“The illusion that we can understand each other is perhaps the most beautiful of all.”
- Sese Yane
HOLDING A WOLF BY THE EARS – AN INTERVIEW WITH SESE YANE
J: Sese, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with me. I’ve been a huge fan ever since we shared some space in Short Story Day Africa’s Terra Incognita anthology – and I must confess, I’ve been looking forward to chatting with you for some time.
However, I’ve been hunting down some info on you, and I must be honest, you’re a bit of an enigma. I enter this interview knowing very little about you. I don’t know what you look like. I only recently found out that Sese Yane isn’t your real name. Yet, I get the feeling that things like faces or names don’t hold too much value. I also get the feeling that traditional interview formats would bore you to tears. I’m now going to attempt to trick you into telling me who you really are – auribus teneo lupum.
Tell me what matters most to you in this life?
SESE: I mean you’re right, faces or names don’t hold too much value. It has never been my intention to be an enigma if that’s how I come off; I only chose to write under a pen name for what I consider to be very practical reasons, and now that I talk of them it seems that I cannot even enumerate them. But what’s a name really? Even in my stories I try as much as possible to avoid naming the characters. Unfortunately we live in a world where you are your name, and you want to put your name on anything you allegedly own.
For me, to choose to write under a pen name was more out of shame than anything else. I didn’t want anyone to know that it was I who had written all this embarrassing stuff. And then I have said elsewhere that I could not stand to see my name against anything; my name seemed false under those circumstances. I am not my name.
I remember once reading Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning, and there’s somewhere there in the opening pages where he says that he had wished to publish the book under no name. I don’t remember his reasons but I agree with them.
But enough of that. You ask a very interesting question and maybe I should spend most of my energies on this one. What matters most to me in life? Truth is I wish I knew. Most days I simply try to find something to look forward to, and sometimes it is something as negligible as a TV show that I really want to watch that gives meaning and purpose to that day. Sometimes it’s just a thought.
J: In an email earlier this week, you told me that you felt your work isn’t all that rewarding to read. That may have been modest of you. Though, they say one should work hard in silence and let success make the noise. Do you feel you’ve enjoyed some success in your writing?
SESE: This is a tough one, Jason. It is true that my work is not that rewarding to read. I know this. But it was rewarding to write it. I don’t read my work, because I already know it will not be rewarding, but damn right I was laughing when writing it. If I wanted my work to be rewarding to the reader, I would endeavour to make it really simple, and then I would have no fun writing it. But then again we try to find a middle ground because no publisher will want to put their readers through something really opaque in the 21st century, and therefore we have a paragraph here and there that is eloquent before we hold our breath once more and dive under.
You don’t have to read the entire story, a paragraph is enough, as Thomas Bernhard has Reger say in the Old Masters. Also, you don’t have to read a book at all, as Milan Kundera has Tereza carry Anna Karenina around in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. You can find pleasure in a book other than by reading it; in any event, some books cannot be read; you can only marvel that this kind of literature is even possible, and if that alone gives you pleasure then so be it.
And so when it comes to writing, sometimes you don’t even try to remember the reader, you only try to explore the limits to which you can stretch style, and then nobody will want to read your story, but this matters very little to you if you’re not even a real writer to begin with. Sometimes you just want to be obscure because you simply don’t want anyone to understand you, you are wrestling with yourself; you just don’t want to write.
J: You must be sick to death of talking about “The Corpse” by now. To the reader though, it truly is a fascinating read. I’ve always thought of it as an exploration of human nature, or the lack thereof. A man who is so analytical in thinking that he’s barely human. Perhaps, even, less alive than the titular corpse which finally gets him talking, thinking and acting out of character. What drew you to these people, and why did you feel the urge to explore them?
SESE: I am really glad you found the story a fascinating read. I don’t know if you know this but the story received terrible reviews elsewhere, but my best was a reviewer who said something to the effect that the story just whizzed above his head. I love reviews, especially the bad ones because they make me laugh; the nice ones, like yours, leave me mortified.
In this story, I was trying to pit a logical man against an illogical situation. You see we like to assume that there is that which is logical on the one hand and that which is illogical on the other, and that only the logical should matter to us. But what if the logical only exists inside the confines of the illogical? For instance we cannot logically explain why we are here, how it all began, but we can logically explain what we are doing now, at least sometimes… And sometimes, actually most of the time, the logical is only the illogical that is ‘well explained’; and sometimes, actually most of the time, this logical explanation is substituted by yet another logical explanation; it’s a game of ‘logical musical chairs’.
In the story the logical man meets the illogical corpse, and he explains this situation to himself logically by avoiding thinking about it, and he avoids thinking only by thinking about something else; perhaps there’s no corpse at all, he’s simply making all this up. That’s the logical explanation.
