What are your 5 favourite novels?
“The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follet, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, “Dangerous Love” by Ben Okri, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe and “Mine Boy” by Peter Abrahams, among others.
Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?
I think Achebe, Ben Okri and Steinbeck. Achebe because of the way he brings out the African story—I honestly think he is the father of the African novel. Steinbeck’s description is super. And Ben Okri for the depth of imagination and the way he uses words to invoke images.
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I plan to publish my unpublished manuscripts if I can find a decent publisher to work with. Kenyan publishers have been a big disappointment as far as fiction goes. Right now I am revising my two collections of short stories as well as planning a book on growing up in my father’s shadow, tentatively titled ‘Walking in Mwalimu’s Shadow’—a memoir of my own childhood. My dad passed on recently—and wasn’t he a character! I am open to working with any decent publisher who understands his/her turf and who pays royalties on time. Someone who is committed to what they are doing and who gives the author the confidence to strive and give their best.
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?
In Kenya I am involved with Kwani? who reissued my first novel, “The Stone Hills of Maragoli”. The book hasn’t raked in good sales, though. I think Kwani? are not aggressive in their marketing and are comfortable doing the middle class circuit and are not really cut out for the average reader, who is my prime target. The sort of readers who the African Writers Series—so far the most successful fiction series on the continent’s history—targeted.
Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?
My latest publication is a novel, “Callused Hands” that I started working on in 1993 while working as a casual hand at a cut-flower farm in Kiambu, Central Kenya. I was basically capturing the brutish working conditions on that farm.
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?
If the festival can link writers with decent agents/ publishers that would be a great thing. I am hoping it does for me so that I can expose my writing to the world because the reality in this writing business is that unless it is published then it will remain just that, data on your computer.
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?
Our publishers—a good number of who are plain dishonest and shady individuals—are obsessed with publishing for the school market. They fight tooth and nail to have their books accepted as approved school texts. That is not a good thing at all because incidents of bribery have been reported in the process, which ends up putting dubious books in students’ hands. Outside of this there hasn’t really been a vibrant market for fiction. As a result writers have been bending over backwards to produce work that can fit in this mould. This in my thinking, isn’t healthy. Writers, as social commentators and critics, need the space to think creatively without inhibition. Some authors try to break out of this straight-jacket by self-publishing, but usually they don’t go far. Soon they encounter the biggest pest in the business, the book pirate, who is vicious in Kenya and operates with impunity, earning from what he didn’t sow in—we suspect—collusion with the law enforcers.
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)?
Chimamanda Adichie is no doubt the star in that ensemble. I have read her ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and liked it a lot. she has amazing description and style, and her scenes are very vivid, her style accessible. I’m looking forward to sharing pages with her. I have also read and reviewed Dinaw Mengistu (“The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears”) and Nadifa Mohammed (“Black Mamba Boy”). Yeah, these guys are pretty good. I know there are many others on the list who I am yet to read. It sure will be great mingling with everyone on the list. Perhaps the workshop can challenge the ensemble to put together a follow-up anthology or, better still, a novel each, which will give us the successor to the African Writers Series which some of us grew up on.