Wahala Visa: An Interview with Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Caleb Ajinomoh: Talk me through the process of this essay’s journey from The Johannesburg Review of Books through The Guardian and finally Longreads.

Nkiacha Atemnkeng: Bruv, thank you for interviewing me. Ha, I love this question. I wrote the essay in Germany around November 2018 while I attended the Sylt residency. The first magazine that I submitted it to was actually Porter House Review, when it was launched the next month in December 2018. The essay was still a very rough first draft then, so it was no surprise to me that PHR rejected it—and that was a good call. I think I emailed that first draft to you for your thoughts. So, I began to edit, trim, and whip it into shape. I submitted it to a couple of American literary magazines and received some more rejections, mostly higher tier ones. But there was something remarkable about those rejections; a few of them were so moving and highly personalized. I’d never received such beautiful rejections before. One went, “we respect your writing process, the journey from a blank page to a fully realized world, and the courage that comes with sharing that creation.” They said they are an MFA-staffed magazine, all emerging writers, and they appreciate the trust I put in them, but it was not the right fit for their needs at the time. That was my best rejection ever and it encouraged me to keep submitting that essay—to thirteen magazines in total. But, one by one, the rejections continued to trickle in – short and cold and razor sharp. One liner noes. 

At one point, I began to wonder if some of these American magazines were apprehensive of the essay because of the content, as Trump was still in power and I’d written about the decline of a key American institution—US embassies—during his presidency. So, I submitted it to The Johannesburg Review of Books and thought, “Well, they’re South Africans, the editors will get my pain as an artist trying to create art in Cameroon and my Western visa rejection pain too. They have no business with Trump.” 

After two months, the publisher emailed back. 

“It’s a good piece. Is it still available? We’re keen to discuss it for possible publication.” 

I said yes, and the essay was not only accepted for publication, but [the publisher] would later tell me that he was very surprised that it had not been accepted elsewhere. They were lucky to have it. So, after a light editing process, it got published on October 8th, 2020. The essay was well-read by many Africans, mostly the magazine’s audience—but nothing on a global scale. The publisher emailed me again two days after the essay was published. He said he wanted to speak with me on the phone. He had paid me for publication already, so I thought he was only going to say that the essay resonated with their audience, blah blah blah, stuff like that. 

After the usual phone pleasantries, he added, “I have some good news Nkiacha.” 

“Uh?” 

I had no idea what was coming. 

The Guardian UK reached out to us via email that they want to republish your essay in print in The Guardian newspaper and on their website as a The Guardian Longread piece. I’m calling to ask for your permission…” 

I screamed before he finished and he giggled in response, then added, “Sometimes, some South African and a few Australian newspapers reach out to us to republish our content, but in your case, your arrow shot and hit absolutely the right spot my man, like poom!” 

I laughed this time and it was the most beautiful moment. I cannot put into words the range of emotions that swept me, but I remember that I was happy and stunned, wondering how The Guardian reached out to them only one day after it was published. But how? And why? After all those other rejections! I told him that the way he informed me was just the best. The joy wouldn’t be the same if he had typed the news in a goddamned email. 

One of The Guardian‘s photographers drove for an hour from Baltimore to Bowie—where I live with family, attending classes online. He took so many portraits of me in different locations that I began to wonder if it was a weird paparazzi plot or something. Or perhaps he was an American government spy from DC? I began to imagine that maybe I’ll kick his stomach open with my big toe, so that he will stop. As if reading my thoughts he did. He was indeed who he claimed to be, but guess what? The Guardian used only one of those portraits for the newspaper copy and one other for the website version. Two out of a hundred plus. They also changed my original title, “A Trilogy of Visa Rejections” to ‘Try again next time’; my three visa rejections. There was no editing process though; none of their editors got in touch with me. There were only a few one-word edits in one or two sentences by their production assistant in London, who emailed me early in the morning of October 29th (still night time in Maryland) with the link. I was still sleeping in America when it went live in London and I woke up to higher than usual Twitter notifications on my profile as readers shared it all over the place. I didn’t expect the essay to go viral around the world the way it did, but it did—even in the Arab world! 

The thing is, I have had a long and rocky artistic journey from when I started small and with no laptop, writing seriously in exercise books and pieces of paper as an undergraduate student at the University of Buea, with nobody to give expert advice on what I was doing for a few years. I didn’t know if it was all trash. So, it was an honour for me to be globally read and well received like that. A few weeks later, the production assistant emailed again that they had produced the podcast version on The Guardian Audioread and shared the link with me. I had no idea that they were planning to produce it on their podcast. That helped the essay to reach a wider audience, like a guy who reached out to me from Argentina of all places, with a touching message. “Great story! I suffered with each of your rejections.” Then Rob Madole, an MFA alum and friend retweeted the essay too, but his retweet didn’t have The Guardian‘s design. When I clicked and opened the link that Rob had shared, I saw that the essay had been selected as an editor’s pick for Longreads two days earlier by one of their editors. I gasped, not because of the honour, but I gasped because Longreads was among the thirteen magazines which rejected the essay when I submitted it to them about eight months earlier. 

