Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Rémy Ngamije’s fiction piece, Annus Horribilis
John: I’m always interested in different writers’ processes. One of the striking things about this piece is its energy—how the pace reflects that headlong rush of first love. Did you plan this, or did the style emerge organically as you wrote the piece?
Rémy: The idea of this story—a tale following a couple’s year-long tumble through the motions of love—was probably the organic part of the process in the sense that I was reading and watching things about attraction and love at the time. They, in turn, planted the seed for this story.
Everything else—the title (in a Vanity Fair article about The Queen, there was a year of scandal and turmoil that was referred to as the “annus horribilis”—I rather liked that, so I noted it down); the structure (choosing the drought and the calendar months as the temporal markers), the form (the story only has four sentences); the language (the vocabulary and visual quirks from Namibia)—was deliberate. Those things are the way they are because they help to answer a fundamental question I faced when writing this story: how do I get the reader from start to end without boring them? I think that is the energy you talk about.
The result is what you see: an organic idea (of origin and influence unknown) coupled to narrative framework with obvious advantages and imitations. I know not everyone will be able to navigate the story, or enjoy its pacing and structure. That is fine: that was a choice I made as a writer.
Do you ever follow your characters past the end of a story? Do you know more about what might have happened to our two protagonists, or do you just let them fade into the mists when the story ends?
I often know the origins of my characters—in this case, two lovers—and I can see, in my mind, the steps they take in their fictional lives to get to the moment the story begins (which is where I begin my writing). I tend to know what the moment of crisis will be and from there, I plan a way to end a story. These are all choices I make as a storyteller. What I hope is that I am skilful enough to create characters the reader is able to carry well beyond the last full stop. Do I know what happens to the people in Annus Horribilis in the long run? Yes, I created them, after all. But, also, I do not know—a fictional world, if created properly, takes on a life of its own and generates its own conclusions for each reader. I enjoy and try to emulate writers who are able to create narratives that invite varied reader interpretations.
An artist that I admire has said that when creating something new, she has learned to follow her fear, because that is where the good stuff is. When you write, what are you afraid of?
In the past I was afraid of the legitimacy of my own experiences: firstly, as a young and teenage immigrant; and, secondly, as a black man with “strange” interests. Those are no longer my fears. Right now, what I fear most is not having the skill to execute a particular dream or vision.
Here’s an example.
Is a story about two lovers and the slow decay of their relationship, coupled to running commentary about a national drought in Namibia, a valid story?
Yes. Love stories are not new, neither are stories about breakups. Droughts are also a thing. Namibia, while not being popular in the literary imagination, is also a finite place. I know, as a bare minimum, that there is a story.
Do I have the skill to tell the story in a way that engages a reader and challenges me as a writer?
Perhaps. I can see the dream but I am not sure how to make it real. That, for me, is the fear and the magic: when I know I have something to write about, and that I must read more, draft more, experiment, and take risks.
The story part is easy, I think. Everyone has a story to tell. The skill part is what scares me. It is also the part that rewards me: it discourages lazy writing and provides me with numerous learning opportunities.
I think our readers might be interested in learning more about the Southern African literary scene. What is the level of interest in literary works in Namibia and South Africa?
I cannot legitimately speak for all of southern Africa; thus, I shall only speak as a Namibian reader and writer living in the region.
As a reader, I am interested in local Namibian writing and continental literature (everything outside Namibia). I am also deeply fascinated by world literature. Forces within the global literary establishment have made it so that I am unable to read or access Namibian and continental writing with the same ease I am able to access world literature. American and British texts are easily available, but Angolan, Swazi, and Malawian writings not so much.
Does this mean there are no Angolan, Swazi, or Malawian writers? No. They are there—reading and writing—but they do not have the same levels of access (within their countries) and recognition (on the continent and in the world) that other writers enjoy. What I can say on behalf of African writers as a whole is this: “We are here. We read. We write. We publish when we have the means. We would like to be considered, read, recommended, prescribed, and taught with the same nuance, understanding, and appreciation writers from other literary traditions are accorded.”
David Foster Wallace said that the most famous American writers are about as well known as the local TV weatherman. How famous is the most famous writer in Africa? Who are some African writers that we should be paying attention to?
God bless DFW and his bandana. And god bless local weather presenters—they do important work, and they are trusted by people. I cannot say the same for American writers (or writers in general).
The most famous writer in Africa would be the late Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart. That book, and his other works, are prescribed all over Africa (and the world). I hazard a guess and say Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the most famous living African author—Americanah is an important work in African literature, and she is an important person in the global consciousness because of her work. Would someone walk past her in a shop without recognising her? Probably. I am not sure if DFW wanted writers to have celebrity status or if he wanted their work to be recognised. I would rather have the latter (because it would allow me to live from my craft) and not the former (because it would not allow me the privacy I need to practice my craft).
A good place to encounter a broad swathe of African writers is through African literary magazines. I recommend Bakwa, Doek!, Isele, The Johannesburg Review of Books, and Lolwe.
For short stories: Sibongile Fisher, Rofhiwa Maneta, Keletso Mopai, Zanta Nkumane, and Troy Onyango are great places to start.
For longer fiction and nonfiction I recommend: Maaza Mengiste from Ethiopia; Kalaf Epalanga, Yara Monteiro, and Ondjaki—from Angola; Leye Adenle, Chiké Frankie Edozien, and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim—from Nigeria; Bisi Adjapon and Nii Ayikwei Parkes from Ghana; Mukoma Wa Ngugi from Kenya; Mubanga Kalimamukwento and Natasha Omokhodion Kalula-Banda—from Zambia; Makanaka Mavengere-Munsaka from Zimbabwe; and, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Mohale Mashigo, and Zukiswa Wanner—from South Africa.