Alain Jules Hirwa has been published in The Carolina Quarterly, Lolwe, Jalada Africa, Praxis Magazine, and Welter. He has works forthcoming in Wasafiri and 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry.
BY CHISOM OKWARA
This conversation took place via email in the comfort of a living room in the village of Ibereshi and a room overlooking a pale green lawn in the city of Kigali, Rwanda.
Chisom: Hi Alain. I am super excited to have this dialogue with you! In a 2019 interview with Edwin Ashimwe for The New Times (Rwanda), it is highlighted that you’ve been writing since 2013 when you wrote your first story. Do you remember that story, why you started writing, why you’ve kept at it?
Alain: Yes, it was 2013. I was in form-three, and with a friend, used to read, say, the first 150 pages of a novel while he’d read the last 150. Then, we’d meet and recount what we read to each other. He’d learn where the story was all coming from. I’d learn too of how it ended. It was fun!
The reason I respond to a question of how I started writing with a description of my love for reading is: I wrote for the same reason I read—to get out of my school. It was a boarding school, a minor seminary with 100-something rules inscribed on papers that hung on the windows of the office of the prefect of discipline. To some of us, those rules and the geography of the seminary were limiting. So, my friends and I read to transport ourselves to places outside of the school. I started to write for the same reason.
I remember that first story, which I wrote on papers during preps, poor me. It was about a couple who got divorced with each parent taking custody of one child but then lived in different places. The children didn’t know each other and would later fall in love without knowing they were siblings. The subject matter of this story really had nothing to do with my life. It was only a door out of school. That was my way of sneaking out of school. Ha! I guess that’s even the reason I still write. Because I’m surrounded by limiting sets of beliefs. I read and write so as to open doors out of those fences. To live beautiful lives that I’d not experience otherwise.
Chisom: How interesting! I’ve never heard of split novel-reading. Now I want to try it! It’s both mushy and sweet when placed in the context of childhood friendship and young literary bonding. Must have been fun! I’m not sure why I started writing, I wasn’t too big a reader, but I remember writing my first novel at 8 or so because everyone else, by which I mean my siblings and neighbors, was doing so—scribbling dramatic stories of stepmothers and wicked aunties and evil teachers on pages after pages of 40-leaf exercise books—and I remember writing my first short story in 2011, in my third year at Junior Secondary School. We were given an English assignment to write a story that ends in “oh what a beautiful day”. I wrote a Nollywood-friendly story about finding my long-lost identical twin on a visit to an orphanage with my mother.
I see a string of similarity between your first short story and mine—plots about siblings getting separated and meeting in twisted circumstances as adults, with a grand revelation as the climax and in the case of my story, a beautiful reconciliation at the end. I love how conscious you are of the “why” behind your early journey to writing, and I believe, it is one most people will relate to—an attempt to break out of boundaries and to, in your words, live beautiful lives one wouldn’t otherwise experience. Zooming in on the latter, I’m curious to know what you consider “beautiful”. What does beauty mean to you? What is a beautiful life?
Alain: You started writing at such an early age? At 8, I didn’t even know what a novel is. I remember that once, in form-one at high school, I approached a form-four student in our school’s dining hall and asked what the book he was reading was about and if it was like watching a movie.
Your early stories sound fun! Oh, another similarity is that we both wrote our first short stories in our third year at secondary school. Maybe people’s lives are similar in small invisible ways.
What does beauty mean to me? Oh God! What I consider beautiful is anything that has no boundaries. Freedom. A beautiful life is a life in which a person can live to the fullest. For example, if I can crossdress and walk into the street without getting anyone to question me, that’d be a beautiful and fun life. Imagine if there were a Crossdressing Day! I think it would be real fun. Or, if there were no borders, and John Lennon’s Imagine would be our anthem.
Chisom: Oh yes, another similarity! Indeed, our lives are mirrors, and we are much more connected than we can possibly imagine. I agree with your take on beauty as freedom. I have been thinking of freedom a lot lately as a young adult trying to reclaim my childlike wonder, bravery, and spiritedness in a way that rings of your idyllic opener in “The art of small spaces” an essay in “Through the Eye of a Needle”, Praxis Magazine’s first collection of art in the time of coronavirus.
