The question comes up often—on panels at literary festivals (both in-person and virtual), in email interviews, Clubhouse conversations, and casual encounters with readers: Hey, how much of this is autobiography?
The novel, short stories, or the odd poems I have floating around the internet—all of them are catnip for the query. For a curiosity so common I still do not know how to respond to it.
Is this situation on page x pulled from real life? (And, if so, did it happen in that way?)
I really do not know.
The simplest answer I can give is this: all of it is real, some of it is real, and none of it is real.
I am Rwandan by birth, culture, and pervading cynicism. This is no secret. I am also Namibian, by duration, choice, and boredom. This is also known. When I write these two sensibilities often shape my protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters in implicit and explicit ways. In The Eternal Audience of One I figured, heck, if one wanted to be from a place that is barely understood what would be better than Rwanda (past, present, or future)? And if “The Giver of Nicknames” needed a complex relationship with geography, politics, race, class, and privilege, why cop foreign when local is lekker? I wish I could be from Middle-Earth, Midkemia, or Mossflower Wood. I would not mind having a branch on the Faraway Tree or a den next to Badger in the Wild Woods. From all the things I have watched, read, or heard, or all the places I have been fortunate enough to live in or visit, I could fake identities from Cape Town, Johannesburg, B’more, “Noo Yaawk”, or London (Peckham, bruv). But why would I? The sensibilities of foreign places—both real and fictional—are secondary or tertiary. They are not as primary or as visceral as the horror of dying at pandemic speeds in Windhoek but seeing vaccination clinics close for two-hour lunches and not open at all on weekends. That is pure Windhoek fuckery one has to personally experience in order to write about. And while the temptation to write like the mandem pon de rock is strong, home—whatever that means—is a much easier and adequately confusing place to write from and about. For me, when writing, I use what I know to explore what I do not.
The questions, though, linger.
How much of Séraphin is you and vice versa?
Are you, in fact, the giver of nicknames?
It is 1996. I have been in Namibia since April. My birthday will be the first my family will celebrate in this new country after leaving Nairobi. No big city vibe. No hooting traffic. No noise. No bustle. No wariness for pickpockets. No Swahili. There is a desperate pressure to learn English and figure out the complex strata of private school life. At the annual awards ceremony at the end of the year, the Most Improved Student Award will be given to a girl whose average went from sixty-five to seventy-five percent. The parents vigorously applaud her efforts when she is called onto the stage.
I am shocked. Goddamit, I went from almost failing to the low seventies—all of this while learning a whole new language and successfully dodging bullies on the playground. Seriously, how do I not get this award? I am hurt. Bitter. That special kind of kid-angry that does not have the vocabulary to express itself. Just raw emotion and sad vibes.
I think I cried in the audience that night.
Actually, I know I cried.
I realised, in that row, clapping for this other student, that I am mad competitive. I think it is better not to have competition in the first place, but as long as there are Ls being handed out the dealer better skip me. Maybe that is why characters in my stories have chips on their shoulders. They hate losing at games, sports, love, and life. These cracks in their personalities make for rich literary exploration. When I see how my characters respond to their respective failures I can see the grace I do not possess; if I lost the same things they have taken away from them in the third paragraph or page ninety I would call in an air-strike and carpet bomb the world into oblivion.
Sure, they may be my characters because I created them, but sometimes I wonder if they are mine or I am theirs.
And who is the most accurate reflection of the other?
Apparently I am a typical Taurus. Stubborn. I am told people of my ilk do not apologise easily.
Why would we? One of the other star signs can do that for us. There is always a Pisces willing to die on someone else’s sword or to pick up everyone’s blame. In fact, if there is a particularly pliant piscine personality who would like to set up a sincere apology business I am willing to start first-round funding applications for them.
Perhaps because of the fault in my stars I have some unapologetic characters in my writing. For me, sorry kills a plot. It is handy in real life, of course, but when writing I want blood, feathers, and squawkin’ everywhere, my darlin’.
The merits of apology are clear: disarmament and cessation of hostilities, peace accords and negotiations, mutually beneficial rebuilding—these steps make sense in the real world, and, later on, in the fictional ones I build.
And yet I wonder how much of my writing reflects a wanton willingness to throw Capricorns under the apology bus.
So, this one time I am asked if my “lyrical” writing is in any way influenced by some of the epic poetry I have read. Because I am growing up feral in the storytelling wilderness, I do not know what lyrical means. I have to look it up and when I find the literary definition I am like, nah, b—I dance.
Salsa, bachata, and cha-cha. But salsa is my favourite. I like slow and mid-tempo songs and live for the fast cadences with the banging bongos, blaring horns, itchy maracas and scratchy güiro, clapping claves, and double-time timbales that open up the ear canals and get the heart thumping with rhythm. Every salsa dancer knows various steps and patterns. Depending on the song, available space, their partner’s proficiency, and the presence or absence of an audience, they are whipped out in interesting combinations. They can be danced apart or together; strung out in sequence—forward and reverse—or they can be chopped up, stitched together, and combined in ever-changing and entrancing ways. Half of this, quarter of that, ninety-percent of that other thing—and, of course: inevitable errors, unpredictable improvisation, and interpretation of steps from other dancing disciplines. Everything goes in the soup including the pot.
