The 2019 long listed stories for the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction and the Writivism Short Story Prize have been described by the judges as every bit brilliant and deserving, perhaps even daring. The 20 stories will be published in our 2019 annual anthology. The writers of these stories have undergone a month-long mentoring with authors whose work we greatly admire. All of them have unique histories for their writing journeys. Clarie Gor and Timi Odueso asked them a few questions so you can get to know more about them.
1.How has writing poetry influenced your fiction? If it has at all.
I’m not sure I know the answer to this yet, because I am still learning how to write fiction, the short story, it’s very difficult to do, and I think it needs a lot of stamina to make a narrative that can keep someone for close to five pages. But I know very much that I am interested in investigating feeling and living so I try to do that with the short story as well, I struggle with linearity because it feels like that isn’t how life unfolds, sometimes I find that when I am in a present moment I am recreating or reacting to a past, bringing it forward, trying to change it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but sometimes the present feels like a second chance, a do over. And how do I do over better?
2. I am a sucker for unhappy endings. And the ending for your story was perfect. But was a different ending ever a consideration?
Lool, so you wanted mother to die or to be punished?
I didn’t know what the ending was until I got there, I don’t plot because I don’t know how to and when I have tried to the words have decided to go another way so I follow the impulse handed to me during writing until it feels like we are where we are supposed to be for that piece. The ending scared me though, I can say that.
3. You describe your work as an attempt to archive, retell, and give names to the personal experience of Blackness, Girlhood, and Womanhood. Do you ever feel guilt, or a need to tell only positive stories. I ask because your story tells a very jaded experience.
I used to feel like I was supposed to speak for…Or to be careful of… but now I’m chilled. My responsibility is to be as honest as possible, to tell the thing that tumbles out of me whether or not it is positive. And whatever I’m not writing about someone else is, that’s their work, not mine. The way motherhood is shaped in this story is possible, It is possible for a mother to withhold love from their child, to think the withholding a kind of love, or a preparation for how the world loves women. It is possible to be so heartbroken you turn into stone, and have to take care of a child through your heartbreak. And what does that do to you and the child? I think mother is hard, I don’t know that she gets absolute pleasure from it. I don’t know if I was able to show her as not just hard but that she has her work to do, to teach Tale about God, sin, the fickleness of men. Its her work, she does it on the body of a little girl. Tale doesn’t pity herself, she is trying to survive it, and that’s how her magic comes. It could come in many other ways of course. But it comes like this.
1. It’s evident that you’re very fond of Mombasa in your writing? In what other ways does the city seep into your writing? How does it influence it?
Very true. I am rather fond of Mombasa and I have this multifaceted perspective of the city. I see it, not just a geographical location but a fluid being with a consciousness. I have made reference of how each city (Mombasa and Nairobi) has its own consciousness, something I believe makes each city unique in its own special manner.
Mombasa permeates almost everything in my writing. See, the coastal narrative has not been told enough times to mould it into something enduring, something that will be read a century from now, and making Mombasa a reference point in my writing is my own small contribution to this. Classical Swahili literature, on one hand, has survived time, perhaps because of its unapologetic, sincere, bold nature.
My interpretation of the city as a peculiar being has in a huge way informed the kind of empathy I have for it. Mombasa is one of the most historic, diverse cities in Kenya, a boiling point of cultures and languages. This mix can only produce, among many things, wonderful stories that deserve to be told, and much as the city has suffered from creativity drain, I feel the few of us left behind to hold the fort can merge our efforts into a collective goal.
2. From your writing, I gather Nairobi wasn’t very kind to your art? In what ways does the art scene in Mombasa differ from the one in Nairobi? How is Mombasa kinder?
Nairobi is a stubborn city. Nonetheless, I owe the city a lot. It taught me how to survive, to keep getting up no matter how many times it knocked me down, to be persistent, tenacious. The thing with and in Nairobi is that there is almost always nothing unique about any idea you have unless you are persistent enough to see it through, largely because a dozen other people with the same kind of persistence have the same idea. That’s another level of competition. One is always on the rush in this stubborn city.
