Keeping Climate Discourse in the Light: A Dialogue with Charlie Muhumuza
Charlie Muhumuza is a Ugandan writer and lawyer. His short fiction has been featured in Jalada Africa, Isele Magazine and elsewhere. He was awarded third prize at the inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition in 2020 and was longlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He lives in Kampala, Uganda.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This interview is a product of notes sent via email between Nigeria and Uganda.
Aisha: I want to start by asking you about what inspired your story’s title, ‘How to Operate the New Eco-Protect Five-in-One Climate Control Apparatus’ . I remember laughing when I read a tweet you posted about it. When I saw the list of shortlisted stories, I read yours first because the uncommonness of the title made me curious. Your title reads like an advert for a new gadget; it is a very unconventional title for a short story. What were your thoughts when you came up with it?
Charlie: The title was the first thing I came up with when I wrote the story. Sometime last year, I decided to write an experimental bunch of stories in the form of documents—Unorthodox Documents. I thought ‘How-to manuals’ fitted well with what I had in mind. Additionally, it was a fun little project for me and I wanted to enjoy it. That is why I went with that obnoxiously long title for the story. You are right in saying that the title reads like the story is a document about a new gadget. However, I would say it is more a user manual than an advert in this case. An ad would make an excellent idea for a story, though.
Aisha: The story reads like a manual. The genre under which your account falls is unique. Is writing this genre something that came naturally to you? Was there any point where coming up with or following the storyline became difficult?
Charlie: This particular story came pretty easy to me. I believe it is mostly because I had dreamed about it for a while and figured out a formula way before I started writing. I have come to learn that when it comes to writing, the product—which is the story, the ease or difficulty of the process could be immaterial. Once, I wrote a story where writing every sentence felt like a chore. However, rewritten and polished over the years, the result didn’t feel as laboured. With this particular story, the challenge wasn’t coming up with a storyline because of the unique genre. It was mainly with the building of the multi-faceted characters, given the story’s brevity and the narrator’s limited capabilities. In fact, I never sent it to anyone to proofread or edit because I kept oscillating between confidence in it and thinking it was utter nonsense.
Aisha: What did you do on days when you thought it was utter nonsense?
Charlie: (Laughs) Those days were many. I would stop working on it for a while, giving it time to breathe and myself time to miss it. Then all kinds of ideas on ways to beef it up would spring up, and I would think it was genius— it was a cycle.
Having said that, we can’t always wait for inspiration. When I had to work on it, especially towards the end, I had to kick those crippling feelings away and instead focus on my original thoughts for the story and what it had become—this helped me keep going. I later learned I was dealing with some sort of imposter syndrome.
Aisha: Yes, I think it’s a form of imposter syndrome. You’ve most likely read stories that were written uniquely, and you believed you could do it and you were capable of doing it. Was being shortlisted something that affirmed that your story was a great one?
Charlie: Yes, it was reaffirming and not just for that particular story but for my writing in general. The recognition of this story, which some would deem as “weird”, on the biggest global platform for unpublished short stories, has stripped me of the need to contain myself when writing. Now, I feel that I can write anything and not have to worry about whether it will be misunderstood. I have to write.
Aisha: I understand that, and I think it is excellent that you believed in your story enough for it to reach significant levels. While reading your story, I found that even with the post-apocalyptic theme, the story could be used as a warning to readers. I see signs like that in most post-apocalyptic stories and films. Coincidentally, I read your story after I watched the Netflix series Love Death + Robots. In one of the episodes, the world gets destroyed by human greed and our inability to care for the environment. Did you intend to pass this message?