Ajinomoh: There is a moment in the piece, right after the consular officer diplomatically calls you an unaccomplished writer who wasn’t supposed to travel to America, when you slow down and take in his features. Take me back to your state of mind in that moment. 

Atemnkeng: I remember thinking, “All this effort. Working on a nine to five job at the Douala airport. Writing on my off days. Writing in the evenings after work and sometimes through the night—but I still have to show up at the airport again early in the morning, sometimes or 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. for some very early flights.” I remembered how I was writing when there were interesting football games and movies to watch, family/friend relationships to forge, clubbing to do, etc. Not just that. I was doing all that writing in Douala, which unlike chilly Buea at the foot of Mount Cameroon, is not the most suitable place to write: a very hot, humid, noisy, congested and polluted economic capital city. Now I make all of these sacrifices to produce good art, which so many young people in Cameroon don’t dare to do because of the difficult circumstances for artists in a country with little to no formal medium for creative writing instruction and an autocratic government that is very happy to cage and brutally repress all of that “writing nonsense.” Talk less of support. I put in all that time and effort to look for and apply for competitive residencies where I can work on a long form project like a novel—because if I work on a novel in Douala with its Satanic weather and dysfunction I will just die; I can only work on short form due to my situation. Then, I’m lucky to get into Writers Omi, a competitive international residency where I can share my work with a new audience and make literary connections. I’m thinking how I went to the embassy feeling happy that I’m finally going to do that, only for the Mr. Consular officer to come and wreck the dream in seconds, and in a dehumanizing manner for that matter, mouthing preposterous and belittling statements that you will never say to an American or European writer or even citizen. Just because I’m carrying a weak passport. Just because I’m African. Do you know the sacrifices that I have made and the pain that I have endured to get my work into the kind of shape that makes it worthy of being accepted by this residency? Do you have any idea what I’ve been through to get to this point? Do you know the kind of literary work that I would have produced in such a residency? How important it would be to some of the people who will read it? And rejection happened three damn times. Imagine all the ideas and creative juices which were flowing in my head, which flowed away after that. Gone forever. 

I thought about many things during that moment. But the first one was in Pidgin: “You check say you be don for kwat. Make thunder chakra that your clueless head for dey. 

Another was, then, “If the writing and publishing infrastructure in my country was functional, I wouldn’t even be standing in front of you asking for a visa.”

Ajinomoh: At one point in the essay, you write, “Why are my breakthrough moments always breaking?” What did you mean by that?

Atemnkeng: My “breakthrough moments always breaking” is about me lamenting on my past “near misses” and last-minute failures to attend writing residencies, an MFA and a workshop. Like I said, I didn’t really have opportunities for artistic growth in Cameroon. You won’t even find the good novels you have to read to improve. I began to do the work myself around 2009 as there were no workshops nor mentorships in Buea, nor Douala—Bakwa only came later in 2017. I was invited for the 2014 Caine Prize Writer’s Workshop in Zimbabwe, but I couldn’t attend it because of circumstances totally beyond my control. I eventually attended the 2015 Caine Prize Workshop in Ghana where I learnt a lot from the facilitators and other experienced writers there. After my application was accepted into Writers Omi, I was excited to build on my workshop experience in New York, but I was rejected visas twice and turned down a visa too at the German consulate before I was accepted one for the Sylt residency during my fourth visa attempt. I had applied for many MFAs, too, and was accepted at Pratt Institute New York in 2016. The funding they gave me wasn’t great and I pulled out because it was too expensive. All those misfortunes happened within a three year span. So that breakthrough line is sort of like lamenting the fact that I had opportunities to write and hone my craft in the West, but something ridiculous would always happen every time I wanted to travel which would impede me from going.

Ajinomoh: What did it mean to have your credentials as a writer constantly questioned at the embassy? How did that show up in your subsequent writing, if it did? 

Atemnkeng: Well, it showed up only in this essay, which luckily was published and read around the world. It has never really popped up in my other published work. About having my credentials constantly questioned at the embassy, which includes being diplomatically called an unaccomplished writer. Such things can break you or make you. Really. I remember leaving the U.S. embassy feeling hurt, sad and very embarrassed after that first rejection, thinking how I’ll never go back there again. But I was also thinking about what James Baldwin once said: “Because you’ve been hurt, you decide to make your talent important.” So I took the “make you” road. One of the watercooler stories about this essay is that Cameroonians were not just sharing it everywhere, but some Cameroonians were also tagging the U.S. embassy in Yaounde on Twitter as they retweeted it, which I’m sure they read, although no U.S. embassy employee ever responded to the tags or reached out to me—I never tagged themself. Summary: the unaccomplished writer is the one who succeeded to write a viral essay about their consular officers and that essay pushed itself forward into The Guardian UK and Longreads, and haunted them right back with the same words they told that unaccomplished writer. It’s a last laugh kind of thing. My aunt said it is bad publicity for them. That had I still been in Cameroon, they would probably have contacted me and given me the visa quickly. That they surely checked the system and were like,”Ha, we finally gave him a student visa to study for an MFA in Creative writing at Texas State.” I even think they will organize a big book reading in Cameroon for my novel when it is published. (Laughs) That is the only time that they will pacify me for the diplomatic unaccomplished writer insult.  

