The Art of Escapism and Transcending Limits: A Dialogue with Ndawedwa Denga Hanghuwo
Ndawedwa Denga Hanghuwo is a Namibian writer and student at the Namibia University of Science and Technology pursuing a degree in English Literature. Silhouette is his first published story.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Windhoek and Kampala, via email.
The protagonist of Ndawedwa’s story, Silhouette, is 22-year-old Tys Milan, who is consumed by self-hate and disappointment. While at dinner with his family, Tys plans his suicide. A year later, his tragic death is re-lived by 17-year-old Rachel after attending a party at the Milan residence.
Ndawedwa lets us into his safe space, where several short stories await publication. He talks about how, through his work-in-progress, he learns more about himself, why he sometimes prefers not to plan his stories, his love for mystery and horror, how an earlier suspicion that he had psychic powers fed into Rachel’s character, and why writing Tys was so important to him.
He also (sort of) apologizes for making other writers (like me!) look bad; laminated copies of said apology will soon be available (for a fee, of course) to private collectors.
Davina: Our second lockdown went into effect on 18th June and was partially lifted at the end of July; primary and secondary schools remain closed (they will reopen next year). Some universities have been conducting on-line classes; officially, face-to-face classes are set to resume on 1st November.
What’s it like where you are, Ndawedwa? Are schools open? How do students attend classes?
Did your degree in English literature turn out to be everything you expected it to be? Any highlights or lowlights that you’d like to share?
Ndawedwa: Currently, all the schools are open but universities have a combination of online and face-to-face learning. Earlier in the year, students from primary and secondary schools studied in shifts; different students attended on different days – say, group A attended on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and group B attended on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Regarding my course of study, everything was online. I am currently in my final year so I am doing my internship, and everything has been great so far. I got into this degree program because of my love for writing and look where I am right now (this interview). I am doing well.
Davina: About that. I think you owe me, and every writer that’s had to slog at this writing business for years, an apology. It took some of us one hundred attempts before ending up on a longlist. Then in walks Ndawedwa, whose first published story is on a shortlist! Surely! Whither buntubulamu? Whither justice? Verily, verily, thou must apologize!
Ndawedwa: I am literally laughing at this. I honestly didn’t expect this to happen. Silhouette was sort of a form of expression for me and the fact that it got me this far is surreal.
Davina: You’d best laugh in slow motion, Ndawedwa, because your apology is only valid until F-CAW, the Federation of Concerned African Writers, releases its preliminary report. Those good people, bless their souls, have made it their mission to investigate this matter. It is my sincere hope that you’ll be absolved of any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, let’s carry on.
Silhouette may be your first published story, but it’s unlikely to be the first story you wrote.
Ndawedwa: No, Silhouette is not my first or only story. I have many unpublished drafts.
Davina: A’Eysha Kassiem spoke of stories that “work on their writers in the same way that writers work on their stories”:
“…where there were many different drafts of the story, there are also many different drafts of me too.”
Is this true for you and your drafts?
Ndawedwa: It is definitely true. I have noticed that when I write, I use some of my own life experiences, or dreams that I am yet to achieve, in some of the characters I create. It is just amazing to me because I learn a lot about myself as I go along.
Davina: Agbowó, the literary journal, which now publishes writing from all over Africa, started as part of a collective founded to showcase literary writing by students and alumni of the University of Ibadan.
Does the English Literature department at your university run a literary magazine/journal?
Ndawedwa: No, we did not have anything of the sort. Writing was something that you had to do in your own time, in your own space.
Davina: What does your space look like? Here, I’m not so much interested in the physical – I write in my study, which is a small room with one table, one chair, and two windows overlooking the rest of the world – as I am in what Ladan Osman said about standing behind one’s work:
“I just think that; everyday try something. It doesn’t actually matter whether everyone understands what a work is doing or to rate it as beautiful or good. I think that if it’s real, then it’s the best that you can do at that time. So I always stand behind my work and say, this is the absolute best that I can do at this time. It can be better but I am not going to obsess over some standard of achievement, even within myself. There has to be a point where you can put it to rest and be at peace with it. Because I think for me when I don’t do that, it opens me up to evaluation outside of myself. So I just ask myself; does it do something in the world? And I count myself and my own work as work in the world.”
