Cameroonian Writer Nkiacha Atemnkeng Spoke to Us About His Airport Fiction

Nkiacha Atemnkeng, courtesy of the writer
Nkiacha Atemnkeng, courtesy of the writer

Books and Digest Editor

Over an email exchange, Atemnkeng highlighted being a fiction writer with an airport day job, Cameroon’s burgeoning literary scene, and his experience attending the famous Caine Prize workshop.

Stories, much like the humans who write them, prefer to be set on the ground than in the air. That stories set on planes are scant, may be an indication of their purpose—more than any other form of travel, interaction between fellow travelers is kept to a minimum. Screens are embedded into each chair to pacify passengers and discourage them from speaking to neighbors. People also keep remarkable sleeping habits on flights: some knocking themselves out with a pill at take off, only to come back into conscious with the announcement of landing; others will stay awake as long as they can, binging on film after film, until it is time to prepare for landing. The stories on flights we do have often take the form of disturbing experiences—crash landings, hijackings, disappearances—and perhaps the fiction of flights is left to a minimum because we prefer our travel to be as sound and uneventful as possible.

For the Cameroonian writer Nkiacha Atemnkeng, however, airline flights and airport culture make for ripe content with which to weave fiction. As a customer service agent working at the Douala International Airport, his aviation experience inspired him to start his Writerphilic aviation/literary blog, for which he was recognized by Ethiopian Airlines Cameroon as their first blogging award winner in 2016 (the prize, of course, was a free return ticket flight). Outside of airports, Atemnkeng has had his writing published widely in several African literary magazines, for which he has received even more prizes, including winner of the Entrepreneurship Category of the Vodafone Cameroon Writers Competition, and runner-up in the Bakwa magazine Short Story Competition for his story “Bad Lake.” His story “Wahala Lizard” written while in attendance for the Caine Prize Writers workshop in 2015, was selected for its annual anthology that same year. We have reposted it as the Cameroonian selection for our Global Anthology.

Over an email exchange, Atemnkeng highlighted being a fiction writer with an airport day job, Cameroon’s burgeoning literary scene, and his experience attending the famous Caine Prize Workshop.

How did your job come to influence this particular story? Do you often hear of strange things happening on planes?
My job totally influenced “Wahala Lizard”. I work for Swissport Cameroon at the Douala International Airport as a Customer service agent. Our company does visa verification, baggage service, cargo safety and aviation security for five airlines, including Kenya Airways, KQ. That lizard story actually happened on a KQ flight in 2011, but not in the dramatic way I wrote it. The flight had actually been eventless. The plane arrived in Nairobi and parked without wahala. All the passengers disembarked. A male flight attendant was sending out the food trolleys with dirty plates to the catering van. When he opened a trolley of cutlery that had been unused during the flight, he discovered a Dwayne Johnson like Agama lizard peering at him. He did not panic. The lizard didn’t panic either. He just took photos of it in paparazzi fashion. The lizard lay there quietly, posing like a runway model too.

The pictures of the swag lizard were emailed to the KQ office in Douala, with some query emails. I did not work the day the lizard was seen but I worked on KQ the next day. During the morning flight briefing, the KQ ground service agents really scolded us for that mistake, rather, my colleague who sealed the trolley. One of our duties is to inspect and seal all the food trolleys packed with food at the catering company. Next, we have to accompany them into the catering van and then to the plane when it lands, so they can be wheeled in.

The loaded food trolleys are kept in a big cold room after the cooking. That’s where we do our sealing –or supposed to do our sealing. But for quite some time, the cutlery trolley was being left outside by the catering agents, just beside the cold room door. I don’t know why. But we were just going along with it which was wrong, arriving and sealing the cutlery trolley outside, before getting into the cold room to seal the food trolleys.

On that day, this leviathan lizard crawled on the walls and sneaked into the slightly open cutlery trolley. My colleague arrived and sealed it. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how her inspection went. But I have the impression that thing hid itself well behind spoons and stuff. She probably never even imagined such a scenario. None of us too. That’s how it got onto the plane. It couldn’t have entered a food trolley as depicted because the temperature of the cold room is lethal to it.

