Kenyan writer, Sese Yane is a hard one to pin down for a couple of questions. But the bizarre truths in his stories and the unique narrative style of his characters make it well worth the effort. Jason Mykl Snyman finds out what makes him tick and talks to Sese Yane about writing success and the game of anonymity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What was your favourite story from the Terra Incognita anthology and why? I know. It was mine. Mine ("What if You Slept?") 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.
"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?
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.
Enjoy the second part of this philosophical interview with the enigmatic Sese Yane. Part Two 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…”
Interview by Jason Mykl Snyman