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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Potraits from Kampala’s Literary Scenes

She runs the Ranchers Seafood and Steakhouse, where many literary events take place.  This was during a Commonwealth Writers event.

Melissa Kiguwa, a feminist and poet, with Helen Nyana, a writer and publisher.
Helen Nyana, writer, publisher, photographer
David Kaiza, Writer and Editor
A participant during the Commonwealth Writers Conversation, Kampala, 14 June 2014. She was not asleep.
A participant during the Commonwealth Writers Conversation, Kampala, 14 June 2014
Patricia, writer.
A participant during the Commonwealth Writers Conversation, Kampala, 14 June 2014
A participant during the Commonwealth Writers Conversation, Kampala, 14 June 2014
Jackee Batanda, writer.
Rosey Sembatya, writer and board member of FEMRITE
Daphne, a poet, attending the readers and writers club at FEMRITE

 

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, writer, and winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014
Goretti Kyomuhendo, writer, and founder of African Writers Trust
A participant at the Commonwealth Writers Conversation.
A poet performs during OpenMic at the Uganda Museum
A poet after her performance during OpenMic at the Uganda Museum
Participants during the Commonwealth Writers Conversation, Kampala, 14 June 2014
Kelsey Claire Hagens
Beverly and Melisa, during a panel discussion at the Writivism Festival 2014
At FEMRITE readers club
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Writer, Poet, attends the Writivism Festival 2014
Clifton Gachagua, Poet, Writer, Editor at Kwani
Billy Kahora, Managing Editor of Kwani

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Three Stories on Amazon

It’s been an exciting year for me, as a writer. I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and then longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa. I’ve heard two books out in print, and two short stories to appear in anthologies, one is already out, the other coming in December. Busy, busy year, and I expect next year will be even busier. Which unfortunately might mean less blogging :((

So here are the books. They went up on amazon at nearly the same time, the first being in September and two this month. The Terminal Move. A novelette, written in a genre I loved so much as a boy, and which I still think is my niche. It’s basically a zombie tale, but set in Africa from way back in time, before the nations as we know them today were formed. Which makes it a fantasy as well. Take a peak at an interview I did for the publisher here.

And here is the blurb for the novelette.

For years the Jolabong people have wandered across the world, looking for a new home. Torn apart by war and famine, they have all but given up. But it is in the fiery motivation of Laceng, a rebellious youth of the tribe, that the delicate future of the Jolabong is poised. Together with his band of insurgents, Laceng marches into a valley of plenty – but what he finds there is worse than any threat his tribe has ever faced.
***
In this gripping tale of death, life and reins of power, Dilman Dila delivers a narrative reminiscent of the ancient oral traditions of Africa. A Commonwealth Short Story 2013 shortlisted author, Dila delivers yet again in the poignant and exquisitely crafted THE TERMINAL MOVE.


Cranes Crest at Sunset
.

I surprised myself with writing this one. It was an experiment in romance. I’d never written in that genre before, but shortly after returning from Nepal, with my head still full of the love stories that I had gathered while making my first feature documentary, Untouchable Love, and with my heart growing fond of a Filipino bombshell, I just had to write a love story. Shortly after I finished it, I saw a call for manuscripts from a Kenyan publisher. They want to start an East African version of Mills and Boon. I submitted, wondering if my little story would fit their criteria, and it surprisingly did. So here it is, available on kindle.

The blurb.
Kabita, a beautiful Nepali doctor escapes from an arranged marriage to serve in a remote village in rural Uganda. In this village, she hopes to put to rest the haunting memories of her forbidden love and shattered past. But the peace she so desperately seeks seems elusive now, as she finds herself falling in love with Steven, a handsome African herdsman. Is she foolish to reject the advances of a fellow doctor for an idle herdsman painter? And is Steven really what he seems to be? Should she follow her heart or mind? Will Kabita finally find joy or will her dreams be shattered again? This is an intense love story set in rural Uganda

.