I’m thinking about the pressure I sometimes put on myself to write beautifully. Often, I have to remind myself that the point isn’t necessarily to write something that my peers will rate with five stars but to be able to say to myself, “Look, you’re doing the best with what you know and have right now. Tomorrow, when you have more, when you know more, you’ll do better. But, today, this must suffice.”
When you stand behind your stories, Ndawedwa, what do you say to yourself about them and the effort you’ve invested in them?
Ndawedwa: I am proud of my stories most of the time but sometimes I question them and myself. “How will the story be received?” “Is it good enough?” “Will it have an impact?” Those are questions that I always ask myself, so I asked them after writing Silhouette.
I was nervous before it was published because I thought, “What if the audience does not perceive it the way I perceive it?” What’s commonly said, about how “the worst critic you can have is yourself,” is often true for me.
Ultimately, I am happy with how Silhouette turned out. If I was not, I would not have finished it. Otherwise, my bedroom is where I work; that place is my safe space.
Davina: Is there a healthy mix of fiction and nonfiction amongst your drafts?
Ndawedwa: I am definitely more of a fiction writer. There are no limits in that world and I express myself best there. Most of the drafts are Young Adult fiction with some thriller, romance, death, and mystery thrown in.
Davina: Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh described himself as “a very private writer”:
“Even my closest friends have to ask me for work before I show them. But at the same time, I am not betrothed to any sentence or idea no matter how good it sounds. I am able to show work at any stage, if I trust you. The other thing is that I am not afraid of writing badly. So for me the work is always under construction.
“The good thing about being blind to the next unwritten five sentences is that at some point if your last written sentence refuses to develop into something more, you’re left no choice but to circle back and look for a nice location to situate your full stop. Also, I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a complete story. I’d be curious to know what you would consider a complete story. I think a good place to stop is wherever the writer runs out of ideas. But all great stories stop wherever the story, not the writer, runs out of breath. Because they’re smarter than the writer.”
Aba Asibon, who also wonders if there’s such a thing as ‘a complete story,’ spoke of knowing when to end a story:
“One of the most essential skills a writer must possess is knowing when to wrap up a narrative – you want to ensure you give some level of closure to both your characters and readers, but also want to give the reader room to apply their own interpretation. I often know when an ending is right if I feel a sense of relief after writing it, when it feels like my work there is done.”
The way I tend to look at endings is “would this be interesting for someone else to read?” I’m thinking now of Robert Heinlein’s definition of a story, which is embedded in his essay about writing speculative fiction: “A story is an account that is not necessarily true but that is interesting to read.” I tend to stop when I feel that I’ve written something which, as a whole, will interest at least one other person in this world.
Let’s start with your idea of a story; I want to resist the temptation to assume that we both subscribe to the same idea of ‘storiness.’ I’ll follow that up with questions about what set of skills you consider essential for a writer, how you know that it’s time to wrap up a story, what your thoughts are on ‘the complete story,’ if it exists in your space, and the role that trust plays in your relationship with feedback.
“Writing became a form of escapism, whether through expressing my own feelings or just daydreaming and fantasizing about a ‘what could have been’ situation.“
Ndawedwa: As cliché as this may seem, I think of a story as something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in which everything follows a pattern that leads to a fulfilling conclusion. The pattern does not have to be a straight one, but it has to make sense and keep the reader interested.
The ending of the story obviously has to tie up everything that preceded it and I also agree that the reader should still be able to see beyond the ending. When I write, I do not see the ending until I get there. Planning it ahead of time makes me feel as if I now have to follow a certain path and that doesn’t always work. It is good to plan ahead but sometimes being spontaneous is better.
