Q&A: Dr. Emmanuel E. Akanwa Interviews Gil Ndi-Shang on his newest collection, The Radio and Other Stories

With AiW Guests: Emmanuel E. Akanwa and Gil Ndi-Shang.

AiW note: The Radio and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Cameroonian writer, Gil Ndi-Shang, recently released with Spears Books.

“In The Radio and Other Stories, the scholar and the storyteller converge. The stories stir our emotions even as they prod our intellect. This is a fascinating collection that celebrates the tenacity of memory. In the end, the narrator presents a complex continuum of disparate realities that are made wholesome by his ability to impose a humane melody to the cacophonous inheritance falsely labeled as a postcolonial state. The prose flows seductively with stylistic versatility, and the reader is bound to return to this collection over and over again for engaging reflections.”
-Joyce Ashuntantang,
Author of Beautiful Fire, University of Hartford, USA

In this interview, Dr. Emmanuel E. Akanwa – Reading, English and Language Arts (RELA) teacher at DuVal High School, Maryland, U.S.A. – discusses the book with a keen and generous eye with its author, Dr. Gilbert Shang Ndi, Postdoc Fellow of the Cluster of Excellence-Africa Multiple, University of Bayreuth, and author of numerous scholarly articles, as well as creative works such as Letter from America (2019).

What emerges is a generous dialogue around the book and its writer, Dr Ndi’s advocacy and activism, and his position on the prevailing political atmosphere in Cameroon.  

This feels all the more present in the text itself, as its address carries the resonant indirect directness of the second person, and the authorial / narrator / reader slippage of that “you”. To that end, we are delighted to be able to offer a taster – an excerpt from the story “The Doctor”, courtesy of Gil Ndi-Shang:

At the age of seven, you began to look at life through different and ever-changing prisms depending on certain circumstances. There were moments when your vision was sharp enough to cut through any barriers, natural or man-made; when life spread its petals in warm embrace, beckoning you to take the next boat to boundless shores; when your body was at one with the spirit, endowed with an unstoppable kinetic thrust, turning your inner self into a drone that could deliver at any target. At such moments, life seemed to be a promise within your reach, with a coherent inner purpose. But on some days, like those following Dr Konfor’s funeral, you felt like a wet albatross, rudderless, with wings clipped by malignant destiny, like a snail hemmed in its shell and forced to peep through its carapace onto a rather crepuscular horizon. You could not understand why life’s trophies were always haunted by unfathomable catastrophes; why joy or happiness was tragically ephemeral and evanescent while pain and grief were palpable, real, tactile, concrete, corporeal and long-lasting. Such moments cast a shadow on what you wanted to become in life and where you wanted to be in the afterlife. Thus, the question of being or not-being visited you before you ever met Hamlet (119-120).

The Radio and Other Stories (2021).

Please read on for the interview, where Akanwa and Ndi discuss the radio as inspiration and connection, the driving importance of family – mums and dads – and the uncanniness of the relationship to Ndi’s home city, Ndu, plus institutions and failed bureaucracy (including the University Scoreboard, or Le Babillard), and Ndi’s diaspora experience…

Detail The Radio cover, Spears Books

Dr Emmanuel E. Akanwa: It is my deepest delight to have this conversation with you about your new book, The Radio and Other Stories. First, could you please tell us a little about Gil Ndi-Shang: biography, education, nationality, philosophy, and what keeps you going?

Dr Gil Ndi-Shang: Thank you very much Dr Akanwa for taking up time to read the book and to come up with these intriguing questions. It is such a pleasure to write a book and to be lucky to have readers who dissect it with so much care and patience, as reflected in your questions.

Gil Ndi-Shang is a son of Luh village, somewhere in the depths of North-western region of Cameroon. But Gil Ndi-Shang is also a child of the world, thanks to his academic trajectory that took him from Luh, through Nkambe, Yaoundé in Cameroon and to Germany, Peru, Colombia and back to Germany. I believe that however high we have flown, we should never forget our take-off points and writing this book for me was also a sense of connection with my roots, but more especially with my routes and the human relationships that shaped them. 

Akanwa: Since it was released, The Radio has been widely read and appreciated as a critical text that resonates with many Africans, especially those who were born and raised in the African continent. What inspired you to write this text and why did you choose the title, The Radio?

Ndi: I have been deeply impressed by the generous reception that greeted The Radio upon publication and up to this point in time. I was very much motivated by love, love for people and places that have have shaped me into a better human being but more importantly into being human. I am a deeply social person and I believe in connecting with fellow human beings across different cultures, nations, races and ideologies and that is the world for which the radio prepared me. So, it is a book of love, of celebration of friendship, of achievements, but also the hardships that prepare the way for these achievements. 

Akanwa: The Radio uses the second person pronoun to convey its message. This style of writing is not so common among contemporary nonfiction writers. Why did you choose to write from the second person point of view/perspective? Do you consider this the most effective way to narrate your story or was it just a question of stylistics?

