Author Picks: My 6 Favorite Opening Lines of Literature

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Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. He is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first literary magazine. His work has appeared in many publications and more of his writing can be read on his website RemytheQuill.com.

The most challenging aspect of any writing, for me, is the opening line. Oftentimes I have the general idea of the story in my head and a vague intuition of where the plot will go. When I’m especially lucky, like with some short stories, I know the ending. But the primary incision, the first pen stroke that sets the narrative tempo, is often elusive. Whether it is nonfiction or fiction, once I find that first sentence, the path is made by writing and walking—however long, however far.

When composing the first draft of The Eternal Audience of One, forthcoming from Scout Press (Simon & Schuster) in August 2021, I wrestled with various opening lines trying, like many fledgling writers, to pay tribute to some of my favorite opening lines from literature. While there are many opening lines that I can recite from memory—lines from William Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Terry Pratchett, and Ama Ata Aidoo, to name a few—these six lines below were guiding lights for writing The Eternal Audience of One.

Matilda
by Roald Dahl

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you can imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” —Matilda by Roald Dahl (Puffin Books, 1988)

The frank honesty of this line startled me when I was in primary school. I thought: How can someone say that about children? Of course, one could. And Roald Dahl went on to say many shocking things about children and teachers in MATILDA; it became my favorite book for a long time. When I commenced writing my novel, in which familial frictions play a part, I knew family was fair game in storytelling. For that, I have to thank the fantastic Mr. Dahl.

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Matilda
Roald Dahl

Forced to put up with crude and distant parents, Matilda takes refuge in her love of reading. She expects school to be different but there she has to face Miss Trunchbull, a kid-hating terror of a headmistress. When she is attacked by the Trunchbull she suddenly discovers she has a remarkable power with which to fight back.

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Samarkand
by Amin Maalouf

“At the bottom of the Atlantic there is a book. I am going to tell you its history.” —Samarkand by Amin Maalouf, translated by Russell Harris (Abacus, 1992)

I first read this in 2012—I was in university in Cape Town, South Africa. I was directionless, unsure about my life’s trajectory. A friend of mine—more like a mentor, really—then living in Curaçao, sent me SAMARKAND in the mail. His note said: “I read this when I was about your age. I was at a friend’s house. He was fiddling with his girlfriend in the bedroom; I was on the couch in the lounge. This book lay on the coffee table. I started reading it and didn’t stop. Maybe there’s something in here for you.”

Has there ever been a better blurb for a book? I was pulled in by Maalouf’s simple narrative premise: I am going to tell you a story about a book. It works like a magic trick: The simpler the sell, the more spectacular the trick. SAMARKAND is a majestic and sprawling work that traverses history and geography with enviable storytelling ease.

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Samarkand
Amin Maalouf

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MENTIONED IN:

Author Picks: My 6 Favorite Opening Lines of Literature

By Rémy Ngamije | July 29, 2021

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The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid.” —The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Fourth Estate, 2009)

This is the book that never ends for me. I keep coming back to it. Roy is able to turn anything into a storytelling device. The weather has a mood. The days have a character. This line is subtle, but in it Roy harnesses the cataclysmic forces in the story and bends them to her will and tempo: weather now, tragedy tomorrow, story forever. Later, while planning the outline of my novel, I thought of Windhoek—the capital city of Namibia—and its fierce weather and wondered if it, too, could become a character in my own story. I am no Roy, but her gentle introduction to one of the most captivating stories I have ever read was an inspiration.

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The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy’s debut novel has become a modern classic. Equal parts family saga, forbidden love story, and political drama, it chronicles in exquisite, atmospheric detail an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969.

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On Beauty
by Zadie Smith

“One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father." —On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2005)

I first read this book in 2014 and re-read it in January, 2016. By then, the idea of writing my own story had taken root; it would not flower until June that year. I did not know how to start my story. But I always did like Zadie Smith’s resigned start in ON BEAUTY—its simplicity commenced an amusing examination of middle-class family life. It made me think: If you could start a novel with an email, what else could you start it with? Hmmm. What about a long-forgotten essay?

