‘Home is Always the Best Place to Win’ Rémy Ngamije on African Writing & Publishing
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émy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer, who was recently shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’. Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster (US), has recently acquired the rights for his debut novel ‘The Eternal Audience of One’, scheduled to be published in September 2021. 

Rémy is also the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Doek!, the first of its kind in Namibia. His short stories have appeared in a variety of publications, among them are The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Kalahari Review, and AFREADA. More of his writing can be found on his website remythequill.com 

We recently had the chance to catch up with Rémy and ask him some questions about the current state of affairs in African publishing, the meaning and importance of African writing and more. Needless to say, we are utterly thrilled to see African-based writers like him starting to get the national and international recognition they deserve. 

The Importance of Literary Prizes – Particularly for African Writing

When we asked Rémy about the impact of Western-based prizes like the AKO Caine Prize can have on African writers and African writing, he explained that ‘[a]ll literary prizes recognise writers—they make them seen, they thrust them and their work into a spotlight. For African writers, such prizes are sometimes the only way their work can be given national, continental, or global attention. For me—working in Windhoek, Namibia—the AKO Caine Prize has amplified the reach and range of my work.

It has also called into question the possibility of other local writers achieving a similar milestone. It has raised important questions about the state and status of the literary arts locally and has encouraged more people to contribute to the small literary magazine I co-founded and edit—Doek!. The effects of my shortlisting—as a writer from a country without an established or robust literary culture—are far-reaching. It is still too soon so say what its net effect will be. But this is what prizes do: they make what was unseen seen. They are so important for African writers and I wish there were more prizes recognising the valuable artistic work the continent produces.

For African writers, such prizes are sometimes the only way their work can be given national, continental, or global attention. Rémy Ngamije

What is ‘African Writing’?

Since the AKO Caine Prize is specifically geared towards ‘African writing’, with the entry conditions stating that to be eligible the writer needs to be ‘someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or who has a parent who is African by birth or nationality’, we asked Rémy what he thinks constitutes African writing and who, in his opinion, can be considered to be an ‘African writer’. His answer was expectedly nuanced and intelligent: Hmm. Does a fish know water is water if it has never left it? I wonder.

Do I know what African writing is when I see it? I think so. It often takes into consideration an aspect of the continent’s past, present, and future. That aspect can be intensely local: like homeless people making a life for themselves in a city many people have not heard of. Or it can cover a larger geographic territory: like a Nigerian woman migrating to the United States.

Whatever the narrative, there is a constant feeling the stakes are high because of something from the continent’s history, current status, and future hopes (and failures). There is no getting away from these things in African writing—they always make themselves felt in grand or subtle ways. Even in the lightest romance the stakes are high. (I wonder, too, if romance can ever be light—I mean, is that not where the stakes are highest? And in an African romance, my gosh, the consequences of love could not be higher.)

Do I know what African writing is when I see it? I think so. It often takes into consideration an aspect of the continent’s past, present, and future. Rémy Ngamije

For example, one of those voluntourism blogs about Namibian sunsets, Rwandan gorillas, and smiling, friendly natives from [insert random African country here] could and will never be African writing. That kind of writing talks to Africans, not with them. So it goes with stories which are merely set in Africa—we see the continental backdrop, but it lacks three-dimensionality. I also know the writings of an African descendent living on Tatooine will be authentic by how they treat certain representations or the way the story moves through their world. It is a feeling, really, and if you know you know—and who no know gon know. 

Who is an ‘African Writer’?

To the question of who an African writer was, he added that ‘[a]n African writer comes from the continent or is descended from Africans. The important caveat, for me, is that they willingly embrace their African identity or heritage and honestly engage with the continent’s struggles and triumphs in their writing.’ It thus seemed that Rémy managed to simply explain and answer a question that many others, including ourselves, have so far struggled to wrap our heads around.

An African writer comes from the continent or is descended from Africans. The important caveat, for me, is that they willingly embrace their African identity or heritage and honestly engage with the continent’s struggles and triumphs in their writing Rémy Ngamije

Why differentiate between African Writing and Writing in general?

Since he definitely had us intrigued with his first answer, we decided to probe a little further and ask him whether or not he believes it is important for us to make a distinction between African Writing and writing in general. To this, Rémy said: All writing is writing, of course. Homer, Ovid, Aeschylus and I are all writers. William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, I share consanguinity through the page and pen. I can also be lumped with all the dead white men whose work is considered canonical. But it would be wrong to assume our thematic considerations or status is the same. The literary establishment rewards the classical writings for their “timeless poetry.” Shakespeare and the Victorians are prescribed all over the world because of their “universal tales” of love, loss, brotherhood, family, and every etcetera in the world. Dead white men have their knees on the canonical reading neck because, well, that is what dead white men do. But even though I write, too, my writing is not accorded the same status or recognition. Why? Because of who I am and where I come from and what I write about.

Dead white men have their knees on the canonical reading neck because, well, that is what dead white men do. But even though I write, too, my writing is not accorded the same status or recognition. Rémy Ngamije

My writing is defined by how well it references Grecian epics or how well it pays homage to [insert random dead white Russian man here]. Did I make these differences? No. But the world believes in them and enforces them which makes them real for me as a writer and a reader. If we are “the same” but my work and I are treated differently, I have no choice but to believe that I, as an African writer, am different. The proof is in the limited publishing opportunities I have at home on the continent and how misunderstood it might be abroad. My status is not the same because the literary establishment does not accord my jurisdiction the recognition it deserves—my craft apparently does not weigh the same. So, yes, African writing and writing are writing, but we also know they are not. The proof is in the treatment.’

If we are “the same” but my work and I are treated differently, I have no choice but to believe that I, as an African writer, am different. Rémy Ngamije

African or Western Publishers?

In light of recent developments in the West, a lot has been made of the lack of diversity within Western publishing, but not a lot of people see African publishing as a solution to this problem, so we asked Rémy why he thinks that is the case: Western publishing caters for western audiences and sensitivities. The issues in that world can be addressed within that world—there are plenty of minority writers in the west that can address the internal shortcomings. African publishing will not save the West, it can only exist as a parallel universe that not only speaks to it but also against it. Basically, one boat will not fix another; when your cat is sick you do not get a dog—the West needs to solve its problems in the West while African publishing solves its own issues.’

My status is not the same because the literary establishment does not accord my jurisdiction the recognition it deserves—my craft apparently does not weigh the same. So, yes, African writing and writing are writing, but we also know they are not. The proof is in the treatment. Rémy Ngamije

Continuing on the subject of publishing on the African continent and in the West, we asked Rémy that if he had to choose between an African-based publisher (who intrinsically understands his story and is willing to publish it as it is, but is only able to distribute his work within a number of African countries) or a UK-based publisher (who could potentially distribute his work world-wide, but who would ask him to make his work more palatable to Western readers), which one he would chose and why. Rémy answered that: 

Home is always the best place to win. Always has been, and always will be. So the African publisher would do it for me. As my Angolanos say: galinha não segue pato—chicken does not follow duck: one does not follow a good thing with an average thing. And again: who no know gon know—if you build it, they will come. No one wants to be left out of a good story.

To that, we have nothing left to add but to wish Rémy Ngamije nothing but success for the future – from the AKO Caine Prize to the rest of his writing career.

Home is always the best place to win. Always has been, and always will be […]. Rémy Ngamije