J: The first time I read “The Corpse”, I finished it and put the book down. I picked it up, flipped back and read it again, and again. I remember thinking, more and more:
This guy’s got a bit of a Roald Dahl thing going here.
And it was great, I loved it. It stuck out from the rest of the anthology. It’s clear and flowery in the right places, and it’s a little playful and sinister at the same time. As the closing tale in the collection, it lingers, perfectly, and almost erases everything else you’ve read. Did anybody teach you to write this way, or did you stumble upon it by yourself? Who could you name as your literary influences?
SESE: Those are very kind words, Jason. Thank you. The truth is I didn’t grow up reading. To this very day I don’t like reading; I suffer my way through the text. I have some terrible issues with concentrating. But then in high school there was this boy (the inspiration behind that story Godfrey and I) and he made literature fun. He was Kafka before I even read Kafka, and I am sure he had never read Kafka himself. And there we all were, shocked out our minds. You can see in that short story Godfrey and I we all run away from the classroom when he’s narrating one his blasphemous stories. When someone asks me to name my literary influences, they have to start with him.
And even then I didn’t think that I would be able to write. I didn’t think writing was humanly possible, just like I didn’t think songs were composed. I started by writing epigrams, not knowing that they were called epigrams by the way; I just wrote them; they simply came to me. And then I wrote synopses, the kind that appear behind novels, pretending that the books were already written (I was yet to meet Borges by the way). And then one day in college I just found myself writing stories for the student magazine, but I wanted them surreal, and I wanted the sentences to be long and breathless and childish, even though I was yet to meet Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhard, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, etc.
But I think the turning point for me really is one night at home and I’m going through something in my Encarta and it leads me to Dostoevsky, and the paragraphs I find myself reading are from Notes From The Underground; I think that’s where literature finally and resolutely began in me. Or maybe not, perhaps it began with Florence and the Machine. The thing is, when it comes to literary influences I want to believe I simply looked for these writers after the fact, for comfort, and I keep growing the list every day. I don’t allow them to intimidate me simply because I cannot reach their genius.
J: What was your favourite story from the Terra Incognita anthology and why? I know. It was mine. Mine was your favourite. What was your second favourite story and why?
SESE: So, this is probably the easiest question so far. I want to answer it in a different kind of way. This one time, and it seems like a long time ago, I was working on something, and I can’t seem to remember what, with my father outside the house. It was a Saturday. I was probably in high school then. And then I escaped his eye and ran into the house, because I am naturally lazy.
I am standing before the television and there is this film, and this character says something… philosophical; I don’t know what philosophy is at that time but I am moved almost to tears by what this character is saying. And so I sit on the table, very close to the television so that I don’t miss a word, and watch the whole thing. It looks like a quasi-animated film, if such a thing exists. The film is about a man who keeps running into these people who just talk about things (philosophy)… and then we learn that he is trapped in a dream, but something very interesting he says, and I don’t quite remember the exact words, that these people are sharing with him ideas that he believes are not coming from himself even though he knows he is dreaming; the ideas are both new and vaguely familiar to him.
For the next few days I basically watched the same station hoping that they would repeat this film so that I would catch its title, but they didn’t. I have never been so frustrated! And years later when I discovered how to use the internet I continued with my quest until it brought me to Richard Linklater, but not before meeting the Norwegian genius Ingmar Bergman; actually when talking of literary influences I probably like Bergman the most!
My favourite story in Terra Incognita took me back to that moment, back to that moment when I was watching Waking Life; this is a story I have thought of writing too. And one more thing, maybe two, the language was precisely what I call language, and the last thing: I met Coleridge! A moment I cannot forget like the first time I read these beautiful words from yet another great: nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.
J: “The Corpse” appeared in Terra Incognita as well as the Apex Book of World SF4, and it was your first short story publication, if I’m correct. I don’t know. I don’t fact-check much. Sometimes I just make things up. Was this the first time you’d entered a short story competition?
SESE: That’s correct. “The Corpse” was my first published story, and to that I’m eternally grateful to SSDA. It was also the first time I had entered a short story competition.
J: In finding out that Sese Yane was a pseudonym, I read somewhere that Sese, in Swahili, means stringed. You’ve said that your Grandmother used to call you this as an insult, perhaps. Why would she call you stringed, Mr. Yane?
SESE: I didn’t know that Sese means stringed, in Swahili that is. But that name in my native tongue means Dog. Yane means mine. Now my grandmother used to call me e’sese yane, meaning my dog. I thought she was insulting me because back then to insult someone at school I simply had to call them dog!
Actually funny story, so we used to pass by my paternal grandmother’s before going to see my maternal grandparents. We get there and she calls me this name, I was maybe seven or eight. I tell my mother I can’t sleep here because I hate grandma. I throw a proper tantrum. Mother says okay we’ll go to your other grandparents, and so at sunset we’re on our way. We get there and the first thing my other grandmother says to me is “Come here my doggie”.
