FINDING A BEGINNING
NORA In your writing, how do you find a beginning? How does a story start for you?
RONALD I believe that stories are always around and within us, I would even go so far as to say that we are actually made up of stories. For me stories are in the nature of humanity – they help us to deal with all aspects of our lives – social, political and economic.
NORA I like the idea that stories are imbedded in the nature of humanity. I think they help us to arrange our lives by putting the chaos of impressions, feelings, damages, and interactions with people close to us into some kind of form, allowing us to see a development, a storyline. Probably most people do this. The work of a writer might then be to find the moments that stand for more than themselves, that go beyond, and to arrange them – to find stories that are in a believable way extraordinary.
RONALD I would say that for me a story always starts with my own life experience. My mind is always ready to slip into ‘story mode’. Yesterday, for example, my brother officially asked his future in-laws for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage. This made me think about our culture and traditions and how they transition over time. I also thought about human relationships because they talked a lot about our origins and how our people have been living over time. My head was buzzing with ideas. Usually, I have a notepad or my phone on me where I can jot down these ideas. Sometimes I come up with what I would call a punchline which, when I revisit it later, will give me the same feelings I had when I developed the idea. Yesterday, I wrote down: “You have spoken well” – a statement that an elder kept saying to people who expressed their opinion.
NORA For me, it is not only my own experience that builds the base of my writing, but also the experience of people around me, people I listen to, people whose inner conflicts make a deep impression or have an impact on me. The issues I deal with in my writing are often not closely connected to my everyday life, but I have to find a feeling that correlates with the feelings of my protagonists to make a story work. Strangely enough, the characters that seem very distant to my own life with respect to age, sex, lifestyle etc. are sometimes closer to me than those that are much more similar to me.
RONALD I think you explain it really well. What you say is true for my writing too; it does not exclusively deal with my own life experiences. For me a writer is by nature a very socially conscious person – with an eager eye for detail. I sometimes write about places and folks that were there with me might later say things like, “I did not pay attention to that” or “I did not see that in that light” affirming that I was able to form a truth that they agree exists but which they missed to see before.
NORA I think that perception is of major importance for writing – or for reflection and art in general. I guess it has to do with seeing the various shades of things, getting your description of the landscape so close to it that you can thereby let others see what they would have never payed attention to when walking through the same area. But for me, this kind of perception is not only key for writing about landscapes and things you can look at, but also for listening to dialogues, hearing the deeper, the unsaid tones that underlie the small-talk, the polite or neutral discussion, or for observing small gestures that can sometimes tell a whole story of their own. How do two or more people interact, what is their relationship, what are they fighting out or trying to hide?
WRITING THE OTHER & AUTHENTICITY
RONALD I got some thoughts from our previous discussion. It got me thinking a lot about my or our role as writers and about the topics of “Writing the other” or “Writing about the other” which we discussed in creative writing classes organized by Writing Our World and Kahini last month. When I penned the “Walls and Borders” story for example, I was writing about the Rwanda genocide, trying to perceive and feel the emotions and frustrations of the later generation of Rwandans. One could ask, from where I get the authenticity to do that or criticise the story for sensationalizing a tragedy, etc. How do you deal with these issues? With writing about the other?
NORA Hey, are you online? Shall we chat a bit, or would it be better to answer your e-mail with more time?
RONALD I think we can chat a bit. Because it does look like the diversity of mediums is key.
NORA I liked the answers you send me. I’m actually dealing with some of these questions for my input right now. Especially, the question of authenticity is one that I think about a lot. I don’t know why, but I tend to choose topics and subjects that enforce this.
RONALD Authenticity, yes, I think that is what makes a writer. The ability to make your audience believe you. It does not matter which genre … fiction or non-fiction. For people to read or experience our stories, they must trust us.
NORA Yes, but I believe that in the writing process you must also ask yourself: who am I that I am allowed to speak for other people? I just finished a novel about an Italian communist that was imprisoned for ten years during the fascist regime. Who am I to claim to speak for him? I wrote about a German diplomat during World War II where there is at least the connection that I am German, too – but that’s about it. I wrote about Burundi and its civil war, about Chinese factory-workers. I am not speaking FOR them, but nevertheless, who am I that I think I could talk about their lives?
RONALD I agree. It reminds me of a story I’m writing about a white lady in Kampala. It was interesting how when I gave it to my sister-in-law to read, she told me that she thought the character was masculine. So, I then had to ask her what attributes I would have to give to my character to make her pass as feminine.
NORA Haha! I had the opposite problem when I wrote the story about the 60-year-old male diplomat. I found myself starting to write emails in a way that he would have written them. It is important to get the feeling of the character, but when the character starts entering your private life, you do have to stop at some point. It’s still the character, not you. I forget that sometimes.