While the KQ ground service agent scolded us during the briefing, the only thing I was thinking about was, “Damn! What if a panicky flight attendant had opened that cutlery trolley during the flight and screamed? And that ugly lizard had jumped onto the aisle?” That was the inspiration for the lizard. But I wanted the story to be dramatic, so I had to send it to the cabin and even the cockpit. I wrote it in 2015, after there had been all these news reports about Ebola. The different Ebola theories and opinions flying around me just found their way into the work.

Yes, I often hear of strange things happening on planes. Like passengers stealing money from others’ carry-on bags. Like a business class passenger who sent a spoon of rice/sauce into his mouth and chewed a metal screw within the rice. Ouch! The poor guy ate metal meat! Of course he walloped the airline. There was also this Cameroonian lady who concealed and lied about her nine month pregnancy, (her tummy was really small). She boarded a US bound Ethiopian Airlines plane. Her water broke during the flight and she gave birth to a baby boy in the Addis Ababa skies, thanks to a birth savvy flight attendant. But she was sent back. When she arrived, she saw the Ethiopian ground staff all scowling at her from a distance. She just wielded the baby in the air towards one of them, “This is your baby. Ethiopian babyyyy!” All the scowls disappeared. There were even a few laughs, and a cheery mood ensued at ET that day instead of anger. When we later heard that she has a US Green card, we were like, “Ah, why did she risk her life like that, just to give birth in the US? She has a green card for God’s sake. What if there was some birth complication that the flight attendant couldn’t handle?”

I love the humor in “Wahala Lizard” which reminds me a bit of the airplane parody films such as Snakes on a Plane and Airplanes. Is this story in some way inspired by these films?
I’m glad you love the humour. Thank you! I’m a funny bone and humour effortlessly finds its way into my writing. Also, I’m good at capturing people’s jokes and comedic voices in daily life into my work. The Ebola theories in the story were generally my colleagues’ opinions and a few reader comments beneath an online article I read about Ebola. No, my story isn’t inspired by any of those films oh. I haven’t watched ‘Airplanes’ yet, but I’ll look for it right away. I love movies. I watched ‘Snakes on a plane’. Jeez, those snakes were as brainy as Elon Musk. I was careful not to infuse any of the ‘Snakes on a plane’ narratives in ‘Wahala Lizard’. I did not want to entitle it, ‘Lizard on a plane’ either. A Sierra Leonian Caine shortlistee, Pede Hollist suggested, ‘Wahala Lizard’ and I felt it had more title swag. I really love “Soul Plane” which is hilarious and downright crazy. My favourite aviation movie is ‘The Terminal’ by Tom Hanks, another funny drama filled one, which is set at an airport, not an airplane.

As a Cameroonian writer, perhaps you could discuss what the country’s current literary culture? What are some of the concerns of its writers? Who are some of your contemporaries that you think should be read?
This is a fiction project by Culture Trip so I’ll narrow my thoughts on fiction. The literary culture in Cameroon is in two facets; authors writing and publishing in English and in French. That culture is generally not very engaging. First and foremost, it is not celebratory. Apart from the food and culture styled Iya restaurant in the university town of Buea which has hosted a fiction reading series and other high profile literary events, we don’t really have literary festivals, reputable fiction prizes and book fairs here. Also, there is little formal medium for creative writing instruction and development –no MFAs and writing residencies, just a few fiction workshops.

Another argument for fiction writing development is that, the juvenile writer has to be a lifelong reader, which is the path Imbolo Mbue followed. She’s the Cameroonian American literary Beyoncé this year with a lemonade sweet novel, so no need to tell you about her. We’re incredibly proud of her here. But unlike Imbolo who had access to any novel she wanted to read in New York, our Cameroonian bookshops and libraries are Sahara like, with respect to new and good quality literary fiction. Most of my novels are posted to me from abroad. Sometimes I beg or poach from writer contemporaries. Also, we generally have amateurish publishers, who function more like printing presses. It is one of the reasons why I am still unpublished in Cameroon despite trying. Even Imbolo is not published here. I have only been published internationally. A lot of the little fiction published locally cannot compete internationally because of a quality problem. There is also a rift between the older and younger generations of Cameroonian writers that hamper mentoring. I belong to a small circle of young writers here who critique each other’s works.

