Learning as a Historical Enterprise: A Dialogue with Rémy Ngamije
Rémy is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. He is the founder, chairperson, and artministrator of Doek, an independent arts organisation in Namibia supporting the literary arts. He is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first and only literary magazine.
His debut novel “The Eternal Audience Of One” is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S). His work has appeared in AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, American Chordata, Doek! Literary Magazine, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, New Contrast, Lolwe, and many other places.
He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 and 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prizes. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com
BY CHISOM OKWARA
This conversation took place over the course of a week, between Kigali and Windhoek, through emails.
Chisom: Congratulations again on making the shortlist for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. How did you feel about getting shortlisted? You made the 2020 longlist for Only Stars Know The Meaning of Space. Do you remember what went through your mind as you turned in your story, The Hope, The Prayer, And The Anthem (or The Fall So Far) for this year’s prize?
Rémy: I feel the same way whenever I submit something to any literary platform for consideration: a mixture of panic and resignation. Panic because, well, it is always intimidating to submit any writing for scrutiny. Especially when it is for a literary prize like Afritondo. And a sense of finality and acceptance: que sera sera—what will be will be. It is important to let go of one’s work once maximum effort in the execution thereof has been expended.
I was more nervous about submitting Only Stars Know The Meaning Of Space because the 2020 iteration of the Afritondo Short Story Prize focused on love as a theme. I was hesitant about submitting Stars because I was not sure it was a love story, or, rather, I was anxious that it did not fit the conventional understanding of love. I felt more confident submitting The Hope, The Prayer, And The Anthem (or, The Fall So Far) because of this year’s theme: identity. It felt broad enough to encompass a range of stories, especially The Hope which I had spent a year and a bit working on. Being shortlisted is an honour, of course. But I think being longlisted is a prize in itself because one gets to be included in the Afritondo anthology. The chance to work with the team is something I look forward to.
Chisom: I read Only Stars Know The Meaning of Space (published in the anthology, Yellow means stay) this morning, right before starting my work for the day. Full from eating way too many bananas for breakfast, and trying not to think too much about an impending deadline, I let out a grin when I saw the opening African proverb about the buttocks being like a married couple…and then I dived in, and a staunch intentness followed. In the early parts where I paused, I wondered- “do I think about this piece from the lens of the alter-ego, of the many ways an individual can become different, almost unrecognizable (without meaning to); how one would never get to know enough of themselves, would keep discovering new traits (and persons) in, of, and as them?” However, when I neared the end, I thought “Perhaps, this offers a glimpse into who we are: boy – our past (which never really passes); man (our fears and anxieties and weaknesses and evils); poet (our beauties – of present good days and imagined future bliss)”. But then the story ended with the character being regarded as neither boy, man, nor poet – just as “him” which got me wondering if perhaps, that was another way to look at the “blindness” often associated with love or if it resonated as an expansion of what a person can be. In all, the story got me reflecting on what it means to see a person – not just a lover – anyone.
Rémy: What is a boy? What is a man? What is a poet? Stars does not really say. It merely shows the outlines of these beings and attempts to show their actions and consequences as they are experienced by the significant other in the story. All three states of being are wrapped up in the same person. But at the same time they are not the sum total of that person. It is my feeling that numerous people try to sift the parts they like about their romantic interest from the parts they detest. Ultimately, I think that leads to a deep sense of confusion (How can he/she/they be like this when they can also be that? How can he be kind to me but cruel to my friends? How can she know me but not herself?). If that confusion is not overcome, it becomes dissatisfaction. I guess, then, that in coming to the sense of love which Stars’ main character arrives at requires one to let go of whatever boxes in which they have placed their lover. That sense of acceptance, I think, is crucial for long-term love. Because poetic energy is not a sustainable force; a good man is hard to find (I am told); and boys, unfortunately, tend to be boys sometimes. In the end, I think the main character arrives at that place of acceptance. Most importantly, she is willing and ready to accept him for who he is rather than what he is not. That is another crucial element of that whole bargain: she accepts him; she does not, for example, settle for him. After weighing up everything, both the dirt and the star fire, she decides she wants him.
Chisom: Considering at a time you were adamant that Only Stars Know The Meaning of Space was not a love story until—it seems to me—you went through the process of working it into this final form, I am curious to know what story you’d seen it as then – and perhaps still, as it could be more than a love story. In a tweet about your early thoughts on the story, you mentioned viewing it as a “strange piece of writing that you didn’t want to call a love story”. What seemed strange about it to you at that point?
Rémy: I admit to harbouring an inexplicable prejudice against love stories in the past. Mostly because the ones I had been exposed to lacked the detail, rigour, messiness, and honesty that I felt were unavoidable in life. So when I wrote Stars and looked at it, with all of its deeply disturbing reflections on romance and attraction I thought, heck, this is not a love story: this is literature.