Ndi: I was looking for the most effective way of relating with my reader. I did not want the book to come off as a solipsistic treatise but rather as a relatable story capable of thrusting even those from totally different backgrounds into its flow. Secondly, it is a book of memory and memory is the desire to remember but also to reconstruct the past. So, it was important to bring to the fore the metamorphosis that has occurred between the written self and the writing self, even when certain aspects of his character have remained more or less consistent, or at least recognizable. In other words, the book is an attempt at the archeology of the self and the society, remaining alert to the defamiliarised aspects of that self. 

Akanwa: You described yourself as “a child of the radio, that the radio ran through your veins, that she lived in you and you could not deny her.” How did the radio become so symbolic as to draw you to such a state of frenzy? Is there more to the radio than meets the eye?

Ndi: The radio opened the protagonist up to the world and made him to dream of travelling, a factor that has immensely enriched him and made him at home in faraway places. But of course, the specificity of the radio, as seen in the title story, is also its metaphoric resonance. The protagonist connects the radio with memory of his deceased sister, Mangwang. I leave the rest to the imagination of the reader.

Akanwa: The Radio travels in space, documenting your experiences from your native Ndu in Cameroon to your new base in Germany, to Peru, Colombia, and back to Germany, without losing its metaphoric grip on you. What do you think is the reason why the radio resonated so much with you and for so long a time?

Ndi: Simply because it was the main means of communication in my early years of growth. So, most of the role models in history, international politics and popular culture that I admired, were brought home to me by the radio. That made me develop such an affective relationship with that medium and to dream of becoming someone important. 

Akanwa: You presented a troubling recollection of the scoreboard or Le Babillard as a passage through which graduates of your former university must absolve themselves of the traumas of schooling in that university. Further, you alluded to the Biblical passing through the valley of the shadow of death as a vivid depiction of the Le Babillard. What was that scoreboard about and why did everybody dread to pass across that perilous path? What does this mythic board symbolize? Has the notion and implication of that scoreboard changed since you left the university?

Ndi: The scoreboard constituted the rite of passage for the students of the University of Yaoundé 1, where “The Shoe” is set. It was (I hope it is not the case anymore!) unpredictable and I know of many students who abandoned university studies when they felt that the score did not reflect the efforts they had invested in their studies. Some students’ marks were simply not available, and no one could explain why, even after several letters of complaints. The bureaucracy left much to be desired and that drowned the dreams of otherwise promising students who left high school full of hope but who met their Waterloo in Yaoundé 1, unfortunately. 

Akanwa: Your dad worked for the government for twenty-seven years, but did not receive his pension and benefits upon retirement. Did the government later pay his pension? How did the memory of your dad’s traumatic experiences inform your quest for, and pursuit of better Cameroonian state and Africa in general? 

Ndi: That again reflects the failed bureaucracy of the nation, a bureaucracy that is deeply based on corruption and unscrupulous networks. In addition to that, there is the issue of centralization. If not, how would you explain the fact that retired civil servants must travel from all the nooks and crannies of the Republic to Yaoundé to follow up their retirement benefits? And when and if the money is finally paid, the rightful beneficiary has to share it with ministry officials and the middlemen who may have followed up the dossiers. It is a deeply inhumane system and I have no major expectation from the much-vaunted process of decentralization which is used merely as a mantra to prove that some of the concerns that led to the current Anglophone crisis are being addressed. 

Akanwa: The stories in your book are well-articulated with elegance, style, and ease, tuning “in to diaspora, home, nation, education, existence, religion as well as Mbum popular culture, showcasing creative re-appropriation and re-mixing of global trends and icons in specific communities.” What factors shaped or influenced your creative ingenuity, story-telling skills, and abilities? 

Ndi: I would say it comes from the context of my upbringing. You would notice that I make much reference to the family provision store, where youth from my village would gather and comment about social realities, especially football. Their manner of telling, the aroma of those stories and the passion with which they were told, even when it was clear that some of them were merely invented, left a deep impression on me. It is that form of storytelling characteristic of the local social spheres in most of our communities that I replicate in The Radio. And of course, literature was my best subject in school even though I was outstanding in sciences and my choice to specialize in arts/letters disappointed many of my mentors. 

Akanwa: For several years now, you have been an active voice in speaking against and criticizing the failed leadership that characterize the African continent, particularly your native Cameroon. How have the politics, tensions, crisis, and chaos spreading across Cameroon helped to further fine-tune and reposition your quest to continue fighting for a just society through your writings, commentaries, advocacy, and social media platforms?

