The Fictional Character as a Teacher: A Dialogue with Howard Meh-Buh Maximus
Howard Meh-Buh Maximus is a Cameroonian writer and scientist. His work has appeared in anthologies as well as literary magazines such as Catapult, The Africa Report, Bakwa Magazine, Lolwe, and Revista Periferias. He is a winner of the 2020 Morland Writing Scholarship, was placed second in the inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition, and was a semi-finalist for the Alpines Fellowship. His story, Grotto!, won the 2022 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
He is currently at Texas State University, where he was awarded the Rose Fellowship to study for an MFA in Fiction.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between San Marcos, Texas, and Kampala via email.
Davina: This article, which claimed that you’re the first Cameroonian writer to win the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, closed with a question about whether we can say that you opened a door.
Well, can we?
Howard: Opening a door would imply that my win makes it easier for the next Cameroonian to win. Honestly, Davina, I don’t know about that. What I know, though, is that it made more Cameroonians aware of the Morland Writing Scholarship because of how widely, even to my own surprise, the news travelled.
Because of that awareness, many Cameroonians that are writing, or are interested in writing, are looking to apply. Which I think is great. Nevertheless, when the next Cameroonian eventually wins, I don’t know if it will be because I won in 2020.
Davina: Which Cameroonian writers have opened doors for you?
Howard: I would say many writers have in one way or the other, maybe through a book recommendation that inspired me or by tossing the link to an opportunity my way. But Dzekashu Macviban is definitely one to mention. Back in 2016, when we met, he practically bullied and bribed me into writing. I was in my PhD then and had no time at all. Good times! I am glad I listened to him.
Davina: Full disclosure: when I saw the theme for last year’s Afritondo call for short stories, I was very excited! Over the last few years, my relationship with, and understanding of, spirituality has shifted dramatically; naturally, I thought exploring that theme would present an interesting challenge.
The premise of the story I intended to submit revolves around the uncoupling of a woman from her husband, which starts as soon as she uncouples herself from [his] religion. The protagonist abandons her husband’s God the way most of us let go, i.e., gradually.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that, as a girl, I was expected to adopt my father’s religion, and will be expected to adopt my husband’s religion if I marry. Why is religious belief something I’m not meant to choose? Is the period between the transition from daughter to wife the only time available to explore a version of religion that makes sense to me? What if my husband’s religion is ‘the wrong one?’ Where does that leave me? Should I be held accountable for adopting the ‘wrong’ religion when, really, all I was doing was being a good and dutiful wife? I’m really interested in such questions, so that’s what I’d hoped to explore in that story.
The writing went well until about the 2300-word mark. After that, the story ‘jammed’ (as we say here).
I watched your videorsation with Confidence Uwazuruike, so I know you were determined to submit this time – having failed the first and second time. Did you ever get to a point when Grotto! jammed? Or was it smooth sailing throughout? Did you ever think “hmn…oba I just send another story?” Were you convinced from start to finish that Grotto! was the right choice?
(I have a half-finished story about a born-again mother whose teenage daughter is expelled from the boarding school she attends after she’s caught watching porn on a smartphone during evening prep; the girl dies while members of the fellowship, which her mother is part of, are trying to exorcise the ‘demon of pornography’ out of her. When the first story jammed, I toyed with the idea of completing the exorcism story and sending it instead).
Howard: That is such an interesting premise; I’d very much like to read that story one day. Another thing I find interesting is how the story/stories you write are borne of questions (too). It is almost always the same with me. Most of the stories I write, if not all of them, start as questions.
What does it mean to be this and do this? What happens when this and that come together? Why do people get what they want, only to leave it? Why do people sacrifice to make things only to break them? How far can a ‘good people’ go when put in a certain position? How do different people experience God? Don’t quote me but I’d bet many writers think in questions.
It is usually in seeking to understand that I create characters and throw them into situations that force them to teach me something, to tell me something. Sometimes they do. Other times they refuse to, so I just watch empty-handed as they carry on with their lives.
“I appreciate characters who teach me sarcasm as much as the ones who teach me ‘lifelong lessons.’“
I am sorry you couldn’t submit. As I told Confidence in that conversation, something similar happened to me last year. The story did not necessarily ‘jam.’ Or, maybe it did – in the sense that I could not complete it because of power failure. I tend to leave everything until the last minute, a bad habit I am working on (coughs). On the deadline, a few paragraphs in, AES SONEL decided to teach me a lesson in timeliness.
I am still wondering if Grotto! jammed. I think it did. I had to rewrite some things in the end. Also, when I saw that the theme was ‘spirituality,’ I wasn’t sure what to write. Fortunately, a story came to me. Because of the story’s voice, how casually it is told, I gave myself liberties. I think the only thing I worried about was time – if I’d finish and submit in time.
Also, I wish I had stories lying around. I don’t. It’s the ghetto out here.
Davina: Hah! We might have been the same person in a previous life! If the deadline is on the fifteenth, I will wait until the twelfth before I start writing the story! (I’m trying to figure out why this is. Perhaps my life is so tame that this is what constitutes a dangerous undertaking, or criminal behaviour, to me? Perhaps this is what gets my adrenaline pumping?) I recently missed a deadline because UMEME decided, in its infinite wisdom, to start load-shedding the day before the deadline. Shame upon us!
I like what you said about how, sometimes, your characters, and the situations they find themselves in, teach you things. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we can learn so much from the people we invent?