When it comes to feedback, I try my best to go in with an open mind. Sometimes the feedback is soul-crushing but it is good to know what other people think. They might not see what you see but I believe that different points-of-view might help improve a story, even if just a little bit.
I also believe you should be strong enough to stand by your story regardless of feedback. As the creator of your art, you understand better than anyone else what message you are trying to convey.
I would say that an essential skill for a writer is the ability to be creative. This is obvious but important because that is the requirement of the job. Open-mindedness and versatility; one must be able to let one’s mind wander beyond what one knows and then write about that, which is helpful when you’re narrating different perspectives.
Patience is important; not every idea you have for a story will be a good one, and even if it is, there’s still a chance that you’ll get stuck along the way. One has to be patient with oneself and one’s ideas.
Davina: Recently, I was reading Short Story and Poetry, Amiri Baraka’s essay on the short story, which opens quite pointedly:
The short story should be a sacred form—since it’s the most common way we tell our lives and everybody else’s. That’s why, in my opinion, the most effective kind of story is short indeed, very short and pointed. Short enough and pointed enough to make your teeth curl.
Ndawedwa: I am about to get very candid.
Davina: Eish! Let me first fasten my seatbelt. Kale, I’m done. You may proceed.
Ndawedwa: The first half of Silhouette was actually very personal because when I wrote it, I was not in a good place. The lockdown made me question my own choices, which was pretty overwhelming; instead of keeping it all in, I formulated my questions into this short story.
Writing became a form of escapism, whether through expressing my own feelings or just daydreaming and fantasizing about a ‘what could have been’ situation.
Davina: I’ve heard a writer say, or maybe I read this somewhere, I’m at a point where I can’t tell the difference anymore, that while many of us think we read/write to escape from ‘real life,’ reading/writing often tends to do the opposite, i.e., to plunge us more fully into lived, and living, experiences. In which case one might argue that ‘what could have been…’ fantasies help us to better deal with real-world and real-time experiences.
Rhodasi Mwale said she doesn’t know if it’s possible “to have an ending or to make a decision without ‘what ifs’.”
“I have spent time in the past wondering how different things would have been. […] I think the finality of it all does affect how soon I accept a situation. I know I still have to go through the motions and experience grief. But of course, accepting the finality of a situation does very little to help with the emotional roller coaster of losing something I cherished. But I will say this, there is a peace that comes with finality even if the ending is not in my favour. So perhaps the knowledge that endings in real life can’t be changed does give me immediate acceptance.”
Ndawedwa: I see it as giving myself closure. It is okay to dream and give yourself something that real life could not give you, you know?
Davina: I know! In my fantasies I’m always acting out roles that are far removed from the world in which I live. In my most recent fantasies, for example, I’m an F1 driver. Long live fantasies! Huzzah!
Ndawedwa: So, yes, writing may seem like escaping reality but it is sometimes a way of dealing with reality, be it a bad break up, shifting political views, or diverse dynamics within one’s friendships. There are things we experience in real life, good and bad, that are sometimes hard to express, so this is where art comes in.
Davina: What part of Silhouette was the fun-nest for you to write?
Ndawedwa: Honestly, it was all fun to write but I would say the second half with Rachel and how everything unfolds from there. That element of horror and mystery and bringing it to life was definitely my favorite part.
Another part was setting up the mystery for the end. Throwing around bits and pieces about the people in Tys’ life just for them to have a bigger purpose when the reader reaches the end of the story.
Davina: The horror and mystery interact at multiple levels. There’s Tys’ horror at finding himself alive every other day. There are weird sounds in Rachel’s room. There’s also the suspense about who killed Tys. Was it Bruce? As far as motives go, he has a powerful one: revenge. Apparently, most of us will kill for one of three reasons: money, sex, or love. But just as Bruce starts to look good for it, I think of Jude. Maybe when he said “We’ll talk tomorrow morning,” he knew there would be no tomorrow for Tys. Maybe the deletion of his social media accounts, and his subsequent inaccessibility, was merely a performance.
