The Darkness Behind My Book

During the launch of my first collection of short stories, A Killing in the Sun, one very irritating question kept coming up. What inspired you? It’s the brother of that question every writer hates. Where did you get that idea? Alongside it came its sisters, how did you get into sci-fi? Why do you write sci-fi and fantasy? I always pause before answering these questions, because it’s like asking me how I learned how to breathe.

Well, maybe not, but I don’t like that question because I think I’m never inspired. I always work very hard to drag stories out of the depths where they are buried in a pile of poop. To say ‘inspired’ is to make it seem like the idea dropped out of the sky and fell into my head. But it’s never like that. Every minute, things go into me and they have to come out at some point. The life I live dictates the stories I tell. Am I inspired to live? Well, no, I’m never inspired to live. I just live because I found myself alive. It’s a struggle to stay alive, to survive, to find even just an iota of happiness. The experience of it floods my brains like raw excreta. I have to digest all this poop, and then vomit out a refined product that smells of blood-stained roses. These are very negative images with which to describe myself and my writing, but I don’t lived a life of sweet roses. Rather, it’s one of pain and fear and self-doubt and agony and endless rejection. In other words, life sucks, and it will always suck, and only through writing can I make sense of it.

Take the title story, A Killing in the Sun, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. It’s about a soldier facing the firing squad, but memories of his childhood surface to turn his execution into a horror. I first wrote it in 2002, I think. At that time, two soldiers in Karamoja were accused of killing a priest, and shot dead after a trial that some people said was questionable. Their pictures appeared on the front pages. One captured my attention. In it the soldier’s zip was open, exposing a very clean and white pair of underpants. That image troubled me.

It made me think about the first few years of my life. The night I was born, so I’m told, my mother was screaming in labor. The neighbors did not come to help, for they thought soldiers had attacked our home. There was gunfire that night, for it was on the eve of New Year, and maybe the drunken soldiers, lacking fireworks, were celebrating by shooting into the air. Only one brave woman came to my mother’s help. She had nothing but a bed sheet wrapped around her waist, and she drove like mad to take my mother to hospital (by the way, this is how I got the name Dilman, but that’s a story for another day). Thus I came to this world under threat of being shot by a drunken, trigger-happy soldier. 

For the next ten years there was a civil war in Uganda. It was common for us to find guns and bullets abandoned in our playgrounds. We kept hearing stories of children who were blown up because they played with strange metals. News of people disappearing forever was rather common. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a soldier walking behind a long line of people. Each person carried a heavy piece of luggage. Loot, we were told. The soldier had taken a walk in some neighborhood, looting shops and homes, and he had forced these people to carry the booty to the army barracks. He kept shooting to make them walk faster. The image reminded me of slave trade pictures in history books. 

So when I saw the photo of a soldier with his pants unzipped, a few moments before he died, all these things came tumbling through my head and I had to write that story. Some will call that inspiration. I call it taking a poop to relieve myself of accumulated garbage.

I could give similar background material for most of the stories. Like The Doctor’s Truck, from my many years working in rural areas with NGOs on community development; Okello’s Honeymoon, from a pretty disastrous relationship, or maybe from the fear of getting hitched; The Leafy Man, from an article I read about two scientists trying to change the genes of a mosquito, and I read it at a time when I was sick with malaria every month, and I was scared I would one time go down and never wake up. 

Signing a copy for Auma Obama, the first buyer of the book. Photo courtesy of: Nyana Kakoma, of So Many Stories
Reading from the book during the launch at Storymoja Festival 2014, Nairobi. Photo courtesy of: Nyana Kakoma, So Many Stories

Two stories in the collection were born from the two years I spent in Nepal. These are Lights on Water, and A Wife and A Slave. Both are sci-fi, set in the future, and both discuss racism in its worst form. I’ve already written about my experiences in Nepal, but to give you a hint, at one time this woman, a friend to whose house I was going, told her baby something similar to ‘that black man is going to eat you.’ She was laughing as the baby wailed in sheer terror. At another time a girl screamed on seeing me, thinking she had seen a demon. In Nepali/Hindu cultures, black is associated with demons.

