Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first online literary magazine, was named Brittle Paper's Literary Platform of the Year on Monday. It was founded in 2019 by Rémy Ngamije and Mutaleni Nadimi to center work by writers across Africa and its diaspora, with a focus on contemporary Namibian literature. The writing and visual art collected in Doek! defy categorization, bursting open geographic and linguistic boundaries as well as delineations of genres, mediums, aesthetics, and divisions between art and politics. Doek!’s fourth issue, launched in November of 2020, puts in conversation a profile of a plantain seller in Accra’s East Legon district; a Rwandan poem paying tribute to both Jamaica Kincaid and composer Léo Ferré; a series of mid-century photographs of segregated neighborhoods in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek; and an auralgraph of Cape Town’s rushing rivers and traffic.
Rémy Ngamije, currently the magazine's editor-in-chief, is a writer born in Rwanda and raised in Namibia. He was a finalist for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, and his debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, is forthcoming in the US from Scout Books (S&S). Ngamije spoke with me via email about the shifting Namibian literary landscape, writing from “small places,” political awakening through Yoda, and the expansive literary space that is Doek!
Susannah Greenblatt (SG): Can you tell us about the genesis of Doek! Literary Magazine? What was the vision for the magazine and how did you go about bringing it to life?
Rémy Ngamije (RN): Once upon a time, Peter Orner, the American author of Am I Alone Here? and many other notable works, was in Namibia on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2018. He had loved being in Namibia in the early nineties so much—a period that inspired his debut novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo—that he decided to do a second stint [here]. (No idea why, really—for many, Namibia is not the kind of country you Fulbright to, it’s the kind you Fulbright from.)
While he was here, he started a writing group. A couple of us joined. We called ourselves the Windhoek Writers Club (WWC). For about a year we wrote, shared, and critiqued—it was a marvelous time. Eventually, Peter moved back to the US to teach at Dartmouth. Around that time Mutaleni Nadimi, one of the writers in the group, approached me about sharing the work produced by the WWC: that was Doek! Literary Magazine’s birth. I bought a domain, found a look and feel, and started the editing journey with Mutaleni before she eventually moved to the Netherlands.
Initially, to keep the workload manageable, we wanted to showcase only the WWC's writing, but the long-term goal was to showcase Namibian writing alongside African and diaspora writing and to reach readers from those demographics too. We started small, while nurturing ambitions to expand. Over time, the WWC’s numbers dwindled and we realized we had to reach out to other Namibian writers, whether they were in Windhoek or not. Then COVID-19 put a stop to our monthly gatherings. We shifted to a submission model, which allowed Namibian writers, poets, and visual artists—whoever they were, wherever they were—to submit to the magazine. With the Pan-African vision in mind, we have also been soliciting writing from other African nationals and will open submissions beyond Namibia once we are able to deal with larger submission volumes.
SG: Doek! is hailed as the first online literary magazine in Namibia. What did the Namibian literary landscape look like when you were coming of age as a reader and writer? How do you see it shifting now? Where does literature live in Windhoek?
RN: To be honest, there was not much of a “Namibian literary landscape.” Besides history books and political biographies—often out of print—there was not much for me to read from here. Literature, for me, and for many other people, was something that happened elsewhere: in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the US, or the UK—in more established and robust literary traditions. These are the places our reading materials came from and, hence, where our literary imaginations dwelled. Stories—at least those in books, in poems, in songs, in theater—were from other places, not small or relatively unknown places like Namibia.
The shift toward producing, disseminating, and appreciating our own literature has been gradual. The small population and the severe resource constraints within the arts are factors with tangible effects on our literary culture’s development. There are reasons to feel encouraged: we might not, for example, put out five novels or poetry collections a year, but Doek! can help to usher seven good short stories and poems into the literary universe. It is a start—and sometimes that is all one needs. I am certain there is more to follow. In fact, you can count on it: the best is yet to come. (As always.)
As with all places, I think literature lives within the people of a particular community. It often exists as unrecorded storytelling. Whether it makes the jump to the page, songs, or stages is an economic question. So, for now, conventional literature is accessed in bookshops and the Windhoek Public Library. But through Doek!’s work I am hoping that more Namibian writers can bring their stories to the world.
“Just because we share a continent and a common history of colonialism does not mean we know each other.”
SG: How do you and your editorial team go about crafting an issue? What sort of work do you seek out and center?
RN: Like many literary magazines, we send out calls for submissions. But unlike many magazines, we also sacrifice a small goat and pray to the literary gods for something good to pop into our submission inbox. We do not prescribe themes—we prefer it when writers, poets, and visual artists produce the work they are most passionate about.
When the gods answer our prayers—and they do, since we only slaughter the best goats—we pick the pieces that resonate with us the most. We always ask ourselves: Why this? Why this writer? Why now? These demand hard answers from us as an editorial team. But once we are in consensus, we find the road through editing a bit easier. For fiction, nonfiction, and poetry we look for a good story, or something that ripples into contemporary Namibian and African life. For visual art, we steer toward work that showcases the depth and range of the Black imagination.
Because we select a small number of pieces, we are able to work with writers extensively. For many of our Namibian writers, [their publication in Doek!] is the first time they are being edited and published, so the editorial team does our best to ensure editing is an inclusive learning process for them.
