Notes Of A Non-Native Son Every story needs a place, and every writer needs a home.

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“Windhoek has three temperatures: hot, mosquito, and fucking cold.”
—Prologue: The Last Ticket Out Of Town, The Eternal Audience of One.

***

prologue (noun): a separate introductory section of a literary, dramatic, or musical work.

***

I love prologues. I admire the sheer audacity of writers when they make assertions about beginnings.

—This is what came before.

—This is where the story begins.

—This is how things are.

They are, as literary devices, courageous in their attempts to be authoritative in the creation of a story.

Prologue: chaos, boom, words, light, time. Start.

So brave.

So foolish.

***

I have always known where I am from and, most importantly, where I am not from. Migration never lets you forget: there is home—your particular prologue, the source of your origin story, the place you are required to summarise or explain to anyone who feels they posses a right to ask where you come from—and the rest of the unfolding national narrative you are told you are lucky enough to be a part of (oftentimes, this is whatever country you eventually settle in). Your part in the story is to be a background character. You speak when spoken to; you build bridges, dams, railroads, and economies when you are told to; you sweep streets, clean houses, and provide comforts to people who consider your labour to be a fair price for living in their proximity, on their land, in their country. You go to school to learn their history and values; you find a church and pray to their gods. You do all of these things because you must fit in. But you never, under any circumstances, ever make the mistake of having a voice and breaking out of your two-bit role. When you are cast as an other your job is to live as far away from the narrative flow as possible.

Anyone in diaspora with a fucked up prologue knows their three major acts in any national story: conformity, assimilation, and silence.

My prologue is Rwanda.

But my story is Namibia.

***

From a young age, home and what was not home was made clear to me by my parents, my teachers, my classmates, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the national newspapers, taxi drivers, and the entire xenophobic milieu that is Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. I knew that our house was “home” because within its walls there was a particular way of being, of talking about events in the country and outside it; there was a family identity that was different from my Namibian friends and their families. Outside of our house’s confines life was different; there was a constant need for restraint and finding new ways of self-censoring to avoid confrontation. At home, I grew up watching Rwandans in diaspora relaxing and unwinding themselves. They gossiped, made jokes, told stories, and revelled in times gone by. My parents, too, were different at such times. Jovial. Communal. Speaking in rich, flowing, proverbial, and idiomatically rich Kinyarwanda that made my siblings and I ask for simplified and heavily diluted English translations. My parents only acted this way at home. Outside they were reserved, always polite.

Growing up in this way, knowing the boundaries of our home, was protective in many ways. It was important for us to know what things to say and where to say them. Windhoek was and always has been hostile to other ways being. (One merely has to ask black foreigners from African countries and the LGBTQI community.) My siblings and I, along with the continental cousins given to us by diaspora from Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the DRC, and Angola knew this. We were aware that Windhoek favoured sameness and silence—difference of any kind was not rewarded. That kind of thing was for elsewhere—a place we all so desperately tried to be a part of in our own ways (firstly, by fleeing to various universities outside the country and, secondly, when the working world called, trying to be recruited by management consulting companies abroad).

The universal immigrant truths were true back then as they are now: work hard, try to fit in, and keep quiet. The first thing was easy to do. Failure of any kind promised a familiar horror hovering in the background of our lives: poverty and a possible return to whatever miserable prologue our parents had escaped.

Trying to belong was a bit easier. Most of us were being raised by MTV and the budding internet. We all aspired to have FUBU and play basketball like MJ. The joint pursuit of these materialistic things was enough to build a community of dissatisfied teenagers coming-of-age in a place which seemed to have forgotten to purchase the last ticket out of town.

Keeping quiet, the caveat given to any immigrant trying to assimilate into any new country (and taken as an impeachable commandment by Rwandans), was hard. We were, like many teenagers, curious and questioning. We were beginning to feel the effects of race, class, gender, and citizenship on our young lives. It certainly did not help that everything we were watching, reading, and listening to encouraged speaking up and fighting the status quo. Punk rock, hip hop, and Fight Club got so many of us into trouble with our parents. It felt as though there was an outside world in which we were not participating, a life we were not living. When the opportunity to leave and study outside Namibia presented itself, those of us with the means hit the teleport button and vanished for years.