Referencing the allegory of the boy who trapped a raindrop and showed to his mother saying, “mum, I hold the sea in my palm,” you wrote that “the time has come for us to build castles out of one stone, like naked kids constructing sandcastles at the beach.” Those lines evoke a sense of freedom to me, and in the same vein, they strike me as many more things—attentiveness, contentment, love, creativity, gratitude and beauty, again. Perhaps, all these attributes essentially point to what cloth freedom is sewn out of. Do these attributes sum up what you felt, or learned to feel in the past four months as the world tucked itself in, to contain the COVID pandemic? Did your attentiveness to the small spaces around you in those months feel like true freedom? Can we ever really find freedom in a world shelled momentarily by a virus, but existentially, by prejudice and injustice and inequality?
Alain: Yes, when I wrote that specific sentence, I was thinking of those attributes, especially attentiveness and creativity. However, the attributes do not sum up what I felt during the past four months. What I felt is a mixture of good and bad things. What you mentioned seems to be only good stuff. On the good side of it, I became more creative. I created some new works. Yet, on the bad side of it, I got more anxious and unsure of tomorrow. It seems, with this pandemic, I cannot be sure of what tomorrow will look like. Earlier this year, I was accepted into an MFA program. I was excited since I had always looked forward to studying creative writing. As of now, the American embassy is not holding visa interviews, yet I am supposed to leave for the USA no later than mid-August. You see, I am not sure of my own future. Will I leave for my studies? Will I stay? If the latter, what will I do, having communicated with my employer of my departure from my job? That’s what the pandemic did to me. It filled my days with anxieties and, at some points, depression.
Did my attentiveness to small spaces feel like true freedom? No. It didn’t. In the essay, I was exploring how such attentiveness can make us keep leading the same life we lived in big spaces while we are isolated in small ones. So, it is a matter of creativity, not freedom. I think, in my opinion, we cannot find freedom in a world such as that which you’ve mentioned. I think that freedom can only be found in a world where nothing pushes us apart, and by nothing, I mean pandemics, prejudice, injustice, and inequality.
“What I consider beautiful is anything that has no boundaries. Freedom. A beautiful life is a life in which a person can live to the fullest.“
Chisom: A hearty congratulations on getting into an MFA program. Although I am unable to offer insight into what the near future has in store for such plans and dreams as grad school, I will say that what I have learned about uncertainty, having moved from Lagos to Kigali out of work and without a plan in early March, to be hit by the lockdown barely weeks in, battle anxiety throughout Rwanda’s unforgiving April rains, and emerge with a glint in my heart at the moment is this: seasons do change.
On creativity, which you’ve highlighted as the heart of your poetic paragraphs in “The Art of small spaces”, it was a pleasure to read your essay, “Dear Moon, I Am the Colour of Water” in Lolwe’s first issue. What inspired that essay?
Alain: My essay in Lolwe was inspired by two things. One is a memory of a bosom friend. The other is my fluid sexuality. If you ever watched The Imitation Game, what inspired the essay is similar to what inspired Alan Turing to name his electromagnetic machine after Christopher Morcom.
Chisom: Oh, I haven’t seen the Imitation Game but now I want to. Your essay read like water. It ebbed and flowed, and at some point when it seemed I had strayed from the shoreline, you drew me back with Part IV, a conclusion that came full circle. I am especially drawn to the essay’s earliest setting – the seminary – perhaps because I have never really imagined what it is like to be bred in such closed up, traditionally defined environments. Your essay showed, with soft, delicate rhythm, the reality that these spaces are occupied by everyday people who are fluid and nonbinary and bubbling with aliveness and humanness. Do you feel a sense of peculiarity and yet-to-be-explored richness or depth in your experience at the seminary? I sense that there’s a lot more within the frame of narrative you wove in “Dear Moon, I am the colour of water” but I could be wrong.
Alain: You are right. There’s a lot more that I couldn’t fit in the short form. Just as any other school, a seminary brings a lot of people from different backgrounds together, so there are definitely a lot of stories to tell. I could write loads of stories set in the seminary, and I hope I do, if God wills.
