This past summer, I reviewed Angolan author Ondjaki’s novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret right here at Numéro Cinq. I loved the book, which read like a fun kid’s action/adventure film from the 1980s, and thanks to modern technology, Ondjaki and I began chatting on Twitter after he saw the review. Over time, our conversation—a direct message or email here and there across several months—turned into an interview, which is transcribed below.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard (BW): What drew you into wanting to become a storyteller?
Ondjaki (O): I really don’t know. I guess each time someone asks this, a writer lies. I happen to like short stories, tales, and literature in general. One gets caught up in this “thing” of reading, and then eventually comes the writing.
BW: Granma Nineteen… is only your third work translated into English. How interested are you in having your work translated? Is it important to you to have your stories reach a non-Portuguese speaking audience?
O: I am not that worried about that. I mean, I really think these things [translations] happen as they do, when they do. It’s important to me to be happy with a short story, a poem, a book. Of course translations open new doors. I don’t mean that I don’t care, but “important” could be a strong word. I see it as I write, and then some translations happen. I am happy with the result so far.
BW: You mention “being happy with a short story, a poem, a book.” What kind of process does a piece go through before you consider it finished? Does it vary?
O: I think it does. And many times I guess it’s a shot in the dark. When and how can one say “it’s ready”? I’ve had things that took me a year or two to “become” ready. And I also have pieces that took five years. Sometimes, when you’re just “preparing” (which I think is also writing), the idea can linger for more than five or ten years. In the end, you have to be happy with the result. But trying to be happy now, and forty-three years from now, it’s a long shot in the dark future…
BW: Branching off of this, you’ve amassed a rather large library of published work already in your literary career. Is seems you must have quite a bit of discipline when it comes to writing. Could you expand on your writing schedule?
O: You cannot imagine how I am laughing right now. Discipline? Me? I don’t think I recognize the word. Not when it comes to writing. I really do a tremendous effort to “wait” for the right moment. I keep working things in my mind, but as for the writing moment I tend to think there has to be some sort of magic. Or not. I convince myself that I write when “everything in me” is ready. I do not mean to bullshit, it’s just what I feel. For now. That’s why, in fact, I love short stories more than the rest. They tell me when they want to show up. Novels, yes, they require some sort of schedule, but it’s more just being available. Waiting. Like when you go fishing or hunting: it’s not about the amount you catch. It’s about the quality of the waiting time. I am still a beginner, but I “began” to understand that it’s important to wait. Just wait. The poem will come. The short story will come. Or not. I think writing is also about learning to be untroubled with both of these results.
BW: What was your literary exposure growing up? The boys in Granma Nineteen… seem to have a steady diet of 1980s adventure films, and their story reads like a children’s adventure film. Do any of these forms of media come into play with your writing?
O: I remember, after Asterix and some stuff like that, reading some “serious” Brazilian authors (Erico Verissimo, and then Graciliano Ramos), and Gracialiano was so powerful and “dry” and sad. But I liked it right away. After, don’t ask me why, I chose to read Sartre. Two or three years later, Garcia Márquez would be the most important of writers. Now, about the movies, I actually forced myself to remember certain films for the book, and that’s also to honor those days in which fiction also came into our lives through cinema and television. By fiction, I mean movies, but also soap operas. And I am aware that these were very important for my generation, so it’s also for them that I include some scenes or movies. It’s also for me: I actually would like to be there right now. If I could use a time machine only once, I know where I would go: a magical place, dusty, yellow, called the 80’s. That’s me. Still today.
BW: How old were you when you read Sartre? That seems pretty intense for a kid to read.
O: I think I was around fourteen. It was…somehow it was different. I remember I got two books at the same time, Márquez and Sartre’s Nausea. I did like Nausea’s main character a lot. He was lonely, he was weird, he seemed to me like a sad real person. I am not sure how much I got from that book then. It does not really matter. Every book is different each time we open it. Not so much the book, necessarily, but we are different readers in different moments of our lives. And I was in that sad mood at fourteen. Right after or right before that, I read The Hermit, the only Ionesco novel. Another sad character, another strange book. It made sense during those days. I am not sure I know why. I am not sure I want to remember why.
BW: Who do you look to as an example of a great writer?
O: I think books are more important than writers. But, right now, I guess there are three names I could not leave out of this answer: Ruy Duarte de Carvalho (Angola), Raduan Nassar (Brazil) and Erri De Luca (Italy). Any of these three (and two are still among us) should have won the Nobel.
BW: What makes you say that “books are more important than writers”? Do you mean that they are bigger than the authors who construct them, or more influential?
O: They are bigger, for sure. It’s what’s within the books that counts the most. Not the writers. It’s the body of a poem, not the hand who wrote it. It’s the memory that we have of a tree or a mountain, not so much the tree itself. Maybe the important part of a book is what you feel (or what you become) while you’re reading it. Do you feel a change in your skin or smile when you read something? Can a few (or a thousand) words change what you feel, what you are? Can a poem convince you that you can fly for thirty-seven seconds? Did you think that you could fly for thirty-seven seconds and a book made you fly for forty-nine seconds? It’s always about the meeting point between you (the reader) and the book. Sometimes, so many times, magic happens in that place.
BW: Does travel influence your writing at all? Am I correct in thinking that you now live in Brazil?
O: I think I live in Brazil now. This is where I stop most of the time. I travel a lot, I try not to, but sometimes I do travel a lot. I don’t know how it reaches my writing. I really don’t. I tend to like meeting new people and seeing cities, but sometimes it’s too much. Too many eyes, too many voices, too many airplanes. So lately airports are strange places for me. They make me sad, especially when I am returning from any place I call home. Luanda is still home for me. It’s a place that stays inside, though I’m not sure if it’s still the real Luanda. I don’t write exactly about the places I visit. Usually it’s more about the remains of those places in me. People. Moments. Trees. Colors. Shadows. Dreams. Hands. Shoes. Fogs. (Secret: sometimes I think I live somewhere in a lost bridge between now and the past.) I spend too much time not in the present. And I pay the price.
— Ondjaki and Benjamin Woodard
Ondjaki was born in Luanda, Angola in 1977. He studied in Lisbon and Portugal. Ondjaki is the author of five novels, three short story collections and various books of poems and stories for shildren. He has also made a documentary film, May Cherries Grow, about his native city. His books have been translated into eight languages and have earned him important literary prizes in Angola, Portugal and Brazil. In 2008 Ondjaki was awarded the Grizane for Africa Prize in the category of Best Young Writer. In 2012, The Guardian named him one of its Top Five African Writers. Good Morning Comrades marked Ondjaki’s first appearance in English. Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, launcing Spring 2014, is his newest English translation.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap Pop, decomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Kenyon Review, Necessary Fiction, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.