The third is in a collection of short stories, called the African Roar 2013. It’s another horror fantasy story, about a puppeteer I used to know in my hometown when I was a little kid. Not that the puppeteer was evil. He was a great guy, but my childhood imagination fed me all sorts of crap about him, and when I became a writer I just had to write that story. We used to hear all sorts of stuff concerning the guy, he was a mystery, no one knew where he came from and some people claimed he walked from Kinshasha to Mombasa dragging his cart, staging shows. Such urban legend stuff became the spine of this story. The Puppets of Maramudhu. I should write more about him later.

Well, so here they are, three stories from Uganda, from some of the finest publishers in Africa today. It’s not often that you find Ugandan fiction on Amazon, and I’ve heard of many foreigners in the country looking for something Ugandan to read, and not finding anything. This should be a start. Hopefully many other Ugandan writers will pick tips and have their works put up on Amazon.

If you enjoyed this story, you should follow me on facebook and on twitter and on YouTube.
 

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Ghost tales on the road to Nairobi

When the year begun, I was broke. I had spent much of last year finishing The Felistas Fable, and had not earned much during that time. I felt low, for it is not possible to quickly make a profit from selling a film. Sometimes you have to wait a whole year. I felt depressed in frustration. Then, out of the gloom, I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I had a reason to smile. I had waited for this kind of news for twenty years, since I became obsessed with writing at the age of fifteen. The frustration of not making it compelled me to branch out into film making in 2006. Shortly after that, I got nominated for the Million Writers Award, in 2008, which was a sign that I should stick to writing. But by that time, I already had one leg in both places. when the Commonwealth shortlist came, it was more than just a sign. It was a reminder that I should return to my roots, or rather that I should concentrate less on film and throw more energy onto writing. Winning the prize would be the best thing to happen to my career.

The first story I published, about a cowardly soldier in the front line. The Sunday Vision, February 2001

Everyday, I prayed to let me win. At least it would alleviate the brokenness (and maybe it’s because I was thinking more of the cash than the prize that God didn’t let me win 😮 ). I got the bad news last week, just before I set off for Nairobi. At first, when I saw the email from JB of the Commonwealth, I thought it would tell me I was a winner. But I had a bad feeling. I had not gone to church the previous Sunday. In my superstitious mind, I thought God would punish me for it. Indeed, it was a regrets email, but JB added an encouraging note that my story had been in contention right up to the very last minute (I guess s/he told every other contestant the same thing). The depression returned, and with it the lack of confidence, the fear that I will never make it.

But then, as I sat in the bus to Nairobi, I got a revelation, a sign that good things are to come.

This story that got shortlisted, A Killing in the Sun, is a ghost story. I wrote it in 2001 or 2002, I cannot remember, but it was shortly after I saw a photograph in the front pages of The New Vision. It was the picture of one of the two soldiers sentenced to death for killing a priest in Karamoja, taken a few moments before he was shot by firing squad. As I looked at that photo, at the expression on the man’s face, at his unzipped pants exposing a pair of clean white boxers, the story fell in.

News report about a firing squad in Uganda. The Fort Scott Tribune. 10th Sept 1977. The shortlisted story is about a soldier facing a death sentence.

Well, I had actually thought of the story for many years before that. You see, I had a nightmare when I was about twelve, or thirteen, and in the dream three cloaked hags with pockmarked faces and long bony fingers were grinning at me. Their yellow teeth looked more like shards of bones. They wanted to eat me.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce influenced my shortlisted story.

Two works of art that I know influenced this story were the short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the 1990 horror film by Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder.

After I wrote the story, I never tried to sell it. It sat in my computer for ten years, ignored, until I submitted it for discussion to a writer’s group, which is organized and run by Beatrice Lamwaka, who was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize. The reaction of fellow writers to this story made me think that I was sitting on a masterpiece. They told me it’s the kind of story that will win international prizes. I was encouraged to send it to the Commonwealth competition, and was pleased when it got shortlisted. I was depressed when it did not win, just as I get depressed each time I get a rejection letter.

