Nonfiction reader Abi Newhouse recently had this exchange with Issue #50 featured nonfiction writer Rémy Ngamije. Here’s what Rémy had to say about the structure of his essay, Namibia’s first literary magazine, his literary influences, and more.
I’ve heard that in some ways, all essays are about death. It’s a thing we can’t escape in life and in our thoughts. How was the experience of tackling the subject head on?
Now, some years after my mother’s passing, it was not as painful as I thought it would be. When trauma or hurt of any kind is in your past you are given a different perspective of the tragedy; and time helps to turn some things into a comedy. Distance and time allow you to see how actions and consequences are connected. This writing provided me with two things: a delayed reckoning and a necessary reflection—it was the first time I confronted the facts of the matter without fiction as a shield. Nonfiction is blunt. In that bluntness is a reducing of painful facts to mere artefacts and then just things which have to be dealt with as responsibly as possible.
The structure of your essay moves from scene to rumination and back to scene—very lyric. What helped you decide to write the essay this way?
I am not sure the shifts were conscious. I am not formally trained in the literary arts; I do not have the skill to draw on learned tricks or habits practiced over time. I am also not as confident in nonfiction as I am in fiction—no lingering sunsets or symbolic sighs for crutches. Stripped of these things, I had to steer by instinct alone, especially with this subject matter. I am not good at talking about writing in the abstract but I will try to explain what I mean: I knew a) I was not going to write a conclusive treaty on death (a necessary admission) and b) I had not figured everything out (a frightening realisation). Lastly, I had to trust that c) I would find some guidance with my limited skill in language. I call it limited because I have read other writers’ works on the same subject matter and I am amateurish compared to them. Using the language (c) I steered towards the unknown and scary (b) knowing all the while I would not achieve the end-goal (a). It is the best way I can explain it.
I love how the essay focuses on that universal human thing we do—making the death of someone else about ourselves as we mourn. What advice would you give fellow writers about striking that balance between honoring your own experience and honoring those who have passed?
I am thankful to be an apprentice in the writing craft. I am exempted from making any binding pronouncements about what is right or wrong. I can only offer my experience: it is important to be honest when writing about the dead—they cannot speak for themselves in this world, but they will be waiting in the next. I found the balance you speak of by conceding the facts of the matter—my mother’s passing—and then exploring my own experience—how I dealt with it and how I did not deal with it. By doing so I was saved the need to add gravitas to the language or to season the experiences with that literary sadness writers are so fond of (never-ending sunsets and sighs from all the compass points—that kind of thing). I could have lied and added details that were not there. Who would know? No one would. My mother would not come back to say that this did not happen or that thatdid but in a different way. But in the next life…
The truth was simply easier.
How did you decide to add the other forms of “death” to this essay—not only your mother’s, but the death of your citizenship, and of your single hood?
That choice was made for me by my circumstances. My mother’s passing coincided with my changing citizenship and my romantic solitude. When I look back on that time it is hard to look at any one of those situations in isolation—upon reflection I cannot discern which feeling is evoked by a particular stimulus. But when it comes to writing, a reader needs the writer to present things—even entangled grief and loss—in a manner which permits inroads to understanding what the writer experienced. The easiest way is to present one thing, then another, and then another. That is what I did. Even God made things one at a time (and takes them away in like manner). Who am I?
Also, when all you have to go on is instinct and the lights go off—as they do when exploring new territory—you do not run into the dark. You edge forward a step at a time, feeling for something solid to help you get your bearings. Once you find that thing—a wall is a good one (the limit of the writing if we focus on this piece)—you can grope your way out bit by bit towards some kind of ending.
At the end of the essay, the reader is left with a string of questions about life and death. Have you come to any conclusions on those questions—particularly the one that reads “Why even try?”
Why even try? The answer is simple (for me): because.
I think everything becomes clear at the end of all things. As long as we are in the middle all we have is because. There is a song by Edgar Winter called Dying To Live which has some haunting lyrics: Why am I fighting to live if I’m just living to fight? / Why am I trying to see when there ain’t nothing in sight? / Why am I trying to give when no one gives me a try? / Why am I dying to live if I’m just living to die?
The answer to each of these heavy questions is because. It seems weak but because makes things easier. Why be kind to people? Because. Why fight racism, injustice, and inequality? Because. Why read? Because. Why write? Because. Honestly, when it comes to these hard questions (the ones which lean towards the principles of wisdom, justice, and love) because is the simplest answer—it cuts out the noise and gives you focus. That is what it does for me. I have to hope the real reason will be found and make sense at the end.
Your bio told us that you are the editor in chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine. How was the process of not only starting a lit journal, but also being the first to start something like it in Namibia?
First. It sounds good, and it feels great. You reap all the rewards–praise and prestige—which come with being a pioneer. The process of starting the magazine was easy: buy a domain, find a website design and a logo, and publish some stories. The scam is always in the simplicity of the proposed enterprise.
The hardships came later: there were no roads to follow (I am in the literary wild in Namibia); I steer by stars, luck, and hope—forces which dim, run out, and fade at times; I unlearn conventions which might work in another country or time and force myself to adapt to my immediate situation which, sometimes, is discouraging. There is no funding. Writers fail to meet deadlines. There is a typo in a published story. Thankfully, Judgment Day saves me from embarrassment by arriving tomorrow.
