A Short Talk With Rémy Ngamije

In this first edition of A Short Talk, Rwandan-born Namibian writer Rémy Ngamije is interviewed by Joseph Omoh Ndukwu, associate editor of A Long House. In his responses, Ngamije speaks expansively about rhythm in his writing, the shape of stories, the relevance and shortfalls of literary prizes, advice on craft,  and the forms of literature that matter most to him. 


Reading your stories, one notices a kind of orality, a distinct musicality informed by the natural cadences of the locales where your work is set, something having the flavour of street or native lingo. What would you say is responsible for this? 


That is a generous analysis of my writing—I am always impressed by the nuances readers pick up from my work. Rhythm is a good word. And a great thing to have in life, and in writing.

My writing comes from many stolen moments of time. This is one of the reasons why my output is the way it is. I do not know whether my attempts at creating a writing routine or process is reflected in my work. I do know it is reflected in the way that I think about the stories I want to write: they cannot take too long to form in my head; I need them to arrive hot and bothered and ready. If they do not, then I lack the urgency to pin them to the page. 

There are other rhythms, and the congruence of rhythm is an important writing tool: it reminds me there are things outside in the world of which one must take cognisance in order to tell stories that do not seem out of step with the world. 

“The Neighbourhood Watch,” for example, is a story from a rhythm that is not my own. I am not homeless. I do not have to eke out a living on the streets on a daily basis. I do not have to make certain moral choices in order to survive the night. In order to write that story it was important to note the migration patterns of the homeless around Windhoek, to look—without flinching—at the way they are treated, and to imagine, as humanely as possible, the challenges they might face. To make the story feel familiar I had to rely on geography. I know Windhoek. I know its people. I think I know something about its soul. I would not be able to set The Neighbourhood Watch in Lagos or Nairobi because the rhythms of those cities are foreign to me.

Then, of course, there is the rhythm of storytelling. 

Once upon a time… 

—In that place, at that time… 

—This is a reading from the Book of John… 

Nativity and the ability to convey street lingo in an authentic way, those come down to immersion and participating in the rhythms of life. You cannot write about the dance from the bar, you have to get into the centre—that is where you hear the music the best. 


What’s most important to you when writing a story? 


The shape of the story—by that I mean the following: firstly, what the story will feel like when I write it; secondly, what it will look like on the page; and, thirdly, what the reader will feel when they read it.

It is important for me to know how I want to feel when I write a story. Going back to “The Neighbourhood Watch,” if I am writing a short story about homeless people in Windhoek and the ways in which they try to make a life for themselves in a harsh environment, it is important for me to have some hardness, fear, precariousness, loss, and hope in my psyche. Like an actor, reading the lines will not be enough; they have to be performed(?) from a place of relative or approximate experience. I do not have to know everything my characters will feel or think about, but by putting myself in as close a situation as possible in my imagination, there will be space created for the unknown aspects to fill themselves out. Then those feelings will come through in the writing. I think my best writing happens when the feeling of writing the story mirrors the feeling of the end product. A sad story, for me, cannot be a pleasant thing to write. 

What a story will look like on the page is another thing I consider. Is it going to be a long narrative or a short one? Do I want long sentences or short ones? Do I want time broken down physically by paragraph breaks or page breaks? Do I want speech marks or italics? All of these things affect the way a reader transitions from sentence to sentence, from scene to scenario. I could see The Eternal Audience of One as a long narrative broken down into three sections corralled by three Rwandan proverbs from the get-go. I could see “The Granddaughter of the Octopus” playing with time using the protagonist’s relationships with men as the markers of time. And in “The Giver of Nicknames” I could see the dialogue without the conventional speech marks because I wanted the reader to flow between narration and speech as flawlessly as possible.

How the reader feels, in the end, is the sum total of the first two considerations. If I can get my feelings right as a writer, and I can find the correct medium and form for the writing, then there is a high chance that the reader will get the right feeling from my story.


Almost all your published work is fiction. Do you write in other genres, say poetry for example? And how does poetry influence—if it does—your work?


Fiction was the first genre in which my work was widely read; and just like any industry, that which gets one noticed becomes that which one produces more often—at least in the beginning. Because my first published works were short stories, I wrote more of them to support the reception of my debut novel. 

I have written nonfiction and I am working on a series of essays at the moment. I enjoy writing nonfiction despite the great tax that is placed on its creation. I find it to be an interesting way to deal with what is known—as soon as you think you know the answer you are challenged by the unknown. You become aware of a blind spot even though you cannot see it, and you do your best to read more widely and, in the process, try to account for it and explain it to the reader. Nonfiction, for me, is a medium of writing I hold in the highest regard because when it is good it is so, so very good. 

I write poetry, too, and have published some. However, poetry is not the avenue of creation that presents itself most often. Its force is felt sparingly in my life, hence why my output in that regard is low.

