By Hareem Shafi
In Kamby Bolongo Mean River, you delve into the innermost parts of the human mind. The reader is witness to every nuance of your character, good, bad, pretty and ugly. What inspired you?
I always start with language and what pushes me through the process is language. Of course, there has to be something beyond language to make a successful novel and I was mindful of this while working on Kamby Bolongo Mean River. I found and then tried to cultivate an interesting voice and I allowed that voice to say what it wanted—an exploration of the mind was inevitable.
The narrator of Kamby Bolongo Mean River is obsessed with language and the relationship between words and their meanings. He suggests that one needs to "listen for what is between the words and behind them” to understand what is being communicated. Does the reader need to “listen between the lines” to truly understand the novel’s meaning? How much of the story remains in the unsaid?
I try not to think about meaning or interpretation. My job as the writer is to listen to the voice and not get in the way of it —how a reader interprets it is up to them. I don’t like the idea of meaning or understanding. I honestly don’t know what anything means and I understand very little. So I would never try to make anyone understand anything. Experiencing something is another matter, one that seems accomplishable. And yes, what is left off the page is always critical, as important as what’s on it.
The narrator suggests that “if you concentrate on the words you lose the voice and the voice is always too important to lose.” Is the style of your prose for this novel —particularly the absence of a lot of common punctuation— an attempt to bring the reader ever closer to the narrator’s voice?
Yes. It became clear right away that this narrator’s voice, his manner of speech was not at all measured or ordered. The second sentence —“I will say the hello how are you…” presented itself as one uninterrupted phrase, as opposed to “… the hello, how are you …” There was an urgency to his language, the syntax and diction and lack of punctuation all came together at once. After that there were a number of places where common punctuation would ordinarily go, but it didn’t fit the narrator’s voice or the tone of the piece.
Your prose has a very distinct, almost hypnotizing, tone. How long did it take you to develop your own voice? Were their authors that you tried to mimic in the process of discovering your voice?
I suppose it took years to develop this voice or these voices. The development is probably still happening; I’d like to think this so anyway. When I first started I was imitating Raymond Carver, like countless writers of certain generations. Over time, after reading hundreds of writers, from all stripes, schools and styles, and writing and experimenting, failing again and failing better, I stumbled upon what it is I’m supposed to do. What a great writer friend of mine calls “listening to one’s own page.”
Kamby Bolongo Mean River is exceptionally lyrical; language, its uses and manipulations, are clearly an important part of the story. The inner-workings of the narrator's mind, what he thinks and how he thinks them, seem equally important. Your book of short stories, Asunder, is just as richly populated with characters that stick with you and sentences that run through your head long after you've finished reading. What do you consider your subject? People, language —both? Does one of them interest you more while you are writing?
I suppose it’s both people and language. How people use language, how language is brilliant, how it’s powerful, how it’s weak and feeble. How it’s inadequate, but all we have.