This film, one of the best horrors I’ve ever seen, influenced A Killing in the Sun.

But last Thursday, as I sat in the bus heading to Nairobi, something happened that lifted my moods. Something that every writer needs every now and then to keep their spirits out. The seat next to me was empty. I did wonder about it, for this was Queens Coach, a popular bus that never fails to sell all its seats. But I did not give it much thought. I was too sleepy. I had not slept much for nearly a week.  I dozed off shortly after the bus took off.

Suddenly, a woman woke me up with a very friendly “Hello.” I opened my eyes, and at once noticed we were in Jinja. Then I got angry. Couldn’t this woman see I was sleeping? Why did she have to wake me up? Being the gentleman my mother raised, I swallowed my irritation and replied with a smile and a hello. Turned out to be a bad idea. She was a chatter box. She at once started telling me the story of her life, as though we were old friends who had not seen each other for a very long time. Her openness shocked and amused me. Her determination to tell her story irritated me. I wanted her to shut up so I could get some sleep, but she just would not keep quiet. Finally, I told her I wanted to sleep, and she said, ‘Okay’, and I dozed off for a few seconds. But the moment I woke up, she plunged into her life story.

I loved writing about soldiers back then.

Out of politeness, I forced myself to keep awake and listen. Sometimes, I would fail, and would sleep off, but she would not notice and keep talking.She gave me a blow by blow account of how she developed some medical condition, how she was in an operation theater for twenty four hours, how the doctors removed her large intestines to save her life and so she could not poo like everyone else. She needed colostomy to help her pass out shit. She told me about a bunch of other conditions that threatened her life, and that if she was not a Scottish citizen with access to free, good quality medical treatment, she might have died. She is a Ugandan whose husband, a Ugandan as well, joined the British Navy and now they live in Scotland. I soon discovered the reason she was telling me all this. She simply wanted to warn me that in the event I heard a bad smell, I shouldn’t laugh, or make her feel uncomfortable, for because the lack of a large intestine makes her susceptible to passing out stool uncontrollably. Poor woman.

After talking about this for two hours, all the way from Jinja to Malaba, the topic somehow shifted to ghost tales. I did not hear of anything else but ghosts for the rest of the night, until we reached Nairobi. She is a university graduate, works with an international NGO as a consultant, and is a very strong Catholic, but I was not surprised by her belief in spirits. Anyone who has gone through a near-death-experience will believe in the supernatural. However, her endless encounters with creatures from the other world that made me raise an eyebrow.

The one I remember vividly is how an angel of death visited her. She said that she woke up one night and noticed there was a man in her room. She could not imagine how he got in. She was about to scream when he told her, ‘You are going to die tomorrow in a car accident.’ She replied, ‘No, I will not die.’ The man insisted, ‘You will die.’ So she said a prayer (or maybe she threw a bible at him, I was dozing and did not get this detail properly) and he vanished. She went to her mother’s bedroom, and told her mother about this strange man. But her mother simply said, ‘You had a bad dream, my dear. Go back to sleep.’ The next day, she avoided vehicles. She traveled in boda boda motorcycles, and at the end of the day, as she was heading back home, just when she thought she had eluded the prophecy, the man reappeared. She saw a motorcycle in the bush. She at once knew something was wrong about this bike, for it was in the middle of a bush. Not in the road! Then she saw the man straddling it, and her blood froze. It was the same man who visited her room in the night. He kicked started his motorcycle, and it out of the bush into the rode. It sped towards her, to crash into the motorcycle she was on. Luckily, her boda rider was an expert. He dodged it. They skidded and nearly crashed, but managed to stop without injury. People were screaming at the ghost rider, which means they could see him and he was not a figment of her imagination. He rode away and vanished as some people tried to intercept him. She fell on her knees and thanked God for sparing her life.

