Home » We Must Find Meaningful Ways to Coexist: A Conversation with Rémy Ngamije

We Must Find Meaningful Ways to Coexist: A Conversation with Rémy Ngamije

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Rémy Ngamije 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. He is represented by the Cecile B Literary Agency.

He won the Africa Regional Prize of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020 and 2021. He was longlisted and shortlisted for the 2020 and 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prizes respectively. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines.

His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One, was first published in South Africa is available from Blackbird Books, and is forthcoming worldwide in August 2021 from Scout Press (S&S).

Rémy Ngamije

This interview was done between the capital city of Namibia, Windhoek, the North-Central Nigerian state of Kwara via email.

Interviewer: Shedrack Opeyemi Akanbi


INTERVIEWER

Rémy, it must be a different feeling for you at the moment. Please let me into this feeling as regards your writing and its exploits.

RÉMY

I am not sure if I am feeling any different. I am as eager to read as many stories as I can as I was before the shortlisting; I desire to write as well as my available time, my overactive imagination, and my flawed human nature will allow—no win will make this process easier for me. I am, for all intents and purposes, still a writer in the artistic struggle—looking for new and interesting ways to create and share stories. I remain a continental African writer trying to strengthen publishing from the continent.


What I am thrilled about is the opportunity to showcase the breadth and depth of African writers and their excellence, brilliance which continues to shine regardless of the numerous challenges they face. Platforms for African writers, as you know, are scarce and short-lived. Thus, for me, it is important to continuously highlight the conditions in which literary publishers from the continent work and try to garner as much support for their alleviation. My writing process remains the same; but the state of continental publishing remains dire—we need to find ways of changing that situation.

INTERVIEWER

I am positive that we are on course to changing the situation. New and thriving African literary platforms, just like the ones before them, are doing the Job. Talk of Lolwe, Isele, ARTmosterrific, and the wonderful Doek! you artminister. Thank you for being a vanguard of African literature.

RÉMY

Newness is always welcome; there is a refreshing burst of energy in the African literary scene. I am glad to be a part of this moment. And I have to state that I say this with sadness, this current wave of strong publications is not new: there are other long extinct literary publications that also came up with their own energies and visions. They are no longer around. And so, I exercise caution whenever people say this current wave is The Wave. I think that is the Namibian in me coming out: drought is such a harsh and normal condition of life here that rainfall can be bittersweet when one remembers the ones who did not survive its absence. Hence why it is important for me to continue advocating for strengthening the institutions that are making this moment possible.


Lolwe, Isele, ARTmosterrific, Doek!, Bakwa, and so many others – these are run by ordinary people at great expense. Those costs need to be alleviated in some way. Otherwise I fear this wave will go the way of all waves: into that gentle good night.

INTERVIEWER.

In Granddaughter of the Octopus, Grandmother is characterized as strong-willed and independent. We also see her helpless as other women during the war; we see her tenderness towards a man (the farmer’s son); we also see her age-induced fragility at the end of the story. Did she come fully formed, or did it take time to layer her humanity?

RÉMY

She, like many of my characters, came to me in bits and pieces. Even in real life no one ever meets another person in their totality. I am not sure whether anyone would find that a pleasant experience. Can you imagine meeting someone with all of their scars and worst attributes in full display? I am not certain I would like to meet you for the first time only to find out you do not consider Zaraki Kenpachi to be the coolest of the Bleach characters, or that you do not like watching anime. Ideally, you want to find out about someone’s disappointing differences a bit at a time, when you have had enough time to invest enough in their personalities to warrant overlooking certain deficiencies.


The creation process for the grandmother adheres to that logic. I knew instinctively what her general essence would be like: ‘a grandmotherly woman.’ But what did that mean? I did not know. So, I had to figure her out one step at a time: what she would say in certain instances, what her ambitions and failures would be, or how she would respond to loss or a lowering of her personal dignity. It took time to figure out these things because older characters have to come with histories even if they are taking part in present action. And it is not simple to imagine a person’s history, because in doing so one is also imagining other histories (the world in which they live and the lives of the people they brush up against). Then I had to arrange them in a way that, firstly, made sense to me as the writer so that I could arrange the story’s sequence, and, secondly, to the reader so they could reasonably follow the narrative threads in it.

Granddaughter of the Octopus was swirling in various stages of revision or completion for about a year; in retrospect I am thankful for the time it took to write it because I needed to get so many things, like the grandmother’s personality, right.

INTERVIEWER

How funny that we often create characters who prove to be bigger than us. I think you did get her personality right. At least, from my point of view. I appreciate all of her quirks, she is a wholesome character.

RÉMY

She is, at the very least, someone to be reckoned with. Thank you for reading my work; I am glad there was something of value in it for you.

