Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Richard Prins’ nonfiction piece, Safari Lager and Swahili Hip-Hop
Sommer: This is such a fun piece to read, and what vibrant writing! There’s quite a bit of humor, but what I most enjoyed was how you were able to completely bring me into the world of this essay: the dust, the dancing bodies, the hyper energy of some of the cohorts of the Chronic Table, the whirlwind night of drinking and driving around Dar es Salaam, a car crammed with buzzed people, and the subsequent feelings of falling and landing hard when you-the-author wake up the following morning hung over and as lonely as ever. Fabulous stuff. Did you plan the structure of this essay before writing it? Did you know it would center on one day and night, or did you simply have a scene in your head and go from there? How were you able to make the place and people come to such life?
Richard: When I started writing this essay, I was calling it “A Weekend in Dar es Salaam” because it featured some forgettable scenes from the night before and the day after (including several scintillating paragraphs devoted to those budgetary discrepancies from the Hip-Hop Summit). It didn’t take a stroke of genius to recognize all the fun stuff was contained within the single day of heavy boozing (and its immediate aftermath). I think that’s because Sajo’s character was always the driving force behind the story. While backing up old files after a recent hard drive failure, I stumbled across a short story I attempted in his voice when we first met, rife with embarrassing attempts to code switch between English and Swahili slang. I wanted to write about him for so long not just because he’s a legitimate demi-celebrity, but he’s also a good friend who’s struggling to do something different with his life (although I did persuade him to emerge from retirement and record a track with me this year, which can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzccyMUwRVU).
As much as New York is my home, every time I return I miss East Africa terribly–the people, the language, the music, the lackadaisical chaos. I feel positively haunted by all the fun I could be having there. So if I managed to bring Dar es Salaam to life, then I am happy! And I would ascribe that feat to how much I love the damn place, and how it looms in my mind no matter where I go.
I admire how you are so self-deprecating in this essay (which makes the piece funny, you endearing, and the ending especially poignant), and yet you don’t ever wallow. In fact, you focus much of your attention on the other people (Sajo, Tuma, Aisha, some secondary characters) and the environment. One of my favorite parts is when you focus on the little boy imitating Michael Jackson. It is evident that you really love these people. How were you able to find that balance between focusing on revealing parts of yourself and your troubles, and the others? It seems to me that you very expertly walk this fine line, and the balance feels perfect.
When I started writing about my time in Dar es Salaam, the stories that were most compelling were the ones that focused on a character other than myself. Partly that’s because I’ve encountered so many fascinating characters, but I think it’s mostly because the first-person perspective is bound to become dreary, tautological, or solipsistic when the only thing it cares to describe is itself.
I’m writing alongside the travel genre, where the place is inherently more interesting than the narrator. But I’m also writing alongside the memoir genre, where the narrator needs to have weight, history, and personality backing all observations. If I struck the right balance here (and refrained from wallowing), I’d love to credit my editorial discipline. But in truth it’s probably just that I was having too much fun recreating these events. Anytime navel-gazing or lamentation tempted me, there was always another bottle of Safari Lager on its way, another bar we had to hit, another new reveler making an appearance…
I see that your MFA is in poetry, and yet you obviously also write exceptional essays. Do you think your study of poetry makes your prose stronger, and how? You are very good in this essay at writing descriptive details, and I wonder if your study of poetry has helped you really home in on, or give weight to, what most people might just not see. Also, do you write fiction as well as essays? How different is it to write poetry, essays and fiction? Or is it?
In my MFA program, I tried writing poems about my experiences in Dar es Salaam. But the setting–already unfamiliar to the average reader—only became more obscure when bathed in florid language. The poems were only rescued from their own opacity when I turned to the essay form. The yoke of sentences made things crisper; the setting had more room to breathe. So just as focusing on characters other than myself saves the first-person voice from its self-indulgent nature, a prose approach spares the reader some of my indulgent poetic instincts.
