Coming Home to One’s Self: A Dialogue with Fiske Nyirongo
Fiske Nyirongo is a Zambian author based in Lusaka, Zambia. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Kalemba short story writing prize. Her work appears in online spaces such as Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper (the Go The Way Your Blood Beats anthology), Writers Space Africa Magazine 2019 Love issue, Boldly Mental, and Unbound magazine. Her first children’s title was published in Cricket Magazine’s Holiday-themed issue in 2019. She has co-created two children’s books for the South African Book Dash model. Her fantasy novella, Finding Love in Betrayal was published by Love Africa Press in 2019. Her short stories, ‘Aftermath’ and ‘When We Breathe’, were published in the Sister Wives and Exhale Anthologies by Myaambo Writers Cooperative and BlackBird Books, respectively in 2020. Her non-fiction work has been published by Urban Ivy coffee table books, Meeting of Minds UK, Kitchen Witch newsletter, Our House LA, LAPP magazine, Nashville Scene, Lolwe magazine, Spill Magazine, to name a few. She was a 2020 PenPen Africa Writers Resident and was published in the residency anthology, Twaweza.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation takes place between the hot dusty Nairobi, Kenya, and a desk in a tiny bedroom in equally dusty and hot Lusaka, Zambia.
Edith: Fiske, thank you for having this conversation with me. I am so tempted to start with ‘What is your name?’ because that’s the opening line to your essay, Naming Rites, recently published in Lolwe Magazine. While reading through the essay I felt such a deep communion with it, because our African names are stories in themselves. And you weave the story of yours so beautifully.
This ‘struggle’ of whether to go with our Christian names which are easy to pronounce and are acceptable, or our African names which are often difficult to pronounce but part of our history, is a conversation worth having. And the intriguing thing about names in Africa, or rather where I come from is that everyone claims you by giving you a name. I for one, have five names. The first two are English names which I was given by my mother and father respectively. The third, is my cultural name, the fourth is my surname, and fifth is my clan’s name. I go with different names at different places since I can’t always introduce myself with all five all the time. And so maybe for me, my naming rites aren’t complete, yet. (Laughs).
Something else you say in the essay is that you have found your identity from your names, all of them. Why was this important to you? Finding out the story of your names and by extension, finding your identity.
Fiske: Thank you for having me, Edith.
‘Naming Rites’ was my coming home moment in my writing journey. I am so happy that people continue to enjoy it. You are right about being caught between our easy and difficult names. I think if a survey is conducted on what my name is among the people I’ve interacted with, most will answer, ‘she is Serah.’ I often shied away from my first name until my twenties when I started learning a lot about where it comes from and the stories in my family’s history.
We have so many names as Africans. It’s interesting how you say you have a clan name. In Zambia, it’s rare to find people who have an idea what their clan name is. Names are really important to me, in the past, I attached how a person called me to who the person was in my life. For example, the people who called me Nyirongo were acquaintances, teachers, or the uncle who despises my father. Serah was for people who fell between friends and acquaintances and Fiske (pronounced the right way) was for my family and close friends. I grouped people this way for a long time and honestly, it was exhausting.
When I was writing the essay, I wanted to embrace my names, all of them. My name is Fiske Serah Nyirongo, and I never subtract one from the rest. It used to sting a little when people would butcher my first name or immediately go to calling me Serah when they saw my names in full. This led me to become overprotective of the name Fiske. At the same time, I started to hate the name Serah because of how convenient it was. It still happens now but I make sure to correct people when I can. I do prefer to be called by my first name, but all my names are a part of me.
‘Naming Rites’ was me going back to every incident in the past that made me feel detached from my name. I wanted to work through all those feelings in writing and hug young Fiske. I have realized that I was also writing for everyone who has felt like their name is too hard. ‘Naming Rites’ is about coming home to myself and hoping that others will start to come home to themselves as well.