The trauma of living in such an environment gave me evil thoughts, like raping that woman and impregnating her with a child. What I was thinking about was that if she had a black child, she would not think of black people as demons. She would not use me to scare her child. She would not tell her child that I eat people. The reason they think habsis are demons is because they have never lived with habsis. So rape and impregnate one with a kalo child and they will be forced to love all kalo manches.

At that time, I had not read Nnedi Okorafor’s book, Who Fears Death. I only got to read it this year, and it was like looking into a dark mirror and seeing my dark self grinning at me. That is the power of speculative fiction, of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. It presents a platform to examine humanity from a unique point of view. Think of George Orwell’s 1984, would it have been as powerful if it were not sci-fi? And Lord of the Rings, born out of the same environment of Nazi Europe, would it have been as powerful if it were not fantasy? If I had not read Who Fears Death, I would have never imagined that my reaction to this Nepali woman was a seed of using weaponized rape in ethnic cleansing. Even if I had read the article that got Nnedi to writing that book, I don’t think it would have forced me to re-examine myself. I would have continued to believe that I was a good guy, that I could never descend to such bestial evil, that my reaction was justifiable. I could read that article in one sitting, but the book, I lived with it for two weeks, whenever I got a break from work, whenever I was in a bus stuck in traffic, and every word I read spoke to me with a strong voice.

I had to ask Nnedi what she thought of this, and she responded in a tweet, see below.

@dilmandila that was some REAL writing. Thank you for sharing it. I know that took a lot. Wow. few can write with such honesty. *Applause*.
— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) September 25, 2014

After reading an advance copy of A Killing in the Sun, Ivor Haartman, editor of AfroSF, sent me an email, saying he was working on AfroSF 2, and he wanted me to contribute. He particularly wanted a story set in that dark world of the stories mentioned above, Lights on Water and A Wife and A Slave. That world? I don’t like even thinking about that world and I was hoping never to go there again. But he said, “Yes, I hear you there, it is a scary world, very scary, and that’s why I like it, it’s a big warning, a needed warning.”

I was recently chatting with a friend, someone I met in Nepal, and she told me, ‘Surely Dilman, you did experience some good things in Nepal.’ I did. A lot of good things, which kind of outweighed the bad, and which is why I stayed there for two years, but I wish my mind was like the rest of you guys. I wish it could store the good, and never remember the bad. But my head is a terrible thing, and all the shit that happens in my life ends up in a big cooking pot up there, only to come out as stories. Which is why I call myself a social activist, for I want these stories to speak to the reader the way Who Fears Death spoke to me, the way it showed me my dark self.

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Why I Started a Literary Magazine

Many say it’s madness to start a literary magazine. Such a venture, especially one that focuses on African literature, can’t make money because, they say, there is no market to sustain literature on the continent. When I mooted the idea of Lawino to a friend, her advice was, ‘Don’t start it. All work and no pay makes Ojok a poor boy.’ It was discouraging, hearing that I would have to put a lot of energy into the magazine, and maybe never get paid for it. Still, I had this burning urge, for I wanted a journal to promote new writing from Africa, with particular focus on Uganda. ‘Haha,’ this friend laughed. ‘Promote Ugandan writers? You are wasting your time. They never submit their work.’

But I believed that Ugandan writers don’t send out their work because they have nowhere to submit. I think my career would have kicked off a lot earlier if I had somewhere to submit my writing, somewhere close to home, with editors who understand my environment and with readers who live in the cultures I write about. As it is, I had no platform to build a career on.

I started actively writing fiction at an early age, sometime late in September of 1993. I was in Senior Three. St. Peter’s College, in Tororo. End of year examinations were around the corner. Students were panicking, terrified of ‘winds’, slang for failing. If you got ‘blown by winds,’ it meant you were expelled from school for very poor academic performance. However, while other students panicked, I lolled on my bed, legs hanging up in the air, as I read The Stand, by Stephen King. That was the first adult horror I was reading. I just couldn’t put it down. A friend, Tusubira, stopped by my bed on his way to class. He stared at me for many minutes. I became uncomfortable.