Those instincts, nonetheless, are at the core of why I write. I’m excited by phrase, image, music, not intricate plot or pesky fact. And if I’m doing my job, hopefully it will show – the prose will be more melodic or combustive, the revelations somehow more lyrical. So it’s not just that my study of poetry influences my prose; even when I write prose, my ambition is still towards poetry. And even though some of my essays started out with line breaks and some of my poems started out as stories, I still consider them separate worlds. For me, prose is like having a drink with a friend and telling them a story, whereas poetry is what happens when you’ve had a few too many and wind up home, alone, weeping and praying in the shower. (Though maybe I think of poetry as a cross between prayer and singing in the shower because we poets spend so much time wondering if anyone can actually hear us…).
I wrote a lot of fiction in college, but very little since then. (Well, sometimes when I’m editing my nonfiction I discover that I’ve written something quite fictitious—but that’s rarely intentional). For what it’s worth, I’d like to someday write a novel I don’t want to immolate.
There is a bit of a “plot” in this essay regarding the ongoing and failing relationship you have with an unnamed girlfriend still living in your apartment back in Brooklyn. How much did you plan this aspect of the essay? I mean, it seems absolutely integral to the piece because it reiterates your loneliness and brings into contrast the happy liveliness of your Tanzanian friends. When you write essays, are you aware of an underlying forward movement or tension? How do you make something that is real not seem dull or boring (which, quite frankly, is much of life-as-it-is)?
When I started writing this essay, that plot point appeared simply because Sajo mentioned it, and I was reenacting our conversation. Then I stuck this scene in my unpublished travel memoir The Wanderer Eats His Own Legs, amidst a rather picaresque section titled “The Swahili Hip-Hop Summit,” in which I am supposed to be working on the Summit, but spend most of my time getting sidetracked by hedonistic antics like the ones depicted here. I developed a strategy of inserting brief reminders of all the conflicts and decisions I’m avoiding (namely, a troubled relationship). I want that tension lurking in the back of the reader’s mind; I don’t want anyone to forget I have a complicated life somewhere far away, no matter how often I get distracted and forget it myself.
In the moments where I withdraw from the narrative and refer to life back home, I’m at great risk of boring the reader—so I try to at least inject some attitude into the prose (i.e.; “He’d ask me why, and there’s no good explanation why we made each other miserable except to say we’re fucking defective human beings who should be shipped back to the factory and repaired”). Since I’m summarizing, and not describing any action, I have to rely on the snappiness of the voice itself to make the information compelling. But voice is a weak pillar and you can’t lean on it too heavy—so it all goes back to the question of striking a balance, refraining from rumination, and pivoting back to the scene at hand (which is hopefully less mundane) as swiftly as possible.
What are you working on these days? Any upcoming publications we can keep an eye out for?
I’m always editing the travel memoir, and hoping to catch the interest of a literary agent. At the moment I don’t have any new essays coming out, but the world is welcome to look up other sagas from Dar es Salaam at my website www.r-prins.com. I also have a wild poem “Surrender” in the latest issue of jubilat that just came out last month.
We all know how much rejection plays in our lives as writers. Any advice to writers about handling it?
Don’t just handle it; crave it. Good writing hinges on risk, and what is it we’re ultimately risking? Rejection. Make a daily practice of getting rejected, whether that means sending your work to journals you’re certain will turn you down, or if it means writing the things you know you’re going to cringe at later. (If you make yourself cringe enough, you’re probably zeroing in on some kind of breakthrough).
James Baldwin said “Artists are here to disturb the peace”. Not to make anyone comfy, especially not ourselves. Instead of asking yourself what you’re doing wrong when you get a form rejection letter, why not ask yourself what you’re doing wrong when you get an acceptance letter? If an editor wants to publish your work, maybe you just didn’t disturb them enough.
And yes, sometimes rejection will hurt. When you’ve pinned too much of your ego and hopes on some specific affirmation. But that pain is part of your vocation. Do like Ralph Ellison said and “finger its jagged grain”. I mean, if you’re not a little bit masochistic, then you’re in the wrong line of work, because it’s not like writing is ever going to make you happy or feel good about yourself.
What’s one of your favorite quotes?
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
It is a huge honor to publish “Safari Lager and Swahili Hip-Hope” in The Forge Literary Magazine! Thank you so much for taking time to do this interview with me.