That was just one of the ghost tales she told me. There were about twelve others, some of which I remember, like the one about her cousin, a little girl who could not walk. A catholic exorcist told the mother, ‘A demon is sitting on her leg. But I cannot drive it out of the girl without injuring her. I have to send it into you. Do you agree?’ The mother nodded. She wanted her little girl to walk. So the exorcist, called Vincent, I think, drove the demon out of the girl into the mother. The girl begun to walk. The mother ran mad. A few days later the exorcist drove the demon out of the mother. Now the family is fine.

When I reached Nairobi, I no longer felt bad about losing out on the Commonwealth prize. It had to be a sign from the supernatural creator that I shared a seat with a woman who talked about nothing but ghosts on the day I received a rejection letter about my ghost story. Like another friend of mine, Beverly, said, ‘Coming second is as good as a win. Do not lose heart. A great door has been opened for you.’

If you enjoyed this story, you should follow me on facebook and on twitter.

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Scenes of Labor Day

Retired. Relaxing. Is he enjoying the labor of his youth?
A grandfather passes the time in Nakapinyi, Mukono district.

It’s the day when we remember workers of the world. I do not know what made me look through my scrap folder, but I found this poem, which I wrote in October of 2009, shortly before I went to Nepal. I cannot remember why I wrote it, what the ‘inspiration’ was, but it is clearly about a vegetable seller struggling to make ends meet, and failing to impress his wife. I dedicate it to all working men out there who are going through tough times, who cannot seem to fill their pockets with happiness, however much they try. I normally don’t publish poems, though I have written quiet a tidy pile of them, but I do hope you enjoy this one.

*

The cabbage
He collapses as he pushes the cart to the market
He lies burnt out on the pile of unsold cabbages
Though his weight and sweat ruin the stock.
 
she hates the necklaces I buy at clearance sales
so I wonder if I married a princess.
 
The hat rests on his nose
To shield his face from passing eyes
That shine like suns in hollow skulls.
 
she serves me bread without any butter
so I wonder if I married my mother
 
His battered body yearns for the balm in a smoke.
He takes a crumpled cigarette from his pocket
But his palms, wet with sweat, ruin the matches.
 
she makes love to me in autopilot
so I wonder if I married a harlot.
 
He smashes the hat onto the unsold cabbages
Then the cigarette that he failed to light.
Rage in his feet. He stomps it all into the dirt.
*
The poem is dated 4th October 2009. I cannot think of what I was doing on that day that I wrote this poem, but does it capture the mood of a frustrated worker?
A fruit seller waits for customers in Lainchor, Kathmandu, Nepal
Salute women for their ability to multi-task.
Here is a hair dresser, vegetable seller and baby sitter.
An egg hawker in Lazimpart, Kathmandu, Nepal
Unrecognized labor. A boy hawks firewood in Soroti, Uganda.
Fruits of labor. Sorghum harvest in Katakwi, Uganda.
 
I should be particularly on for this labor day. Normally, writers are not considered as laborers. People always think of a worker as someone who has a boss, and earns a regularly salary. But I think I am a worker too, though I mostly idle around the house farting and hoping for a big break — I think it is coming soon. Finally, after a long struggle, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013, for a short story I wrote way back in 2002 but has never been published. You can read about it here. I do hope this short list opens doors for me, and puts me on the path to becoming a writer who earns a living from his fantasies 🙂
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An African thief finds a wife

 
 
This story is fictional, inspired by this photo
of the love of my life.
In spite of the thermal underwear, the cold dug into his bones and froze him in a bleak mood. The sun tried to smile from beyond the mountains, but her frigid rays could not cheer him up. He longed for Africa, where the sun shone all year with the sweet warmth of a lover.
 
He decided to go back home immediately after searching the last temple. The whole trip had turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. A friend had deceived him that the temples of Kathmandu were littered with golden statues. It would be an easy job. Sneak in. Steal a few. Flee back home a millionaire. How foolish he felt when he discovered that the golden statues were not made of gold. Still, he hoped that the last item on his list, the Chandeswori temple had a roof of pure gold as one book claimed. So he ignored the cold and hurried to this temple.
 