I don’t feel any sense of peculiarity in my experience at the seminary. Recently, I imagined this story where a boy’s body is inhabited by multiple selves. The boy discovers it when he wakes up to an empty glass of, say, juice, and when he asks who drank his juice, his sister tells him it’s him. He woke up and drank the juice, but the self that was awake then is asleep now. After an hour or so, he starts to regain memory of it because the self that knows it is awake. On a different occasion, he receives a rejection letter for a position he’s been dreaming to get, and while he sheds tears at this discovery, he laughs at the same time because one of the selves is stricken by the rejection while the other doesn’t really care. This happened to me. While personally, I think some people would consider that nonsense, I take it to mean that my spirit is nonbinary, not necessarily in relation to my gender identity, but from a bigger and general point of view.
Having a nonbinary spirit, my ‘selves’ are always neutralizing the emotions of one another. At the end, I’m left with neutrality. Maybe, what I’m trying to say is: I don’t feel anything.
Chisom: It seems to me that, in a sense, your poem, “In search of the self” has found closure in some of what you have said about having multiple selves, having a nonbinary spirit, responding to life in what I might call kaleidoscopic patterns:
“I take off the world, piece by piece
The garments sewn by unknown tailors
A skin sewn by my parents
What remains is fog
The boy standing in it, unclear”
Touching on style, form, and technique in “Dear Moon, I Am the Colour of Water”, there were many moving pieces in the essay. You incorporated lines from your poetry, jottings from your diary, some dialogue. Did you intend, when you started writing, to have these elements come together in the essay? I found the hybridity of it all symbolic – a reinforcement of your fluidity and multiplicity even as you write within the constraints of pages, a dance, each of the four parts like moves united in unapologetic succulence. But then again, I wondered, is it experimental? Is this a textual equivalent of Moon’s question about experimentation? Did you have any symbolism in mind when you worked this essay into its published shape and form?
Alain: Thank you for reminding me that all I’ve been trying to say could be expressed in a short poem. When I started writing the essay, I only had the first part. It was such a mess; I didn’t know what to make of it. But, with the second draft and the third, the fourth and others thereafter, I added the entry from my diary, then the poems, and so it went. If I said I had the symbolism in mind when working on the essay, I’d be a damn liar. However, I think that there is experimentation in everything we do. Before writing down this sentence, I thought about it. Now I’m wondering: “am I experimenting when I type down a sentence?”I think the answer is yes. Sometimes, I write down a word, delete it, and replace it with another one I think fits better in the sentence. Other times, it is the whole sentence that I delete, or a paragraph, or even an entire part. So, I am constantly experimenting with words, their meanings, beauty, and sweetness. Hence, writing the essay was experimental, but only in the most natural and basic way.
Chisom: I totally get you. If we were to infuse this form of experimentation—that is, as you’ve rightly pointed out, basic and natural to the work of writing—in life, what sort of society do you think that would leave us with? Is it even worth imagining? Over here, I picture a world where trials and ‘unjustifiable’ quests and mistakes and wounds and scars are embraced and appreciated, not for the optics, or as a build-up to an overarching narrative of ‘perfection’, a society that wouldn’t need a pandemic to remind it that it doesn’t have as much control as it thinks it does, and that that’s perfectly okay. But then—and I’m not saying this because I haven’t had breakfast—a girl’s gotta eat (laughs). We can’t experiment with hunger, can we? So it seems there are certain things in life that require us to go by the book. What do you think about a life of experimentation and the compromises it often, almost definitely, contends with?
Alain: I think we’d end up with a society of philosophers and overthinkers. Someone would ask me, “Are you Alain?” and I’d start to experiment with the best answer. I’d start to think, “Am I Alain? Do I fit in such a short word called a name? Shouldn’t I go by no name at all since no name can contain my experience?” which I think we should leave for thinkers. I personally think that those who don’t care about what word fits best in a sentence save the world from different kinds of wars.
However, on the other end, I think that a society infused with such kind of experimentation would be close to perfection. I think a life of experimentation comes with people opening up and asking difficult questions. What do you think?