(Laughs). Of course, that is total garbage: romance is not a weaker form of writing. In fact, it is one of the hardest, especially when one takes into consideration the pasts and presents of the characters in Stars. The stakes of the investigation (the story) and the representation (the writing) are quite high; if anything went wrong the whole story would be terribly wrong. I appreciated that about Stars. It was a damn hard story to write.
I never had to “work” Stars into a love story. The final version mirrors the draft and the outline. Stars is what it is. Rather, the gist of my comment was this: “It is not that I did not want to admit that it was a love story (because it was) but rather that I was afraid that in calling it a love story its so-called gravitas would be diluted (which, really, it was not).”
“Learning is a historical enterprise. Things need to be in the past so they can be assessed holistically. The most one can do with present moments is be around for them, and to be alert. It is hard to learn what you slept through in class.“
Chisom: Indeed, considering the non-negotiable sensory depth love and/or romance stories demand, it must be difficult to write them well. Do we look forward to more from where Stars came from?
Rémy: The Hope, The Prayer, And The Anthem (or, The Fall So Far) come from the same universe. The main character in The Hope is the man-boy-poet in Stars. They both come from this collection of interconnected short stories I am working on at the moment. So that is the cat out of that bag.
Chisom: Reading this year’s shortlisted entry, The Hope, The Prayer, And The Anthem (or, The Fall So Far), felt to me, at first, like wading through a sort of life-themed flash mob that, unlike typical flash mobs and very much like life, took an anti-climatic turn as yards and compounds gave way to streets and highways. With such palpable lightheartedness and no-holds-barred humour throughout the piece, I thought to myself, “Rémy must have had fun writing this”. Did you? Would you rather replace this conception of “fun” to one of “freedom”; or both or none? Was it “freeing” writing The Fall? It took a year, and a bit, you say. What was that like?
Rémy: I think every story is fun while it is in the writer’s head. Actions flow seamlessly between each other; characters are fully realised, real in ways that only the writer can explain; and the story makes “sense.” Transferring the story to writing changes everything. Almost immediately, one realises that language behaves differently on the page than it does in one’s head, and time is not as elastic as one thinks it is. If these challenges are not overcome that sense of fun vanishes quite quickly. It did in my case. The Hope was a hard story to write because, firstly, there are so many themes I wanted to investigate in the original draft. It was so much longer. Too long. Secondly, I am not certain I had the skill to explore all of the nuances in the story at the time. I had to acknowledge my limitations and whittle it down to its present form. I found out that I could explore the ideas I removed from it in other writings elsewhere. Like in Stars. The original draft of The Hope was produced at the tail end of 2019. In trying to find a home for it, it necessarily underwent numerous revisions with each rejection. This is normal for any short story; and I am happy to see this story’s journey to its present day. Humour is a hard thing to handle, especially given the characters, plot, and themes The Hope deals with. If it seems like it was fun to write I am glad that I have achieved that effect through my writing.
Chisom: Interconnected stories – how intriguing! I’ll speak for me (and the rest of your readers) – we’re all suited up and ready for the ride!
Rémy: Haha. Thank you. I appreciate it. We shall see where this publishing journey leads.
Chisom: On the themes and nuances you seek to investigate/explore in your stories, what often inspires them?
Rémy: I guess at this present moment I am interested in finding out the forces that have helped to shape the current world I live in (as a black man, as a black man in Namibia, as a black man in Africa, as a human being in the world – and as many other things besides those general ideas). There are things that happen in everyday life that seem to transcend mere reality; they seem almost fictional. Surely no one would feel that way about turning thirty. Or be inexplicably trapped in one’s grief. Or have friends that are so at odds with one’s character. But then, of course, such things do exist. I am interested in exploring these things because they are all around, and I am curious about how they come to be or how they are experienced and what their consequences are. Mostly, though, I think I am curious about the human spirit and how it is affected by time. This, at least, is what I can articulate about the work I try to explore in my short stories.
Chisom: “There are things that happen in everyday life that seem to transcend mere reality; they seem almost fictional.” Indeed. Indeed. There have been—and continue to be—realities that stretch so far deep into the realms of the “impossible” I often wonder if our imaginations can ever really catch up. Your curiosity about the human spirit and how it is affected by time resonates with me. I remember being so conscious of my transition from teenagehood that I journaled the last 31 days before my 20th birthday and published a few of those on my then blog (precisely called odetoateen). Sometimes I feel like my consciousness of time’s passing only awakens towards the end of a life phase, not during. Being in my early 20s now, I have struggled, and still struggle, to articulate—at least, to the depth I desire—what is going on in and around me.
Rémy: I presume that is because learning is a historical enterprise. Things need to be in the past so they can be assessed holistically. The most one can do with present moments is be around for them, and to be alert. It is hard to learn what you slept through in class.
Chisom: Before we dived into this dialogue, you responded to an early question of mine around your thoughts on turning 30, and you acknowledged the pertinence of the COVID-19 crisis and present global uncertainty to the pace and nature of your induction into decade number 3 (my words). In what ways have the current times influenced your outlook on time, and perhaps, the way the human spirit responds to uncertain times?
