On Writing about Gender and Winning the Writivism Prize – An Interview with Munachim Amah

Munachim Amah, an alumnus of the 2016 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop facilitated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie, is the 2017 winner of the Writivism Short Story Prize. In this interview, we talked about the subject of gender in his winning story, Stolen Pieces and lots more. Enjoy it.

Congratulations on your Writivism win, Munachi! Small confession: when I read the shortlisted stories, I was glad you made the list, but somehow secretly wished that Saaleha wins. Really loved the little character in her story and it’s like the third time she’s been shortlisted. Biased, I know. Though I was pleasantly surprised to hear you’d won. So yes, congrats. And how has it been?

Thanks, Jenny. I also loved Saleeha’s ‘Fairies’ and was rooting for it. Up until the announcement, I never imagined I’d win. But here we are. I felt really surprised when the announcement was made and first thing I did after that was to confront the judges and ask them what they saw in my story. It’s still like a fairy tale. Lol.

Haha. Did they respond?

Oh yes, they did. Three of them present there did. They talked about the style and the voice of the narrator, and also how unique they thought the story was, and thereafter they asked me to go back and read it again. Maybe then I’d see what they saw. I have tried. I still don’t see anything.

But I think it’s a good story though. Reading it made me think of The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I don’t mean this in its style or language, but in the way both stories traced the development of the protagonist from childhood, to adulthood and the conflicts in between. Have you read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man?

Oh no, I haven’t. James Joyce?

Yeah, James Joyce. Both your character and his found themselves questioning and exploring who they are. What are some of the things that led you into writing Stolen Pieces?

A lot of things inspired Stolen Pieces. My own search for Truth. Other people’s experiences of the world. Love and Lust and Heartbreaks. The shifting nature of gender and sexuality and conversations around it. I just really wanted to say something.

Did you think you achieved that?

I’m not sure. I don’t know. But I’ve had people message me to tell me how much they enjoyed reading the story and how it helped them see sexuality a little differently, and that’s enough for me. Even in Kampala, I had conversations with people around the story and they told me their interpretations of it and I was just stunned that people in faraway Uganda could get into that space I created in the story and own it. I guess that means I got somewhere. Lol.

Because I feel like the question of identity and gender especially, is really an unending one. Am I female only because I’m born female? Does it matter that I like what boys like and hate what girls like though female? Does that make me less of a female and vice versa.

Yeah, it’s an unending one. I like to think of identity as a journey. We never really get there, but we get somewhere.

Like your character at the end of the story. Still journeying. Still ‘perching’.

Yeah, that. Which is why the story never ends. It just stops somewhere and you don’t know what the character becomes eventually. You can’t say he is this or that.

At the end also, it’s about being bold enough asking such questions and writing about what many would generally overlook. I think too there’s some comfort writing provides. Sometimes we ask questions in writing and we never find the answers. But writing in itself, I guess, is often enough.

True, Jenny, true. Writing is often enough. It’s some space to test our assumptions and beliefs about the world, to ask questions that no one else but us can answer.

How did your close family and friends perceive Stolen Pieces?

Hey God. Don’t show my father o. Haaa. My brother read the story and shared it on Facebook, which is still surprising to me. We haven’t talked about it yet. I’ll prefer to have that conversation face to face.

Ha ha. But what happens when family finds out? And your close friends, what do they say?

Hehe. When family finds out, we will have that conversation. I think I am getting ready for it. Some of my close friends are still not comfortable with that story. My best friend, for instance, she keeps asking me what I intend to achieve by writing that story and having it out there. Nothing, I say. Nothing. You do not write a story because you are trying to preach something. That’s what I think. Sometimes, you write a story because it is someone’s reality and it deserves to be told, even if that someone is just one person in the whole world.

I agree with you and I guess stories are usually told or written to unearth things ordinarily hidden or overlooked. The reader is allowed to either be shocked, remain shocked or find it an eye-opener. It might take a long time to make sense if it ever does, but it is what it is. And not everyone may understand.

Yeah. That’s why it’s called a story.

True. Does winning the prize make you feel a better writer? Could it have been any different if you hadn’t won?

Jenny, I honestly don’t know how I would have felt if I didn’t win. I think making it to the shortlist was already surprising and motivating enough. What this winning has done for me is that it has opened my eyes to the amount of work that needs to be done. I want to be a better writer. I want to read more. I want to do more. Now, I feel more encouraged to work on my craft with the belief that there’s something in this void I feel. I mean, people read my story and loved it and thought to name it the winning story. It’s some kind of affirmation, and I simply cannot afford to take this for granted. Winning has also not made all my self-doubt disappear. I think my writing is crap and I think I have to work harder.

Crap, but not crap enough for Chimamanda Adichie, ehn? I think doubt is what propels us to be better in whatever we do. I guess Adichie must be proud of you now.

Lol. I hope she is. I really do, because she believed so much and gave so much.

You think the workshop helped you in some way? How long have you been writing?

Oh yes, the workshop helped a lot. A whole lot. I think I started taking writing seriously in 2014. But attending the workshop was a huge leap, a really huge leap. It helped me become a better reader and I think that is what I took into my writing because now I can read my story and know when I am feeling it or not. I took away so much from the workshop. The friendships I formed there have been really helpful too. We are like one close family now, and before I submitted Stolen Pieces to Writivism, I sent it to over eight people who read and told me what they thought about it. That helps. I hope I get the opportunity to attend more workshops.

That’s good to know. With this Writivism win, I surely think many opportunities will come your way.

I hope so, too. I am not sure what to expect at this point.

Ha ha. No expectations is the best place to be. Surprise is a great feeling, isn’t it?

Oh yes it is. I do loooove surprises.

Awesome. So how was Writivism Festival? I was meant to be there for the Arts Management and Literary workshop, but plans changed. Sadly.

Unfortunately, I did not attend the festival due to some logistics reasons. I arrived Kampala on Sunday August 20 and I was so tired I only attended the Shortlisted Writers’ Playlist, a Keynote Speech, and the award ceremony. I think the organisers are going a great job and I commend them for their efforts.

Oh, that’s so sad. Well, I really do wish you plenty success. Is writing something you’d want to pursue full time, though?

Thank you, Jenny. That’s a tough one. I’m not sure about that yet but I’ll keep writing for now and see where it leads me.

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