Frowin Becker is a Namibian PhD candidate at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand where he is investigating the power of acoustic monitoring as a tool to measure environmental change. He holds a master’s degree in Conservation Ecology from Stellenbosch University and has worked with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. Frowin is also a board member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Africa section.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between Namibia and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Hello Frowin. Firstly, congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards. And thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview.
Frowin: Hi Saliha. Thanks so much! I appreciate the congratulations and you reaching out for an interview.
Saliha: Is there a Doctorate in the House? is such a bumpy read. Your writing has skillfully and brilliantly made me feel frustrated, excited, on the lookout and then relieved. What made you want to write and share this personal story? Was it the frustration and struggles that came along your way when completing your doctorate degree? Or was it the revelation and the catharsis at the end?
Frowin: I started writing it, simply to help me process the abruptness of the changes my studies were undergoing. I just blurted out words onto a page initially. It was cathartic, but very raw and once I started reassembling my degree, I realized how healing and liberating this form of writing was. Especially because I rarely allowed myself to break away from scientific rigor. I started finding more and more joy in the writing process and in crafting something personal. I constantly revisited and remolded the piece—retracing experiences and perspectives. Once I submitted it, which was a spontaneous decision, Rémy Ngamije and Zanta Nkumane encouraged me to explore my sense of home a bit more, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. It helped me reattach various life decisions to my identity and upbringing.
Saliha: I am really happy to know that writing this essay was liberating and helped you to explore more of who you are and where you belong. It indeed helps a lot to have great editors with insightful and enlightening feedback.
Let’s talk about writing; you said here that you started finding more joy in the writing process and in crafting something personal. How is creative writing different, for you, from academic writing? As you were working on this piece after the initial draft, were there any books, craft essays and other writing advice you checked to help you before submission, and if so, which ones did you check? I am curious about this because I only started writing last year and I want to know how it was for other new writers like me.
“Once I started reassembling my degree, I realized how healing and liberating this form of writing was. Especially because I rarely allowed myself to break away from scientific rigor.”
Frowin: Weirdly enough, no. I wasn’t checking anything, which kind of made it even more rewarding. I did turn to some past issues of Doek! But mostly just to get an idea of whether my submission was compatible or not. Scientific writing has its own rewards but it’s indoctrinating. Without being fully aware of it, I’d been yearning for a creative outlet. I think this particular piece is still very conservative, in terms of creativity. Only after I’d submitted it, I started exploring short-form literature a lot more. Particularly through African publications, like Doek!, Isele and Lolwe, and realized how freeing it truly can be. Nothing was out of bounds. Whether you felt like swearing to express yourself or pour your heart out to the reader. What struck me the most, I think, was how artfully these writers captured emotions, events or experiences spanning across mere minutes sometimes. It’s absorbing and has been inspirational. I’ve drawn a lot from that since. As I’ve continued writing, I’ve become more courageous and urged myself to overcome inhibitions.
I am also curious to know, how has it been for you?
Saliha: Thank you for this answer. Weirdly, it’s the same for me too. When I started I was afraid—and still actually am—of letting myself go creatively. But seeing the wonderful writers’ works in all the magazines that have emerged from our continent these past few years is making me less and less fearful.
When I started writing I didn’t check the process per se but I was already fond of reading about renowned writers’ habits and how they get into the process of writing, like the interviews (art of fiction) we find in The Paris Review. I mean I was not reading them to follow their exact formula but just because I took and still take pleasure in reading them.
As much as the piece is a creative outlet to what you have experienced, there are also hard truths in it. By that I mean the hardships of getting a scholarship as Africans in western schools and universities and the near impossibility of getting one’s research or creative work funded. These hardships didn’t stop you from still pursuing your doctorate degree since, obviously, you are still a PhD candidate (for which I applaud you very much). Was there any moment where you told yourself: that’s it, I give up? Were you ever near that moment? And I’m also curious to know, who are your scientific influences and inspirations?
Frowin: It is really wonderful to hear how you are exploring the process for yourself, and approaching it with less and less fear. I definitely underestimated how much courage it takes to write—especially something personal. I hope you continue to grow into your own process and I look forward to what it will produce.
Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot. There have been plenty of fleeting moments where I thought I was ready to walk away. I was never close to actually doing it though. I knew that several people had taken a risk on me and I am sure that was never free of doubt. Self-doubt is still something I am constantly struggling to overcome. Ultimately, what has kept me from giving up, was the fear of letting everyone down—including myself. I think I would have found it hard to recover from that and that is exactly why I always insisted on approaching my PhD with intention. I knew that my abilities and confidence would be tested (perhaps not quite to the extent that they eventually were), so I felt like designing a project in my own image offered a form of resilience. If that makes sense. Only fairly recently, I became confident that I would see this through. The whole experience of approaching and entering a completely new academic environment (since it was also relatively unconventional) was both challenging and rewarding. And I am also not oblivious to the privileges I enjoy as a white man. In terms of scientific influences, that has changed drastically over the years. For a long time, I had a very rigid image of conservation and environmental science. My life and work experiences have helped me challenge this rigidity. It has even led to some disenchantment. But over the years, I allowed influences outside of the natural sciences (and even academia at large) to guide my scientific curiosity and it has been hugely rewarding. Academically, one of the most significant inflection points for me was an essay by Elizabeth Garland, The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa. It completely reconfigured my thinking. But I have also learned to value the power of conversation. It continues to help steer my curiosity. Being enrolled at a university in New Zealand has also come with access to more progressive literature and thinking, which the Afrikaans conservatism of Stellenbosch University, for example, had kept from me.
Apologies, if I got carried away with that answer. I appreciate these questions!
Saliha: Wow, I got totally absorbed by your answer. Thank you for providing me with new material to read.
I used to think about academia in a romantic way. I think mainly because of television but recently on social media, with people involved in academia speaking out about its realities, I have seen how it’s actually a very difficult life. And reading your essay, it enlightened me even more about it.
Thank you for sharing your experience in how you now approach your learning and work. In this light, are you working on new other creative pieces?
Frowin: I am/have been working on two new creative pieces. One of them has already been submitted for publication (fingers crossed), which revolves around environmental perceptions through sound. The other is my first attempt at fiction.
Saliha: Aha, now this sounds great. Crossing fingers for you too. Thank you so much again for this interview, and I wish you the best of luck. I really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you.
Frowin: Likewise, Saliha. It was a pleasure. Thank you for interviewing me. Wishing you the best of luck going forward.
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winners of the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at university. She graduated in the field of Anglophone Literature and Civilization in 2015. She is an Interviewer for Fiction at the online magazine, Africa in Dialogue. She has written about cultural subjects for the Algerian online platform Dzair World and for the printed and online magazine Ineffable Art and Culture. Her debut creative nonfiction piece has appeared in Agbowó.