‘What?’ I asked him.
‘Kale you,’ he said. ‘It’s a two weeks to exam and you are reading a novel.’ I only smiled at him. ‘Do you cheat?’ he added. ‘You don’t even have notes, yet you are going to pass. Do you cheat?’
I had skipped many classes, to read novels. The school had a big library, one of the largest in Eastern Uganda, with thousands of books that were gathering dust, unread, begging me to read them. I spent a lot of time in the library, and I stole many books as well, but all the time reading novels. The previous year, I had run around begging friends for notes. Sometimes I read their notes as they took a break from revising, especially as they ate. Yet I passed the exams with such decent grades that I maintained my place in ‘M’, a stream reserved for the brightest students. But this boy knew I never cheat. It was easy to think I cheated. In retrospect, I now know I easily passed exams because I read a lot of novels.
‘God is so unfair,’ another boy, Emukule, said. ‘Some of us spend sleepless nights in class but we fail. Yet this one wastes his father’s money on novels and he passes.’
Then, a third boy, Bruce, asked, ‘But why do you read a lot of novels?’
And I replied, ‘Because I want to write them one day.’
I had tried writing the year before. The central character was a superhero, modelled on The Phantom but with Ninja-like abilities. I never got beyond the first page. I tried writing a play for the Scripture Union, and for the church at home. I remember buying two books about writing drama for churches. I was a devout born-again Christian at that time. But both the SU and the church were not interested in original stuff. They rehashed Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. So I gave up. Though I had toyed with the idea of writing, until that moment I didn’t know that I wanted it as a career.
Bruce laughed. ‘You? To write a novel?’ He laughed so hard that tears came out of his eyes.