“Though Africa is responsible for only 4% of greenhouse emissions, we are the worst hit. The powers know this but are still hoping to snatch some quick gains like cheap energy before they can implement the necessary measures. With such stories, we hope to keep climate discourse in the light so that these issues are attended to with the urgency they demand.“
Charlie: I love Love Death + Robots so much that I only allow myself an episode a day. There is a growing movement in eco-fiction. For example, the Three Robots episode you mentioned, and there’s even more in short story forms. This particular story is part of that genre. George Orwell says all art is propaganda. This is true for this story in that I was attempting to make the reader aware of an inevitable reality and persuade them to consider the possibility of it if nothing changes—a “warning”, as you term it. We write for the present; we may draw inspiration from the past or imagine a future, but the audience is contemporary. My goal was to pass a message that speaks to issues we’re currently facing—climate change and capitalism. While writing, I was thinking of the much-peddled innovation the latter breeds. The thing with human beings is we are brilliant, despite typical signs to the contrary. Thus, I am sure that when the worst happens to our planet, we will have solutions. However, the question remains, at what cost will those solutions come’? That is what I wanted to explore in this story. On one level, I made the cost financial because money seems to be the only language some people understand. Most anti-climate policies are in the advancement of financial goals.
Aisha: (Laughs)., I’m glad I found another fan of the show. The symbolism, animation and general storytelling of Love Death + Robots are magnificent. I believe the cost would be admitting to ourselves that there is indeed a problem. Especially here in Africa, we do not like to think of climate change as an urgent problem or one we have the solutions to. We believe there are more pressing issues such as food insecurity, poverty, etc. Do you think more stories like yours can cause a shift in our focus on the topic?
Charlie: The fight for climate justice ought to be universal. Stories like this can help amplify the voices already making a profound impact on the topic. The message of climate change must be alive everywhere we turn; on tv, in movies, in literature and in music if need be, because we are actively running out of time to save our planet. Nothing is more important than that. Africa’s other problems—poverty, political unrest, and food security, are absolute and felt. Still, we can’t claim that they are more pressing than climate change. It is just as serious and urgent, and in fact it aggravates these issues. In Uganda, climate change is too obvious to be denied. We do not have summer, spring, or winter. Usually, we have two seasons that alternate twice a year– the dry season and the wet seasons. In the dry season, it’s mostly sunny, while it rains heavily in the wet season. However, right now, the seasons are jumbled. We are experiencing scorching sun in the wet season and downpours in the dry season. Farmers that rely on these natural patterns are feeling the pinch. Though Africa is responsible for only 4% of greenhouse emissions, we are the worst hit. The powers know this but are still hoping to snatch some quick gains like cheap energy before they can implement the necessary measures. With such stories, we hope to keep climate discourse in the light so that these issues are attended to with the urgency they demand. Sorry, I’m talking too much.
Aisha: Oh no, you are not talking too much (laughs). We also experience the effects of climate change in Nigeria, which affects everything we do. We have similar seasons as Uganda, plus Harmattan. Recently, there have been floods constantly, and the weather here is becoming irregular. Do you think more African writers need to start exploring this genre? To paraphrase what you said earlier, writers are tasked with informing people about the issues we face.
Charlie: Sorry about what’s happening in Nigeria. It’s terrible that no place on Earth has escaped the wrath of climate change.I would say writers are already exploring the subject sometimes unconsciously. Interestingly, you can capture the changes in climate by juxtaposing stories from different times. A story written and set in the 60s can mention, in passing, the weather patterns of the day or month for a place. Another story set in the 2020s may speak of the weather in that same place during the same month, and you may realise that the weather from then and now are so wildly apart. I believe that alone is insightful. Imagine the difference in the intensity of the Harmattan through the eyes of different generations in their writings. This morning, I read a story on Lolwe titled “Can I Show You Magic?” by Jedidiah Mugarura. In the story’s opening, the narrator mentions that grasshoppers, which are seasonal insects that are a delicacy for many in Uganda, usually fly in April but that in the previous year they flew in late May. With this, you get the picture of climate change, even when it’s not a significant theme in the story.
