Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Jean Pierre Nikuze

  • 0

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.

The stories on the 2024 shortlist were selected from a total of 7,359 entries. Small countries like Mauritius, Rwanda and St Kitts and Nevis have authors on the shortlist for the first time.

“Today, perhaps more than ever, it is storytelling that will help inspire the love, compassion and understanding that our world so desperately needs,” commented Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Jannike Bergh conducted interviews with the shortlisted authors from Africa. Below is an interview with Jean Pierre Nikuze.

Hi there, and congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Please tell me a bit about who you are and what you usually write.

Thank you! My name is Jean Pierre Nikuze, and I’m a Rwandan, currently studying theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. I usually write experimental short stories. Around six years ago, I returned to creative writing after a long break, with the intent of improving the artistry of my fiction. No longer content with mere storytelling, I felt I needed to play with the language more, sort of like how a child plays in mud. And so, I went looking for new influences, artists who would influence my style. I soon found one in the French writer Georges Perec, known for his experimental writing. My search was frantic. Two more quickly followed: the Senegalese musician Wasis Diop and the British painter Leon Kossoff.

Would you tell me about your country and what you experience as story material in the country you are from – and why?

This is not an easy question for me to answer because the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi scattered many of us Rwandans all over the world. And while, yes, Rwanda is my home, Kenya is where I know best; it is where I have lived the longest, and also where I got the idea for “The goat”. That said, my main source of story material since I was in fourth grade has always been people. A favourite pastime for me is people-watching, and I have gotten many story ideas from this activity.

What is your story about – and what inspired you to write this specific story?

In my story, a woman grieving the theft of her newborn son from the maternity ward takes matters into her own hands. Throughout, her plans to move on are complicated by a goat her husband bought as their son’s gift, because the goat reminds her of him. The main idea of the story – the theft of a child – was provided by news stories about actual theft of children in a hospital in Nairobi. The lockdown was still on, and there was this phenomenon where even something as terrible as this, while initially raising the public’s ire, would be forgotten, sometimes in just a matter of days. The virus really affected our perception of death and loss. Anyway, I imagined this kind of baby theft scenario, but from the parents’ perspective. How did they move on without closure? Did they ever move on?

Do you think stories can make a difference? Tell me about a story you have read that you still think about.

Yes, I think stories can make a difference, especially in regard to reducing the prejudices in the world. Stories show that underneath the surface of our different races and cultures, we all pursue and avoid pretty much the same things; they remind us that our cherished ideas of the good life are actually more universal than we may think.

A story I still think about is Nadine Gordimer’s July’s people, which I read maybe ten years ago. I was awed by the finesse with which Gordimer orchestrates the actions of the two unforgettable main characters, July and Maureen, over the course of the novel. Some of the story’s depictions were things I had once deemed inappropriate for fiction, despite their probable occurrence in the real world. The story also makes the reader question some of the ideas they usually take for granted. Here, I have in mind the way Maureen, who is a good mother for most of the story, decides to abandon her husband and two children in favour of what I read to be self-preservation. The issues of ubuntu and morality are also problematised in Gordimer’s powerful novel.

What is the importance of being shortlisted for a prize like this?

It is always an incredible feeling as an emerging writer when your work is recognised, and for me this recognition is life-changing. Further, in representing Rwanda, I am honoured to add some variety to the Africa Region shortlist, which is usually dominated by writers from countries with more established literary traditions.

As with many art forms, writing can be a solitary practice – perhaps the most solitary pursuit of them all; there is no stage, no gallery wall with an audience, no viewers’ visible reaction. What is your writing process, and what do you typically do once you have finished a piece and sent it into the world?

As already mentioned, I get a lot of story material from observing human beings. Because I do this routinely, I believe I have, at any given time, enough material for a few stories at least. When a story requires research, I do it beforehand so that I don’t have to interrupt the work, though I avoid topics about which I know little. Sometimes the story flows really well at the first try, as if the muses have opened the floodgates. Other times, it feels like I can do no more than combine two letters of the alphabet.

Once the writing begins, the story woos and beckons to me, and I am obliged to make time to get it out of my head. I work any free time I get, though I prefer night time. When the writing is done, I put the work aside for a few days. When I pick it up again to begin editing, it often feels like entering a post-apocalyptic city and having to put everything back in its rightful place. If I’m lucky, there will be signs on the structures indicating what used to be what – the city limits, building codes, etc. Editing is for me the thing I find most difficult about the writing process. It is long, repetitive – and repetitive. Settling on a title is another process I find challenging; I prefer to leave it for last.

Once the piece leaves my hands, I forget about it and tend to my other responsibilities. However, if I have dug – creatively, really deep – for it, then it lingers.

From your experience, what advice or message do you have for young writers?

From my very limited experience, the first thing I’d say is that reading is an excellent way to learn how to write. Be picky. Look up the best writing from all over the world.

Second, make room in your schedule to write. Be mindful that most of what you write at this point will be practice, and unfit for publication. Still, if you feel you have invested a lot of creative energy into a piece, try to get it published.

Finally, read social sciences, the arts and humanities to gain insight into the human condition. Good writers are curious and knowledgeable.

Artificial intelligence is here – many creatives fear or resist it, while others embrace it and include it in their creative process. What are your thoughts on the matter?

This is not something I think about, nor is it a tool I could ever use. For me, anything that makes writing stories easier also inevitably takes away from the wonderful returns of a gruelling process seen to completion.

Also read:

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Olajide Omojarabi

Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Jayne Bauling

Press release: 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlists announced

Press release: Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024 regional winners announced

  • 0
Verified by MonsterInsights