellers from Africa may have to writing their own stories and is the reason why we see more and more original, imaginative and fresh stories coming from Africa. African writers simply don’t try to stick to a mold or try to fit in and that allows more freedom of creation even in dire circumstances and sometimes dangerous places. “The Neighbourhood Watch” offers a glimpse of optimism at the end, an under-threat one, but still an optimism as the characters, despite their circumstances, think about tomorrow. I have always thought that without optimism, humanity simply ceases to exist. In our world right now, it is needed more than ever.

Rémy: It was a pleasure to be interviewed by you. I learned a lot about interviewing from your questions. It certainly beat the whole listed question format that I was used to and getting tired of. Really, thanks so much for having this conversation for me. I have written many notes, sparked by your questions—things that I should explore later in writing.

Keep in touch if you can. I look forward to hearing more about your writing beyond Africa In Dialogue. I have to admit off the bat my grasp of Algerian literature is poor, but I am always open to encountering and learning.

Saliha: Thank you for taking time to have this conversation with me too. I enjoyed it a lot and learned so much as well.  I know you have a novel, “The Eternal Audience of One”, that I can’t wait to get my hands on. It has great reviews that add to my curiosity. Your writings on your website are also wonderful, I have been reading them. I will definitely keep in touch.

Saliha Haddad

Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at the university and a volunteer interviewer for online local magazines. She is one of the top graduates of her department in the Anglophone literature and civilization field. She is passionate about art and literature, and she recently became vegetarian. She is currently working on a series of personal essays under the theme of “family”, and on a short story about an aspiring painter. Her philosophy in life is to always try be the best version of yourself and to always keep on learning.

SALIHA HADDAD

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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