I, for a very long time, found my escape in Cape Town, South Africa.

It was interesting to see Namibians abroad with their own country as their prologue. The hoops they jumped through to not be Namibian—a place no one understood, or from communities and peoples overshadowed by regional and world history—were fascinating and amusing. Suddenly everyone was “actually from South Africa—yeah, my mother was born here.” White Namibians quickly discovered their German or Portuguese roots. Nobody was claiming Namibia—“Namibia, our country—beloved land of savannahs”. The national anthem and its lyrical patriotism was thrown out with the baby and the bathwater. The allure of Cape Town was strong, the geographic magic of that complex city by the sea was powerful enough to dilute ties to any place anyone called home. It was strange, then, to be a Rwandan in Cape Town saying I was from Namibia when everyone else was busy distancing themselves from the country.

Prologues are funny that way. As soon as they are set down, a story tries so hard to move away from them.

***

Those of us who were lucky enough to leave Windhoek for a while were exposed to different ways of being. We came back to Namibia unable to fit in the round holes made of us. In my case, determined to be a storyteller and to write, I struggled with finding a rhythm in the Windhoek’s working community. As early as 2009, in my third year at university, I had been thinking of Séraphin, his family, his friends, and his adventures. His world existed in notebooks, disparate and disconnected sentences, and one or two forgotten voice notes. I had bits of dialogue here and there but I lacked the narrative glue to hold it together. Towards the end of my English undergraduate career at the University of Cape Town, in 2010, I had taken a creative writing course for a semester (those classes were the only ones I did not sleep in—all the others, especially poetry lectures, were fair game for snoozies) and I had hoped it would help to bring the story I had in mind together. It did not. Firstly, because that was not what the course was for, and, secondly, I was only in those classes because of a girl I liked. (Of course!) [Spoiler alert: that story has a conclusion but no climax. Go figure.]

Nonetheless, I had the general idea of the story and some of the theory behind writing. What I lacked was the proof to show the relativity of gravity in my story. That would only materialise years later when I moved back to Windhoek, a place I had, strangely enough, started referring to as “back home.”

Is it not strange how the longer life goes on the more prologues one picks up, and the more confusing an origin story becomes?

Prologue: chaos, boom, words, light, time. Start.

Bullshit.

***

The year: 2013.

The place: Windhoek.

The vibe: I was pissed off, frustrated, and directionless.

I spent my time reading to keep myself out of trouble. Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith, and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie—these were writers I gravitated towards, people who summed up places and times in such clear and affecting language. Adichie on Lagos, Smith on American university campuses and London, and Diaz on Santo Domingo and the Nueva York of his immigrant Dominican characters. I loved the way these writers captured the small and grand happenings of places, the spirit of a city, or the soul of a street. They were intimate with their settings—they knew them well and wrote about them in both sensitive and eviscerating ways. I could tell, as the reader, that they were insiders, not tourists or temporary residents in the places about which they wrote.

While I never envied their writing styles, I was jealous of their metropolitan and cosmopolitan canvasses: the places the wrote about were big and well-known places in the world that came with built-in contexts, histories, and popular culture. For my own tale, I was not sure Windhoek could or would be a place ripe enough for storytelling since I had spent the longest outside of the national narrative, playing my role as the child of immigrants: working hard, fitting in, and keeping quiet. Also, I realised early on that telling stories from Namibia would demand breaking that last proviso because stories fight against silences. The writers I admired did not shy away from describing the people, locations, cultures, and histories of the places in which their stories were set in unflattering language.

