- What inspired you to write fantasy fiction ?
A: I’ve always loved fantasy. As a child the first books that I read were the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling and I went on to read some of the Redwall books by Brian Jacques and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. So I’ve been exposed to fantasy for pretty much my whole life. But what inspired this book specifically was a novel named The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. That book got me interested in magical realism as a genre and I decided to try to write short stories in this genre. So I wrote a bunch of ideas and one of the ideas I had was of a little girl with healing powers whose powers end up getting used by a pastor. When I thought about the idea I realised that a short story format would be too restricting and it would have to be developed into a longer novel and that’s how I ended up with the novel I have today
- Did you have a ritual when you were writing the book?
A: I don’t have a specific writing ritual. What I do before writing anything is plot it out. So I plotted out the beginning and end before I started the novel and then when I started the actual writing process I would plot out a chapter in my head before I started writing it. But there would be times when I got stuck, so if I got really stuck I would have a glass of wine and that would help with the creative process. Sometimes I would need to take a couple of days from writing just to problem solve and get the creative juices flowing again. But I wouldn’t say there was a specific thing I did before I started writing. I just sat down and did it.
- Which character in the novel reminds you of qualities that you possess?
A: It would probably be Thato. When I was a kid I was also a very weird kid who was very much in my own head and in my own world. My family also thought that I had gifts and could see dead people and I can’t remember if I actually could. I think her sense of curiosity and desire to help people is pretty similar to how I was as well as a child. So I think that the character most similar to me is definitely her
- You wrote most of Invisible Strings during quarantine/ lockdown, what did you discover about yourself during the writing process?
A: I wrote the entirety of my first draft in 2019 and then when I sat down to work on the second draft in 2020 I realised that it was a big mess. I had left chapters out and there were characters that needed to be entirely reworked. So I spent 2020 doing that and lockdown gave it a bit of an interesting dimension. On the one hand I had more time to write because I wasn’t going out and I wasn’t commuting to and from work. So I expected it to make the process easier but I guess living in the uncertainty of the pandemic made it a lot harder. So I struggled a lot to write my second draft. I think one of the things I taught myself was self motivation. So on the days when I really didn’t want to write I’d have a whole internal argument and say ‘you have to go and write’. And I would sit down and write a paragraph. I learned that this expectation I’d put on myself to write about 1,000 words a day was not realistic so even if I just wrote a sentence that was progress. And that’s how I ended up finishing my book.
- Writers generally have an idea of what the journey of each character is but sometimes things take a turn. Which character surprised you in terms of development and personality trait?
A: I think that all the characters surprised me in different ways. I think the one that surprised me the most was Solomon. When I started the book I just broadly wrote down who the characters were, what their motivations would be and just gave very broad strokes of the type of people they would be. I only got the details when I was writing. I saw Solomon as being a certain kind of person but as I was writing I really got into his thinking process. I started adding details like him being so traumatised by his father’s alcoholism that he would never touch alcohol at all and that became a big part of his character. He took a lot of twists and turns and so did Kgethi. When I wrote the first draft of the book I realised she was a raging bitch and I needed to make her a bit more sympathetic. So I started adding more of a conscience to her and making her feel more of a sense of guilt over the worst things she’d done and she ended up becoming someone who was a lot more grey by the end of the novel than she was when I started it.
- Can you give us a glimpse of what to expect in the book?
A: The book is a fantasy so if you’re into exploring fantastical stories in a South African context you can definitely expect that, especially during Thato’s point of view chapters. I also explore how people use religion as a way of gaining power and money as a major theme of the book. It also does touch quite heavily on integenerational trauma, particularly trauma that families experienced back during apartheid and how that trauma continues to affect them to this day
—You literally came from nowhere…
I cannot accurately remember who said this to me but I know I was in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Open Book Festival in 2019. It was my first authorial outing. My debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, had been out for two months or so and the festival organisers had read my book, bought into my charlatanry, and decided to field me with some of the biggest names in literature. I had never been to a literary festival as a published author before. The last time I had attended the festival had been in 2013 as a Brainwavez writer covering Teju Cole’s talk about the African supercity. I was excited by the prospect of attending the festival and being back in Cape Town. To this day, the Open Book Festival has played host to some of my fondest memories, allowing me to connect with other writers, and, most importantly, readers.
In 2019, so many things were new to me: I had to sit on panels with people who, until then, were merely names on books in my bookshelf; I had to answer literary questions about representation and identity and “liminality” (I looked up this concept and I am not sure I fully understand it); and I had to sign books (tip: fountain pens with always let you down—carry a nice felt tip marker) and meet readers. I was between panels—or maybe I had just attended one—when I was engaged in a conversation with someone who had read my book. Most of the conversation is a haze—I think we spoke about my past life in Cape Town.
But I remember this part well: You literally came from nowhere and here you are, dude.
I also remember my reaction to that statement: a weird hahaha.
I was not impressed with my response at the time. (I still am not.)
Perhaps I was too new to the literary scene. Perhaps the absurdity of the statement took me by surprise. Either way, as hindsight usually shows, I did not know what I know now. So, I let it slide. That awkward hahaha is what echoes into embarrassing eternity.
I wish I had said what writers from my background—from similarly placed, disadvantaged, underfunded, and under-published literary communities—know all too well: Nowhere is not nowhere. It is Luanda, Angola, or Maputo, Mozambique. It is Antananarivo, Madagascar, or Cotonou, Benin. Nowhere is actually Bangui, in the Central African Republic, or Asmara, in Eritrea.
And Nowhere has people: Chadians, Burundians, Mauritanians, Gabonese, and Santomeans.
Nowhere has histories. It has cultures, languages, art, and ways of life.
It has writers and storytellers.
And just because we might not be recognised on international literary platforms does not mean we do not exist, or that our places are not producing work. The absence of broadcasting opportunities is not the evidence of silence.
On the one hand, I get it—I understand what that person meant: that, perhaps, they had never met a Rwandan-Namibian writer before; or that they had never read a story set in Windhoek; or that, yes, I was not one of those festival headliners or big shots and look where I was, at the Open Book Festival with the likes of Mohale Mashigo and Sarah Ladipo Manyika.
I understand that.
It is my feeling that this place called Nowhere, really, is shorthand for any place without privilege (cultural, political, social, economic, and all of the other etceteras that make some places better known than others). The reality, though, is that few places in the world have that kind of privilege, and even when they have, pockets of “nowhereness” exist even within their own geographies. Flatbush, I am told, is nowhere to Manhattan in New York City; Willesden is nowhere to Chelsea in London; and Soweto, apparently, is nowhere to Sandton in Johannesburg.
That hahaha haunts me to this day.
And, now, of late, I have been thinking about that exchange.
I wish I had said this:
—No, I came from Kigali, in Rwanda, and Windhoek, in Namibia; from Florence Nightingale Street in Windhoek West. And from the Holy Cross Convent and from St Paul’s College. I came from the Windhoek Public Library. I came from all the English literature seminars I slept through at the University of Cape Town (Cormac McCarthy gave me troubled naps; I slept just fine in the T. S. Elliot workshops, though). You could also say I come from Blackbird Books, a publishing house led by a black woman, publishing emerging black voices.
—You literally cannot be from nowhere.
I really want to ask that person this: Where must one come from to not be from nowhere?
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel “The Eternal Audience Of One” is available from Blackbird Books (in SADC) and is forthcoming worldwide from Scout Press (S&S). He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine.
His work has appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Santa Ana River Review, Columbia Journal, New Contrast, Necessary Fiction, Silver Pinion, and Lolwe.
He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com