The book is out.
ISBN, blurb, bio, and the black and white photograph where you gaze into the middle distance. (In the next one you’ll have to cop a poorboy cap to seal the quintessential African literature writer look.)
You’ve done it: you’re an author.
Not an aspiring author. Not an author-in-editing. Not an author-in-waiting.
You’re an author-author.
You’re the Rwandan-born Namibian author of The Eternal Audience Of One, your debut novel, published by Blackbird Books. You’re in a stable of emerging and award-winning black writers. (The WhatsApp group chat is lit AF!)
Your debut novel, a 528-page behemoth which messes with people’s luggage weight restrictions, follows the intersecting lives of Séraphin and a host of eclectic characters from pre- and post-1994 Rwanda, colonial and post-independence Windhoek, Paris and Brussels in the 70s, the crowded public schools of Nairobi, as well as the hormone-saturated clubs and streets of Cape Town.
Yeah, it’s a lot of a lot—just the way you envisioned it. You’re glad your publisher, Thabiso Mahlape, did too.
The book’s cover has a byline which boldly declares you to be “one of Africa’s emerging literary voices.”
Look at you.
I SAY I SAID LOOKATEW-O!
You’re having a whole book launch. Standing room only. Maybe it’s the promise of free wine that’s brought everyone out on a cold winter’s night in July. Or it’s the book. Only the sales will tell. You sport a grey turtleneck and blazer like you’re some tenured, thirst-trapping literature professor. You’re being asked questions—smart, probing questions—and you’re answering them in that meandering, expansive style authors have. You roast that one dude who was really asking for it—“Dear Stan…”—and the whole room erupts. There’s applause, followed by a scramble to purchase copies.
The book sells out.
You’re signing books now.
JESUS! YOU’RE SIGNING BOOKS!
There’s a moment, heavy with a particular absence, when your father shows up with his copy for a signature. This is the man who signed your detention slips with a resigned and disappointed sigh in your tempestuous teenage years. He signed cheques for your university fees. His signature has been on every document that’s shaped, directed, and guarded your life since you came into this world, hollering and hungry for your unknown future. Now he’s here, after having patiently stood in line to get his book signed.
Think about that: your father, who’s made of wiser and older stuff, who carries the elemental dust of home and beyond, stubbornly stood in line (the man insisted) to get his copy of your book signed by you, his perplexing progeny.
Your signing hand shakes. You scratch your signature with blurry, moist eyes. He walks away clutching your book, smiling.
He’s the proud father of the Rwandan-born Namibian author of The Eternal Audience of One.
He’s survived your thunder. Now he holds the tale.
You’re 31, and here in front of family and friends, you’re happy with your identity for the first time in your life: author.
This is the citizenship you’ve been craving so much since your second-grade teacher read to you from Matilda and The Big Friendly Giant. Books have always been welcoming, and their writers have always wielded a strange power you wanted for yourself.
Now, you’ve done it: paperback citizenship.
You’re at the Open Book Festival. You appear on panels with Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Chase Rhys, Jo-Ann Bekker, Barbara Boswell, Haji Mohamed Dawjee, Saidiya Hartman, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenya, Bongani Kona, and Makanaka Mavengere-Munsaka, your fellow debut novelist (who’s written the sauciest debut ever with Perfect Imperfections—not for the last time you’re going to wonder how you managed to weasel your way into Blackbird Books because, damn, the talent that’s stacked up in the stables is hella).
Hold up, wait a minute
Let my put some clout up in it!
The organisers, for some reason, have decided you have the right stuff. You, longlisted for nothing, shortlisted for fokol, and the winner of nothing, must moderate a panel of award-winning authors. We’re talking about Chigozie Obioma (yeah, you’re reading right—two-time Booker Prize-shortlisted Chigozie Obioma), Masande Ntshanga (who was too cool and too smart to hang with you when you were in res together—you can’t script this shit, fam), and Mohale Mashigo (who’s, like, only one of the most accomplished authors in South Africa, and the coolest, most generous answerer of DMs to boot). You figure someone has to ask the dumb questions on the panel. It might as well be you.
Please, you pray, don’t let me fuck it up. (You don’t even pray but for this you do.)
Mervyn Sloman, who owns The Book Lounge and co-founded the Open Book Festival, and Frankie Murrey, the festival’s organiser, both say you’ll be fine: “Just don’t fuck it up.”
The prayers come thick and fast. You throw in some promises for spiritual penance if you’re delivered from the horrors of dry mouth and fumbling questions.
You don’t fuck it up.
And you don’t do your penance like the good old-fashioned lapsed Catholic you are.
The Open Book Festival is a total vibe, it’s the most affirming experience you’ve had since…since…since…no, this is the first time it hasn’t been embarrassing to call yourself a storyteller. For once, there’s no shame attached to being a writer. No clucks of pity, no raised eyebrows, no “Oh…okay…have you written anything I’d have read?”
For five days you’re among fellow readers, people who love books as much as you do, even more. The recommendations pile up, so do your purchases. How you’re going to get all of your new acquisitions home is a question that’ll be answered later.