INTERVIEWER

Grandmother reminds me of Nsuuta in Jennifer Makumbi’s, The First Woman. Although Nsuuta is not as ‘imperious’ in a number of ways Grandmother is, the two women are labeled witches in their society because they have a mind of their own. I have seen women demonized by both men and women for taking active roles in matters that affect them. Tell me what you think of women being gatekeepers of patriarchy, if you even believe that is a thing.

RÉMY

I envy you for having read Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman already. I am yet to get hold of it. It is unfortunate, then, that I cannot respond to your question in a meaningful way, especially since Makumbi’s work is so rich in detail and generous in insight.

The most I can say, though, is that, yes, women who find their sense of independence, and who have the means to act on that freedom, always suffer for enjoying their liberty. This extends to any oppressed class of people, really. Look, for example, what the world did to Haiti for being the first Black Republic – they are still paying for it to this very day. Independence, freedom, liberty – these things are paid for at great cost. More so by women. There seems to be a pathological fear about what would happen if they were allowed to enjoy every single freedom men enjoy. Like, what did people fear when they denied them the right to own property or vote? And what is it that they fear when they restrict their sexual reproductive rights? Will the world stop spinning and split in half? Will birds fall from the sky? I do not know; a lot of things do not make sense to me. What I do know for certain is that no one is ever given freedom in its fullest measure. There is always a condition. And the conditions are always stacked against women.

What I think of women like the grandmother in my short story is this: I respect them, but I am glad that I am not them. As a writer I enjoy being lauded with her creation; but as a human being, as a man, I can admit that her struggles are so immense I am not sure I would respond to them with as much generosity, grace, or dignity as she does. Fiction is a world on a page where characters can be braver than some of the people I have met, it is a place where justice can be delivered in one sentence (“…and lightning scorched him to a crisp for uttering one slur against Gambit, the coolest of the X-Men.”) The real world is more demanding, and more disappointing too. I have many failings in the real world on a daily basis. Forgiveness of the past, for example, is a hard thing for me to do, even though the grandmother in the story can do it in two paragraphs. Maybe this is something cowardly to admit, but that is how I see it.

INTERVIEWER

I must tell you that Jennifer Makumbi did magic with that novel, and yes, she garnishes her works with rich details and insights.

A lot of things don’t make sense, really. As most writers agree, we must keep reading and writing to make sense of the world we live in.

RÉMY

This, as the Mandalorians say, is the way.

INTERVIEWER

‘Money talks’ in The Giver of Nicknames, ‘poor people have nothing left to throw away but themselves’ in The Neighborhood Watch. In Granddaughter of the Octopus, the priority of Grandmother in the business of ‘making of our lives’ over selling her lands intersects with the traditional African value on heritage as opposed to the monetary value of capitalism. How much of a toll do you think capitalism has taken (or is taking) on the African value system?

RÉMY

Do you mean capitalism in its Western conception? Because capitalism was practiced in various ways by continental societies. There were rich ogas and there were paupers. Some people inherited land and power while others were disinherited. Grand madams, lowly servants, thieving merchants – capitalism, or some version of it, has always been around. I guess what is different is the speed with which the western conception of the practice has spread or become the core of human existence. There has to be a reconceptualization of western notions of capitalism, especially on the African continent. I know I am not the first person to say this, nor will I be the last. Personally, the world is wide enough for different economic systems to flourish; and there are certainly enough continental African thinkers and doers who can help to steer us in a different direction.

The African value system is not dead. It might be dormant, or it may have been weakened at various times in history. But it is certainly not dead. It continues to evolve. And it continues to try to find innovative ways to assert itself. Friction against other value systems is a part of living on Earth. The challenge, for me, lies in finding meaningful ways to coexist.

You asked a challenging question. I hope I have answered it in some way.

INTERVIEWER

I understand that capitalism, like other systems, is an evolutionary system birthed as a response to the prevailing realities of human interaction in different parts of the world and at different times. As you have rightly pointed out, elements of capitalism existed in pre-colonial Africa, but the western conceptualization has made it the core of human existence through imperialistic methods. And I feel this is the reason why the Grandmother’s sons place more value in the monetary returns on their heritage. Now people place premiums on lands only as an asset that is capable of future monetary returns as opposed to people owning lands as a pride of familial heritage. Families don’t own lands anymore, money does.

You did justice to the question and I must agree that we must find meaningful ways to coexist.

RÉMY

You make a good point: families do not own land, money does. I have no riposte to this powerful statement. Ten points to Gryffindor. (Do not @ me.)

INTERVIEWR

Powerful statement? That is a compliment I do not take lightly.

Tell me how much you commit to research in writing fiction

RÉMY

By research most people think writers go to libraries and spend hours reading about how gravity works so that when they say “an apple fell from a tree” they can also calculate the speed of its fall or how much the wind deflected it. Seriously, the apple just fell from the tree. Research, as far as my writing is concerned, is focused on the aspects of the story I need to know about in order to create an immersive reading experience.

