The Art of Recontextualizing Experiences: An Interview With Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlistee, ML Kejera

ML Kejera is a Chicago–based author from The Gambia. Though born in Bakau, he left the country with his family in 1999. He has lived in Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the US. He speaks English and French and can understand Mandinka. His work has been published in RiverSedge, The Cafe Irreal, Sleaze Mag, Strange Horizons, Riddled With Arrows, Popula, PanelxPanel, and The Outline. He is currently working on a short story collection about The G, for which he is seeking representation. He tweets @KejeraL

This interview was done by WhatsApp between a room in Warri, Nigeria and the 6-hour split time zone of Chicago, USA, in the virtual presence of over 200 Terrifics. Interviewer: Mofe Philip Atie.

-May 14, 2020. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself. Yes, we’ve read your bio. We just want to hear from the horse’s mouth.

KEJERA

I’m a writer from The Gambia but I was raised in Senegal, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. I currently live in the US. Accordingly, my appreciation of literature is multicultural and international.

My favourite writers include (but aren’t limited to): Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Chaims Nadir, Sharnush Parsipur, Kobo Abe, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, and Alan Moore. I started writing on a whim after a friend in high school (almost a decade ago now) told me of his own literary aspirations but I’ve always been an avid reader.

I currently work as a freelance journalist but, after being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and nominated for the Caine Prize, I’ve been focusing more on my fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us why you write?

KEJERA

Ultimately I just enjoy the form. Writing allows me to understand the world around me, if that makes sense. Often what I write is a re-contextualization of my experiences or some larger phenomena that hold my interest.

Oh, I should also mention that, while I’m not wholly sure if writing can always do this, I write to better the world around me, in a way. I’ve had people come to me and say that a particular piece of writing has resonated with them and helped them understand their own experiences. That’s usually not the direct goal but it is something I keep in mind.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned you now focus more on your fiction after being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and Caine Prize. So do you see this as a revolutionary moment on your career as a story writer?

KEJERA

Yes, to a degree. I mean I have been given more opportunities since the prize news went out. But, from my experience, a literary career is an often fraught one with constant obstacles. I have writer friends who a decade or so ago were able to subsist solely off their writing but have found difficulty adapting to the literary landscape.

An interesting aspect of the current literary landscape that ties into WhatsApp groups like this is how the internet and social networks change what it means to be a writer. I got into journalism solely through online magazines. I know of writers with little to no interest in prizes or any semblance of mainstream success who have found their communities online and have created successful careers for themselves.

I think my constant wonderment at the existence of the ARTmosterrific WhatsApp group is that, by building a thriving literary community, you already have the building blocks to consistently improve your writing (which, I think, is one of the most important things about being a writer). And this type of infrastructure just didn’t exist when I first got started.

I remember that, during my teenage years in Tunis, I only had about 2 other writers within my circle to bounce ideas off of. I appreciated them but 200+ perspectives would have been more appreciated, lol.

INTERVIEWER

Is this your first submission for the Commonwealth prize?

KEJERA

Yes, actually! I had known of the prize for a long time but had never got down to submitting before. Then our, at the time, dictator Yahya Jammeh took us out of the Commonwealth and I couldn’t submit. Realizing that I could be so easily taken out of an international community of writers was impetus enough for me to submit when, after Jammeh’s deposition, we were reinstated into the Commonwealth.

That said, I feel I must say a little on being referred to as the first Gambian shortlistee. While this is true, in other interviews it tends to lead into a discussion of why other Gambians haven’t been shortlisted. Some of it is just socioeconomic reasons (such as the fact that around 50% of our population is illiterate).

But another reason is that because international literature tends to ignore the oral literature common to W. Africa but specifically of the griots of The Gambia. Gambian griots, a mix of oral historians and praise singers, are actually quite well known in the international world but only as musicians. They are musicians but, at heart, they are also storytellers. And, to be frank, their 1000+-year-old tradition accomplishes much of what we in the literary world wish to accomplish.

I remember reading Lucy Ellman’s DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT which is famous for being a stream of consciousness narrative told in a very long sentence. It’s commendable for testing the limits of the sentence. But testing the limits of the sentence is the bread and butter of the griot.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think it was about your story that probably has brought you this far in the competition?

KEJERA

I honestly have no idea. But I can hazard a few guesses. Readers tend to like work they are unfamiliar with if they happen to be reading thousands of stories like the Commonwealth people were. My specific background, to many people, is unique and this carries into my work as I am somewhat familiar with the literary traditions of all the countries in which I have lived since The Gambia was barred from the competition for so many years. I imagine just reading a Gambian voice must have been a new experience for some. From experience, I can tell you that I made the first few lines of my story catchy which implore a reader to keep reading. If someone is trying to decide between thousands of stories, they’ll not realistically be able to read everything.

The first two sentences of my story are designed to catch your attention: “Fatou, who was 5’8 feet and 167 pounds, stood in the corner of a crowded lobby at O’Hare International Airport. In the opposite corner, at a Starbucks, sat The G’s ousted dictator, the man who had drowned Fatou’s uncle in the Mediterranean Sea.” It sets up an inherent conflict between two characters, it tells you who the principal characters are, even naming one of them. You get the exact setting as well.

