The Seven Silences of the Heart
You blink rapidly. You don’t know where you are. I do.
Recollection returns: you’re in a church.
You’re at a funeral.
The crow-black suits some of the men sorrowfully sport are crowded out by the colors clinging to the women. Your people never succumbed to death’s attempts to deprive life of its numberless shades and hues. I could take their words, temporarily steal their rhythm, but they wouldn’t let that steal their color. The women are decked out in dresses cut from prismatic prints: checkered squares of red and canary yellow; whorls of indigo and aquamarine; splashes of teal and turquoise; tiger, zebra, and okapi stripes, leopard spots, fluorescent mandrill dyes—all things bright, garish, and beautiful have come to mock death with their defiant pigments. But for the somber pall this gathering could be a baptism or a confirmation. The routine of religion is the same. Your limbs and mouth remember the motions. You’re swept up in the spiritual current and go with the flow: you sit; you stand; you sit again; and stand once more; you cross yourself and mutter the necessary words. And also with you. You don’t jump onto the Old Testament when it rolls by as an aunt labors through her reading, creaking verse by clinking verse. The New Testament flies over you. An uncle, still weary from jet lag, delivers a tepid reading. You wonder what it was like for him to fly through four time zones with death as a destination. How do you pack for a burial?
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. He is the founder, chairperson, and art administrator of Doek, an independent arts organization in Namibia supporting the literary arts. He is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first and only literary magazine. His debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, was released in 2021 to critical acclaim and is available from Scout Press (S&S). His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Johannesburg Review of Books, American Chordata, Lolwe, Granta and many other places.
Rémy won the Africa Regional Prize of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and he was shortlisted twice for the highly competitive AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020 and 2021. He was also longlisted and shortlisted for the 2020 and 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prizes respectively. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com.
Maaza Mengiste on “The Seven Silences of the Heart”
It’s not every day that I find myself on unsteady, exhilarating ground when reading a story, but this is what happened when I encountered Rémy Ngamije’s genre-defying and poignant “The Seven Silences of the Heart.” This story is about many things, and I’ll let him explain to you what it means to him. To me, it was an elegy and something altogether new—a genre that evaded categorization to be something wholly its own. I recognized the stories of exile and longing, of grief and love woven through its pages, but there was more, and it was riveting.
What does it mean to be born after a sibling who has died? What burdens and responsibilities do the living carry when walking down a path first forged by the dead? These are some of the questions this story challenges us to consider. Yet, the writer at work in these pages is also irreverent, with a wicked sense of humor and a strong awareness of the fantastical that exists in even the most devastating moments, and that makes this story something distinct.
It is my sincere pleasure to welcome you to the striking and powerful writing of Rémy Ngamije, and to “The Seven Silences of the Heart.” What you will find in these pages is a startling and rebellious imagination moving into territory you did not know existed.
Q&A by Maaza Mengiste
- MM: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- RN: Like most storytellers, I think I spend most of my time dreaming, thinking up imaginary worlds, and concocting the kind of rhythmic dialogue between characters that is not mirrored by the small talk of daily life. Writing, for me, is one way of trying to communicate these inner worlds to the reader. With “The Seven Silences of the Heart,” quite a few things coalesced to pull this story from my mind’s ether. Firstly, I was interested in mapping out some of the territories of grief. Not exhaustively, of course, but in a way that shows its many faces: sadness, loss, mourning, and, perhaps, eventual acceptance of what no longer is. Secondly, to guide me through the writing process, I wanted a structure that provided the story with a rhythm, a cadence that felt familiar, but one that permitted me to experiment with the events of the story’s narrative. Then, thirdly, I wanted to tell a story that transports the reader from their immediate physical form into another world in which the desperate attempt to obtain a physical form is the main drama. Fourthly, I wanted to write a story anchored in song, a requiem of sorts. “Ukuthula,” a Zulu hymn, provided me with the aural gravity which drew all of the strange bits in “Seven Silences” together.
- MM: How would you describe what “The Seven Silences of the Heart” is “about”?
- RN: Hmm. When we were in the editing process, especially after your initial comments, as I went back to the draft to make corrections or re-read certain passages, I arrived at different conclusions each time. At first I thought this was a story about grief and loss, two weighty themes that were much too grand to explore in one short story. Then I thought, hey, it is most certainly about the numerous experiences we put our bodies through without thinking of how precious and special it is to be here, to be alive. But then, later, I thought it was about how we, as people, become people. Like, how am I me while you are you? Does that make sense? I am yet to settle on a definitive answer. I think the shortest description, the one that permits the reader to arrive at their own conclusion, is this: “Seven Silences” is a story about an unlived life, one that makes itself known in a situation when questions of lives lived and lost are most pertinent, at a funeral. That one-liner is the answer at which I have arrived the most since I started penning this story. I think it was my narrative north; it helped to keep this story on track.
