Samyra Manka’a discusses with Monique Kwachou, highlighting displacement, the Caine Prize Workshop & other projects.
Your first book is a collection of poems titled Writing Therapy. Why the move to prose?
Well, there wasn’t an official ‘move’. Poetry still comes easier to me, than prose. My first attempt at prose — the short story I wrote at the Caine Prize for African Writing workshop in 2011 — was simply a challenge. A representative of my publisher asked me if I would like to participate in the workshop and try my hand at prose. I read up on the Caine and decided to take her up on the offer and challenge myself.
What inspired the story “Afritude”? Are there any personal parallel stories which served as motivation for the story?
At almost every writers’ workshop I’ve attended we’re counseled to write what we know. I decided to take that advice with my first attempt and thus wrote fiction inspired by occurrences my friends and I experienced. So yes, “Afritude” is inspired by personal events.
There are many Elizabeths in Cameroon today. Like your main character, many young people feel the need to fit in, and need to get some kind of wakeup call to get them out of their comfort zones. Is that one of the lessons you intend to pass on in this story?
To be honest, I didn’t intend to pass on any lesson with this short story. I intended to tell a tale of a girl who never belonged while living with an immigrant mother in the West and, upon her return home, has matured in ways that surprise even herself.
Of course, several lessons could be picked up from the tale, but I can’t claim it was meant to be didactic. Any lessons could be considered a positive by-product.
Many kids born in the diaspora have to make the transition to their country of origin at some point. Do you think Elizabeth’s story somehow prepares them for this transition?
I hope Elizabeth’s story gives them something to relate to. Reading is, for me, a form of escape and novels have always been the best teachers of empathy. I hope with this story and the rest of the book I am currently writing of Elizabeth’s other tales, Cameroonian children of the diaspora can escape to a world in-between, where they belong and find a character they can empathize with.
Reading is, for me, a form of escape and novels have always been the best teachers of empathy
Can you please tell us about the writing process of “Afritude”, given that it was written during a Caine Prize workshop?
(Laugh) The writing of this story was tense. I was a 21 year old, 2nd year undergraduate student who had accepted the invite to the workshop as a challenge. The representative of my publisher who offered me the opportunity didn’t do it out of confidence in me, on the contrary. There was no other published writer she knew of who could take ten days off work to commit to the workshop. So I barely fit the bill and I knew this.
I was self-aware all through the workshop. Prior to arrival at our lodging, I had googled all the other participants: college professors of high repute, journalists, well established lawyers, and, of course, the past winner of the Caine Prize and runner-ups were those whom I would be writing with. These people read books. Literary fiction against my common pop fiction. They had intellectual debates on writing styles and grammar while I sat in awe, trying to look like I knew something.
Perhaps tense wasn’t the word I should have used. Writing a passable story in ten days under supervision and away from your familiar environment is tense. Attempting prose for the first time in that condition, in the midst of literary giants who you know are a million times more adept… Well, I look back at that as one of my miracles. I was and remain extremely grateful to Donna Forbin, another Cameroonian writer, and Ayodele Morroco- Clarke—, a Nigerian writer, who both made me feel less self-conscious during that time.
Parenting can be hard for African parents in the USA. Africans have different ways of raising kids but being in a different land with rules that bind even parenting can be a hard task for these parents in the diaspora. Do you think this explains the leniency in raising these kids that are often considered “spoilt kids” once they return home? Is there any way to bridge the parenting gap?
I do not agree with the assertion that kids are raised with ‘leniency’ are ‘spoiled’ by parents in the diaspora because of the ‘rules that bind parenting’. The rules/laws I believe you refer to are those against corporal punishment. In my opinion, our parents can use other means to discipline children whether or not in the diaspora. In my experience the problems lies not with the laws, but with the parents who cannot (understandably so) cope with a system much different from that back home. In the diaspora you do not have a ‘village’ to raise the child, to be your eyes and ears in your absence. And that absence is often. Any of the children I can attribute the term ‘spoiled’ to are so because of lack of parental attention, or having been given material things with little or no teaching them to appreciate it. There is no way to ‘bridge the parenting gap’ as you term it. Our parenting styles need to be adapted to catch up with the needs of the children we raise in a completely different society.
Aside from literary works, you are a youth advocate and head of your organization, Better Breed Cameroon. Please tell us more about that.
Yes, I founded Better Breed Cameroon in 2013 with a cash award I received upon graduation. It is a youth-led, youth-development focused association which sees youth empowerment as the most sustainable form of development. Members contribute their time, effort, ideas, and money to carry out an average of 4 projects a year geared at empowering or molding young Cameroonians in one way or the other.
Our work is guided by the belief that, rather than criticizing those in power now, we ought to invest in the younger generation to ensure those to come are better prepared, conscious, and able to be better citizens and leaders.
Over the course of 3 years we’ve directly impacted over 1000 young people through various projects. We aspire to become a movement. The largest Cameroonian youth development association based on membership.
Any future projects you would like us to be on the lookout for?
There are always projects to look out for. My to-do list is endless. However, I’ll limit myself to one. I am currently working on a collection of short stories to accompany “Afritude”. It’ll take us through more experiences in Elizabeth’s life, on both sides of the globe. If I ever learn how to discipline myself and carve out strictly writing time, I might finally finish it.