Aisha: Thank you, I can see how it becomes an unconscious thing. I will write more about the Harmattan and gusty winds, which start in November and end in March. If the Harmattan season extends to May, I will write about it. Apart from climate change, your story has a dash of horror. One would categorise it as a thriller/horror story because of how the New Eco-Protect Five-In-One Climate-Control Apparatus turned out. What inspired this twist in the story? I sometimes wonder how writers can come up with such scary situations.
Charlie: One of the readers at the Prize called it witty and terrifying, so your categorization is shared. I believe the horror of it was integral to the story. It was less of scary props and more of the consequences of an action in the advancement of the plot. I didn’t consider it that scary while writing, so now I’m worried some readers will be thrown off. Still, it’s not gory, so I guess that’s alright. As for writers who come up with nail-biting scary situations and do such a great job at it, I’m amazed. I’ve just realised that I do not know many African horror writers. There is only Dilman Dila at the top of my head. Why do you think that is so? Do you know any? I don’t think it’s because we want to write escapes from our daily life. After all, people write sad stuff—good sad stuff. It also can’t be because it’s not part of our culture; all the folktales from my childhood involved dark horror, like monsters eating children, and I was five and listening.
Aisha: You’re right. The only time I remember reading a story by an African writer that had a little bit of horror was a story by Ope Adedeji. I can’t remember the title, but it was a bit scary. Did you have any obstacles with balancing the terror in the story?
Charlie: The story you are talking about must be “The Photograph on the Wall” by Ope Adedeji. Adedeji is brilliant. Her story “‘The Caller” is also quite the thriller. Regarding obstacles with balancing the terror in my story, I didn’t have many. Terror is such a heavy word; terrorism, terrorist, but it’s the right word. I felt it was either I raise the stakes or make the story longer. However, I was also intent on avoiding monotony, so I could not make it longer.
Aisha: (Laughs). Terrorism. I didn’t think the word was so heavy when I used it. Was it intentional, though? Did you intentionally want to incite that feeling of fear, or were you just concerned about informing readers about the consequences of the characters’ actions?
Charlie: I intended for readers to see these situations as scary but not necessarily feel them. Some things are difficult to see, say losing a child. It’s never my intention to appeal to the readers’ feelings; the emotions are secondary and arise from their empathy. I personally never feel these things while writing, so I cannot discern that others will. I have had a friend tell me they cried while reading a story of mine, and I couldn’t tell which part made them feel that way.
Aisha: I have noticed this indifference to the pain characters feel. I see it when I’m writing as well. Writers are sometimes indifferent to the pain of the characters they write about. Have you also thought about this? Do you think it’s a problem?
Charlie: Yes, yes. I was recently fortunate enough to attend a masterclass by Zukiswa Wanner, and I learnt that we ought to feel these things when writing or readers will not. We draw from personal experiences and past feelings, even subconsciously. I looked back at my answer to the previous question and felt ignorant and foolish,but we keep learning.
Aisha: Well, now I feel foolish too (laughs), but as you have said, we’re all learning. Was there anything you learned while writing the story?
Charlie: Yes, I learned a lot doing the research to write it, Mostly the documented effects of climate change, the world over that I hoped to incorporate. I also learned about writing as a craft since I had to know the rules before breaking them for the experimental nature of the story.
Aisha: That’s wonderful to hear. Thanks for talking to me about your story and your craft, Charlie. I wish you good luck.
Charlie: You are welcome. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Aisha, for the great dialogue and the opportunity to re-examine my understanding of writing and all these auxiliary worlds.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tealee A. Brown.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a Law student, poet and freelance writer and journalist from Kaduna State, Nigeria. Her poems, essays and curated interviews have been published in Document Women, Africa in Dialogue, Agbowó, Muslim Girl, Aster Lit and others. In 2019 she won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. In 2020, she was one of the judges for the same award. When she isn’t studying and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats, watering plants, reading about Sufism and working to spread mental health awareness as Head of Administration at the FAM Initiative. Aisha currently writes for Document Women’s Arewa Voices column. She hosts two podcasts, namely the Poet Box Series and Story ER.