Rémy: This pandemic is the first real crisis I am facing as an independent adult. There have been other challenging times in my life, of course, but upon reflection my parents were always around as a shield because they either knew better or had been through worse. These times, though, are new for everyone. My support structures, like family and friends, have been distant because of concerted efforts to protect everyone’s health. The distancing was, at first, freeing because I filled my time with furious activity. But as time dragged on, these activities became a bit directionless. Most of the things I enjoy require a community or work to build one: like dancing or the writing workshops I teach. Without people, without contact, without the fear of contact, those activities become diluted and not as pleasant. A year on from the first global lockdown I have learned to take a long view of life. All things, even global health, take time. As for the human spirit’s response, the evidence lies before us: there is fear, anger, division, and also hope.
Chisom: Doek, Namibia’s first literary magazine, which you co-founded, expanded to launch an independent arts organization this year. This past month, Doek started hosting in-person literary workshops. Looks like the community is gradually coming back around, although I do acknowledge that the fear of contact might remain even after the world beats this virus. What has this journey – of chairing a landmark literary organization been like; pairing the creative with the strategic and administrative? Are you one of the lucky ones who can just ‘do it all’? And dance too!
Rémy: Just to clear up the confusion: Doek, the arts organisation, publishes Doek! Literary Magazine. Though the former might have been registered and incorporated later because of time and resource constraints, the latter is but one of the many projects it runs, along with literary initiatives such as the writing workshops, awards, a potential festival, an arts centre, and an endowment fund for the literary arts. The last four projects are dreams the Doek team are working towards. The workshops, like Doek!, are another pragmatic example of how Doek adapts to its environment in the pursuit of its goals. They were the most feasible project given the times. The in-person workshops are taught to small classes which are able to comply with COVID-19 preventative measures. They focus on topics that are essential for the nascent literary community. They are off to a good start. The participants are the best kind of writers: eager and curious. We could not ask for more.
I cannot do it all. So I do not try to. I look for things that can teach me something, things that I enjoy, or projects and challenges that should be done differently, and then try to do them to the best of my abilities. I do not mind failing, so long as I fail in interesting ways. Chairing Doek is the culmination of a long, searching journey I have been on since I was at university. I have been looking for a career with meaning beyond its immediate job description and performance evaluations. I found that in Doek and the smart, engaged, critical, compassionate, and determined team I am lucky enough to lead. I spend my time trying to repay the faith my patron, the Honourable Justice David Smuts, and trustees—Jakob De Klerk, Bonita De Silva, Cara Mia Dunaiski, Louis Kato Kiggundu, and Heike Scholtz—have shown in me by being part of Doek and its bold mission.
As for dancing, that is just another journey for me. I am looking for my part and my steps in the grand dance of life.
Chisom: Sounds like Doek, the arts organisation, has got a full package in store. Yes to going all out for the arts across the continent! Your approach to the things you do, this openness to failing in interesting ways, is inspiring. As we near a wrap, your first novel, “The Eternal Audience of One” was released last year. Congratulations! NewFrame described it as transportative; Peter Orner found it profoundly moving and humane. In your blog, you reference Menahan Street Band’s “You make the road by walking” in looking back at the process of writing the novel. What does “walking” look like for you at this stage in your literary/artistic journey?
Rémy: Hmm. I think the discipline of the walking has been rewarded and so it is much easier to maintain faith in the whole process. Right now I am happy to not be walking alone. There are amazing writers and literary personalities on this journey with me like Mubanga Kalimamukwento and Natasha Omokhodion Kalulu-Banda from Zambia, Zanta Nkumane from Eswatini, Troy Onyango from Kenya, Dzekashu MacViban from Cameroon, and so many others. We are all on our own separate journeys, of course, each of us producing work with different focuses, but there is this general sense that our paths intersect here and there. Being alert and alive to the magic that happens from such encounters, I think, is the most important part of this leg. And, of course, taking the time to enjoy the rewards of the journey: like the enterprising spirit of the Afritondo team in setting up this short story prize that resulted in me being shortlisted alongside talented writers like Joshua Chizoma, Justin Clement, Desta Haile, and Faraaz Mahomed. By extension it also led me to this interview with you. I appreciate all the steps taken to get this far. And I look forward to everything else that comes hereafter.
Chisom: I also look forward to all that is to come. It’s great that you mention other amazing African writers. These are exciting times for storytelling from across the continent. It has been a pleasure having this rich and insightful dialogue with you, Rémy. Thanks, and goodluck for the Afritondo prize!
Rémy: Thanks for the interview and the sharp questions.
Photo credit for featured image of Rémy Ngamije: Abantu Book Festival
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
Chisom Okwara is a Nigerian writer and interviewer. She writes essays and travelogues (with publications in the Question Marker, Thrive Global and Popula) and hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. She participated in British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference for young student journalists in 2019. Currently, she is a full-time Project Coordinator at SoCha LLC.