So I started writing. It might have been that same day, or the day after, but certainly it was before the exams. It was a crime book, about a rich woman who hires her childhood friend (his name was Rob, Robert Rugunda) to find robbers who have taken her stash of dollars. ‘Why me,’ the protagonist asks her. ‘I’m not a cop.’ And she replies, ‘You are a good detective. Remember you used to catch pen and pencil thieves while we were at school?’ So Rob takes the job, and it’s gunfight after gunfight, as he uncovers a plot that goes beyond mere robbery into one that involves a government take over. I blame that plot on the likes of Robert Ludlum, Fredrick Forsythe, and James Hardley Chase.
When this Bruce found me on my bed, writing, he frowned in puzzlement. ‘What are you going to call it?’ he asked. ‘Chase the Dollar,’ I said. And he laughed again. This time he laughed so hard that he fell on the floor, holding his sides. He went round telling everybody, and soon the whole dorm was laughing at me. They changed the title to ‘Chase the Adhola’ and they mocked me, ‘Why do you want to chase the Jop’Adhola from their home?’
The First War, the first story I published.
Their laughter didn’t stop me, nor did that of my parents and brothers. ‘You are simply copying another book,’ one said, trying to convince me to abandon the project and stick to my studies. I was not copying any book, but I didn’t tell him that. I passed the exams and stayed in M. I continued to write during the holidays. I lost my faith in organised religion, and became a backslider, as the Pentecostals used to say, and it would be ten years before I went to church again. I wrote, and wrote, and in July of 1994, as the World Cup raged in the US, just before my Senior Four mock exams, I took the train to Nairobi and gave the book to East African Publishers. I had enjoyed their book, John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime. I believed they would like Chase The Dollars even better. Well, my Nairobi adventure deserves a whole book of its own, but I got a harsh rejection. They didn’t even read the book. The receptionist gave me one look, saw how dirty I was, and said, ‘We don’t accept handwritten material. Get it typed.’
The second story that appeared
in the Sunday Vision
I returned home one week to exams. Luckily, they didn’t expel me for absconding from school. I passed in second grade. Then I continued to write, but I never managed to get the manuscript typed until the early 2000s, and even then, I only managed to have the first chapter done. I burnt that book, and wrote another, which I called Osu. I typed it up neatly.
I had just finished university. I didn’t want to work for a salary. I wanted a career in writing. I searched for a publisher, and then reality struck. I had nowhere to submit my work. Most publishers, including East African Publishers (who I learnt that their full name is East African Educational Publishers), preferred text books. None wanted a novel. The best option I had was Fountain Publishers, in Uganda. I gave them Osu, and they gave me encouraging words. I’ve never heard from them since then. I couldn’t go to FEMRITE for they favoured women writers.
For the first time since I started writing, I realised that I might be chasing childish dreams. By 2001, after eight years of trying, I had published only one short story, in The Crusader, and the newspaper collapsed before they could pay me the ten thousand shillings for the story. I wrote another story, novella length, for The Monitor to serialize, for they had done it with Mary Karooro Okurut’s The Invisible Weevil. One of their editors (I forget his name, but he was a Musoga) told me, ‘We can’t serialise your work. We ran Okurut’s book because she is famous. You are not.’ Ngrrr. After all those years of trying to write, I was like a blocked sewage pipe. I needed an outlet for the stories bubbling in me or else I would drown in that shit. But no one cared. No publisher was interested.
I would have given up. I nearly gave up, for who wants live like a malfunctioning sewage pipe? I got a day job with an NGO, and started to work as a volunteer, interviewing HIV-infected people on their death beds. A horrific job. It filled me with more stories, but I was severely constipated because I simply had nowhere to send these stories.
Until I saw a piece of fiction in The Sunday Vision, and they wanted more. I thought I could write better than what they had published. I sent them one, called The First War, which they printed under the title Cowards Live Longer. Well, I have already written before about how Simon Kaheru, Joachim Buwembo, and a lady whose name I forget (it started with A), how they patted my back and gaped in wonder at the story. I have already said how much getting such a pat from these editors gave me the energy to dream on, to persevere. I wrote three more short stories for The Sunday Vision. Those were the happiest days of my life, at that time at least. And then, they closed the fiction section, along with the joys I got from seeing my name in print.
After that, came another phase of constipation. I again wondered why I bother writing yet there were no publishers of fiction in Uganda. I joined an email group, which had people like Binyavanga Wainana and Kinyanjui Wanjiru. I suggested that someone should start a literary magazine, and the idea caught fire, and so Kwani? was born. Yet I never got published in Kwani? for at that time I thought I wanted to write horror stories. I don’t think they liked anything I sent them.
Soon, the constipation returned. I was again a blocked sewage pipe. But this one was short lived, not just because of the encouragement I got from Simon, Joachim, and the Sunday Vision team. I discovered the internet, and a plethora of ezines to which I could submit my horror work. I plunged back into writing, and soon got published. Yet I did not derive much joy in seeing myself in print again, for these ezines were based far outside home. I think I even stripped my stories of overtly African cultures to make friendlier to these alien magazines and their alien readers. It was a very demoralising, and I soon stopped bothering to write for them.
Instead, I wrote with the hope that one day an African magazine that published the kind of stories I wrote would crop up. I wrote and wrote, for I had hope that things will improve. Indeed, time changed. One of the stories I wrote back then, A Killing in the Sun, which is a horror fantasy, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. Today, many of these stories are part of my first full length book, a collection of speculative short fiction, thanks to an adventurous South African publisher, Duduzile Mabaso, of Black Letter Media.
Here it is. My first collection of stories.
Today, the African writer does not have to feel constipated as I did, nor does s/he have to feel like a blocked sewage pipe. There are many platforms one can submit to, like AfroSF, Saraba, Jalada, Sooo Many Stories, KalahariReview, Kwani?, Short Story Day Africa, BN Poetry Awards and Writivism, and book publishers like CassavaRepublic, Fox and Raven, and Black Letter Media. Yet I still remember those dark years, and I don’t want other writers to go through such trauma. One more litmag, one more platform, won’t hurt. Rather, it expands the options available. Writers do need a platform that has roots in their lives and cultures. A writer cannot grow if this platform is far outside their community.
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