You’re around other writers, some aspiring, some new, and some more experienced. The isolation that comes from writing in what seems to be the middle of bum-fuck nowhere dissipates. You’re out in the midnight streets with Nana, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Morgan Parker. Nana should be at home nursing the heavily strapped ankle that got snatched on a basketball court somewhere (he denies it, but you know a snatched ankle when you see one) but he’s out in Long Street swiping shots and throwing up deuces across the way. Nicole has kind words to say about the writing hustle and she puts you onto Ishion Hutchinson’s poetry, another Jamaican, and a Windham-Campbell winner also attending the festival. (The star power at the Open Book Festival is over 9000!) Morgan Parker owes you drinks. No, seriously. You bought There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and Magical Negro and Morgan Parker owes you drinks—there’s a literary APB out for her. You get to tell Carmen Maria Machado you rather enjoyed The Trash Heap Has Spoken, a piece she once wrote for Guernica and, because you both geek out on Ursula and Ariel for a bit, she draws you a wonky sea witch in your signed copy of Her Body And Other Parties. You finally meet Yewande Omotoso who, up until then, has been nothing more than a series of wise and comforting paragraphs, dropping into your email’s inbox every so often. In real life she’s as tall as her emails. Wiser, too.
The ride isn’t over yet. In Johannesburg, at the South African Book Fair, you’re on a panel with Fred Khumalo, whose work you first encountered in high school. You share a stage with Sarah Ladipo for the second time in a week. She answers questions with aplomb like she’s impervious to the chilly Jozi air. Even Fred is out in a vest. You’re the only padawan that came in a beanie and sweater. There are so many levels in life. So many.
The book is out and its laundry is everywhere.
It’s on the lines in Cape Town, from Camps Bay to Khayelitsha, from Clarke’s Books, the Zeitz MOCAA, to your alma mater’s libraries. It’s in Johannesburg, in the Sandton Exclusive Books where the cashier side-eyes you before typing something on her computer and looking at you again. Eventually she asks, “Are you…?” Yeah, that happens a couple of times.
The dirt is in Pretoria and Durban. Some copies are in Nairobi. There’s one that’s been lugged from Harare to Maputo, excess luggage fees and all. In another universe, where our best musicians sing of art and its free, unforced movement around the continent and not, well, that other thing, Hugh Masekela has a quite different iconic intro:
There is a book that comes from Namibia…
Alas. RIP to the greatest to ever do it.
A couple of copies have even made it across the Mediterranean to Madrid and Milan. There’re some copies in Berlin. How that one copy made it to London you’ll never know, but it’s there. The literary mule who smuggled it there deserves an acknowledgement in the next novel. (Next what? Shh! Don’t wake your publisher up!)
The book is in Paris and Brussels thanks to diaspora. A friend on the way to the US drops some copies off in New York and in Dartmouth, where your sensei, Peter Orner, resides. Can you believe it? You get to share a bookshelf with the man whose work has been a guiding light for you since you discovered it.
The Eternal Audience Of One is out here at home, too, in Windhoek. It’s selling out in the bookshops. Twice. (You didn’t know people in Swakopmund read but, hey, you’ll take them however and wherever you get them.) People walk into the Book Den and ask for the pink book, the one by Rémy something—“Ngamije,” the assistant says. “You’re lucky, we have two copies left.”
At the counter, the owner tells the customer, “You know, the author’s looking at some books in the back. I can get him if you want it signed.”
Yes. You, dude. Come do your thing.
Home has always been the best place to win.
You find out, quite abruptly, home is also the hardest place to write about, especially when you live there. Perhaps that’s why many writers eventually leave.
Home bites back.
That Rwandan-born Namibian moniker you were so proud of? Yeah, it comes with some stick.
—“Well…it’s not really a Namibian book is it?”
—“That’s because he’s not really Namibian.”
—“It doesn’t explain anything about what happened in Rwanda.”
—“That’s because he’s also not Rwandan. Well, not really.”
—“So what is he?”
I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that nigga!
(Or something like that. Also, Lizzo is bae!)
You’re a magnet for reviews both good, thoughtful, and critical, and whatever else helps to fill newspaper inches. It comes with the territory. If you’re going to pull sword from stone you better know heavy lies the crown.
Or, you know, fuck that crown.
You’re working towards a body of work, always learning, always building. Crowns have no place on a construction site. If you’re going to get your hands dirty you have to put the Michael Jackson glove away and get to work. That’s what Yewande was talking about when she said the book is out but the work will continue. The words will still have to be put on the page, the plots require diligent threading, and characters have to be mapped. Books will have to be read. The writings will have to be written.
Gold never shapes itself for the goldsmith.
Utazi nyakatsi ayinnha ho!
Ha! Not today, Satan!
From scraps collected for years, to the first outline, to the first typed draft and the finished manuscript dancing the depressing rejection gig in known and unknown time zones, to seeing the first copy of your book arrive in Windhoek, to the warm receptions at the Open Book Festival and the SA Book Fair, to readers sending you pictures of your book in their corners of the world, to the moment your publisher gave you the latest good news—“The Eternal Audience Of One is represented by the Cecile B Literary Agency in Brooklyn, NYC”—it has always been about the work and nothing else.
This is merely the story so far.
And the ride’s not over yet.