Take village life in Granddaughter of the Octopus, for example. I know about some of its rhythms, but not all of them. I had to look up some basic agricultural principles in order to envision a bucolic life. Or, the fact the grandmother had eight sons from eight men. I had to think about the family tree, how it moves through time, and whether the reproductive feat would be possible. Remember: all of her children survived. I had to ask myself if that would make sense. I found precedent for such things and so I was encouraged to continue with my initial premise.

In The Giver of Nicknames I had to think about the timelines, how they all align. I had to think about the grades in which Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn would be generally prescribed to high school students. That kind of thing mattered because I was writing about teenagers, characters who are constantly undergoing subtle and violent tectonic changes in their personalities and physical beings. How a sixteen-year-old responds to being prescribed Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (yuck!) is not how a nineteen-year-old might respond (although it remains a yucky prospect – Dickens is a hard no for me all day, err day!).

I guess, then, that I commit as much time to research as is necessary. When the writing process commences, the research comes in handy; it reminds me that, hey, gravity still works in a particular way. It does not, for example, tell me how a character may respond to trauma.

I really think that the story informs the research. I had the good fortune of listening to Maaza Mengiste talking about The Shadow King, her second book, which takes place during the Italo-Ethiopian wars. She had to look up the kinds of guns that were being used, but that would not tell her about whether her character would have the courage to pull the trigger. Rather, it was important for her to know how the trigger would feel when it was pulled. I think that is what research does, it lets you know small and intimate details that enrich the story; but it does not tell the story itself.

How much is too much research? That depends on the nature of the story. I can tell you I did not not have to consult psychology manuals in order to write The Giver of Nicknames. But I had to make sure that rubbish collection dates in The Neighbourhood Watch were correct and I had to refamiliarize myself with the geography of Windhoek (in my head, some suburbs were closer than they actually were in real life – and I live here!).

INTERVIEWER

What a fine way to respond!

RÉMY

Sometimes, when I have completely plagiarized everything everyone from all the seasons of Afrolit Sans Frontieres said, I can say smart things.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write for yourself? I do believe every piece of writing is primarily borne out of the writer’s personal interests, but some writers claim to write stories they will never publish nor show a second eye. It feels weird to me because everything I write or will ever think of writing is geared towards sharing. Is there something these other writers understand that I don’t?

RÉMY

When I pen down ideas in my journal or practice my stuttering calligraphy, I am writing for myself. In those moments I really have no intention of sharing my work with anyone. However, when I transfer my ideas to a first draft and work on it time and time again with the intention of telling a story, it is my hope the work will be good enough to warrant a reader showing interest in it and committing their time to reading my writing. I think it is important to understand that publishing is one possible end-product of the writing process; there are many other reasons why people write.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, journaling or keeping a diary is personal writing. I will be dead before I show you my diary. But some writers transcend that, they go through the pains of drafting stories, rounds and rounds of editing only to have it all end up as personal work. I guess we’ll never know all the reasons why people write.

RÉMY

Heck, I do not know the reason why people write. But there is something admirable about editing and revising work purely for yourself. Are you not your hardest critic? Is, err, *cough cough* the eternal audience of one not challenging or rewarding enough? I do not know the answers. I am wondering aloud.

INTERVIEWER

This has been an interesting conversation, but tell me something you always want to talk about in a conversation.

RÉMY

I usually find a way to talk about something I enjoy in any conversation about literature. (I hope you noted my Bleach reference.) It is not planned, really, it just happens: the best interviewers ask questions that allow interviewees to answer in strange ways. Thank you, then, for all of your generous observations.

But there is one thing I would like to talk about in a future conversation: the male showers of ankles. I have opinions about that fashion trend that would shock you. Actually, you know what, the less I say about that topic the better off everyone is.

INTERVIEWER

Hehehe, I caught your Bleach reference and I caught the anime reference, too. I won’t say that I categorically hate anime because this conversation will be published, lol. I don’t want people coming for my head.

Male showers of ankles? I don’t know that. Do you mean male anklets? But then forget about everyone’s betterment, I am so ready for the shocks. What can I do to make you talk, ehn?

RÉMY

I mean those awkward inches of male ankles that exist between loafers and trouser pants that are still loading. Was the world not flooded for worse? The asteroid can actually come through right now. That is all I can say, really. At least in a public interview. I still need to save my dignity and live among these sinners.


Shedrack Opeyemi Akanbi is a Nigerian, believer, and dreamer. He is currently reading for a BA in History and International Studies at the University of Ilorin. His writings appear in The Roadrunner Review, Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, Olongo Africa, The African Writers, and elsewhere. He was shortlisted for the 2020 Eriata Oribhabor Prize for Poetry (EOPP). He reads fiction for CRAFT Literary. Follow him on Twitter @ShedrackAkanbi

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