RONALD So, what we are saying here is that the ‘we’ interrupt the other. That is an interesting observation. My writer friend from the U.S. Jordan Hartt probably gave me the best advice of the year. He told me that once I have created a character, I have to allow him to lead his life of his own. So, as a writer, my job is to follow and document their life.
NORA Yes, that’s true. But you also have to pay attention that your character does not take to much control over your life.
RONALD Easier said than done, I grapple with the fact that I will let a male character walk out in a blue shirt when in my heart, I prefer white!
NORA I know a well-known writer from Switzerland, Lukas Bärfuss, who wrote about the European voyeurism (at least that’s what I would call it) of representing the catastrophe of the Rwandan genocide. He displays a genuine European point of view, while still being distanced from it.
RONALD And was he successful with that?
NORA Pretty successful, at least in the German speaking countries. I don’t know, if his work was translated. But I think that his writing is a good model for an international or global writing.
RONALD In the literary scene here, people have been discussing a lot what it means to be an African writer or to write an African story. The contention has been to take Black Africans on the continent and classify their writing as ‘African Literature’. But folks from the diaspora and some other Non-Africans who have written about Africa or set their writing in Africa have argued that their work is also worth of being classified in this category.
NORA These double-edged classifications are always difficult. First: you can argue forever who is in and who is not. Second: you put yourself in a corner, a box. It is a bit similar to the discussions on ‘female writing’ or ‘women books’. For centuries it was men who wrote the stories of women; since the 1960/70s they have started to write about ‘their’ topics themselves.
RONALD I agree. But then, is it not true that this ‘boxing’ of writers was to some degree able to change the situation? Have you not read certain books that were put in the ‘Classics box’ and wondered how they got in there?
NORA Just for the boxing: I would say that actually a strong ‘female writing’ (to stay with this example) would disappear as a ‘female writing’. It would just be a string writing, good literature that can deal with any kind of subject.
RONALD Earlier this year, a friend read Chimamanda Ngozi’s very well received book Americanah and she honestly did not like it. But this book had been praised globally, so she posted on facebook that she was probably being bad, but that she did not like it, because for her it had way too many characters which impeded on her reading experience. And I have personally often felt that way when I discuss books or stories and have to pretend to like a certain writer because well “Which writer does not love Shakespeare?”, for example.
NORA This relates to a topic that really interests me: the African writers that become big in Europe and the U.S., are they as big in your own country? Do they write stories that interest you? Or do they just use a more Anglo-American style than others, so that we are able to better relate to their stories?
RONALD I think the trend is that foreign based writers are more successful in modern day Africa. Maybe this is due to the hype and publicity the West grants them.
NORA Yes, probably. Taiye Selasi, for example was ‘THE African writer’ here in Germany. But she was born in England, and she lived in European and U.S. contexts for most of her life. She talks about African origins and about the „Afropolitan“, that’s interesting for sure, but why does it seem so difficult for African writers to be noticed here?
NORA Ok. Violet Bulawayo is widely discussed here right now as well.
RONALD Inevitably still, these writers are mainly producing migrant stories. A friend once joked that if one wanted to win the Caine or the Booker Man prize, one would have to write a story on migration. That is what is trendy now.
NORA Probably true. Actually, not all that funny.. What books would you say impacted you most?
RONALD I love NoViolet. She is beautiful and I did get to meet her.
NORA Good point!
RONALD I do love her book, too. The books that have influenced me have actually been mainly written by post-colonial Africans who participated in the struggle for independence, like Achebe, Ngugi, Peter Abrahams, Okot p’Bitek, John Ruganda, Wole Soyinka, etc. Another book I enjoyed, a story of migration too, is We Need New Names. I read it on my flight from Kampala to Bonn and never stopped reading.
NORA What touched you most? Why would you say that this story is important to you?
RONALD My grandmother would probably be puzzled by phrases such as ‘comment on a status’ or words like ‘facebook’. But for me, it is a story written about our time. The most touching part for me was the contrast between life on the continent and life off the continent.
NORA I can imagine.
RONALD It is true that many Africans aspire to leave the country and go to the West for a better life. But once you have traveled, you realize that Africa is actually a paradise, that problems and challenges are not just peculiar to us as Africans. That is the truth the story so aptly tells.
NORA That’s very true. What is it that you find difficult in other countries, for example in Germany?
RONALD Well, I cannot say exactly what I find difficult about the ‘West’ (allow me to use this term). It is more of a feeling. I guess life is way too perfect/organized (or so it seems) for me to like it.
NORA Yes. Life is too perfect. That brings it to a point. That’s what makes people sick here.