Edith: Coming home to one’s self is a wonderful expression, and like you, I truly wish that for all of us. Now that you mention it, I actually see that our English/Christian names are just for convenience’s sake, to make life easier for others. It’s almost funny thinking of it like that. Also, when you talk about attaching how someone called you to how important that person was in your life, it just struck me that I have the same compartmentalization. I measure the extent of my relationship to people, with the name they call me with, or even how they pronounce it.
But something else that captivates me in the essay is when you mention that your father’s surname was actually his mother’s; your surname is your grandmother’s. Though not uncommon, it’s very rare. It’s widely believed in African society that a child should have their father’s name. And that it’s a man’s right to name his child, since the male line should automatically be passed; which just goes to toe the patriarchal lines. It’s therefore refreshing to see that you have a feminine surname. Have you ever thought that your name, Nyirongo, is not only part of your identity, but also a statement on changing gender norms?
“Naming Rites is about coming home to myself and hoping that others will start to come home to themselves as well.“
Fiske: I am very comfortable with my surname but once upon a time, I wasn’t. When I learned that the name belonged to my grandmother, my first reaction was why? I believed that surnames were always supposed to come from a father, and if you had another surname then it was a declaration that your father did not want you. I guess it was a similar situation for my father only that it was his father’s family that did not want him.
I changed my mind when my older brother asked us to have a family meeting to change our surname to our grandfathers. Someone, I suspect a prophet/ng’anga had told him that every misfortune our family was going through was due to us not having our grandfather’s name. Our ancestors were not happy with us apparently, and we were being punished. The first question in my mind was, why didn’t these angry ancestors intervene when their family threw out three orphaned children (all under the age of ten!) from the only home they had ever known? I did not think it was true and I still don’t but I was upset with that part of my family tree for a while. My objections to the Nyirongo name died that day.
On one hand, I agree that it is breaking gender norms to have a mother/grandmother’s surname, on the other hand, while my grandfather’s name was erased in anger, Nyirongo isn’t a stranger’s name. It is my grandmother’s name. It is also the name of the man who took on responsibility for his dead sister. It is breaking stereotypes but it is also common sense, the people who raise us are usually found in our names, so why should surnames be any different?
I think the greatest example comes from famous last names, the (Nelson) Mandela and (Diana) Ross families for example have largely stuck with that surname because of what the name means to most people. The fathers in these scenarios I am sure understand why the children must have the famous surname of their mothers. You have to have some common sense, don’t be so lost in patriarchy that you don’t secure the bag for yourself or your children. And do not insult your foremothers, please. (that’s for my brother).
Edith: Wow! This is so good! It is amazing how we tend to invoke ancestors, and tradition when we think it’s opportune for us. We even do that with religion sometimes, fronting it as the unopposed unquestionable power to rationalize our behavior or choices, even when we are wrong. I am glad your family stood against this attempt to change your surname.
This alienation of widows and their children, or just children, especially in polygamous arrangements, as was experienced by your father and his siblings, is unfortunately a common thing. When a man dies, we sometimes see relatives coming in and taking everything belonging to the family, leaving them desolate, or sometimes chasing them away. Unless women’s property rights are protected here in the continent, this will unfortunately be something we continue to see.
And talking about estrangements, I am reminded about your story ‘Who You Are’ that is part of the short stories’ anthology, Go the Way Your Blood Beats: New Short Fiction from Africa. The story starts with an Aunt who is estranged from her family, or even maybe excommunicated, because she is Queer. 16 years later, her niece who was the ‘innocent’ propagator of this estrangement, because she reported what she witnessed, is also estranged and joins her aunt in exile, because she’s also Queer.
In both of these works, we see fear and hate, being the common thread that drives those separations. Why do you think this is so?
Fiske: Yes, we do tend to build gods in our image, whether that be our ancestors or the God we believe in.