It does not happen that way. I celebrate small victories and great failures with more work, adjusting the processes, expectations, and goals as best as I can. I realised the good thing about being first: I am holding the space and title for the second and third person, and the fiftieth who will follow them. The next person will be better. The best will eventually come along. My real job as the first of anything is to ensure I am not the only one.
How has working in publishing affected your writing process?
Being in publishing I now firmly accept there is nothing new under the sun—every story has been told. This is encouraging: it saves me from having to create a story from scratch. It is easier to tell a story from a story just like it is easier to make an omelette using an egg. Who wants to make the egg? I certainly do not want to make the chicken. I spend more time reading—the more eggs, the bigger the omelette; and the more exotic the ingredients used in its making. Reading also saves me time when it comes to writing: it either leads me to a dead-end of curiosity or to that other poetic fork in the road which wends its way to places and parts unknown. If I find that path in reading, I certainly want to explore it more in writing.
Publishing has also taught me to respect the editing process, to distance myself from my writing with time, to revisit work with a fresh and critical eye, and to admit when an omelette I made is not good. I love working with editors who feel the energy of the work, who understand its intention, and who are able to help me piece things together to the best of our collective efforts. I respect editors. They protect readers from my madness; and me from readers’ judgments. Anyway, if I am serving omelettes to the public, it would be nice if I had been visited by a health inspector, right?
This piece feels like one that had been waiting inside of you to be written for quite some time. What experiences helped inspire you to finally put these moments into words?
If there are books that were formative—if we can call them that—it would be, firstly, Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, a book about falconry, reflections about T. H. White’s works and life, and dealing with her father’s sudden death. That book has the language of grief. Then, secondly, there is When Breath Becomes Air by Dr Paul Kalanithi, about his work in neurosurgery and being diagnosed with terminal cancer—it is anchored by hope and that because I spoke about. As far as reading goes, I would like to think these two books helped to lend shape to the nebulousness of my loss.
For the writing process, I could not have managed writing this piece without the usual economic considerations all artists need to address: food, shelter, and rest. I also needed to grow older. There are topics that are not for the young. It is hard to admit this. When you are young you want to write about everything and anything—and you can, of course, but you probably should not. I had plenty to deal with personally before I could approach the page.
How do you decide when a piece is finished?
I look for a quiet place to quit when no one is watching. Storytelling is a fraudulent business. You draw the reader into a lie and keep them there as long as possible. The longer and more elaborate the lie, the harder it is to keep them in it. I know a piece is done when the reader starts scamming themselves. I learned it in advertising: you sell enough of your dream for the dreamer to start thinking it is their dream. Then you leave. If you try to sell them more dream it upsets their version—they wake up and realise you are a fraud. Again, I wish I had the right words to explain this feeling.
Other good indicators for leaving writing alone are: answering a question I wanted answered; finally asking a question I needed to ask; a word count; a deadline; and fatigue in the story or running out of eggs. The last is really important. There is nothing more disappointing than an omelette which is more plate and pan than egg.
Everything is crazy in the world due to the coronavirus—how did you fuel your creativity in such a confusing time?
Everything in the world was always crazy. Even the virus was not that new, it just had a new strain. That is where we are right now: a new strain of crazy. It is in periods of uncertainty such as this new crazy that routine becomes important. I rallied towards things I enjoy: I read; wrote letters and emails to friends and family; through the AfroLit Sans Frontières Literary Festival—held online on Instagram—I made new friends and stole GIFs from them; and I danced and exercised to maintain some degree of motion even as I was being forced to stay still. All these things kept my being whole in what would have been a lonely and dull time. Because of these nurturing routines I was in a better emotional, mental, and physical state to take advantage of the thing lockdown gave me most of: time, a rare commodity for any artist. Many eggs were broken. Many omelettes were made.
What authors would you recommend to our readers?
For scrambled eggs and short stories: anything by Troy Onyango, from Kenya; and Keletso Mopai and Rofhiwa Maneta from South Africa.
For longer fiction I recommend the following accomplished skillet greasers: Sulaiman Addonia and Maaza Mengiste from Eritrea and Ethiopia respectively; Kalaf Epalanga, Yara Monteiro, Virgília Ferrão, and Ondjaki—from Angola; Max Lobé from Cameroon; Leye Adenle, Chiké Frankie Edozien, and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim—from Nigeria; Elma Shaw and Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone; Bisi Adjapon and Nii Ayikwei Parkes from Ghana; Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse from Rwanda; Mukoma Wa Ngugi from Kenya; Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi from Uganda; Mubanga Kalimamukwento and Natasha Omokhodion Kalula-Banda—from Zambia; Makanaka Mavengere-Munsaka from Zimbabwe; Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Mohale Mashigo, Mputhumi Ntabeni, Masande Ntshanga, and Zukiswa Wanner—from South Africa; and Adam Smyer from the United States.
I could, of course, recommend the usual gamut of canonical writers but those eggs are rotten. These continental and diaspora omelettes slap.