J: You practice law in Nairobi. Which branch of law did you go into and why?
SESE: I tried sitting behind a desk in some office as some kind of legal advisor on constitutional and devolution matters (it was laughable really) and it was okay until my contract ran out; I feel like I am pretending to be a lawyer most of the time, just like I feel I am pretending to be a writer, and everything else. Anyway this year I will be wearing some costume and will be prosecuting and defending commercial law. Why? What can you do?
J: That’s true, gotta do what you’ve gotta do. I can imagine, though, that a career in law affords the opportunity to meet some, shall we say, interesting people. I draw a lot of inspiration for my own writing through people I meet. Have any of these people influenced your writing?
SESE: Actually no, but who knows maybe someone will one day. As for now, the stories I have written are usually recollections of my distant past. I am more interested with my childhood. And then I am interested in the outcast, the renegade; you will be shocked to learn that many people I meet are very normal and quite banal.
J: You’ve had most of your work published in The Kalahari Review, namely a few short stories and some poetry. Your prose does have a bit of a poetic feel to it. Are you more partial to poetry, and is this something you feel the need to reign in when writing prose?
SESE: I absolutely love poetry. Sometimes when I am writing I simply have to control myself so as not to overdo it. Any paragraph that is not poetic is actually a success. I have had to discard stories because they were too poetic. I wish I was born earlier when this did not matter, when realism hadn’t reared its ugly head and God was still alive. For me the story has always been in the language and not in the plot. But more and more I am learning to stay awake when writing and not just drift away … I wish I could find a better way of writing, I think about it a lot.
And then I think all language is poetry, and the illusion that we can understand each other is perhaps the most beautiful of all. But when you set down to write a story most people expect everything they read to make sense, and you cannot change that; and maybe you just wanted them to allow themselves to be carried away by the flow, not to try to understand anything, just enjoy the ride, and you put things here and there for them that make sense so that they can latch on as they are getting carried away.
But what if they cannot enjoy? It’s some kind of nihilism in literature. And that’s why you hear people saying “Poetry is Dead!” because they can no longer believe. But read just a line from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According To G.H, and you want to shout your lungs out! Such beauty! You can’t even bring yourself to read the next line because you clearly see she’s about to destroy you!
J: You’ve mentioned a specific poem to me – “Binary Fiction Escape” – and how it’s the only work you’re comfortable defending. For those unfamiliar with it:
what will we do when we have
so much life that it cannot fit inside
one body? will we hire another body,
perhaps a Lover of Fiction?
Tell me why this poem is important to you.
SESE: I love this poem for the very reasons I have tried to espouse above; allowing yourself to get carried away. When I sat behind my computer that day I did not know I was writing this poem; I just wrote it. And then I looked at it and it made sense to me. I did not write it because it made sense; it made sense after I had written it. I know many people will dispute the truthfulness of that statement but what can you do? And then when I read that poem I see every line as an independent statement. What will we do when we have? And then there’s so much life that it cannot fit inside! And so on and so on. I didn’t say I can defend it because it is properly written (and perhaps it’s not), but only because it means something to me.
J: Your short story, We Will Be Safe, made the 2016 Writivism Short Story Prize long list. In closing, tell us a little about this story and any other tales you may have in the works.
SESE: If my memory is not failing me I believe the story will be published under the title The Dreamers Will Be Safe. I find myself going back to the question of communication over and over; it’s something that has always been with me perhaps because I struggled with a kind of speech impairment when I was growing up. Again hence my love for Bergman. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when recently, actually only yesterday, I came across this wonderful writer, Amie Barrodale, who also concerns herself with this very issue in her writing.
In The Dreamers Will Be Safe we are introduced to a character who decides to use communication toward one end only to notice that he’s gone past what he intended to achieve by talking and has actually passed on the wrong message and now tries to undo this message rather crudely, again using words; in the end can we believe anything that is said?
Well, as for other works, and whether there is something coming or not, who knows?
This interview with Sese Yane was conducted for SHORT STORY DAY AFRICA and appeared on their website in two parts, along with his short story – The Corpse. They can be found here:
Jason’s note: “Sese Yane provided me with an adequate bio. The standard run-of-the-mill “I am from, I’ve done this, here I am” sort of bio I know must have pained him to write. I’ve chosen to forget that bio existed, and instead, in the spirit of this interview, I’ve chosen to go with his explanation behind the bio – which I feel is far more entertaining and far more befitting his character. I don’t think he’d mind, too much. Enjoy.”
“… I had to avoid saying “Sese Yane is a writer etc etc” and had to settle for things like “He is from Kenya” simply to avoid saying “I am a writer”, and so to say “his other works have appeared”, which is pretty much an admission that “He is a writer” even though he disagrees with this… it’s all confusing really. So, forgive me…”