The grabbing of property is still a business in parts of the world. I remember my roommate in University some years ago went home for her uncle’s funeral and when she came back, she told me that another uncle was angry throughout the funeral because his attempts to grab property were rendered futile when his siblings said no to his idea. His idea was to spread rumors that their sister-in-law was a witch who had killed their brother and thus did not deserve to inherit his wealth. I think what this family did is commendable, change starts with individuals, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
Estrangement has been a major theme around me from a young age. I do tend to infuse that in my fiction a lot. In Who You Are, I decided to portray separation between women related to each other driven apart by homophobia and hurt because there’s often this belief that homophobia is practiced by men more than women. That’s not the case at all in the world, homophobic men might be more verbal or physical when showing off their bigotry but homophobic women exist and are just as harmful.
Fear and hate drive the separations in both stories because people often get estranged from each other due to fear, hate (or hurt). Relationships take a lot of work to maintain. When a person isn’t accepted by the other in a relationship, it often leads to separation. That happened in both ‘Naming Rites’ and ‘Who You Are’. It is part of us as humans. When I was writing Who You Are, I had real events in my mind and I just let them all fall on paper. As countries in the world move to decriminalize same-sex relationships and protection for LGBTQIA people, a lot of people are getting aggressive as well with their opposition. I do hope that people have a family that supports and loves them, whether blood or chosen family like the aunt and niece in ‘Who You Are’ after estrangement.
Edith: I remember watching this documentary by Ade Adepitan on how widows in Tanzania are accused of being witches, and later killed so that the male relatives can inherit their lands. Just tragic!
And what you say here ‘when a person isn’t accepted by the other in a relationship, it often leads to separation’ that’s very profound. Because from business, friendships, romance, family, etc. The backbone of all relationships is acceptance, I would say. Unfortunately, we would rather people hide their true selves and be what we prefer them to be.
You also paint this in ‘Who You Are’; when Lilato’s mother is speaking, and Aunt Mwangala interrupts her to say; “You want me to keep a part of myself hidden from your children?”
Reminds me of the age-old argument of whether Queer people should come out or not, and the opposer’s main arguments are usually ‘we don’t want to know. Let them keep it to themselves’ which in simple words is ‘hide your identity’. And this homophobia, as you rightly said, is most times verbally portrayed by men than women. So, to have a story where sisters are separated because of homophobia was quite a rich angle.
I also like how you show us the harassment and abuse lesbians face by telling us about Beatrice’s scar. It’s widely believed that lesbians have an easier time than gays in society, so we sometimes downplay and ignore their plight.
But although the story has a happy ending, the happy ending is still in a foreign land. In the Netherlands. They are together, but still apart from their families. Away from their home. So, it’s a win-lose situation.
Fiske: True. We say people are being dishonest when they hide but we react violently when they are open about who they are.
I know this is a widely held belief, about how gay men are less accepted; that might be true for individuals, but the ‘acceptance’ of lesbians is almost always from the gaze of horny men. In real life, lesbians get ostracized, raped, and killed, but it’s not a contest of who has it worse. I read a story from East Africa a while ago that was basically how queer Africans run away in the night to escape death or imprisonment and are only brought back when they die. In the story, the family of the dead person insisted that he should be buried at ‘home’ with his people. It was a sad story.
I think while countries that provide shelter to queer migrants are important, there is something sad about leaving your birth country just to survive. This is why I reunited Aunt Mwangala and Lilato to add some sweetness to the bitterness.
Edith: We are a pretentious lot! In death we love beyond measure, but while a person is alive, God forbid that we ever show any care or concern for them.
I went to an all-girls boarding school and I remember there were always rumors of which girls were lesbians, and whatnot. These rumors, whether true or not, were taken so seriously by teachers, that some of the girls got expelled because of these allegations. My point being, from a very young age, we are conditioned to abhor same sex relationships. So, as we grow older, that hate unfortunately begets hate.
Going back to your earlier statement, you said that estrangement has been a major theme for you from a young age, and I like how your stories incorporate separation, with fear and hate while at the same time showing glimmers of hope amidst it all. Why do you think you write so much from this place?