- MM: Can you talk about your writing process?
- RN: Hahaha. Maaza, my process is panic. No, really, it is. More and more I am becoming increasingly aware of how little time one has to do the things they love, or “the work” that has meaning and value. Our lives are cluttered. Like anyone, I spend a lot of my time just trying to survive this world. When I think about the things I want to write, the complexity of the ideas, the curiosity and the courage needed to explore them, and, most importantly, the time needed to grow as a person and hone my writing craft before even putting a series of meaningful words on paper, I realize: “Damn, I don’t have time.” Panic sets in. But the solution presents itself immediately: “Start now.” Write the first sentence. Then the second. Then a third. Run into a problem. Think about. Read about it. Try to solve the problem. Be open to change. Then write the next sentence. Carry on as best as I can until the end. This best sums up the general rhythms of my process when I am in full flow. But to be in that state is a luxury I am not always afforded. And so, really, my goal every day is to write when I can, for as long as I am able to. Hence the panicking. And starting now.
- MM: You’ve been recognized and awarded for your short stories, and you recently published a novel. What’s the difference between these two forms of writing for you?
- RN: I still struggle to talk about writing in the abstract; it is much easier when I compare writing to something else, especially other art forms. So I hope the following explanation makes sense. Short stories, for me, are like an incredible dance with a stranger to a wonderful song at a party where after the song ends, the dance partner vanishes in the crowd, leaving me asking everyone (the bartender, the DJ, the bouncer) if they have seen that person. The dance can be romantic, passionate, platonic and fun, sad, slow, fast—so many things—but for that brief instant, that dance is the only dance that matters. And when it ends, gosh, there is a desire for its continuation without any feelings of disappointment if there is no encore. That, at least, is how I feel when I read a great short story. It is also, in some ways, what I try to do when I write short fiction: one dance, one chance. It is quite hard to write short stories with that kind of effect on a reader. But, hey, one always has to try. Novels are more like the whole dance party, with all of the characters having their own separate rhythms, drinks, attire, needs, wants, goals, and disappointments. All of them have come from somewhere, and all of them are going somewhere else. For an extended period of time, over the course of multiple chapters and many pages, one can follow a narrative or a group of narratives through the dance party, learning more about how the characters arrived there, what they expect from the night, how they dance, and why they dance. And at the end, there is a feeling of being thoroughly “danced out.” It takes considerable skill to keep that many people interested in the songs on offer (think genre, plot, and the conflict or questions on offer), and to keep them and their internal worlds moving to the rhythm (think time—past, present, future). But when it is done so skillfully, it is amazing to see and to experience in story form. I think my debut novel, The Eternal Audience Of One, has this dance quality to it; I enjoyed working on the track changes, fading chapters into each other, and slowing or speeding up the dancers. In the end, these two mediums, for me, are different ways of connecting with a reader, especially when it comes to the time aspect. We might have one dance, or, heck, we might just decide to shut the club down.
- MM: What would you like readers to take away from this story?
- RN: Who would you be if you were not you? Not, what would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing. Or what you would be doing in a perfect world. But, rather, if you were not you (in your body, with your emotional and intellectual capacities) then who would you be? It is one of the questions I had to ask myself when I was writing “Seven Silences.” I am still thinking about it.
- MM: What are you working on now?
- RN: I always have to be careful about how to answer this question because once spoken there is the expectation of delivery from certain quarters and parties. What I can say is that I have felt the familiar itches for a new long narrative. You know that feeling? When the story is more than a dream but it has started taking on physical dimensions like starts, middles, ends, and portioning time in the day to work on it. I am there now. I have spent so much time dreaming of the story’s world, especially its character dialogue which is where this particular narrative finds its genesis. As I mentioned earlier, that sense of panic, of time running out, has been creeping up on me. So I have done the obvious thing and started working on it, slowly, but the most meaningful words of the project—the start—have found their way to paper. In the coming days I hope to commit more time to it so that I can see it all the way to its end.
- MM: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- RN: Ha! A while back, in the AfroLit Sans Frontieres Virtual Literary Festival, someone asked you this asked with regard to The Shadow King: “How do you know when you’ve done enough research?” I think they were referring to the incredible work you did to render the Italo-Ethiopian war in the novel and how you knew when to step out of the archives and into the fictional world. You said that one needs to do the research that gets the story going and keeps it in motion. Then, you said, “Start, however you can with whatever you can. The rest will come to you.” That is advice I have taken to heart. Then, one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given applies to most undertakings in life, not just writing. It is this: try.