On the way, in ancient streets of Old Banepa, he saw her.
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. She sat stark naked in the street, fondling a sarangi, which hid her nakedness from his view. Her smile made her face to sparkle like a million stars. It warmed him in a way the sun failed to. He could not breathe. He swayed in a drunken swoon. Why is she sitting in the street with only a musical instrument to cloth her? Can’t she feel the cold?
 
Her hair fell over her face so that he could see only one eye, which glistened with the smile on her mouth as she looked right back at him. Heat gushed through his veins with such speed that his heart beat with the wild rhythm of Acholi war drums.
 
“Do you like her?” a voice shattered his reverie.
 
He jumped with a frightened squeal and turned to face a man whose clothes were splotched with paint. He might have been a painter. He had come out of a tea shop.
 
African tourists in Chandeswori temple in Banepa.
Legend has it that once upon a time, the roof was
made of pure gold.
“Hi!” the African screeched with embarrassment.
 
“Do you like her?”
 
“Ugh?”
 
“You can have her for eight thousand only.”
 
Eight thousand? So little for so beautiful a girl! The African dashed into his pockets for the rupees, but he stopped, realizing something wrong with the girl. She sat so still, like a picture, and even the breeze didn’t ruffle her long hair. Is she some kind of religious freak in meditation? Is she a painting?
 
The realization hit him with such force that his stupidity became as clear as the smile on her face. He ran over to her, touched her cold skin of canvas, and nodded to acknowledge the work of a genius artist.
 
“Did you paint her?”
 
“Yes.”
 
His heart still beat. Though she was merely a picture, he was in love. He wanted to take her home and kiss – maybe, as it happened in fairy tales, his kiss would turn her into a real person.
 
More paintings, of mountains and rural landscapes, hang inside the tea shop. All ordinary work. He wanted this girl. But why pay eight thousand rupees when he could return at night and take her for free? Maybe he will sell her in Paris for a million dollars. Isn’t she equal to Monalisa? Maybe his gods led him to Nepal, not to steal golden statues but this girl.
 
He licked his lips, still feeling dizzy like a drunk. He could not take his eyes off her smile, her smooth skin, her sarangi – it reminded him of Toni Braxton’s Spanish Guitar, and so he named the painting ‘Nepali Sarangi’. He loved the way her hair fell over her face to hide one eye, the way only four teeth showed in her smile. Her enchanting smile.
 
“Did you just imagine her, or is she a real person? Maybe your sister, ugh?”
 
“Yes! Yes!”
 
“Yes what? Is she imaginary?”
 
“No! Imaginary no. Real. Look!”
 
The artist showed him a photo in a mobile phone. If he had looked carefully, he might have noticed that it was a photo of a very old photo, but the veil of love fell over his eyes. He had to meet her, to marry her, to take her back home.
 
“You like her?”
 
The African smiled like a bewitched prince. He knew that in Nepali culture, people preferred arranged marriages. No dating, no love, no fooling around with the heart. The bride and groom meet for the first time on their wedding day.
 
“E-e!” the artist giggled like a teenage girl. “You like her very much!”
 
“Is she – maybe – married?”
 
“She? No. No. Not married. Are you married?”
 
“Me? No. Never.”
 
“Do you want to marry with her?”
 
 The African could not believe his good luck. It was like Juliet’s father placing a hand over Romeo’s shoulders and asking, ‘do you want to marry her? We can arrange it now!’
A Nepali bride in Chandeswori temple
 
“Can you arrange it?”
 
“Yes! Yes! No problem! I talk her! She agree! No problem!”
 
“Just like that?”
 
“Yes! She my mother.”
 
“Your mother?”
 
“No. Not real mother. My mother’s sister, but I call her mother.”
 
“How old is she?”
 
The artist laughed, but did not answer that question. “Where are you from?”
 
“America,” the African said without hesitation. He wanted them to not only think that he was very rich, but once he took her home, they would never hear from him again, or see their pretty girl. “I’m from USA. Obama is my uncle.”
 