Also, no cap, this was Windhoek and Namibia we were talking about—in Transformers: The Last Knight, the country was said to be in West Africa (all that money for CGI but not a dollar spent on Google Earth). Years later, Donald Trump, as the President of the United States, would also refer to Namibia as “Nambia”. Heck, even the Caine Prize for African Writing did that a few weeks ago in their 2021 awards video. (Which, really, answers the question about what the Donald has been up to since he left the White House.)

Besides the smallness of the place in which my intended story would be set, there was the issue of nativity—all the writers I was reading belonged, in some way (citizenship, permanent residency, or long tenure) to the places they wrote about. I did not. I was not a native son, that hallowed class of person permitted to say, do, and be anything by the simple virtue being born in a place. I might have been a permanent Namibian resident, sure, but any black African in Namibia will tell you that that status is not nearly enough to play a meaningful role in the country’s creative, political, or public life. Such brave aspirations are purely reserved for white foreigners—tourist and otherwise—and Namibians. What I have seen from living in Namibia for such a long time is this: whiteness and citizenship confer powers beyond the voting booth. Whiteness, for example, allows every volunteer, NGO worker, and traveller, from any quarter or origin, to consult and advise on any small thing. Such people are given the right to describe Namibia in any way they see it, reaching for any simile or metaphor they desire, cliché, colonial, and otherwise. Citizenship permits participation in the country’s imagination; native sons and daughters are granted the power to take part in the national myth-making process. They are allowed to hope and aspire. Most importantly, they can do that thing any storyteller is bound to do: criticise.

Home, once one finds it, is where all the hard conversations need to be had.

Still, I had this story about this chronically bored and frustrated young man in Windhoek that needed a way out. I had experimented with the narrative by starting it in some of the cities the story takes place in—Kigali, Nairobi, Cape Town, Brussels, and Paris. The writing never took hold. While I knew the souls of these “elsewheres”, none of them felt as comfortable as Windhoek.

None of them felt like “home.”

***

Home is a large preoccupation for any immigrant. Home means shelter and security. It is a place of honest discussion and debate. But it is also a place of hurt and discord. A space for uncertainty. A place of confinement and conformity. One which has to be escaped by any means necessary.

Despite being Rwandan on paper and in culture, Namibia and Windhoek eventually became home for me through duration and slow, painful acclimatisation. Beyond this process towards “nativeness” there was the realisation all immigrant communities come to: you can only be an other for so long before you, too, demand a place, a chapter, and a meaningful role in any national narrative.

I had reached that point of frustration.

I was not a native son, but I was a son nonetheless.

It was a start.

***

In 2018, at the US Embassy in Windhoek, where Peter Orner had invited me to read along with his creative writing students from the University of Namibia, I read the oldest version of The Eternal Audience of One’s prologue.

While some revisions of the text have been made since, the opening remains: “Windhoek has three temperatures: hot, mosquito, and fucking cold.” The narration of class and immigrant struggles has not been altered. The riffs on the city’s economic and social inequalities are still there. The inconvenient truths sit side-by-side with the praise lines for the sunsets and geographies that make Windhoek a beautiful place.

One of the attendants was not impressed with me. At the end of the evening she worked her way through the assembled crowd of guests and said I had got everything wrong.

I asked what I had misrepresented.

She said: “Windhoek is not a small place.”

***

No matter what you say
Or where you go or what you do
Or how you pray
Somebody’s gonna feel some kind of way
Somebody’s gonna feel some kind of way about you

—“Some Kind of Way” by Jidenna

***

Do you know how to tell you live in a small place?

When a joke about the place is made and everyone—and I mean everyone—feels personally attacked.

Big cities can take a joke. Small places cannot.

***

The prologue had to be written to explain Séraphin’s world and to find my way into the story and the language of home. It was necessary to define what Windhoek was like, whether I was a native son or not. I am not sure I would have found the voice of the story, or where it was coming from, or where it was trying to go if I had written it in some other tamer and polite way.

Once it was one paper I felt more comfortable with the stakes involved and better prepared for whatever consequences would come. Anyway, I believe if you are going to tell a story, you might as well tell all of it.