Haha. I remember an editor saying something about how many newer writers want to present their voice first in stories and start off with a paragraph that reads well but doesn’t establish the basic concept of the story. While I don’t think it’s always necessary to establish the core points of a story in the first paragraph, it helps to do so if, again, your story is being read among thousands. A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t keep reading your own story past the first page, no one else will.

Oh yes! And pick the most interesting part of the story to start it. If you’re writing an introduction to get to a really great part 6 pages in, just start with that.

And another reason, I think, it was shortlisted was that many great stories just are not properly formatted. Most places that you submit to will have general formatting guidelines but there are some industry standards. I advise anyone to follow the guidelines to the letter. In America, the Shunn Manuscript Format is helpful. But always find out what format is preferred from reading the guidelines of whatever magazine or competition you’re submitting to.

The last reason I can think of that anyone would have been interested in my story was that it focused on getting revenge on a dictator which is a thing, lol, many people around the world are feeling right now. But remember that awards are only one way of building your literary career.

INTERVIEWER

Just out of curiosity, do you carry the same anger towards the Dictator as Fatou?

KEJERA

Yes, to be honest, lol. But I’m a pacifist at heart so I would never even consider punching him as she does. Well, maybe I would. But I hope, in the unlikely event that I ever see him, I refrain from doing so, lol.

Our Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Committee is going on right now to address the many ways he brutalized The Gambia. I’m glad for my international experience but my family had to leave because of our dictator (like so many other Gambian families). It’s unfortunate that he is likely to never face consequences and is living in Guinea off of stolen riches but what matters above all, I think, is that he is not in power. So the nation can heal.

INTERVIEWER

Was it part of the goals of the story to bring the dictator to global attention?

KEJERA

That’s a fascinating question. It wasn’t my goal at all and I’m not too sure it will. Jammeh was already known as the wacky dictator of Africa’s smallest mainland country who thought he could cure AIDS. And his deposition was written about a little in international newspapers just because it’s such an interesting story from an outsider perspective.

Perhaps some of the people that read my story will gain some perspective on what it is like to have so many facets of your life attributable to one megalomaniac man but I can’t say for sure.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve had many publications as we can see. Have you ever had rejections? If yes, how did you deal with those moments?

KEJERA

Lol so many. I used to keep track of how many rejections I received but I truly believe it might be nearing 100 or has surpassed it. “Fatou vs the Dictator” was itself rejected by 7 magazines before I submitted it for the Commonwealth Prize. Rejection is just a part of the industry because it, ultimately, relies on the subjective taste of whoever is reading your work.

Every writer you have ever read has been rejected before, I can almost guarantee this with 100% certitude. In the past, rejection used to get me down. Now, I just re-read the piece, edit it if I feel I need to, and submit it elsewhere.

I know rejections can feel like a personal rejection of yourself (as you’ve often just spilt your heart on the page) but it’s just a side-effect of having such a huge literary industry. I know of many writers who are crushed by the thought of rejection and it stops them from writing and submitting.

Some writers keep submitting the same piece even if it has been rejected 60+ times. We’re all different and I have close friends who honestly cannot take rejection well and nd I’m not sure what to advise if one is just built that way. But maybe it helps to remember that rejection never means you’re a bad writer, it just means that that piece wasn’t a good fit for that magazine or competition.

And, if you’re lucky, some places that reject you will give you helpful notes on your story. At the time, you might not want to listen to someone who’s just rejected you, lol, but it is a perspective on your work from someone who reads a lot of work.

If you know of the Jamaican writer Marlon James, remember that his debut novel was rejected over 80 times. I swear, the more you submit the less ridiculous these high numbers will seem.

INTERVIEWER

I got to know that the mother of Yahya Jammeh who is really the antagonist referred to simply as “Dictator” in the story, also bears the name ‘Fatou’ is this a mere coincidence or there’s an implied statement to that?

KEJERA

Complete coincidence! Fatou is a very common name in The Gambia.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe there’s a special mood or an environment you have to be in to enhance your writing?

KEJERA

I don’t think there’s a particular mood or environment one needs to be in to write well. In regards to mood, I’ve written in all sorts of mood. I usually have some coffee before I write. Lol, yes my juice in a sense. It’s just nice to have something to ground you before you write but it is not necessary at all.

As for the environment, I’ll expand on your question a little. In the West especially, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether one needs to study in an MFA program to become an established writer. Some say that the environment one needs to be in to develop literary skills is one of literary academia, while, of course, it’s beneficial to be taught the craft by established writers, I, personally, haven’t found it necessary.

I was too broke to even finish my Bachelor’s let alone dreaming of doing an MFA. I went into journalism to sustain myself and help my parents and family. You can honestly write anywhere, from any background. You only need a pen and a paper (at the bare minimum).

And while I’ve definitely faced some adversity writing in the West, we’re also aided by the fact that there are quite a few of us (Africans as well as just other people of colour) in the industry.

Writing, as a career, doesn’t work out for many of us. The reasons for this are myriad but it boils down to the fact there are a lot of great writers but not enough places for them in the literary world.

That said, it’s not impossible to achieve one’s literary goals. Just extremely difficult. Not to mention that many writers are part-time writers while having another occupation.

INTERVIEWER

Kejera, any word of advice for our dear young writers?

KEJERA

All the advice I can give, I’m sure you’ve already come across before. But I’ll try: read works that interest you but also works that challenge you, try to write consistently if you can, examine writing that speaks to you and try to find out why.

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