Ndi: I want to think of myself as a deeply humane being. That means I hate injustice and suffering for I believe that there is space for everyone at the table of our humanity. Unfortunately, we have grown up in a world where war and violence are ubiquitous and recently, since 2016, my own home community has become a war theatre. Though I condemn the war, I am even more concerned with the degree of prebendal politics that has led us to where we are now. Violence is inscribed in the DNA of the ruling party in Cameroon and that to me is unacceptable. 

Akanwa: Where can we locate your mum in The Radio? It seems your dad was more in the story than your mum, or did I read it wrong? How did your mum help to shape you and the stories in The Radio

Ndi: The mum is quite present in the narrative and the relationship with the protagonist is deeply spiritual. I think that presence can be seen, for instance, in the chapter titled “Nanga Hills” where G. yearns after the mother upon leaving the village for secondary school. Of course, the further he pursues education, the more distant he becomes from home and his mother but nevertheless, there remains a strong spiritual bond between the two in the text. “The Fringes” and “The Murtala” are basically about his mother.

Akanwa: You seemed to be heavily fascinated by the city, Ndu. What impact does Ndu have in your memory and of what significance is Ndu to your upbringing and worldview? What aspects of life in Ndu do you still miss despite the many years you’ve lived overseas?

Ndi: My relationship with my home city is somewhat uncanny. Though my mother grew up in Ndu and part of my maternal family is based there, I have never lived there. Nevertheless, Ndu left a deep impression on me by virtue of being a commercial hub and a place full of life. Ndu means “life” in Igbo, as you well know. It was a place of expectation, of newness, but also a place of trauma as you notice in the book. 

Akanwa: How has the diaspora experience influenced your life, career, worldview, and writing? What is the factor that has consistently linked your past in Cameroon with your present diasporic reality?

Ndi: I would say that leaving your home country to live and school abroad is a huge privilege and the dream of many a student in every part of the world, both in the Global North and Global South. However, sometimes it is during your time in the diaspora, when you come into contact with students and colleagues from all over the world, that you become more aware of the influence of your home community on your way of thinking. The Radio itself is a gesture of reconnection with the idea of home. But as you realise, the kind of home you meet after several years in the diaspora is uncannily different from the home of your imagination. As such, every stay abroad is an ambiguous adventure, to use the title of Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s classic novel.

Akanwa: Finally, what can you say about the prevailing political atmosphere in Cameroon? Any “hopes and impediments?” (apologies to our own Chinua Achebe). Any concluding thoughts or comments?

Ndi: It is utterly disheartening. We lost an opportunity for genuine and inclusive dialogue and now the barrel has the upper hand, to the detriment of the common man, the women and the children in my community. There is an urgent need for the international community to take the current war more seriously than ever for the conditions are dire for those who live the day-to-day realities of war.

Dr. Gilbert Shang Ndi is a Postdoc Fellow of the Cluster of Excellence – Africa Multiple, University of Bayreuth, working on the Project: Black Atlantic Revisited: African and South American UNESCO-World Heritage Sites and “Shadowed Spaces” of Performative Memory. A member of the Junges Kolleg Programme of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, he recently completed a Feodor Lynen Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. Dr. Ndi is the author of State/Society: Narrating Transformations in Selected African Novels (2017) and has coedited Tracks and Traces of Violence (2017) and Re-Writing Pasts, Imagining Futures: Critical Explorations of Contemporary African Fiction and Theater (2017). In addition to book chapters, his articles have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as English in Africa, French Studies in Southern Africa, L’Erudit Franco-Espagnol, International Journal of English and Literature, Metacritic, Mouvances francophones and Comparative Literature Studies. He is author of creative works such as Letter from America (2019) and The Radio and other Stories (2021).

Dr Emmanuel E. Akanwa holds a Doctorate degree in Educational Leadership; Specialist degree in Educational Administration; and a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from Central Michigan University, U.S.A. His academic writing includes book chapters and several articles. Additionally, his scholarly writing has appeared in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, International Education Studies and Sustainability, Academia Letters, and Journal of International Students. Currently, he teaches Reading, English and Language Arts (RELA) at DuVal High School, Maryland, U.S.A.

Please find more information at the books page for The Radio at Spears Books, including a link to their author page for Gil Ndi-Shang:

Gil Ndi-Shang
270 Pages | 6 x 9 | © 2021
ISBN: 9781942876755 (Paperback)
ISBN: 9781942876762 (eBook)

On moving into a new apartment abroad in his Bavarian hometown, the narrator realises that some of his possessions and elements of his new neighbourhood open a window into a flurry of memories, serving as allegorical threads to his childhood, self-consciousness and discovery of the world. What begins as a personal narrative quickly cedes to a social archaeology, inviting the reader/listener on a homegoing journey in the backdrop of Cameroon’s tottering democratic trajectory. Modulated with poetry and music, The Radio tunes in to diaspora, home, nation, education, existence, religion as well as Mbum popular culture, showcasing creative re-appropriation and re-mixing of global trends and icons in specific communities.

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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