Chisom: Indeed, asking difficult questions is key. That might just be the launchpad of an experimental life. Some of us were born in environments where everything was defined from the get-go without room for questioning. Till date, so many students from my part of the world still have to go an extra mile to convince – usually, to no avail – their parents that they don’t want to be either medical doctors, engineers or lawyers, to which I would like to ask what your journey towards self-identification as a writer has been or currently is. I do know that the ‘writer’ tag/ identity comes with mixed feelings for some people, especially early into their writing journey.
Alain: My journey towards self-identification as a writer has been a difficult one. Till date, I cannot tell my parents that I’m pursuing a career in writing. I think I’ll officially let them know if/when I publish a book length work.
When I started to write stories, I was in my third-fourth year at high school. Because teachers caught me reading novels during science classes, they often reported me to my parents. Then, in my A’ level studies, my grades dropped, and the blame was put on my love for books. One time, during holidays, my mother walked in on me writing, a lot of papers strewn all over my bed, and she said that was the reason my school performance declined, which I think was right. Yet, I didn’t stop; I only started to hide when I read and wrote. I’d lock my door. My father, on the other hand, was a little bit supportive. He once walked into my room and on seeing piles of papers on my bed, told me that I’d become a writer.
I feel like it’s not yet time for me to claim the ‘writer’ tag. If I told my father I’m a writer, he’d be like, “Are you like James Baldwin?” “No.” “Are you like Mariama Bâ?” “No.” “So, go write something tangible and based on that, I will call you a writer.”
So, I want to write something ‘tangible’ before calling myself a writer. In the few instances that I’ve put “writer” in my bio, I’ve been left wondering if I really am a ‘writer’. I think what I am instead is a dreamer, because I have carried the dream of publishing a book for so long, I’ve become an approved member of dreamersville. (Laughs). I’m joking.
Back to your question, my early obsession with books was, for a long time, a disappointment to my parents who wished I’d focus on sciences, perform well, and become a medical doctor. But, since I got lucky to start teaching in a university at 22, no one seems to care anymore that I didn’t make it to medical school.
Chisom: What a journey, Alain (laughs). To think you actually had to hide to read. I find that both amusing and sad. But I have to acknowledge that such young devotion is priceless!
Your last statement about your teaching feat and your parents’ response reminds me of interviews I’ve seen where creatives talk about their parents’ initial opposition to their art until they attained fame and/or financial breakthrough. They tend to have an ‘oh-well’ facial expression when they speak on this. It’s always epic to watch!
I get you on the feeling of inadequacy that comes with calling oneself a writer without a book to one’s name. I feel that too. Considering I haven’t even published a story in years, I sometimes wonder if it’s ‘literary crime’ to call myself a writer, yet every now and then, I do take on the tag, to keep myself accountable to the work that is writing, and to fight the crippling inadequacy that often comes in the way of the work.
You mention James Baldwin and Mariama Ba when you hint at authors you imagine your father would compare you to. They’re both amazing! Do you have favourite writers? If so, what about their writing appeals to you?
Alain: Yes, to call oneself a writer is no literary crime. And it can help one keep themselves accountable to their work. I totally agree.
Chisom, two of the contemporary works I’ve been reading recently have felt formal to me. They’ve felt like letters written to the queen of England, like they were edited till there wasn’t a drop of informality left in them. I grew up in a small village of Ibereshi in Ruhengeri, surrounded by prostitutes who’d walk the streets cursing men who failed to pay them for the night. They’d curse and chide until the men were known all over the village. I grew up around unpopular soccer players and different kinds of vagrants who never cared for any formality. Then I attended a seminary where our priest changed suits thrice a day, which I didn’t like. In any case, I respected his right to do so. But it seemed too much. I hate suits. I hate formal things. So, those works I’ve been reading have felt like products of an institution, the MFA. They are good works, excellent works, but they feel like suits, heavy, and not fitting for someone like me who’s only used to light clothes.