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On Beauty
Zadie Smith

Full of dead-on wit and relentlessly funny, this tour de force confirms Zadie Smith’s reputation as a major literary talent. Smith notes that she “has taken Howards End, that marvelous tale of class difference, and upped the ante by adding race, politics, and gender.”

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A Brief History of Seven Killings
by Marlon James

Listen. Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school.”—A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (OneWorld, 2014)

This was my first Marlon James book. By late 2016 I was deep into my manuscript, but I had hit a snag: the story felt wooden, like it was explaining too much. Scene, setting, premise, punchline, justification—everything was really quite terrible. It lacked the authority consummate storytellers have when they tell a story. The opening line of Seven Killings is told like an intimate secret, with a sincerity that negates the need for truth. I loved that about it and the rest of the book. It provided me with a compass guide for my own writing.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings
Marlon James

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The White Boy Shuffle
by Paul Beatty

“On one hand this messiah gig is a bitch. On the other I’ve managed to fill the perennial void in African-American leadership.” —The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty (OneWorld, 2017)

There comes a stage in one’s writing when it is impossible to fight with what or who one is: If you are an oracle, then scry the future. If you are a comic, then tell jokes. One’s story is what it is; any attempts to change it to suit some perceived literary standard will severely dilute the whole narrative. Beatty has never been one to shy away from a confrontational opening—he has a wonderful you’re-gonna-read-this-or-you-ain’t way of commencing his novels. I read this line long after I had completed my first draft. Its irreverent wit chose its own audience. While editing the second draft of my debut novel, I hoped that someday my own work would do the same. I stopped fighting with my writing, with the language, I dropped the pretense, and wrote the story that came to me.

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The White Boy Shuffle
Paul Beatty

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The Eternal Audience of One
by Rémy Ngamije

THE ETERNAL AUDIENCE OF ONE comes out on August 10!

Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work toward some kind of ending.

One might as well start with Séraphin: playlist-maker, nerd-jock hybrid, self-appointed merchant of cool, Rwandan, stifled and living in Windhoek, Namibia. Soon he will leave the confines of his family life for the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, in South Africa, where loyal friends, hormone-saturated parties, adventurous conquests, and race controversies await. More than that, his long-awaited final year in law school promises to deliver a crucial puzzle piece of the Great Plan immigrant: a degree from a prestigious university.

But a year is more than the sum of its parts, and en route to the future, the present must be lived through and even the past must be survived.

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The Eternal Audience of One
Rémy Ngamije

The Eternal Audience of One is laugh-out-loud funny with writing that is sometimes so beautiful that it dances off the page—to a millennial beat—in perfect tempo with its tales of migration, love, loss, and friendship.—Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of In Dependence

Reminiscent of Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon, thisgorgeous, wildly funny and, above all, profoundly moving and humane” (Peter Orner, author of Am I Alone Here) coming-of-age tale follows a young man who is forced to flee his homeland of Rwanda during the Civil War and make sense of his reality.

Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work toward some kind of ending.

One might as well start with Séraphin: playlist-maker, nerd-jock hybrid, self-appointed merchant of cool, Rwandan, stifled and living in Windhoek, Namibia. Soon he will leave the confines of his family life for the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, in South Africa, where loyal friends, hormone-saturated parties, adventurous conquests, and race controversies await. More than that, his long-awaited final year in law school promises to deliver a crucial puzzle piece of the Great Plan immigrant: a degree from a prestigious university.

But a year is more than the sum of its parts, and en route to the future, the present must be lived through and even the past must be survived.

From one of Africa’s emerging literary voices comes a lyrical and piquant tale of family, migration, friendship, war, identity, and race following the intersecting lives of Séraphin and a host of eclectic characters from pre- and post-1994 Rwanda, colonial and post-independence Windhoek, Paris and Brussels in the 70s, Nairobi public schools, and the racially charged streets of Cape Town.

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