Ajinomoh: Why was it important to keep trying for that Western visa? 

Atemnkeng: It was never about the Western visa but the opportunities for artistic growth—attending good workshops and residencies that could help me hone my craft and give me quiet time to write a long project. I’ll get to those visas later, but let me talk about those workshops and residencies first. Bakwa is one of the very few professionally run literary magazines in Cameroon and I attended all the physical literary events Bakwa organized between 2016 and 2019—readings, two workshops, short story contests, etc. But like I said, the literary infrastructure in Cameroon is poor, and Bakwa is like an oasis in a desert. I didn’t think it made sense to be an artist confined to the Cameroon literary space. I had prioritized making good use of other literary initiatives on the continent long ago. Writivism in Uganda where I was first published in 2014, the 2015 Caine Prize Writer’s Workshop in Ghana, the Miles Morland Foundation Workshop in Uganda, etc. 

About the Western visas. After my second U.S. visa rejection, I told the director of Writer’s Omi that I’m not going back to the US embassy to look for another visa to attend it. After my first German visa rejection, when I wanted to attend the Kundslerdorf Schoppingen residency, I only had the courage to go to the German consulate again because Goethe Institut, the German cultural centre, was the organization that was funding my trip. They had specifically informed me that they were going to intervene if their consulate rejected my visa application for the second time. I returned to Cameroon and to my airport job after my three month Sylt residency was over. A few people were like, “You returned to Cameroon after traveling to Germany?” And I replied. “Yi be be na three month visa way them give me o. You want am make I turn vagabond for Europe massa? I no want their wahala.” It is only a coincidence that it is the European and American residencies that accepted me—there are so many there too. I had also checked out and applied for a few residencies elsewhere:in South America, the Gabriel Garcia Marquez residency in Colombia, and another in Brazil. I checked out the residency at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, but it does not have an open application process. I checked out a few in Asia too, China and India. My friend, Safurat Balogun of Goethe Institute India, even invited me there on an unofficial personal writing residency because she knows my travel wahala. I was even planning to go there before the MFA acceptance at Texas State happened. About returning to the US embassy for a student visa: when you have scholarships and a graduate assistantship, it becomes way easier to obtain their student visa, although that is not guaranteed anyway.  

Ajinomoh: Now that you’re here in the U.S., weeks away from finally going to Omi—the origin trip of your visa rejections, now only a three-hour train ride from JFK to Ghent—what are your exact feelings?

Atemnkeng: I am happy that I’ll finally attend. I chatted with the director of Writers Omi on Zoom last month. I told him that I still remember when he sent my invitation via email—it was December 2016. Here we are, still planning my trip to Omi in March 2021,almost five years later. He was very warm and kind. Sympathetic as ever, just like when I was having my visa rejections. He said, “We have invited artists from countries that have problems with the US, and it has taken them maybe two years to finally travel to Writers Omi, but not like you. I think we have to give you some kind of terrible award.” We both laughed. Now let me put that into perspective. You (Caleb) were also invited to Writers Omi after my second U.S. visa rejection in 2017, almost a year after I was first invited. You were issued the U.S. visa that same year upon your first attempt, traveled to the US and returned to Nigeria early in 2018. We both arrived to start our MFA at Texas State in August 2019. When I informed the Writers Omi director that I am studying in the U.S. now, he was happy. He also said that I could travel there if I wanted to—my application has always been “In progress” on my Submittable account. I was actually supposed to go to Writers Omi in May 2020. I had even bought my flight and train tickets early last year. But the pandemic happened and my Writers Omi slot was canceled a few weeks before my trip. Do you see that theme of “my breakthrough moments breaking” there once again? Well, the point I wanted to make there is that you attended and have already forgotten about it, but I’m still planning to go to Writers Omi, even as I’m in the US,when I don’t require a visa. Perhaps they’ll bake a resilience cake for me when I get there or something. Also, I feel that I’m lucky. My state ID (not my student visa) will get me there now. However, I know very talented writer friends back on the continent who have been invited to Writers Omi, but just like me, have also been rejected visas when they went to U.S. embassies for their interviews. I also know a writer friend who simply didn’t have the funds to afford a flight ticket to America and attend. I just feel bad for them because that could still easily be me.