Editor of Doek! Literary Magazine and author of The Eternal Audience of One, Rémy Ngamije, believes good writing cannot salvage a bad story: ‘there is no such thing as a good story that is told with bad writing; if the writing is weak, then the story is weak. No one, after all, appreciates one good ingredient in a bad meal—the same goes for a story.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Between the ages of seven and thirteen, I was into children’s literature. Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl—those kinds of writers. I think I enjoyed reading about young boys and girls who had adventurous lives, lives that I was not living in Windhoek, Namibia. Later on, in my teenage years, I was into magical fantasy. Anything with dragons, dwarves, elves, mages, wizards, sorcerers—Book One of Three, Volume 2 of X—serialized high fantasy was my jam. I think I was in my escapist years, when fictional worlds made up for the disappointing reality and monotony that was, again, my staple living in Windhoek. I also enjoyed many satirical books. In my later teenage years, I was reading Terry Pratchett a lot. Even to this day he is a writer I still gravitate towards. His insights, his humour—timeless.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Hmm. I would go with any Discworld novel with Commander (formerly Captain) Samuel Vimes, one of the Discworld’s main characters. He is, I think, a man with too much on his plate. How he manages to make it through the tasks and challenges he faces in the wild and crazy city that is Ankh-Morpork is beyond me. I like his grit and gruff sense of humour.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson. I am not one for self-help literature but, somehow, this book was given to me as a present, so I tried to give it a go. It was not for me.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is a near-flawless work of fantasy fiction that really shows what a story can become in the hands of a skilled writer. To even box it in one genre—fantasy—is a disservice to the complexity of the story and the richness of wisdom in it. The trilogy, for me, is an amazing feat of storytelling that shows genre is an ingredient in storytelling—it is not the meal itself.
Between the ages of seven and thirteen, I was into children’s literature. Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl—those kinds of writers. I think I enjoyed reading about young boys and girls who had adventurous lives, lives that I was not living in Windhoek, Namibia.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I write a story in draft form in my notebook because I enjoy the sensation of handwriting. From there I type the story in a word-processing software because it allows for lengthening and cutting as demanded. Once the text is in the document, editing can commence. The process goes on until a draft reaches a stage that I feel encompasses the story that I envisioned at the start.
What was your process for writing your debut novel The Eternal Audience of One?
The short story is this: I wrote it over the course of a year and half-ish. I wrote it in any spare hour that I had—in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. It followed the same process as described above: draft, type, edit. It took me a long time to complete it because I was learning about writing along the way. The long story is, well, too long for one interview.
Which part/chapter of The Eternal Audience of One was the easiest or trickiest to write?
The prologue of the novel was both; I knew what I wanted it to say—I knew that it would set the scene, tempo, and spirit for the rest of the novel—but it took me a long time to condense its essence to a high school essay written by a frustrated teenager living in Windhoek.
What inspired the story? And to what extent did you draw on your personal life experiences?
I wanted to write a story that captures the immigrant perspective of people who move from one African country to another African country. I did not want my characters to move to Western countries—mostly because, well, I did not know much about such a transition, but also because I wanted to better understand what it is such people go through. That, for me, at least was my intention. The inspiration, I think, is all the stories I had read until the moment I commenced writing it. How much of The Eternal Audience of One is autobiographical? All of it, most of it, some of it, and none of it.
What’s the most interesting feedback you received about this book?
I appreciate the generous and kind comments that have been shared about The Eternal Audience of One. I think the one I remember the most is someone, at the Open Book Literary Festival in Cape Town, South Africa—who said that it should be a film, or a series directed by Donald Glover; he’s the one who wrote and directed Atlanta. I thought that was interesting.
Everyone knows the power of stories, regardless of where they come from—African storytelling, however, faces more hurdles than writings from other parts of the world. Those hurdles are not accidental, they are designed for a particular outcome: creating the illusion of unipolar and unimaginative writing and, therefore, a limited or stunted African imagination.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
That you have to start writing it in order to continue, and that you must continue in order to finish.
You’re the editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first literary magazine. As an editor, what’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
Both—neither can be divorced from the other. When it comes to writing, I believe there is no such thing as a good story that is told with bad writing; if the writing is weak, then the story is weak. No one, after all, appreciates one good ingredient in a bad meal—the same goes for a story. Equally, good writing will not save a bad or weak story. Again, no one commends a chef on their cooking skills when the ingredients they have used are of a poor quality.
What is the most important contribution an editor makes to a piece?
If they are really good, they can show the writer alternative roads to getting to the same destination. Sometimes the roads are longer, sometimes they are shorter—but all the roads are presented to the writer who then has to choose the one they think is best. Great editors provide freedom, not limitations.
What’s a common misconception about African storytelling?
There are no misconceptions, there are only deliberate limitations imposed upon the sourcing, editing, publishing, distribution, and teaching of African storytelling. Everyone knows the power of stories, regardless of where they come from—African storytelling, however, faces more hurdles than writings from other parts of the world. Those hurdles are not accidental, they are designed for a particular outcome: creating the illusion of unipolar and unimaginative writing and, therefore, a limited or stunted African imagination.
If you could change one thing about African storytelling and journalism, what would you change?
Hmm. Certainly, I would channel more funds to the disciplines, but that would come with greater accountability, too.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Peter Orner, a great friend and mentor of mine said this: ‘Start.’
I would like to think that I, personally, am not the vessel, but that the story—the writing—is. I think, in that way, that I am prevented from becoming arrogant and thinking that since a story came from me or through me that I am the story.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Anything Mubanga Kalimamukwento (the Zambian author and poet) touches turns to brilliance—she has an incredible sense of scene and pace. Zanta Nkumane (from Eswatini) writes really insightful nonfiction; his short stories are troves of love and despair. Troy Onyango (from Kenya) is a master short story writer; loneliness, solitude, desperate attempts at meaningful connections—these are some of the themes his writings explore. Roland Watson-Grant (from Jamaica) has skill with a pen I would one day like to match; his sense of humour is second to none. Maaza Mengiste, Zukiswa Wanner, Bisi Adjapon, Mohale Mashigo, Nozizwe Jele Cynthia, Leye Adenle, Kalaf Epalanga, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Yara Monteiro, Ondjaki, Chile Frankie Edozien, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Femi Kayode—these are some African writers whose works continue to be instructive for me as I progress through my literary journey.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am currently gravitating towards writings on the art of writing. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is something I am progressing through at the moment. I really enjoy conversations and discussions about writing and storytelling. Maybe I will work on some essays of my own—who knows?
What are you currently working on?
In literature? A new novel and some short stories. Outside of literature? I just opened a gym and I enjoy hosting the only public salsa parties in Windhoek.
When it comes to writing, I believe there is no such thing as a good story that is told with bad writing; if the writing is weak, then the story is weak. No one, after all, appreciates one good ingredient in a bad meal—the same goes for a story.
Question from Bolu Babalola: As a storyteller, do you often find yourself to be a vessel for the story trying to be told?
I am not sure—this is not something I have actively considered. I would like to think that I, personally, am not the vessel, but that the story—the writing—is. I think, in that way, that I am prevented from becoming arrogant and thinking that since a story came from me or through me that I am the story. I hope that makes sense.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Which sentence—brimming with absolute truth—seems to have been pulled from the centre of the universe?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]