Mombasa, is kinder in that it is far more relaxed I find composure in this kind of laid-backness. I recall when I came to Mombasa more than a decade ago. I needed to access my mail on a Sunday and I walked the entire CBD in search of a cyber café and there was none open. Someone mentioned that I would not find any because everyone was at the beach. Indeed, when I went to the beach the same day, it was like the entire city, on cue, had shifted to the shore!
I found opportunity in this relaxation. I could pick out stories from places I visited. Untold stories. Stories itching to find a life on paper. This immensely influenced my first short story I wrote, ‘Swahilification of Mutembei’, short-listed for Writivism 2016 prize. My cousin David thinks the story is about me. I think it’s not. Not entirely at least. But can a fiction writer fully escape throwing bits of him/herself into the story?
I believe the art scene in Mombasa is getting better and with so many artists and organizations working collectively towards telling our narrative, this can only get better.
3. Your essay has a point. You were trying to say a particular thing. Do you always do this with your writing? Do you ever write just for the sake of writing?
I believe it does have a point, subject to the reader’s interpretation of course. This, by the way, was only my second attempt at nonfiction, a genre I fell in love with after the Miles Morland Foundation’s writing workshop in Bulago, 2017. Giles and Michela really broke down the art of creative nonfiction into sweet, tiny bits that were a marvel to chew.
In my writing, I never set out to make a point. Each story, I believe, has a way of articulating its own point once it’s out of the author’s hold. There is a purpose behind the characters we choose and the roles we assign them. I come from the school of character-driven stories as opposed to having the plot inform the flow of the story. This works for me in the sense that it is the characters who define the point of the story. All I do is equip them with necessary personality and physical attributes, place them on paper and grant them the freedom to be whatever they want to be on paper. The amazing thing about this is that they end up surprising me as well!
I no longer write for the sake of writing, for that would be to demean art. Art must serve a purpose. The role of the artist in society is not to use art for the sake of art, but for a higher purpose which becomes manifest once the story is in the reader’s realm. It is this sense of purpose that keeps art and its practitioners strongly grounded.
4. What narratives from the coast are you most invested in telling? Any stories you hold dear to your heart?
Any stories I hold dear? Quite a lot, though I’m not certain whether you mean my own stories or from other writers in the coast. As for other writers, I admire Prof. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s storytelling prowess and its strong coastal identity. He makes writing seem so easy and effortless. His book “Disertion” is a thing of wonder. Idza Luhumyo writes beautifully, so does Khadija Bajaber Taib. I am working with Khadija on one of my stories and having someone who truly understands coastal idiom and the atmosphere of a story set in the coast is purely refreshing.
My own stories, I love “They Had No Names” published in Munyori Journal. I cannot in anyway relate to the protagonist’s back story but when he (he has no name too!) says, “I kept sprouting like a weed in spite of the city’s heat which threatened to wither everything down. I became a defiant cactus… See, this city loved me. I was its cactus and I had learnt not only to prick at those who needed pricking but also the craft of invincibility. Invincibility could not thrive on a single name…”
I found myself, my life in how the protagonist viewed himself. The city is set in Nairobi, then Mombasa, and the “cactus” bit reminded me of my first time in Mombasa armed with only a back pack, no job, no friends, no money. All I had was a new name and a tenacity to thrive in the consciousness of this new city.
- You’re a book lover. Favourite book(s)?
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
Jennifer Makumbi – Kintu
George Orwell – Animal Farm
I would stop at three.
2. There have been a number of books on the Biafran war. Which one do you relate with the most?
Yes, a lot of people have put down perspectives either through fiction or non fiction.
But Chinua Achebe’s account in “There was a country”, rattled me for a long time after I read it.
3. From your essay, it seems like working in northern Nigeria has made you a better Nigerian, so to speak. Why do you think that is?
I won’t call myself a “better Nigerian”, because this instance of me working in the Northern part, should not be viewed as something special. Of course, it is making me understand better what it means to be Nigerian. That diversity can be appreciated and not completely seen as a challenge.
And I think it is because Northern Nigeria wear culture on their sleeves. Unlike the other parts of Nigeria I have lived in, it is quite evident everywhere; in the language, dressing, food, work, home. To see, that people can still function progressively, without relegating their cultural identity, is gratifying.
