The Plaza Prizes: An Interview with Judge and Author, Rémy Ngamije

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Remy Ngamije

By Camilla Macpherson

Camilla Macpherson, first prize short story winner in the 2023 Plaza Prizes, recently caught up with Rémy Ngamije, one of the judges in the 2024 competition, to find out more about his creative life.
Rémy is a Rwandan-born Namibian author, editor, publisher, photographer, literary educator, and entrepreneur. His award-winning debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One was first published in South Africa by Blackbird Books and is available worldwide from Scout Press (S&S). He won the Africa Regional Prize of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2021 and 2020.

  1. How do you approach the writing of a short story compared to a novel?

I think the first thing that appears in my mind is “the story”—when it does, I dream about the characters, the plot, or the drama, and the way in which it will end. With all of the short stories I have written, I have always known the end, which is why I think they were short stories—there is a clear sense of conclusion. What I did not know was the middle or the start, and that is how I worked with them.

As far as The Eternal Audience Of One went, I could sense that the characters and their challenges would need a longer narrative in order to be fully explored. I think novels are about working towards a sense of conclusion, because it is possible to write any story forever. When it comes to longer narratives, though, I think the writer commits to a longer exploration of the story in the middle of the work.

But, these are general ideas, not finite thoughts on how I approach short stories and novels. I would like to think, also, that short stories—when they come to me—arrive with the intention of being short stories, and that novels come to me as themselves too.

  1. You are judging this year’s Plaza Prizes short story (up to 8000 words) category. What do you look for when judging a competition?

I was roped into the world of literature by the deliciousness of stories—their intrigue, their humour, their humanity, and the sheer boldness of the act of storytelling. I might like one story for its characters and another for its language. I might enjoy a story because of its drama but I might dislike another because the drama is spread too thickly. I do not think there is any specific criterion I employ when judging prizes, at least those that I have in the past. What I can say is that I consistently leave room for curiosity, for being surprised, and for discovery. Everything else, all the technical bits like language sort themselves out afterwards.

  1. Did you aways want the life of a creative? If you weren’t living this life, what else would you like to do?

Hmm. I know I have always wanted to be a storyteller—writing is the means that achieves that. But I am also a photographer—one that is slowly making their way back to the profession. I wish I could sing or play an instrument because that is another way of telling stories. Honestly, I just wanted to tell stories. My life is a creative right now is a response to that desire.

If I wasn’t a storyteller I think I would like to play an active part in their creation. Perhaps that is why I studied law. So much of what happens in the world is a response to or a desire for fairness and justice.

  1. What do you enjoy most about writing? And least?

The trance-like state of creation is the best, hands down. When the words are flowing, when the paragraphs line up diligently, when the characters follow their cues, when issues in the writing appear and are solved—in that moment, nothing tops the feeling of being a creator. I think being read comes a close second.

The least has to be the moments between stories—reading or writing—when one feels uncertain whether writing is a gift or curse. I loath the uncertainty of my chosen career. I fear it sometimes. But it is a part of the vocation.

  1. You have been described as “the future of African literature”. How does that make you feel?

Hahaha. I think all praise and criticism should be relegated to a writer’s past as quickly as possible because neither aids in the creation of the next work. But, yes, I have seen that blurb on The Eternal Audience Of One. It makes me feel like someone, somewhere, really wants the prospective reader to buy the book—which they should, of course.

  1. What are your top three all-time favourite books?

A tricky question. Hmm. Samarkand by Aamin Malouf, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien, and The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

  1. What do you read to relax?

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has always brought me out of any reading funk.

  1. What fictional character do you most identify with, and why?

I like to think I am like Lord Vetinari from the aforementioned Discworld series. Cold, calculating, effortlessly funny, financially stable, respected—all of the things I am not.

  1. You were born in Rwanda, spent time in Kenya and now live in Namibia. Where do you feel most at home?

On a couch reading, because that is when current geography does not matter; and on a bookshelf, because that is another place where citizenship does not matter.

  1. Do you speak any other languages? Do you read or write in them?

I speak Kinyarwanda and some very suspect French. I wish I could be fluent in them enough to write in them. Wish I do, because I am not willing to act. But in time, who knows?

  1. Tell me something about yourself that most people wouldn’t know.

I used to be—maybe I still am—a salsa dancer and instructor. I did it full-time for the past nine years until my studio had to close in June this year. I have been doing that longer than I have been writing professionally.

  1. What was the last gift you gave someone and why?

Strangely enough, it was a copy of Samarkand—the book, when I first read it, found me in a strange and confused place in my life. Since then, it has become my gift for those who find themselves similarly adrift in the sea of life. It doesn’t help you find a direction, of course, but the story is so powerful that for the duration of reading it from cover to cover the raging seas of one’s life are calmed down somewhat. In that reprieve, one can start charting some sort of course out of the storm.

  1. What is your best childhood memory?

The first time I got 100% as a grade for an English composition, somewhere in the second or third grade—the whole essay about my weekend was a lie, but my gosh did I write the shit out of it. Since then I have known about the power of writing.

  1. Do you prefer city life or country?

The city—the bigger, louder, noisier, dirtier, grimier, rougher, and more complex, the better. I live in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. Despite it being the capital, it is pretty slow, almost provincial, really. So you can understand why I would gravitate towards bigger cities.

  1. What country would you most like to visit, and why?

Colombia. Why? Salsa. Simple. Oh, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But mostly for salsa and dancing.

(c) Camilla Macpherson

Camilla Macpherson is an award-writing writer based in the UK. Her debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, was published by Random House and has been translated into Dutch, German and Polish. She has been recognised in a number of writing competitions including the Bridport Prize, the Margery Allingham Crime Writers’ Association Short Story competition and the Fish Publishing prize. After many years living in London, Camilla recently spent five years in the Netherlands. She is currently working on a novel-length crime fiction set in war-time Holland. You can read her story Hitler’s Alligator in The Plaza Prizes Anthology, available for purchase here.

About The Eternal Audience of One:

Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work toward some kind of ending.

One might as well start with Séraphin: playlist-maker, nerd-jock hybrid, self-appointed merchant of cool, Rwandan, stifled and living in Namibia. Soon he will leave the confines of his family life for the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, where loyal friends, hormone-saturated parties, adventurous conquests, and race controversies await. More than that, his long-awaited final year in law school promises to deliver a crucial puzzle piece of the Great Plan immigrant: a degree from a prestigious university.

But a year is more than the sum of its parts, and en route to the future, the present must be lived through and even the past must be survived in this “hilarious and heartbreaking” (Adam Smyer, author of Knucklehead) intersection of pre- and post-1994 Rwanda, colonial and post-independence Windhoek, Paris and Brussels in the 70s, Nairobi public schools, and the racially charged streets of Cape Town.

“Visually striking and beautiful told with youthful energy and hard-won wisdom” (Rabeah Ghaffari, author of To Keep the Sun Alive), The Eternal Audience of One is a lyrical and piquant tale of family, migration, friendship, war, identity, and race that will sweep you off your feet.

Order your copy online here.

Find out more about Rémy here.

And read more about The Plaza Prizes here.

About the author

Camilla Macpherson is an award-writing writer based in the UK. Her debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, was published by Random House and has been translated into Dutch, German and Polish. She has been recognised in a number of writing competitions including the Bridport Prize, the Margery Allingham Crime Writers’ Association Short Story competition and the Fish Publishing prize. After many years living in London, Camilla recently spent five years in the Netherlands. She is currently working on a novel-length crime fiction set in war-time Holland.

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