“O-hoo!” the artist’s mouth became round in shock. When he had recovered, he added, “In your country, first love, then marriage. Here, first marriage, then love. She very faithful. She never leave you.”
 
The African could hear the girl playing the sarangi, a tune so sweet that he floated in the clouds. But she is just a picture. First, he had to meet her, study her, and then decide whether to marry her. Yet he had no time. He could not afford to stay in Nepal for another week. And this girl was a better prize than all the golden statues of the world.
 
“She widow,” the artist said. “Two day after marriage, her husband go to fight. You know Gurkha? He soldier. She play for him sarangi before he go. It is last time they together. In our culture, woman cannot marry two times. She very sad. She want marry to another man her but no man take her.”
 
“Stupid Nepali men.”
 
“But you bidesh, hoina? You habsi. You take her! No problem.”
 
For two days, he stayed in the artist’s home as they arranged for the wedding. He promised the artist a lot of money, so the artist ran around to make it happen in two days. Luckily, it was the wedding month.
 
The day came. He endured so many Hindu rituals like a zombie. They spoke to him in a strange language. The artist was not always available to interpret, so he did whatever they gestured at him to do. At one point, he found himself sitting beside a grandmother dressed up as a bride.
 
He thought it funny.
 
A grandmother so old she had no teeth, all dressed up like a bride. She sat beside him, smiling. He knew that smile for he had seen it on the girl. Maybe this is her grandmother.
 
He thought they were doing something similar to the kwanjula ceremony back home, where the bride’s family parade many girls for the groom to pick, but the groom has to reject all until they reveal the real bride. So maybe this grandmother is a customary surrogate until the time is right for the bride to appear.
In a strange way, it all started with this story 🙂
Time passed. The bride did not show up. He grew impatient. Night came. The dancing started. Though he did not understand what was happening, he knew people dance only after the marriage. But where is his bride? Nervous, he asked the artist.
 
“What you mean?” the artist said.
 
“I want to see the girl?”
 
“Eh!” the artist seemed truly shocked. “You not seen her?” He pointed at the grandmother. “Her?”
 
The African looked at the old woman, at the toothless and wrinkled smile that in the picture had set him alight with a fire of a thousand suns.
 
“I paint her photo – old, old photo, what she look like when still young.”
 
The African felt a bitter dryness in his mouth as he discovered he was a character in a badly written joke. A corny joke that nevertheless knocked him out with the sheer force of its obviousness.
 
“What’s the problem?” the grandmother asked the artist. “Why is he troubled?”
 
“Nothing,” the artist said.
 
“Is he worried that I did it?”
 
“No.”
 
“Tell him I didn’t.”
 
“No!”
 
“I have never done it! Tell him!”
 

So the artist turned to the African with a big smile and said, “Good news for you, my friend. She say her husband die before they – you know. She’s still a virgin.”

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This is not funny! It’s a horror!

It seems a life time ago, yet it was only 2006. I was nearing my thirtieth birthday, and I had failed to make it as a novelist. I had to rethink my future, my ambitions, either give up on the dream or breath new life into it. I chose the latter. I set my sights on making films. This is a story I’ve told many times before, and I don’t want to repeat it here, but December 2006 is the time I directed my first film. A one minute movie that I wanted to be a horror. An old fashioned kind of horror where a girl discovers a monster under her bed, and it eats her up.


An amateur video.

At that time, I was still in this phase where I wanted to write only dark fiction, digging into the darkness of humanity and spilling whatever I found onto paper and screen. But my attempt came out a comedy. Most comments I got was that “it’s very funny.” No one told me “Oh my. It’s so scary.”