To the above, add the story’s title—with its connections to darkness, danger, ghosts, and premonition—and you get a set up with several possibilities.
Ndawedwa: I love mystery and horror so when I thought about where this story was going, I decided to incorporate some of my own fantasies, about being psychic, into it. There was a point in my life when I thought I was a little psychic but it was merely small coincidences, I think, or maybe it was just about a need to be a little more unique. That ‘main character complex.’
So, I used little memories from back then to create some parts of Silhouette. And, also, growing up watching mystery shows and movies and reading mystery novels, I wanted to create one that I could call my own.
Davina: Memories are fascinating things. Recently, my sister was telling me about a paper she read, which cautions against fully trusting our memories. Apparently, when we think we are recalling A, we are actually recalling our most recent recollection of A. So that, in effect, we are pulling up a memory of a previous memory of a previous memory of a previous memory of a previous memory of A.
I’ve also heard that sometimes we remember events that didn’t occur; that our brains can create past experiences that effectively have no pasts! That really shocked me, you know, that idea that some of our memories might be fictitious.
Otherwise, I’ve never met anyone who thought they were psychic before. I’ve watched shows about people who claim to have the power to communicate with the spirits of murdered victims, but that’s as far as I’ve gone. I know several people who insist that there are no coincidences, also, so maybe you are a bit psychic!
My entrance into horror was via the stories I heard as a child. I remember especially a cousin who stayed with us while she recuperated from surgery. My sister and I spent many hours in the living room, listening to her. (We’d turn off the lights, and retreat to the darkest corner.) There were always characters in her stories who could get the dead to rise, leave a burial ground, and follow them. The dead would then be taken to gardens to dig!
I could never get enough of those stories! I’m convinced that they contributed to my later fascination with horror movies. As a teenager, I watched so many of those that I became hardened; I prided myself on being un-scare-able.
Ndawedwa: I hated horror while growing up. People would tell stories and I would cover my ears and sing to myself just to drown out their voices. I recently (2018) started getting into horror movies and shows and there is beauty in writing about things that are unknown because you are not limited to ‘facts.’ So I thought it would be fun to try and go beyond what I know.
Davina: For Joshua Chizoma, writing familiar settings helps create familiar characters:
“I also think it ties into nostalgia and memories, how we want to go back to the places we were, how stories are intricately tied to location. For Collector of Memories, it was important for me to situate it in Aba because that is where the story most likely would work for me. I guess it [is] what writers like Otosirieze Obi-Young and Akwaeke Emezi do when they write about Aba, and of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she writes about Abba and Nsukka, and Arinze Ifeakandu when he writes about Kano. There is something whimsical about writing about a place where you grew up in or a place that holds a lot of memory for you. But particularly for me, it is the grounding it gives me that is most important.”
He admits, though, that with his earlier stories, he “wasn’t particular about setting.”
“I think I used a couple of places like Lagos and all of that. Increasingly, I am finding out that the setting of my story actually grounds the story. Writing is a bit like reaching out into the void, calling things out of the void. Having some concrete thing actually helps – it does help me.”
Does place play an important part in grounding your stories, Ndawedwa?
Ndawedwa: Yes, and no. With Silhouette, setting it at home felt like the better option because it was going to be my first published story and it is also a short story so I felt the setting needed to be familiar. With my recent drafts, I have created my own worlds. It all depends on the writer and how well they are able to sell a place to the reader.
Davina: Tell me about those worlds.
Ndawedwa: They are more an imitation of reality, but with adjustments that satisfy me. Mirror universes, basically; everything in them is both the same as, and yet also very different from, what’s in our world. New countries. New continents. I’ve not gone as far as the deep unknowns of fantasy and science fiction yet (unless you count the comics 15-year-old me drew once upon a time). One day, though!