RONALD The problems or issues of concern are also different from those we have at home. A phobia for spiders, for example, would not be something a parent here would care much about. I found that people in the West take these things so very serious .
NORA Yes, they do. And then, even though they take everything the kids do so super serious, they still don’t give them what they really need – at least that’s how it seems.
RONALD The other day on a KLM flight to Tegel, I was served a sandwich and it had a very clear label on it stating that the chicken in it had been prepared according to regulations in which animals are treated well … . I was fascinated! It was a very long message that even explained the awards the company had gotten for killing the chicken with dignity. I do respect that, but this is not my reality.
NORA We try to do everything in a way that we can avoid feeling guilty about it. It is what has become the ‘good life’ here or let’s say the ‘virtuous life’.
WRITING TODAY & IN THE FUTURE
NORA I have another question that may lead away a bit from the close look on the writing process, but I’m curious nevertheless. To which degree would you say that economical factors influence your writing and your work?
RONALD I have to be realistic. I am a young man in my prime, and my dream is to work hard, earn some money, build a house, get married, have a family and live happily ever after … Maybe a yacht. But, in the Ugandan economy, it is practically impossible to survive as a writer. This has many reasons, but the main ones are that not so many or enough people read and that we have no institutions to market literature well enough. Competition from other art forms also plays a role.
NORA The writing scene in Germany is more or less the scene in Berlin. There are many writers and quite a few can afford a living with their writing, more or less. I’m not sure whether that’s always a good thing. In a way you leave the kind of normality that counts for the people around you, you may also lose the contact to the topics you are writing about.
RONALD What about the topics in Germany. What is the literature like that is produced there?
NORA They are diverse, from coming of age to migration, etc.
RONALD I got to experience the Spoken Word scene in Hamburg, and I was fascinated by the creativity of these artists. Maybe it will shock you to hear that I still watch Youtube videos of poetry slams in Germany. I can only pick out a few words, but I love the energy and passion .
NORA I’m not so much into poetry slams, so I can’t really talk about it. I can only relate to the off-slam scene. Here we have historical novels about Humboldt and about the third Reich, about the former GDR, and so on. Novels about Hitler still sell very well. We have utopian novels, wellness novels, Berlin-neighbourhood novels, and novels with international topics. A friend of mine for example wrote about Fukushima. And then there is of course Bärfuss whom I mentioned earlier. I think that traveling and descriptions of other countries are very popular themes, whether these may be Japan, Cote Ivoire, the U.S., or just Italy.
RONALD Quite rich I must say. And are people still reading these books or has technology affected them in a way that they don’t? What percentage of young people sit down and read books?
NORA I have no idea, actually. There is this pessimism that younger people spend all their time on chatting (like we are doing right now) or liking things on fb, etc. But then again fifty years ago young people also didn’t read the things the older generation considered to be ‘right’. People who read literature are a minority, that’s for sure. But I think it has always been that way.
RONALD Is this pessimism or realism? I agree with the generation gap. But I also think that we need to thank technology for contributing to literature. A friend of mine argued that even the publishing scene has changed through it.
NORA Yes, probably. And also the role of the author has changed. The author has become a value of its own. I think that is why going to slams or events like that is so popular.
RONALD Years ago you had to take a manuscript to a publisher who could take years to get back to you. Today, you can start a blog, make a facebook note, etc. My friend argues that facebook posts or statuses should be regarded as the intellectual property of writers. Some of my own best writing has actually been done on facebook !
NORA Really? Yes, blogs and formats like that do open the doors for everyone. They make writing more democratic, but they also flood the market and make it harder for writers to fight for the small amount of attention they can hope for from public.
RONALD If you think about the future. What stories do you think we will have in fifty or so years from now?
NORA To some extend the same as we have now: stories about human emotions, stories about fears. The setting may changes, but I guess the content will not be much different. What do you think?
RONALD I agree, but I suspect that we will have more science fiction and a more pronounced role of technology in literature. But we also have the means of education, so the ability to shape the literature of the future is still in our hands. I believe that writers will continue to be the ‘eyes’ of society that ask and answer questions .
NORA Since there is so much science fiction already, I think that also the opposite could be the case. If we look back in history at the kind of stories Jules Verne and his fellows wrote I think they were much more genuinely sf than most of the writing today.
RONALD Journey to the centre of the Earth. I remember that one. But I guess it is more popular as movie than as a paperback.
NORA Yes, that’s true. But even for movies the interest goes back to everyday life – the catastrophes of everyday life. After 9/11 some movies were just not possible to make anymore, because reality overtook them in a way.
RONALD True. Now, I am afraid I have to run. It has been enlightening to chat with you. Have a look at that essay. It is one of my favourite. It deals with some of the issues we talked about concerning authenticity http://www.granta.com/Archive/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1