A few months earlier, I had my feature script accepted into the Maisha Film Lab. Many experienced mentors read it, and gave me a lot of advice on how to develop it, but I would like to thank Steve Cohen (writer of The Bachelor, 1999) and Sabrina Dhawan (writer of Monsoon Wedding) for making me see that my gift is not to make horror stories, but rather comedies. After reading my script, Steve asked me; “What genre is this?” and I replied, “It’s a horror.” Well, to me, it looked like a horror. There was a Monster (who I called Felistas, after the first woman who fired me from my first job — I thought she was such a monster that I wrote two stories about her) and this Monster wanted a man to love her, but which man could love such an ugly woman? Well, she kidnaps a man (in the process killing witnesses to cover her tracks, there is a lot of blood) and she forces this captive to become her lover. More like a sex slave. Oh my, I thought it would be the scariest movie ever told. But when Steve read this script, he told me, “No way, Dilman. This is not a horror. This is a romantic comedy.”

Rehema and Geoffrey audition for The Felistas Fable

I was angry for a few hours. How can he disrespect my work like that! It’s a horror! Can’t he see the violence? Can’t he see the blood flowing down the village paths when the monster slays men like they are flies? And I asked myself the question every writer will ask anyone who gives a negative review of his work; Did he even read the script?

Joannitta and Isaac audition for The Felistas Fable

Well, the good thing about me is that I am not fixated on the ‘works of art’ I create. I do not hold onto them as though they are made of stone and therefore not changeable. I looked at the story the way this guy was looking at it, and it struck me that yes, it’s really not a horror. It’s a romantic comedy. He accepted to be my mentor, and we wrote the script together for the next five years until a few months ago when I started writing the shooting draft.

In 2007, I made my first professional attempt at directing. Again, when the actors read the script, they told me “It’s so funny.” And again, I was furious, but only for a few minutes. I told them gently, “Well, it may be funny, but it is a dark comedy. Do not play it funny.” The result? What Happened In Room 13, a story that you watch and want to laugh, but then you catch yourself and say, “I shouldn’t be laughing at this.” (Click Here to Watch it free)

During the auditions for Room 13, I remember a face I’ve never forgotten. We had only one afternoon to pick actors. There were three of us, Wanjiru Kairu (Must Be A God Christian Girl), James Gayo (The Trip, but more famous for his cartoon strip, Kingo) and me. Since my script had no dialog, I did get chance to have actors read scenes from the script. I had to watch others do the two scripts I’ve mentioned in this paragraph, and hope to get the right actors.

Well, it was nearly 6pm, and there was a crowd of actors wanting to get in. I don’t know why, but one particular face stuck in my memory. The disappointment in the face, as he walked away without being given a chance to audition. If I close my eyes, I can still see the expression on his face, in the dimly lit corridor of Grand Imperial Hotel, the dark face, the white teeth showing through his lips as he gaped into the audition room, begging for a chance…. The face belonged to Isaac Kudu (Kuddzu Isaaq, however he wants his name to be spelt!)

A face that is hard to forget!

Five years is a long time in this business, and he did get opportunities in other projects. Today, he is famous. He is one of the reason The Hostel TV series was so popular. I worked with him in The Hostel briefly, and even then I saw he could be the kind of man to lead The Felistas Fable. To play ‘the crying man’, who gets kidnapped by the monster.

This time, I gave him a special invitation to audition (as I did to many other actors who I thought would be good for the role) and he did not disappoint. I know he will bring the crying man to life.

 —
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Starving Artists and Rejection Slips at Christmas

It’s the worst part of being an ‘artist’. For this reason they came up with the term, starving artist, to make the whole thing seem romantic. To make the artist think he has a right to starve, since he is the ‘creative’ type, the one who lives on dreams, who is too lazy to get a proper job and earn a decent salary. I must have got a thousand rejection slips by now, most of them computer generated, but every time I get one, I get that feeling deep down in my stomach that I’m wasting time. That I should be thinking of getting a job as a teacher in some village secondary school — though with the way things are today, it might be harder getting such a job than getting published! At least, thank God for the internet, I can blog and pretend to be famous writer because I have about a hundred followers, who don’t even read the blog.
Edgar A. Poe, very famous, but he was a poor church mouse.