Poetry is an important source of inspiration for me, especially in moments of dispiritedness. I enjoy poetry that challenges form and language and theme, poetry that transports me beyond the margins of my own being, that flings me out into the cosmic consciousness of feeling and experience. That kind of poetry is rare, but it reminds me as a writer about being part of a larger whole, about each writer’s slow orbit around and towards the truth. I think, and I could be wrong about this, that all writing—sincere, thoughtful writing—gravitates towards the Truth (note the capital t) and poetry is one of the vehicles that comes closest to it. 


What has been the best advice on craft you’ve received?


“Start.” That comes from Peter Orner, a writer who has been a guiding light for me. I thought it was the strangest advice ever, but it makes sense now. Start. 

Write the title down and that first sentence. Almost immediately you will find out if this writing thing is for you. 

Start and very quickly you will find out if you are willing to work towards five hundred words, a thousand, ten thousand. 


To that advice I append my own: if you start, then you can continue, and if you can continue, you can finish.

Start. Continue. Finish. In that order. Everything else you will figure out along the way.


Writers always have writers they admire and books they love. Which writers or books have had a profound influence on you? Tell us about one of them. 


At the present moment, Marlon James is a writer whose talent surpasses anything I could muster. His stories are so rich and layered, so compacted with history and humour that it takes a long time to process his writings. I do not aspire to be Marlon James—there can only be one. But his books and works exist as testimony to the possibilities that exist within language and form. I love his works because his stories not only have “literariness” but they also ring with the smack of gossip, like they were told by the aunty with all of the tea. I admire how he blends the high and low brow—if such classifications even have merit. His writing is expansive and intimate all at once, it is historical and contemporary, and it is amusing without being trivial. His work presents itself in multitudes.


You won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, and only recently you won the Miles Morland Scholarship. How have prizes impacted your writing and your career? Another thing, people have opposing feelings about prizes—some claim they distract or mount undue pressure on writers; some others maintain that they’re important for confidence and career success. What is your view on prizes? 


I think it is important for every writer to define what “winning” is for them. They have to discover what gives them fulfilment or value because writing, the act of putting words on paper for oneself or for others, is quite different from the industry that has sprung up around writing. 

If you are journaling you have to decide what winning is for you in that mode of creation. If it is morning pages or completing a diary entry at the end of the evening then so be it. 

If you are writing for publication you have to decide if submitting work for consideration, receiving offers of publication, securing advances or royalty payments, or being awarded literary prizes is what constitutes “winning” for you. There is a caveat, though: in defining what winning is, one also sets the criteria for losing. 

Thus, if winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Africa Region is what winning feels like to you as a writer, then you necessarily accept to spend the greater portion of your writing career losing.  It seems, to me, a bad proposition for a writing career to spend one’s time in a state of losing. I would focus on something else that is more fulfilling. Like completing a story. Editing it. Submitting it.

Can prizes set writers up for failure? Yes, of course. If that prize’s intention is to put writers on pedestals.

Do they bring pressure? Yes, they do. If the attainment of that particular literary prize is the be-all and end-all for a writer then winning the prize raises another question: what next? If the prize says that “so-and-so is the future of African Writing,” the pressure placed on the writer to be the so-called future of African writing becomes acute—but only on the people who give the person that label, not on the writer themself. I would question the people who bestow titles, not their receivers. 

In an ideal literary environment, there are many prizes. As soon as the plurality of prizes decreases—due to lack of funding or poor administrative structures—then the shortcomings of the remaining prizes are amplified. Suddenly a prize for writers from Namibia who have been published in Doek! Literary Magazine is insufficient because it is not open to other African writers. Prizes really become an issue when there are not enough of them. 

I am of the mind that one should be prepared to receive what one asks for. Here is something that is rarely addressed: the writer—like any artist—always has the option to step outside the prize cycle at any point in time. They can choose not to enter work for prizes, can ask not to be nominated, can withdraw from shortlists—they can even turn down prizes. Being part of the literary prize cycle is a choice.

For me, literary prizes are the things that have happened after writing. I consider the start, continuation, and conclusion of a writing project to be a prize. I think offers of publication are prizes. I think readers are prizes. I think having the time to read is a prize. I think being shortlisted for an award is as good as winning the award. And while I think winning literary prizes is grand, prizes do not help with creating the next work. And it is the next work that matters.

Joseph Omoh Ndukwu

Joseph Omoh Ndukwu is a writer and editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Transition, Off Assignment, and elsewhere. His essays on art have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Sole Adventurer, Contemporary And, and in catalogues and journals. In 2022, he won the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing. He is associate editor at A Long House.

Rémy Ngamije

Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian author, editor, publisher, photographer, literary educator, and entrepreneur. His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One was first published in South Africa by Blackbird Books and is available worldwide from Scout Press (S&S). In 2022 it was honoured with a Special Mention at the inaugural Grand Prix Panafricain De Litterature and won the inaugural African Literary Award from the Museum of the African Diaspora. He won the Africa Regional Prize of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2021 and 2020. He was longlisted and shortlisted for the 2020 and 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prizes respectively. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. Rémy is the founder and chairperson of Doek, an independent arts organisation in Namibia supporting the literary arts and the editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first and only literary magazine.