The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Rémy Ngamije from Namibia

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Picture of the logo of the Commonwealth Writers and of Rémy Ngamije: https://www.commonwealthwriters.org/our-projects/the-short-story/. Picture of Namibia (below, right): Pixabay.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.

Here is more information on the competition and the shortlist of this year.

Rémy Ngamije from Namibia talks to Naomi Meyer about his shortlisted story, Granddaughter of the octopus.

Hi, Rémy! Congratulations on your short story, Granddaughter of the octopus, which is the regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for this year. Please could you tell our readers what inspired you to write this story? What gave you the idea(s) or inspiration to write the story?

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I have always enjoyed the Disney version of The little mermaid, especially Ursula’s character. I always thought her to be under-explored or poorly defined in that story. I wondered a lot about how she became who she was.

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I look for any excuse to tell a story, and writing Granddaughter of the octopus was a good one. I have always enjoyed the Disney version of The little mermaid, especially Ursula’s character. I always thought her to be under-explored or poorly defined in that story. I wondered a lot about how she became who she was. That led me to the idea of the grandmother character, about how she would speak and act and move through the world.

Staying with this story of yours: can you summarise, in a few sentences, what the story is about?

The story is told by a granddaughter talking about her grandmother’s life – a fierce and feisty woman who tried her best to live life on her own terms in a world that did not want her to. Essentially, it explores themes of love, war, dispossession and family life.

Please tell our readers your personal story. You live in Namibia, but you were born in Rwanda. Have you always liked writing? Did you grow up in a family of storytellers, or what books did you enjoy and do you still enjoy?

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Namibia is home now. I have been living here since 1996. It is the prism through which I experience the world; it is also the country in which I have decided to invest my literary projects. It is challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

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Namibia is home now. I have been living here since 1996. It is the prism through which I experience the world; it is also the country in which I have decided to invest my literary projects. It is challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

I have always liked reading. It all started in my primary school when our teachers would read us Roald Dahl’s stories. Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox, Revolting rhymes, The BFG, The twits and Danny, the champion of the world are the kinds of stories that got me into reading, and they are also the kinds of stories I wanted to write when I was younger. The desire to tell a story found an outlet in writing, which pushed me to try and become a good writer. I come from a family of readers – all of us enjoy literature. But we are all competent writers; I guess I am the sibling who decided to pursue storytelling as a vocation. These days, I enjoy many short stories, especially those that are published in African literary magazines, such as Lolwe, The Johannesburg Review of Books and Bakwa. They are a trove of some of the best writing of the continent.

You say that finishing any story is an accomplishment. But how do you know when or whether your story and your truth is any good? Does it matter? Why or why not?

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I think it is up to each individual writer or artist to formulate their own sense of completion. The longer you stay committed to your craft, the more intimate you become with it, with your particular style of creation.

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I think it is up to each individual writer or artist to formulate their own sense of completion. The longer you stay committed to your craft, the more intimate you become with it, with your particular style of creation. This lets you know when you are in the flow or the zone, whether you are starting a project or in its middle. It also lets you know when you are near its end. It is different for everyone. Writers are not the same as sculptors, and they are not the same as potters. But each writer decides where their own sense of ending lies.

Truth is good. Sincerity is even better. I do not mind if a story is fantastical and devoid of facts and the like. If it is told sincerely, like it is true, then I will enjoy it. Truth is not the only ingredient for a good story. There are many others.

What does a competition like this one mean to you as a writer? How do you feel about winning the regional competition with your story?

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Winning the regional prize is, of course, amazing. It is wonderful to see Namibia on top of the continental literary pile, so to speak. This kind of recognition does not happen often for writers from my background.

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For me, the thrill is the opportunity to be part of a larger literary community. It is amazing to take part in a storytelling event that includes writers from around the world.

Winning the regional prize is, of course, amazing. It is wonderful to see Namibia on top of the continental literary pile, so to speak. This kind of recognition does not happen often for writers from my background. So, being able to represent writers from Namibia is an honour.

Also read:

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Moso Sematlana from Lesotho

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Vincent Anioke from Nigeria

Buro: NM
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