And yesterday, I got another rejection slip! It came in the form of a nicely wrapped Christmas present. It went something like, “We have seen your potential and encourage you to submit again next year.” For the first time, I lost it. I did something they warn artists never to do. When you get a rejection letter, you simply stomach it and try elsewhere, but this time, I could not contain it anymore. I wrote back to the bloody fools, saying; “You dimwits! It’s the fourth time you are sending me that computer-generated rejection slip! But guess what, I am sending you one of my own — at least it’s not computer generated — because I am tired of sending you work! I will never, ever, ever, submit to you again! Got it! Hahahaha! And I’m going to organize a writers strike, I’ll ask everyone to boycott your stupid magazine, and then who will you send those computer generated rejection slips to? Bastards.”

Of course, my email wasn’t so strongly worded, and it wasn’t to a magazine, but well, I’m trying to protect the identity of the idiots. Just don’t know why I bothered to contact them after they sent three bloody rejection slips!

Here is a site I keep visiting to read rejection slips. http://www.literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com/

Well, Kafka’s life story is some kind of consolation. His life was full of rejection slips. He only got famous after his death. His novellas, letters, and essays never saw publication in his lifetime – in fact, he ordered his contemporary Max Brod, the executor of his estate, to burn every manuscript without reading them. But what use is fame if you are dead? :-)) 

Franza Kafka’s grave in Prague
Steven Crane. I loved his stories, but he too died broke.

Qn: “How did you go bankrupt?”

Ans: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

~ Hemingway:

This incident reminded me of a blog I wrote, a long time ago, in scriptologist.com I’ve pasted it 
below, unedited. :-)) And I love the anonymous response it got :-))

New hope or New year?

Amazing how Editors can appear out of the blue gloom to lift up your spirits.

I’ve just had another terrible xmas, like all my xmases are. It’s the time when people hang out with their loved ones and family. Its the time also that reminds me how much I lack all these. No family (well, there is one, brothers, father, a mother, but each time I see any of them, I get nightmares. Bad nightmares like those on Elm Street) No loved one either. It’s been a long and sorrowful life for me (you call 29 long?) and this xmas brought out my forlonity in with such graphic clarity that I found myself looking back at the events that made my life what it is. It goes way back to my earliest memory, sex with a neighbours daughter. she was 3, i was 4. it was traumatizing: there was the gal who died (hit by a car as I crossed the road with her) when I was about 5. I think those two made my life what it is. pathetic. those two sparked off a series of a lot of other incidents that make me forever a loner. And this christmas made me see all these in a new light, made me feel my ambitions to be a writer were contemptous. Made me feel my life wasn’t worth living. Made me feel so many things that I swore to end this miserable life before I’m 30, if I haven’t broken into the ranks of pros.

Well, and then this morning, I get an email. At first I think it’s junk. I’ve forgotten all about this story, and this magazine, and I read the letter three times to remember both. It’s an acceptance. 25$. And I’m like ‘Oh shit, I aint that bad.” Of course it isn’t the only thing I’ve ever published, but its the only acceptance in over a year and it was begining to get to my throat.

It’s such small favours from the Editors (who live in Olympus, is that the correct spelling of that mountain?) that keeps miserables like us going.

Maybe this year will be a different one for me.

[ 01:52 ] [ 2007-Jan-9 ] [ Post Comment ]

Melancholy Breakfast

I’m always upbeat and happy because I need to suppress my childhood memories with fake, happy thoughts, when people are around.

After reading your sad, yet truthful article, I mean blog, I’ve decided to stay sad and that will make me a better writer. I ‘m going to tell my loved ones to not talk to me for week and see if I could write better scripts.

Maybe I should send my son to Iraq and then I will definetly NOT be faking my sadness.

Or better yet, maybe I should watch Bush’s speech tonight at nine and then I will truly fall under despair.

[ Anonymous ] [ 11:58 ] [ 2007-Jan-10 ] [ Link ]

PS: The story mentioned above went on to get nominated for the Million Writers Award: Notable Online Stories of 2007. You can read it here http://www.gowanusbooks.com/Dila_Homecoming.html

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