When pieces are close to completion, we look through them to find a common thread—that is where each edition’s title comes from.
SG: While based in Namibia’s capital of Windhoek, Doek! publishes writing from all over Africa and its diaspora. What do you see emerging from the exchanges Doek! facilitates between African literary spheres?
RN: Oh, man, what I have always hoped for, and what I think the continent so desperately needs: curious encounters followed by eager collaborations. Just because we share a continent and a common history of colonialism does not mean we know each other. In many ways we do not. Few people know about Namibian literature. But thanks to collaborative efforts with the likes of Troy Onyango's Lolwe, Dzekashu MacViban’s Bakwa, and Ukamaka Olisakwe’s Isele, we have readers from all over Africa. And, thanks to their networks and considerable experience, we are able to reach out to writers, poets, and visual artists on the continent and abroad to learn from their craft, and to share some of ours with them.
SG: The third issue of Doek! is titled “Stories from a small place . . .” In the prologue of your forthcoming novel, The Eternal Audience of One, you use similar language, referring to Windhoek as a “small place.” To your mind, what does it mean to write from a “small place”?
RN: Small places are defined by selective absences and exclusions. Like the absence of the metropolitan hum and cosmopolitan buzz. A small place does not have Central Park, Table Mountain, or Paris Fashion Week. These are things the world continuously touts as the markers of worldliness. Windhoek is a small place to be writing from because it is not the New York we are sold in films. I mean, seriously, what great romance, action, or thriller is set in *drum roll* Windhoek? What legendary musician or actor can it boast? Prestigious university? Iconic architecture? Those absences, I am told, make Windhoek a small place and generate the feeling that in order to “make it” and “make my mark on the world,” I have to leave it—those are the feelings that animate The Eternal Audience of One.
But with Doek!’s third edition, which came out during the global lockdown, the idea was reversed: What is the use of Hyde Park, Christ the Redeemer, and the Sydney Opera House if you cannot see them? What is a big city when you are confined to your house or apartment? Where is the cosmopolitan swagger when you are being murdered by police forces on your metropolitan streets?
Everyone’s world became a small place after COVID-19 forced us to confront certain realities and difficulties in our world.
“We have to fight for our own voice locally and nationally before we can fight for a place in the world.”
SG: Your own debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, is forthcoming in the US from Scout Books (S&S) and follows a young man’s migration from Rwanda to Namibia to South Africa. What conversations or ideas do you hope the book might spark in US readers? Do you think a story about motion travels across borders differently than one rooted in a single place?
RN: It is my hope that US readers are able to enjoy the commonalities of family dysfunction, teenage angst, familial pressures, sexual exploration and excess, and, of course, self-discovery. I think it will pleasantly surprise American readers how much we have in common in terms of interests and experiences as we grow up. Of course, that is the primary and fun discussion. Wait, you like Star Wars as much as I do? Cool! The part I am really looking forward to is the second leg of that conversation, the hard one: If I like Yoda as much as you do, and we agree that Han Solo is low-key lame, then why does the world treat us differently?
Regarding the second part of your question: for me, it is not whether the story moves from place to place but rather whether there is movement in it. Once a writer finds the internal motion of the story, its external movement (whether it is appreciated in many places) depends on other things, like a society’s current moment.
SG: What do you envision for Namibian publishing and literature in the future? Where does Doek! go from here?
RN: *Insert Pinky and the Brain intro drawl here*: Try to take over the world!
Ah, the dream.
More modestly, I want Namibian publishing to be robust within the country’s borders. We have to fight for our own voice locally and nationally before we can fight for a place in the world.
And for Doek! I spend much of my time building systems around it that will, hopefully, make the publication self-sustaining and a long-term endeavor that helps usher more Namibian and African writers into the literary consciousness.
SG: Who are some Namibian writers we should read right now, in Doek! and beyond?
RN: Ange Mucyo’s Subterwhere is one of the best works of speculative psychological fiction you will read. It will mess with your mind. And Mutaleni’s Losing Out is a gently written piece about parenthood and memory that has subtle power within it. Then, David Smuts’s Death, Detention, and Disappearance is one of the best works of nonfiction to come from Namibia.
In our new issue, published in November, Filemon Liyambo, Dalene Kooper, Namafu Amutse, and Pauline Buhle Ndlovu are ones to look out for.
But I cannot let you leave without dropping some young continental writers, poets, and artists to look out for: Mubanga Kalimamukwento and Natasha Omokhodion-Banda (from Zambia), Bongani Kona and Makanaka Mavengere (from Zimbabwe), Troy Onyango and Makena Onjerika (from Kenya), Zanta Nkumane (from Swaziland), and Rofhiwa Maneta and Hallie Haller (from South Africa)—these are some of the names from the new school, and I think you should trace their writing from their present budding to their future blooming.
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel The Eternal Audience of One is forthcoming from Scout Books (S&S). He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first online literary magazine. His work has appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, the Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek! Literary Magazine, Azure, Sultan's Seal, Santa Ana River Review, Columbia Journal, New Contrast, Necessary Fiction, Silver Pinion, and Lolwe. He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com