Linda Musita on literature in Africa and writing against the grain

What are your 5 favourite novels?

Tough question. I have more than five favourite novels. So I will just say the first five that hit my head before the rest.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (technically one book). The story covers everything that needs to be said about humanity. I don’t know if there is any author who can do what Tolkien did.

The Bushtrackers by Meja Mwangi. Best fiction on poaching. Still very relevant. However I need to talk to Meja about how he killed Sofi. Broke my heart.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Can you believe it is a children’s book?

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan, because it is pure wonderful out of this world madness that I aspire to.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It left me conflicted. I love that someone wrote a book that annoyed me enough to love it forever.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

Edgar Allan Poe. He was not afraid of his demons. His work was the truth. There is no story or poem he wrote that has not told me something that I needed to know. He is the only author I have re-read countless times and who I connect with as a human being and as a writer. Some people should be immortal. He is one of them. And I am one of those fans who would take any opportunity to bring him back to life. Because I am half-crazy about his work and his life story. I wish he lived long enough to see how many people love him and his work. The Following is such a silly TV series that does not do any literary justice to his memory, but I love some of the evil in it. How does Edgar Allan Poe influence my work? I write things that everyone else is afraid to write and be judged about. I am not safe. Now, moving on.

David Maillu. I read the Kommon Man when I was too young to know some things. I think I was around 11. I don’t even know who brought and left it at my mother’s house. Maillu writes what he wants to write. Which is the best thing a writer can do for himself (I am not gender sensitive enough to change himself to “oneself” or something politically correct. In my head HIM is all of us) and the reader. Maillu has taught me to never apologise for my work or cheat myself into changing my heart and story to please the millions of hypocritical squares. The things in my mind do not embarrass me, so I let them out and watch people squirm and call me a pervert. Disclaimer: I am not a pervert. I am an honest writer.

Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince is my bible. I read it differently every time. I take no political meaning from it however. That is why it applies to every aspect of my life including writing. I think a lot about everything I do before I do it. Sometimes I will do the right thing for the right effect or result. Other times I will do the wrong thing or break the rules so blatantly because my gut tells me I will get the best results out of it. The most important thing is the results. That I produce the best work even when I am not required to. There is no option but to be at the top of the ladder. How I get there, is not a concern. What I take there, is most important. If a story requires you to be the devil. Be the best devil. Writers should not be goody-two-shoes.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I just want to write and be read. That’s all. I am working on a novella that is inspired by a moment I had in court. A guy had raped a 13-year-old girl and in his mitigation he said that he has children that he needs to take care of and the magistrate should have mercy on him and set him free. There was something about his words. How dare he say he has children to take care of when he can destroy another child? What sort of bullshit was that? People should really think before they talk. Anyway, he got life in jail. My novella is about a paedophile who gets what he deserves.

I was working on a novel but I have shelved it for a while. I was complicating it too much.

I hope to work with anyone who loves stories. Names and status don’t matter. Anyone who enjoys and appreciates a well-told story and knows how to read fiction is my friend. I also hope to work with people who do not want to change me or my voice. Those two things are all I own.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

Lesleigh Kenya. It has helped me realise that the publishing world is not for idealists. Second, it has taught me patience. Third, on a very personal level, it has taught me that your best bet in the literary business is the person who sticks to the job even when things are going to shit because one day will not be exactly like the next. There are very high highs and terribly low lows and zero time to make excuses. Most importantly, it has taught me to respect writers’ work and how to edit any kind of muck or gold I get on my desk. If people in the African literary business knew how not to interfere with a writer’s work or expect a certain narrative from the African writer, maybe we would have better work to show the world. We need more organisations that don’t stifle.

Jalada Africa. It’s the place I am allowed to be who I am. If your work is good it is taken. If it is bad you are told to shove it. And even when it is good enough the editing process is so rigorous and involving by the time the story is approved you are glad someone cared enough to make sure your story does not embarrass you. I am very finicky about my work and I am glad to work with people who pay attention to the story and the details in it. So much that they catch the things that I, with all my obsessiveness, do not catch. The most important thing for me is for my work to be read and Jalada has given me a bigger audience.

Jalada gives writers the opportunity to write what they want. That is what really matters.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

The Storymoja Fellowship. We have two great mentors, Lily Mabura and Michael Don. These two people are very important and dear to me. They have shown me what I am capable of and that is why I take every writing challenge they give me and do my best. I don’t think it is easy for a writer to get people who are so generous with their time and knowledge. I cannot take that for granted. It is very easy, safe and comfortable for a writer to think that they know what they want to do or when they will be ready to write that great book or story. I don’t want to be the writer who never writes. I have two people who believe in me. We may disagree on some things but as long as they whip me into shape, I will not waste that opportunity or their time.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

Hay Festival and Africa39 will help get some mileage. At least that is what I want. The chance to be heard, read and remembered. It will also challenge me to work harder because I don’t want to be the writer who was just on the list. I can and must do more.

What specific things would I like the Hay Festival writers do? Another tough question. I can’t really say, “specific” is such a personal thing or word, if you know what I mean. I would like them to write more, I guess. The more they write the more other writers get to read. Also, stay relevant, maybe. Be what younger writers would want to be. Specifically? I would like them to be accessible.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

We worship the old so much that we forget to write our own stories. I think we need to get over Ngugi. I may be crucified for this but Jesus is said to have resurrected anyway. So I will say it. He wasn’t and isn’t such a great writer. Get him and all of his motive and kind out of your head, and write what you want to write not what he would have written or what he would approve of.

Second challenge is publishers want a certain type of story. They insist on it. They will only publish the same old people who write with that template. Where are the rest of us supposed to take our work? Abroad? No. It should not be like that. Home is where you should be seen first. Not just for 30 minutes at a literary festival but on the cover of a book that is sold and marketed to your people first.

Third are cliques. Everyone feels left out of something. So they find other people who also feel left out and form another pack that will exclude and isolate other people. Then each group eats its own bullshit and grows into something horrible that does not help writing.

Fourth, the worst and most careless writers get the best publicity. I have never understood that logic. But then again, the best writers have their noses way up in their superior asses it does not help that they are “waiting to be discovered.” You will wait till you die.

How am I ameliorating (such a geographic word) the difficulties? I write what I write. I tell my own stories. I tell people about their nonsense and I have been called names and criticised for that. However, they won’t say I didn’t tell them. I may say it in the worst ways, sometimes, but at the end of the day I said it. Through Lesleigh I have tried to get better stories published. Publishers get weird on us mostly because of what they pay authors and what we think they should pay authors and also because our authors’ stories are not ‘moral’ enough. All that politics is annoying so we are seriously thinking of just taking the damn bull by its horns and doing the thing ourselves.

Specific things to be done. You love that specific word too much. I just want good writers to be published. I want us all to be a good happy family with fights and laughs. No territorial nonsense. Let’s all live in the same house. Let’s take criticism for what it is and not call it ‘hating’. Let’s write 21st century Kenya stories. We have so much material. Those old guards did justice to their time. There is a gaping literary hole that only a few care to fill. We all need to get in there.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

My favourite Africa 39 writer is Igoni Barrett. I can’t get over his stories. I have read Okwiri, Clifton, Mehul, Ndinda; must read Gazemba this month. Definitely read Chimamanda, Rotimi, Tope Folarin, Kenani, Zukiswa, and Novuyo.

I would love to work with all Africa39 authors, especially the ones I haven’t read. Because I am very curious. And on any writing or reading project.

Linda Musita’s latest short-story is “Kudinyana”, published in Jalada Africa’s “Sext Me Poems And Stories” anthology.

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