Fiske: It’s a shame that this still happens in schools. Hate does beget hate. I do believe that we should move on from ‘accepting’ people, I think what we do need to do is to respect people’s humanity.
I always go back to my father’s childhood in almost every story I write. I am still processing what happened to him and his siblings. They do not know their half-siblings and they did not inherit any of their parents’ belongings. I do not know 50 percent of my father’s family. That has shaped the place I tell stories from. My father was lucky that his uncle took them in but I’m learning it wasn’t a walk in the park living with him and his family. They did not have a happy ending; this is why I try to give my main characters happy endings in each story I tell. I am trying to sort of imagine different lives for my father and countless other people I have encountered in life.
My children’s stories are much lighter, I think because of the same. African children are inquisitive, intelligent, and excited by things like rain and flying termites. I do not want the children in my stories to have their lives centered around how everything is so hard even if the reality is different for a lot of children on the continent.
Edith: I believe the most authentic stories, those that linger long after you’ve finished reading, are those told from a ‘known place’. And that’s why I’m so intrigued by your stories, because I feel it’s not just what’s happening on the paper, but that interweaving between the story and the storyteller creates an intimacy.
My father’s family was also polygamous, and growing up there were aunts we weren’t allowed to visit, cousins we weren’t allowed to talk to, uncles we couldn’t meet, because they came from a ‘different home’ and the way you openly talk and write about your family makes me, and I believe other readers, say ‘I see myself in that’ or ‘ I understand this story’ because we all come from families that have issues. So, to read about that sort of ‘homes’ us together.
I’ve read about your mother and brother and their career in nursing in your essay for the Twaweza Anthology. I’ve also read about your mother in Urban Ivy’s ‘Mothers in Time’ series, and about your father in Celebrating Black Fatherhood. In ‘Naming Rites’, you also talk of your family. If this was keeping up with the Kardashians (Nyirongo’s) I would say, I’m well versed with your family history! (Laughs)
Personally, in my writing, I tend to keep my family in the bay. And if I ever mention them, especially in my Nonfiction pieces, I try to keep them from reading those stories.
What does your family think about their constant appearances in your stories?
Fiske: Thank you for reading my stories. I always wonder how readers interpret my stories. It warms me when they say they see themselves in the story. Unfortunately, families have been torn apart in polygamous arrangements when the husband dies or loses wealth. It’s sad to know that’s your family’s experience too.
My mother is the most curious one in my family. She always asks to read my stories. I do keep the risqué pieces away from her but she’s read most of my stories. Recently she’s been asking me for love stories and I am terrified of her reading them. She’s going through her Mills and Boon novels obsession phase right now, in her sixties! It’s kind of cute but unfortunately, she cannot read my romance stories.
My family is very unconventional in a lot of ways, especially on my father’s side. So, it has always been easy for me to write truthfully about them. I never shared the writing with an audience but looking back at my diary entries from ten years ago, I always wrote about them somehow. It’s funny when you say you know my family history. I haven’t even begun to write much about my mother’s side of the family. Honestly personal essays are exhausting to write. I want to go back to writing fiction as soon as I can afford to. At least I can say, ‘it’s just fiction’ when I write fiction. I think you’ll find more facts about a writer in their fictional work.
The rest of my family is thankfully not that interested in my writing to get offended by it. They browse through to show support, or to proofread but they don’t stew on it.
Edith: (Laughs). Why can’t she read your romance stories? You don’t want her to see your ‘dirty mind’?
Fiske: She cannot. Ever. My parents should forever think I am a virgin, even when I have a partner or multiple children.
Edith: (Laughs). I also find personal essays exhausting. Maybe because they come from a place of reckoning with self, and of the realities around us. Moreover, writing truth is certainly more difficult. It should be easy, but it’s not. But as you say, even fiction comes from a place of truth. But with fiction there’s the room for ‘improvisation’.