Soon or later, I may go for an MFA, since I’ve been admitted already, but I am somehow afraid that it might dress me in a suit. I set out on this path because I want to live in a country where I can communicate in English alone for a long time, so that the language can come easily to me as it is for you. Do you use English at home in Nigeria? For me, even when I write in English, it feels like I’m translating from my mother tongue. Sometimes, I have to first think of a sentence in Kinyarwanda and then translate it to English. Sometimes, I leave it as it is, writing it in Kinyarwanda because it feels like there isn’t a perfect English translation. Yet, I believe that there must be a way. It’s just that English is not mine. English is like the lover who’s not mine, and we’re both cheating on our partners because we are quite obsessed with each other. I want to marry her so that we can be legal, but not formal. On our wedding day, I won’t wear a suit. She too will not wear a veil. Can I curse? Fuck rules.
I like literary works that don’t seem to be products of training, such as Dambudzo Marechera’s poetry and Albert Camus’s prose. Those are my favourite writers. I like the beauty and word-play in Dambudzo’s poetry. I admire the simplicity and flow in Albert Camus’s sentences.
Chisom: In my family, we speak Igbo at home. Home is Aba, a vibrant, infamous city in South-East Nigeria known for artisanship and trade. However, in most parts of Nigeria, we speak English in school from the get-go, and considering we end up spending more time in school than we do at home, English comes to us easily, dare I say, naturally, which is why I often frown when I see IELTS and TOEFL as mandatory requirements for opportunities available to Nigerians. I always go back to a viral tweet from back in the day and shrug the frustration off with a good laugh.
With all that English education, I only think in English, and sadly, struggle to read Igbo because I only interacted verbally in it beyond our Igbo writing curriculum in secondary school. I understand why you seek this marriage with English Language as a writer. It is not unfounded at all. A language that I desire to marry in a similar light is French. I have courted French since the day my first French teacher set up a French club in primary school and got us bubbly pre-teens singing and dancing to dozens of French songs at a time.
Interesting favourites you’ve got! I’m late to Dambudzo’s poetry, only got to know of him through a recent dialogue with Philani Nyoni. I’m currently on my first journey with Albert Camus’ prose. I’m reading ‘The Stranger’. I’ve barely covered enough ground but I have encountered this simplicity and flow you talk about.
Alain, we’re nearing the wrap to what has been such a beautifully honest dialogue. One question I have yet to ask is whether your nationality takes a prominent place in your ‘writer’ identity. I ask this thinking of Chimamanda’s rootedness in her Nigerian identity, how that shines through beyond her novels all the way to her engagements and point of reference in global conversations. Do you carry a similar sense of nationalism? Do you see yourself going by Alain, the writer, or Alain, the Rwandan writer or is it either, depending on the circumstance? I do know you recently launched a literary magazine, Tea House, to promote Rwandan writing. Perhaps, you could let us in on what Tea House is all about.
Alain: I discovered Taiye Selasie’s TED Talk “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local” sometime ago, and it inspired me to always identify myself by where I’m a local rather than my nationality. If a person thought of me from the point of view of the village of Ibereshi where I grew up and still live, I think that they can get, to a slight extent, a picture of who I am, compared to what it would be if they looked at me through the lens of my country. However, I am very proud of my country, and being seen as a Rwandan writer is a big honor I cannot deny myself. But, I prefer being looked at in terms of places where I am a local.
In the eighteenth century, the tea house was the setting for intellectual encounters. Intellectuals would read books and circulate magazines, talk about ideas, discoveries, and science while they drank tea. In this same light, I imagine the Tea House magazine to be a platform hosting young Rwandan creatives as they meet, produce and discuss creative works. I plan to launch it officially this September. I am both scared and excited about the journey ahead.
Chisom: It sounds exciting, Alain! I would be happy to join these discussions and literary co-creation while I’m still in Rwanda. I wish you the very best as you prepare to launch.
With this, we’ve come to the end of our dialogue. This has been teaching, revealing, and fun. Have you got any final words?
Alain: I have nothing else to say besides a thank you for this beautiful dialogue, Chisom. Thank you.
Chisom: Thank you too, Alain!
Chisom Okwara is a graduate of Social Sciences from the African Leadership University, Mauritius. She runs BRIM Ltd, a digital comms and content marketing company in Kigali. She is obsessed with fonts, free t-shirts, and fine sentences. You can find her writings on AfricanWriter, Praxis Magazine, Thrive Global, The Question Marker, Medium, her blog – Odetoateen, and her LinkedIn page.