- Do you think that African writers have finally reached a stage where they can write without basing their works on or around politics or colonialism?
Yes, there are other driving forces right now in the writing space besides the two. We have a crop of new writers who did not directly interact with colonialism and distance themselves from politics. There are many stories – all sorts of topics- in Africa .The other day I was reading an African short story about the ghost of a princess seeking to possess a man. I was like boy, this is good! Another one was about this man-eating tribe that steals corpses from graves. I laughed terribly.
2. What, in your opinion, is the effect on scientific explanation and proof, on African superstitions, cultural beliefs and/or religious practices?
Much as we appreciate education and some enlightenment it brings, these realization has affected our esteem, leaving this bad taste like we’ve been living a lie, which might not be the case entirely. Wife inheritance for instance, ensured a woman was taken care of even after her husband’s departure because she belonged to the community. But we’ve learnt that women are not commodities to be passed around and this inheritance posed a threat like the spread of diseases. Women are capable of taking care of themselves. Sharing blades during circumcision was for brotherhood but guess what? It is now unhealthy. Some of the practices were uniting but others had ulterior motives. We have to stick to what works for us and leave what doesn’t.
- As a teacher of Literature, what do you think the next generations of African writers will focus on?
I’m excited because I have witnessed a new crop of Africans that is exploring technology, climate change, magical realism, science fiction, horror, transgender, homosexuality etc.
1. How does it feel being on both longlists?
It gave me an amazing feeling, and brought with it confidence and relief that I haven’t been wasting my time after all. It felt great especially because they came right after two rejection mails from a contest and a journal. I remember my whoops of delight when the second announcement came through, and I leaped around the house on one foot.
2.You are an alumnus of the 2016 Writivism workshop. What are your hopes going into this year’s?
I have been on two Writivism longlists before this year’s. A friend once asked why I keep sending my stories to Writivism, because it seems that I have been on their lists the longest. I replied that I am not sure why. It just feels like my stories always find a home with Writivism. I hope to go past the longlists this year.
3. In my opinion, we learn bits of the protagonist’s life even though the story isn’t about him. Why did you decide this point of view?
The story is about a teen-age boy whose only brother was arrested by a police division as seen at the beginning of the tale. It is this teenager who bears the brunt of a missing brother. He tells the story of the hope and pain linked to his brother’s final moments. I do think this is a great way to reveal how humans manage the loss of a loved one. In addition, I created the story in my head in 2016, but the story chose me two years later.
4. Your non-fiction story seems, to me at least, like it could be so much more. Do you intend to expound on it?
There were the off-limits parts of self that I left out of the story which contributed to the story’s incompleteness and left many facets hanging. However, I have come to terms with my truth and will unearth every detail.
1. Could you speak more to your intentions when you set out to write about Fela Kuti’s personal life?
Yeah. I intend to write about Fela’s personal life, his marital life especially, because so little has been said about that. We have a sky of information about his politics and music. But do we know a ‘marriage’ Fela?
2. You don’t think it’s a little strange that in this entire interview, you don’t really talk about madam Philomena even though it’s her memoir?
Strange? Oh. Actually, I had wanted to write about Madam P. but I wanted her story, her share of Fela’s life, to come last as a way of holding down the reader. I could still have if there was enough space. I mean if I could put in more words than the 3,500 maximum word count. All the same, the story had been revised and Madam P. had been given a clandestine voice.
3. Are you writing Madam Philomena’s memoir?
Yes, I am writing Madam P.’s memior. But then technically, I am not, since I haven’t said enough about her in the story. And yes, with the revised version I am absolutely writing her memoir.
4. Why do you like watching flowers bloom? Any special reason?
I love to see the flowers bloom, especially in the reflection of my notepad. I really do. And I really love to because the world is ugly and the only sane place, the only medical rehabilitation center, is Arts, particularly Arts that record the ugliness with tenderness of which flowers are a metaphor for. My bout with pneumonia early this year gave me the ‘revelation’. Oh that the world is just so ugly!