Davina: Ah, but if we start talking about comics, Ndawedwa, we won’t finish this interview! Allow me to loop back to what you said about creating something you can call your own. I sometimes have a literal interpretation of this; there are several stories that I’ve either left unfinished or finished but refused to share with anyone else. Do you have stories like that? ‘For-my-eyes-only’ stories? Stories that make you go, “These are mine! My preciousssss! Muahahahahaha!?”
Ndawedwa: Yes!!! The first story that I wrote. It was my first year at university and there were past loves from high school that still lingered while I tried to find new love, so I just went wild. I laugh thinking about it. I was learning a lot about myself then and it all needed to be documented. There is a lot in those three books that is for my eyes only.
Davina: You said Rachel’s half was the most enjoyable for you to write. You introduce her to the reader in a very business-as-usual like manner – when she’s pulling up her braids. But there’s also the childlike skipping over puddles of last night’s rain, indirect suggestions of death, and reminders of watery images from earlier (answering Hypnos and swallowing the Silenor pills in the pool to shorten Charon’s ferry trip). After which, the casual intimacy between her and Pewa in class – and how it’s worlds apart from the choreographed closeness in the Milan home, where Tys’ musings are anything but business-as-usual.
I like Rachel because she gets in the way of my usually straight ideas about who the principal character is/should be. I start off the story with no doubt that Tys is the protagonist. But by the end, I’m not sure anymore that he is. Can I trust her version of events, though? At some point, she doesn’t trust her own eyes. So, should I?
Ndawedwa: I think you should. Rachel’s entire character arc is different from that of Tys – kind of like the opposite in age, sex, and social status. She sees a totally different version of the events that took place and this may be a little far-fetched from the story but the main idea is that sometimes those that are looking in from the outside always see things differently from those that are on the inside.
Davina: Incidentally, my first impression of reading Rachel was that she is an outsider, so what you say doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. It makes sense that you meant for there to be considerable counterpoint between her and Tys. My challenge was that I initially struggled to understand why you chose her, out of everyone you could have chosen: why was she the filter through which the second version of events emerges? What was it about her that made that call necessary?
Earlier, I meant to say that it seemed to me as if the events filtered through her point of view, especially the last beats of the story, took place within her mind rather than in ‘real life.’ If there was a better way to explain this, I would.
Ndawedwa: Rachel was the bridge that connected one point of the story to the next. She has psychic abilities so being exposed to the Milan house after what happened there fed right into her powers. I am really not sure how to explain this but, you know, sometimes when you are exposed to a new environment, your abilities sprout.
Davina: Ah, yes! That new environment/emergence of abilities angle is the bridge I’ve been looking for! I’ve been fixating on her part of the story because I kept thinking I was missing something. What you’ve said gives me so much closure.
Now, onto something else I’ve fixated on – a line I can’t get over: “Lockdown rules: love the one you’re with.”
There are so many ways I read that. Lockdown is the rule, and the exception is that you must love whoever you’re with. Attention, humans, all lockdown rules will now be summarized into “love the one you’re with.” And so many ways in which it resonated with me.
I tend to divide my first lockdown into three phases. The first was spent with a family of three. The second was spent with a roommate – an assistant professor from India with the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard; she’s those people whose laughter makes your joke seem much funnier than it is. In the third phase, I was alone in the apartment and effectively only had myself to love.
In the last year and a half, ‘self-care’ and ‘self-love’ are terms that have taken on great significance (and not only within the context of quarantine-induced isolations). Self-care was actually the theme of my reading club’s August meeting. So when I walk into the Milanses double-income, 3.0 kids, suburban home for the first time, and encounter Tys’ numb and static mind, and meet his father, who Tys can only talk to about his new passion during a family vacation, I wonder what difference self-love might have made.
Ndawedwa: Creating Tys’ character was really crucial and important for me. I always say the best type of love is the love that you have for yourself because this is your life and you must do what is best for you. But the question that came to me was, “what is self-love without an external support system?”
