Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Nahum N. Welang’s fiction piece, Aquaranus
Sommer: You do such a great job in “Aquaranus” of showing how fathers are often too hard on their sons. Here we have a smart, observant, sensitive boy, Tanyi, who is on the cusp of young adulthood, coming up against his manly, domineering father who obviously doesn’t think Tanyi measures up. Is this a universal problem, do you think? How do you think boys can better be supported as they approach manhood?
Nahum: Yes! Absolutely! It is unquestionably a universal problem. However, I think, it is particularly a dire problem in black communities. Black men are socialized by society, due to a plethora of complex socio-historical factors, into a toxic culture of hypermasculinity. They are often robbed of the right to be vulnerable, and they, inevitably, adhere to extreme forms of stereotypical masculine behavior. This toxic socialization process not only has adverse effects on their psychological health but also on black women and black families.
Manhood, in my opinion, is about coming-of-age and coming-of-age is about growing into your true self, not a version of yourself dictated by societal expectations. Manhood, I believe, is not about resorting to archaic patriarchal norms; it is about having positive and nurturing spaces that allow boys to discover and accept their true selves. These spaces are the best gifts fathers can give their sons.
Your story is, essentially, a coming-of-age story. Tanyi understands that he should be acting more like a young man, and yet the signs of manhood he sees around him are stifling him. How do you think our ideas of manhood need to change? How do we best model these ideas for the generations to come?
Ideas of manhood and masculinity definitely need to change. People are, by nature, different. We all have different journeys, habits, ideas and experiences. What our current interpretation of manhood does is deny boys the right to embrace and celebrate their differences. When we do this, men are not the only ones who suffer; women and children particularly pay a hefty price because they are often the victims (emotionally and physically) of this repression in men caused by hypermasculinity.
I think the concept of manhood has to stop being stifling and self-serving. Manhood shouldn’t be a tool for repressing yourself and oppressing others; it should be about respect for yourself, all facets of yourself, and respect for others.
I am optimistic about the future though. I just watched the Oscar-winning movie Moonlight, and I think it is such a profoundly relevant and beautiful deconstruction of masculinity in general and black masculinity in specific. Society often relegates black men to one-dimensional and dehumanizing stereotypes. What Moonlight did so beautifully well was to portray black men as heartbreakingly tender and complex. It is incredibly important for men, especially black men, to be seen as vulnerable people in society and in art because art imitates life. Men must be vulnerable in order to save their lives and the lives of people they love. There is no emotional buoyancy without vulnerability and if men are not emotionally buoyant, they suffer, their wives suffer, their lovers suffer, their children suffer — society, in its entirety, suffers.
Tanyi is one of the most wonderful characters I’ve come across. Despite his precociousness, was it difficult to get into the head of an eleven-year-old? How did you do it?
Thank you very much. It was very difficult getting into the head of an atypical eleven-year-old like Tanyi. He is a combination of childhood exuberance and whimsicality, but he is also unusually perceptive for his age. Thus, it was a tricky task putting together such an extraordinarily variegated young boy. I guess I just tried my hardest to be fully immersed in his state of mind. I literally had to be Tanyi every time I was working on his story and that meant I had to understand, fundamentally and profoundly, how this character operates and how he sees the world. That was the only way I could give him an organic and authentic voice.
Can readers expect a novel coming from you about Tanyi? I hope so!
Absolutely! Tanyi is such a rich and layered character. He definitely deserves the novel treatment. I recently finished a novel on Tanyi’s story (very rough draft) and as we speak, I am fortifying myself for the always-challenging revision process.
We all know how much rejection plays in our lives as writers. Any advice to writers about handling it?
I think writers should view rejection as an opportunity to improve their craft or find a better fit for their work. We are sometimes rejected because we are simply not very good and that is ok because writing is a journey. We have to be conscious of our limitations, and we have to be willing to learn and grow from criticism. This is the only way, I ardently believe, we can reach our full potential.
Other times, rejection has nothing to do with the quality of our work. We are often rejected simply because people do not “get” the uniqueness of our voices or what we are trying to accomplish with our artistic productions. Writing can be trendy and people tend to gravitate towards stories and tropes they recognize. If your work is outside of this familiar realm, you will most likely endure a great deal of rejection. In this case, rejection is an opportunity to keep knocking on more doors until you find that one person who “gets” what you are trying to do and is willing to take a chance on your work.
It is an honor to publish “Aquaranus” in The Forge Literary Magazine! Thank you.
It is an absolute honor to have my work published by The Forge Literary Magazine. You publish some of the finest contemporary short stories, so I am in very good company. Thank you. I am appreciative.