And what you want to say with your pen, you need to say with your whole chest.

***

Whether it is Middle Earth, Gotham, or Arrakis. Every story needs a place, and a writer needs to figure out their relationship to that place, a home of some sorts that provides them with the feeling of belonging—some space that bequeaths them the absolute power and freedom to launch their imagination, whether it is criticism or description. The writer’s relationship to that place helps to orientate their writing: up is up and down is down; forwards is not backwards. Prologues, in defining what was, what came before, or the way things are, are merely guides for the writer and reader. They work in the background, unseen, like gravity, pulling things together. There are other forces: friction and tension between characters, resistance to status quo of their worlds, the electricity of attraction, and the magnetism towards conclusion. But prologues remain a wonderful ambition.

Chaos, boom, words, light, time. Start.

Such delightful folly.

***

For the most part, the unforgiving nature of the prologue has not been challenged. There is nothing to refute: all of it is true.

But there is another reason why it slaps differently today: I am now a native son.

Naturalised, but still. Although not as favourably looked upon as a birth right, naturalisation still places me within the realm of citizenship. Beyond that, there is also the mystical bond shared between people and the places in which they rest their dead: in African culture, where you bury your umbilical chord is home, but so is the place where your dead are interred. My mother’s passing was the last Rwandan family occurrence; two weeks later we were awarded Namibian citizenship.

***

While being Namibian allows informed criticism, it also comes with a greater appreciation of the place, and a heightened sensitivity for the representation of its peoples and history. In this way, James Baldwin’s words about the United States hold special meaning for me: he criticises his home because he loves it the most. In some way, I feel the same about Windhoek, even if, at times, with its three temperatures, cruel droughts, corruption, inequalities, poorly hidden racial history, and tribal politics it feels like a joke without a punchline.

The Eternal Audience of One’s prologue, in defining what Windhoek is in the story, gave the story a home.

It inadvertently provided one for me too.


POSTSCRIPT: The mandem’s book is out internationally on 10 August 2021. I am always surprised The Eternal Audience of One has made it this far. This milestone was hoped for, yes, but not planned for. “But it’s real and it’s on and caps is gettin’ [quilled…so you need to cop a copy and use it as] a human shield!” (That is a whole bite and remix from Kunniva’s verse in Eminem’s “One Shot 2 Shot”). There are some free virtual launch events planned with Maaza Mengiste, Adam Smyer, and Peter Orner that are guaranteed to be fun. Whatever dreams may come, will come. Once again, as it was in 2019, the most one can do is strap in and enjoy the ride.

READ—Books: The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga | Short fiction:We Are All Naked Dancing” by Sada Malumfashi (Lolwe) | Nonfiction:Auralgraph, Maputo: The Street Below” by Zerene Haddad (Doek!) • “I Will Always Love Africa Because From The First Minute I Arrived It Treated Me Like A White Girl” by Adam Smyer (The Johannesburg Review of Books) | Poetry:For The Dogs Who Barked At Me From The Sidewalk In Connecticut” by Hanif Abdurraqib (Poetry Foundation) | Visual art:Reach” by Immanuel Nate Hafeni (Doek!) | Comics: East of West by Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta | WATCH—Documentary: In Depth: Toni Morrison (2001) • Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2016) | Film: The Boat That Rocked (2009) • The Gentlemen (2020) | Series: Genius, Season 1: Einstein (2017) | LISTEN—Music:Simply Falling” by Iyeoka • “Dibi Dibi Rek” by Ismaël Lô • “Contradiction’s Maze” by Oddisee featuring Maimouna Youssef • “Twenty Years” by Placebo • “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn • “Amber” by Unusual Demot | Podcast: Nicole Hannah-Jones & Ta-Nehisi Coates On The Fight Over US History on The Ezra Klein Show | PLAY: WipEout Omega Collection | TRY: Weighted pull-ups (“Motherf—!”—a writer, somewhere, probably in Namibia.)