Whether one is leading or following, something becomes clear when dancing: it is never about you, it is about your dance partner. From their acquiescence to a dance, to what they can and cannot do—it is always about them. Their ability to take part in the dance and their enjoyment of the temporary melodic union is paramount—sometimes all you can do is be a facilitator.
The same goes for writing in many ways. It is always about the reader—me, when I am penning thoughts for myself, or someone else, when I hope to have something I am working on published. Long sentences, clipped scenes, devolution, denouement—it is all about the person reading my words and what their reactions might be when they encounter my compositions. In contrast to dancing, though, you never know who you are paired up with. Invisible readers, unlike dance partners, do not provide immediate feedback with a smile, frown, quickness of breath, or a missed step. Writing is weird like that.
When someone tells me that I am a good dancer I think, no, I am good at allowing other people to dance with themselves through me.
Whose dance is it anyway?
I enjoy many of the same things my characters do. Music, films, games, banter. They like reading and so do I. They grew up in middle-class neighbourhoods like I did. We both know the pain of shinned knees and the immortality and power of the stories behind them, embellished or not. Still, I look at these characters on paper, these people who move through other worlds and different times and think, nah, they are not me. The gravities of this world shape me and my actions differently.
Or do they?
How much of this is autobiography?
Let me ask you a question: If I show you how the sausage is made—from the oink to the stink and the pink—will you still want to eat it?
I am with the butchers on this one: don’t ask, don’t tell.
If a singer sings a song and their voice carries the pain, joy, or truth of the lyrics from the page, through your ears and to the core of your being, is their song not autobiographical?
Likewise, if an actor manages to portray a character so convincingly that the role becomes indistinguishable from who they generally are, is that character not autobiographical?
And when someone who wrote something is asked whether their text is autobiographical, would it not make sense to say yes since the writer—the role, the temperament—is a character a person steps into in order to write?
So this scene, right, the one where you—sorry, the character—does all the bad things, is this from your life?
Does it matter?
I have an interest in artisanal crafts like origami, calligraphy, pyrography, woodcarving, and knife-making, and pottery—I enjoy watching videos of paper being creased, wood being turned, and steel being folded and forged. Pottery videos are a particular obsession. The clay being mixed and thrown, the way the fingers work the brown mass, allowing the form to take shape from relative nothingness to certain somethingness as the wheel spins—it is engrossing. I particularly like the videos in which the design fails—when the vase walls are too thin or the lip of the bowl is uneven, when the throwing is not proficient and the whole thing crumples upon itself. Artistic vision, brave attempt, failure—I love it. When the clay is being shaped, the potter clearly has the shape of the thing to be made in their mind, in a faraway world I cannot see. Through their fingers, skill, and imagination, they tease the creation from the clay. I look at such videos and wonder how much of the potter is in the clay.
All of them?
Some of them?
None of them?
How much of you is in autobiography?
POSTSCRIPT: A long time ago I had a newsletter which curated some of my interests and distractions. At first it was a labour of love; later, it became a lot of the former and little of the latter—the link life is not for everyone. I stopped it in 2014-ish. This is not an attempt to resurrect it—just me sharing some things I have enjoyed in the past while.
READ—Books: Tuff by Paul Beatty • Lightseekers by Femi Kayode | Short fiction: “A Road Called Love” by Sibongile Fisher (Lolwe) • “Whirlwind” by Troy Onyango (Dgeku) | Nonfiction: “Notes In The Margin: Part V” by Peter Orner (The Believer) • “Lessons From A Jamaican Obeah Man’s Son” by Roland Watson-Grant (Afar) | Poetry: “A Litany For Survival” by Audre Lorde • “Prayer/Oracion” by Francisco X. Alarcon • “You’re Not Supposed To Take Somebody Else’s Nostalgia” by Xandra Phillips | Visual art: “Such Long Nights” by Laeïla Adjovi (Lolwe) • “Collateral Beauty” by Jeni Andriemiseza (Doek!) • Project3541 | Comics: Age of Bronze: The Story of the Trojan War by Eric Shanower | WATCH—Documentary: Jiro Dreams of Sushi • Summer of Soul…Or When The Revolution Would Not Be Televised | Film: In The Heights | Series: The Nevers (season 1) | LISTEN—Music: “Blame” by Grace Carter featuring Jacob Banks • “A Love Supreme, Part 1: Acknowledgement“by John Coltrane • “Mystery Lady” by Masego featuring Don Toliver • “Bigger Man” by Joy Oladokun featuring Maren Morris • | Podcast: Fiction/Non/Fiction: Marlon James & Daniel José Older: Against Genre Snobbery by V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell • Hardcore History: King of Kings (Part I) by Dan Carlin | PLAY: Horizon Zero Dawn | TRY: Nike Training Companion app