In 2011, a young brilliant fiction writer, Dzekashu Macviban founded Bakwa, Cameroon’s only online and bilingual literary magazine. Bakwa has been publishing high quality work online and engaging young writers a lot. It has tried to fill the void and organised fiction and creative non-fiction writing workshops, a fiction contest, and two fiction reading series, mostly in collaboration with the Goethe Institute. These will lead to forthcoming fiction and creative non-fiction anthologies in print, together with a Bakwa podcast. Emerging contemporaries like Bengono Essola Edouard, Dipita Kwa, Bouna Guazong, Rita Bakop, Howard MB Maximus, Nsah Mala, Elsa M’bala, Djimeli Raoul are a few young writers among many under the Bakwa mantle. The 2011 Caine Prize workshop in Cameroon unearthed other fictioneers like Donna Forbin and Monique Kwachou. Ngasa Wise and Regine Lebouda are equally two wordsmiths recognized by the Writivism Short story prize in Uganda.

Cover of the Caine Prize Anthology where “Wahala Lizard” first appeared

You were invited to participate in the Caine Prize workshop in Ghana in 2015. How did you come to receive this prestigious invitation and how has it impacted your work?
The Caine Prize workshop is the most prestigious creative writing workshop in Africa, so it was such a boon for me. I considered it to be great recognition of my literary work thus far. All the time spent reading and writing. It was most importantly, an opportunity for me to get expert feedback on my work by the facilitators, experienced novelists like Leila Abouleila and Zukiswa Wanner. Also, past Caine Prize nominees, Pede Hollist and Diane Awerbuck were very influential, providing me with good writing advice. I learned a lot from all their positive criticisms and some insight as to how international publishing works. I noted all that in a diary. I still consult the tiny book.

Also, I gained the confidence to start writing aviation fiction at the workshop, and that started with “Wahala Lizard”. I was panicky at first, not sure if I was going to get the characterisation of all those numerous nameless passengers in the cabin right. Then I had this idea to use seat numbers instead and tried to make each of them unique. The never ending chuckles I heard while I read “Wahala Lizard” during the daily readings made me feel comfortable. The glowing comments about the freshness of my perspective, the on point characters as well as my humour made my heart, which had skipped out of my chest, jump back in place. If it wasn’t for that workshop, I wouldn’t be here doing this interview about a plane story.

What are you currently working on?
I’m polishing up two creative non-fiction aviation pieces. Firstly, tightening a literary journalism piece I wrote about our defunct national airline, Cameroon Airlines titled, “The untold story of the airline which committed suicide” for the Cameroon Nigeria Literary Exchange workshop organised by Bakwa/Saraba magazines. Also, I just submitted a final draft of my Rwanda travelogue, “Visiting the country of a thousand hills” to the Afro anthology of non-fiction. I’ve had inspiration for an aviation science fiction short story set on a private Lear jet with landing problems in the Rwandan sky for some time. I’m planning a visit to the control tower one of these days, to capture the work mode scene and communication between the air traffic controllers and private jet pilots for the story.

Most importantly, I’m building my characters and jotting down all my ideas for my Douala airport/airplanes set debut novel. The only problem plaguing me now is the time to write it, due to my time consuming job. I can conveniently do long form fiction projects mostly in writing residencies. My application to the Writers Omi International writing residency at Ledig House in Ghent, New York was accepted for a one month residency. Then there was the bummer. The US embassy in Cameroon didn’t grant me a visa to attend the spring and fall sessions of Ledig this year. Maybe I would have made a trip to the culture trip New York office and paid a visit after my residency but oops! I’ll try to look for another way to write that novel!

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