I never considered writing futuristic fiction until 2020. The possibility only revealed itself to me while I was re-reading a story of mine that got published that year. Although that story doesn’t transgress the boundaries of reality in any obvious way, there was something about it that made me consider, for the first time, taking a chance with fiction that’s set within extra- or extended reality.
Of all the characters you’ve written, who has taught you the most valuable lessons, and why?
Howard: Shame upon us! It must be said. Futuristic fiction, hmm, interesting. I have dabbled in it before, too. One or two bad stories. It was a disaster, then, but, who knows, maybe I’ll get better in the future, if I find I have that kind of story to tell. Also, see what I did there?
Davina: (Chuckles.) I saw!
Howard: I think we all have our parts to play. Each character has a duty to teach me what I want and/or need to understand at that time. Ok, maybe not all of them, but some. It also doesn’t have to be immediate. Sometimes it takes an eleventh read. Usually, it takes a third person’s remark. I appreciate characters who teach me sarcasm as much as the ones who teach me ‘lifelong lessons.’ So it is kind of hard to pick one character and say, “This one taught me the most.”
Although if I had to choose, I’d go with my story Fusion. I learned from the twins’ father that big and/or personal tragedies don’t always soften people. I had always, inactively, thought things like sickness, deaths, and/or some kind of tragedy would transform people in certain ways, usually leaning towards making them softer. After I wrote Fusion, I realized it isn’t always like that; sometimes people remain indifferent.
Davina: What I love most about Grotto! is the voice. Its playfulness, informality, and confidingness. It does most of what I seek to do in my own stories. I remember chuckling as soon as I read the first and second lines:
Babylon, how is your shit life? Hope you are pleased with yourself now that you abandoned us in this shithole, flew to wherever the fuck you are in the name of finding yourself.
Do you ever just know, from the first line, that you’re going to enjoy a story? Do you find yourself getting annoyed that a writer had the nerve to beat you to a good first line? Well, that’s what it was like for me while I was reading Grotto!
Howard: Thank you very much. I think opening sentences are the new book covers. People need to start saying, “(Don’t) judge a book by its opening sentence.” I am obsessed with them. So much so that, at one point, I started an Instagram page dedicated to opening sentences. Want to know what the tagline of the page was? Opening Sentences.
So, yeah, so many times I want to tear a book up because the opening sentence is killing me and I’m thinking “Why did I not write that first!?” But I don’t. I don’t. And it means a lot to me that you hated me at that moment, too (chuckles).
Davina: Why is it, do you think, that only you could have written Grotto!?
Howard: For one thing, I literally used the names of some of my closest friends, my high school clique, in Grotto! We call each other ‘Babylon,’ too. The utter pleasure I got from insulting them and being able to say, “Oh, it’s just the character.” I don’t know that anyone else would have done it like that. (Laughs.)
Davina: When the protagonist has sex at the house party, he describes his experience as magical. Spiritual. Out of this world.
I am familiar with the idea of sex qua spiritual experience and not merely qua physical act. What intrigued me more was the idea of poetry as something spiritual – the sort of thing that might, perhaps, characterise our comprehension (or lack thereof) of the afterlife.
Howard: I cannot take credit for describing poetry as otherworldly or spiritual. Poetry earned that position long before I came. When something is beautiful beyond reason, it is described as “poetic.”
In 1998, sports journalist Peter Thompson described the soccer world cup as “poetry in motion.” In my opinion, when you go through a poem and you go through a prayer, depending on your belief system, you may come out transformed in similar ways.
Davina: “…when you go through a poem and you go through a prayer…you may come out transformed in similar ways.” Hmmmn! How to tell you of all the times I’ve read a poem and felt the urge to chant parts of it the way I would chant a prayer!?
I am thinking now of lines like “there is skin more tender than daylight just behind the ear” and “love is not always the thick mouth of thunder” from Sarah Lubala’s ‘A List of Things I Do Not Tell My Mother’ and this, from Fatimah Asghar’s ‘When the Orders Came’:
I build safety inside you
& wake in cuffs.
I’m all mouth. every morning.
Howard: I have been reading a lot of modernist and postmodernist poetry, recently. But I’ll just say Lydia Kasese’s Fireflies is a two-line poem that has stayed with me ever since I read it:
I saw fireflies in an open field in Morogoro,
And you were there touching me.
I think, depending on where I am in my life, at any given time, this poem takes on a different meaning.
But there are others, too. There is Romeo Oriogun, and Ernest Ogunyemi, and so many others I don’t have enough space to name.
Davina: I thought the play on spiritual/ritual was very clever, notwithstanding the possibility that the latter might have involved washing someone in piss. Explain yourself, sir, while there’s still mercy to be found.
Howard: (Laughs.) You know, I did not think about this when I was writing. When I went back to read the story, I noticed this and laughed. I wasn’t sure if it was clever or just straight up corny. I am glad you think it’s the former.
Davina: It wasn’t corny. I must admit, though, that I entertained a few corny thoughts. Only after I’d read Grotto! thrice was I finally able to dislodge ‘succubus’ from my mind.
Are there things you prefer that people don’t read into, or out of, Grotto!?
Howard: I think once the story is out, there is only so much a writer can control with respect to how it is read or received. It is fiction, after all, and readers will come out of the story with all sorts of perspectives and angles which, like I said earlier, show me new things about the story that I hadn’t realised. So unless there is a call for concern (I wonder what this situation would be) I am OK with readers interpreting the story however they choose.
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, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.