Tys is a young man and often young people need the support of their parents. He already had doubts about the first career he chose because of his father’s disapproval. So, at that point, he was afraid to do what he wanted because of his father and that created the impression that he was not living his life for himself and when he was, he was looked down upon. So I think if Tys was not afraid of making himself happy, and had he had the support he wanted, his train of thought would have been different.
Davina: When you speak of support, I’m reminded of a piece my club read, i.e., bell hooks’ Love as the Practice of Freedom.
hooks writes that “the absence of a sustained focus on love…” is the result of “a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns”:
“Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination.”
Ndawedwa: Tys represents many different things. Dead end job; the need for change; an exploration of youth; the fear of disappointing a parent. All these are struggles that many people can relate to. Having to make a choice that results in your happiness but simultaneously hurts your loved ones is hard, and when you have a character like Tys who is his own person but whose choices nevertheless have to be approved by someone else, it creates internal conflict.
I agree with hooks’ quote. Life in itself is already hard, especially in these times. Self-love is important, especially as it manifests through expression and exploration. We tend to condition ourselves for the either/or; if you’re not this or that, you are deemed a failure. Instead of letting one person walk into the unknown alone, because it is what they desire and the consequences are theirs to face, I think society would be better if we said, “Let me walk with you; let’s learn together along the way.”
I really hope this makes sense.
Davina: It does. It can be difficult to find your way, and yourself, in a world that’s determined to extract as much from you (whether it’s time, skills, or sanity) at as little cost to itself as possible.
Jobs emancipate us; they’re usually one of the principal ways through which we know that we are properly grown up. You’re more likely to be treated as an adult when you have a stable 9-5 (and/or don’t live with your parents). Work is beholden for the opportunities it gives young people to break free, to become their own people. On the other hand, work can also enslave us.
What does meaningful work look like to you?
Ndawedwa: Anything can be meaningful work; I honestly think it depends on the person. Your boss might think that the work you are doing is meaningful because it is his company and it has to do well but, to you, it is more of something you just tolerate.
In my own experience, Silhouette or writing in general, is meaningful work because I am doing something that I love and that I hope will further my writing career. That is meaningful to me because at the end, I will feel accomplished and proud compared to, say, working 9-5 because if I do not, I will starve. So I will say meaningful work is defined by the individual’s feelings after the end product.
Davina: Writing as meaningful work. I like that. When asked about his greatest concerns as an editor and writer, Billy Kahora, who was then Managing Editor of Kwani?, said:
“The general lack of [literary] tools in the material we receive. When present, those with these tools seem disconnected from local realities, narratives and expressions. One specific technical question I’ve [been] trying to grapple with for the last few years is the dearth of ‘honest’ voice – that which brings forth a real subjective experience located in our idea and experience as a space but understands literature as an artistic register with aesthetics, technical rules and a larger vision. It is often ‘either, or.’ Many writers have access to interesting subjective experience but hardly understand the aesthetics of literary narrative. Those who seem to grasp the latter might well be writing from Mars—which is actually fine—if you are [on] Mars. (Please understand that my comments are written with a certain bias for literary mimetic representations).”
What are your greatest technical/aesthetic concerns as you work towards furthering your writing career?
Ndawedwa: Going into writing, one tends to borrow much from reality, which means several themes or topics are likely to be tackled, sometimes simultaneously. A constant fear for me will always be if I am doing justice to a subject I am writing about. What might seem true to me might not be true for the next person but I always try to be true to myself and my point of view.
Davina: Ah, I’m in good company then. That’s a constant fear of mine, too—writing about things in a way that lacks nuance and/or isn’t true to my vision.
Do you have a favourite Namibian writer, and what kind of legacy do you hope to leave for Namibian writing, and other Namibian writers?
Ndawedwa: I don’t yet have a favourite Namibian writer, but hope to find several Namibian writers that will resonate with me along the way.
I hope to inspire other writers to emerge and tell their stories. Namibia does not have a big writing community so I hope that changes someday. There is much untapped knowledge here that needs to be brought to life.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
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.