In my earlier days I wrote a lot of fiction, now mostly nonfiction and poetry (which I still find hard to believe!) but thinking about fiction now sounds like difficult work, and as much as nonfiction is heavy, it’s easier for me to write now. One of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, writes poetry, novels, non-fiction, short fiction, and children’s books. I think the more we grow as writers, the more we can take on different genres.
For you; you write short fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. So, first question. Of the three, which was your first love? Secondly, how do you balance between the genres, and is there any you find easy?
Fiske: I think so too. I had no idea that I would be writing non-fiction full-time a year ago, and it would be my source of income. Though I envy authors who can concentrate on and perfect one genre.
My first love was writing reviews! (Laughs). I had a great teacher who would send us home with books every Friday and she would require us to hand in a review of the book two weeks later. So, to answer your question, my first love was nonfiction and I gradually moved into fiction. Children’s books are my favorite to write among all genres. They satisfy the child in me.
Actually, I am struggling to balance the genres. If anyone has an idea how to go about the balancing, please share! My fiction is struggling! Help! Lastly, I do find children’s stories easier to write.
Edith: Your fiction may be struggling in terms of you getting time to write, but it certainly is not struggling in terms of content. Your short story ‘Watershed’ was longlisted for the 2020 Kalemba prize, and in 2019, your story ‘Pain by any other name’ was shortlisted for the same prize. Only goes to show how good your stories are.
Fiske: Thank you for that reminder. I have half-finished fiction stories. It has made me think that I am losing my edge to write short stories especially.
Edith: But wait, do you believe literary prizes are a measure of how good a story/storyteller is or not? Why do you submit for the Kalemba prize or any other prizes for that matter?
Fiske: Contests have always been a fun thing for me. Writers shouldn’t rely too much on them though to tell them how good or bad their writing is. Judges in contests do judge stories on merit but there is the personal taste of each judge as well when choosing a winner. So no, I think they aren’t a good measure of how good a story, much more a storyteller is. I always use singing competitions for comparison, Idols especially. The winners on the show sometimes fade into obscurity and the runners up go on to have bigger careers. Does this mean the judges were wrong in choosing the winner? Might be yes or no depending on your opinion.
Accolades are great but so is developing my writing and writing each story better.
Edith: What a wonderful illustration!
When I enter competitions, it’s usually because I’m swept away by a particular story I wrote. There are stories I write that I think are great, and then there are those stories which I think deserve to be read by the whole word, and these are the stories I enter in competitions. It’s like telling the story ‘Look, I believe in you, and I won’t let you settle for less. You will be read by everyone’. But even if I don’t end up winning the competition, I never rest until I get that story. For me it’s always been about sharing the story with as many people as I can.
Fiske: Yes, exactly. We want our work to be read and often when we love a particular story, we enter it into competitions. It’s wonderful to be widely read.
Edith: As we come to a finish, your latest children’s book, ‘O Rain Come’, and even the previous one, ‘The New Road’, which are part of the Book Dash project have been translated into isiXhosa and isiZulu, why do you find the translations into local languages important, especially for your books?
Fiske: Book Dash’s vision is that every child should own 100 books before the age of 5 before they enter school. ‘O Rain Come’ and The New Road are part of this vision. These books are distributed in South Africa for now and South African children should be able to read a book in their daily used language.
Translated books do foster an interest in reading, especially at such a crucial age that Book Dash books capture. The under-five children mostly have a guardian who reads to them, and these guardians might not be fluent in English. Book Dash also has audio versions of the books to cater to either blind children or guardians. Translations are extremely important and help to be inclusive to the people the books go out to. Everyone deserves to enjoy books no matter what language they speak or how they can take in a story.
Edith: Famous last words; everyone deserves to enjoy books no matter what language they speak or how they can take in a story. Thank you so much for your time Fiske, and I really hope to see and read more of your amazing work out here.
Fiske: It has been my pleasure. Thank you for the work you are doing as Africa in Dialogue.
Edith Knight Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight