Mehul Gohil on “my storifying personality.”

Africa39 author, Mehul Gohil.

What are your 5 favourite novels?

This is a strange question. Next week my answer could be different. But for now:

  • “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

At age 14, this was my first experience of a great novel. What power and force it had (and has). Every atom and nightmare of Raskolnikov explored. I have never been so roused by a single novel. I was physically cheering for some characters in some of the scenes.

  • “Underworld” by Don DeLillo.

I read this for over a year just after finishing high school. I read it slowly. At the rate of 2-3 pages a day. I would reread pages. I wanted to absorb every sentence, bath in the beautiful language. Indeed, I am yet to come across a more beautiful novel prose-wise. Deep ideas encased in a marvelous large-scale structure. It was the first time I realized that settings, whole cities, can be characters themselves, playing an equal or even bigger role than the human characters in developing a story.

  • “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy

Maybe the novel I have re-read more times than any other. It never gets boring. There are all these hidden emotions and feelings I keep discovering on each reading. Re-reading this novel has become an addiction. I don’t know why.

  • “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner.

Its themes of overpopulation, extreme urbanization and the desperate search for escape from a media saturated world and effects of these on the individual are some of the things I have always been interested in. I loved the Dos Passos-esque structure of the novel. Today, I consider it one of the most instructive novels as it shows in straightforward and clear ways how one can fracture a narrative to expand the story possibilities.

  • “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie.

It was a pleasant shock to read a novel written in English but really written in say Hindi or Urdu or Gujurati. The English is simply an optical illusion. It’s a miracle how Rushdie makes the English sound almost exactly similar to how the same thought would be expressed in Hindi or Urdu (or in my case, Gujurati). And what a fantastic story it tells.

A note on these five novels – I read them all for the first time when I was in my teens. It is interesting for me that none of the novels I have read as an adult have come close to having the same impact.

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

  • DON DELILLO

DeLillo pays great attention to small things. He builds his stories up from the atomic level of the sentence. He has a keen sense for the sound of a sentence, the shape of it and so on. This has influenced me or I would say it’s also how I like take to the empty page.

DeLillo’s prose is studded with all sorts of little technical tricks. For example, here is an extract of a sentence from Underworld: The train was one of his, Moonman’s, he had a dozen pieces running through the system…notice how Moonman is given complete ownership of the train by the word ‘Moonman’s’ being squashed between the pronouns that refer to it…one would ordinarily not think of arranging words in such a way. DeLillo’s prose is full of such handy and elegant tricks which one can then learn to apply in one’s own writing. Also, this can help one develop a knack for creating one’s own handy toolbox of tricks. I believe this is one major way in which studying and reading and loving DeLillo’s works helps me improve as a writer.

There is now a phenomenon known as the “DeLillo Moment”. This is when you notice a situation in real life, especially within an urban setting, our 21st century life of consumerism and terrorism, that is eerily similar to a scene from a DeLillo work. A kid in Doonholm suddenly discovering the real world, the real night filled with real stars in the dark sky, when all the streetlights, neon and lit up billboards disappear during a blackout, just as old Bronzini in New York rediscovers his homeground street in the Bronx when a similar blackout happens there. With African cities growing and growing and gobbling up rural areas, we are experiencing a standardization of lifestyle but at the same time there are interesting transformations of our old values. DeLillo Moments now abound in our big cities. I believe reading DeLillo has made me understand my Nairobi life better.

  • DAMBUDZO MARECHERA

I wish I had discovered Dambudzo earlier. He would have had a greater influence on me if I had read him in my teens. I became aware of the existence of Dambudzo’s fiction only in 2010 (courtesy of a Dr. Wanjohi Wa Makokha, who also got me reading the works of several other African writers. Before 2010 all I had read from the continent were works of Ngugi, Meja, Kojo Laing and Peter Abrahams).

Dambudzo’s sentences are clinical. He handles language delicately. He knows when to make his sentences punch, when to make them duck, when to make them soft and vulnerable, when to make them go berserk. His style is plastic and he moves effortlessly through the catacombs of his complex narratives. His prose is music; it’s got a rhythm you can dance to.

He has a natural gift for storytelling coupled with a vision that x-rays through the characters he creates.

There is all this talk about Dambudzo being a ‘ghetto writer’. ‘Ghetto writer’ because of his lifestyle, the unrestrained manner in which his characters talk and behave and so on. But I find this to be a superficial analysis. ‘Ghetto’ means unpolished, unsophisticated. Dambudzo’s prose is sophisticated and there is nothing ‘ghetto’ about it. It’s a polished prose style that shines. The way he wrote and things he wrote about indicate he was a writer decades ahead of his time. Complex male characters, today’s growing awareness of the importance of feminism foreshadowed in his works where the lady characters shown are more intelligent than their male counterparts, and how without them the male world falls apart, and how fighting against the rise of feminism is like punching at a shadow; the rise of homegrown terrorism. And so on.

I am learning a lot from Dambudzo and it is clear to me his way of telling stories is having an effect on the way I write.

  • VED VYASA

The author of the epic “Mahabharat.”

If I had not read this, in comic book form, as a boy, I suspect I would today be an agnostic or atheist.

It has everything I can hope for as a reader: star wars, powerful, gorgeous women, thermo-nuclear warfare, monsters over a kilometer tall, Bollywood family drama anticipated by 3000 years, politics made in Kenya (seemingly), chess, space opera, the stone cold logic and illogic of the Bhagvad Gita, superheroes galore, life as more than just bodily functions and ever-jogging mind, the art of zero-mind, fate, love and hate and so on.

Nowadays, I read the English version of the original epic poem.

I am amazed by the structure of Mahabharat. These days we talk about writing stories in new forms. But really, the old is the new. Ved Vyasa’s structural gymnastics in Mahabharat are awesome. It’s simply miraculous how all the thousands of various things in the epic all tie up neatly in the end and yet it seems there is no resolution, that some mystery is still kept alive. These things called Post-Modernism, Hyper-Modernism bla bla…make no sense to me in the face of Mahabharat. All these stunts being tried out by 21st century writers…it’s made to sound like it’s never been done before. It has been done, and done better, three thousand years ago, by Ved Vyasa.

I would say just about every story I have written has something of Vyasa in it. I can never shake off the influence. It’s welded to my storifying personality.

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?

Currently, I am working on putting together a short story collection. Half a dozen that have been published here and there, these I am reshaping and making better. Then I have about two dozen I have written but are unpublished. I am working on polishing them up and hopefully in a few months I will have a set of 10-15 which are good and ready for a book. I hope this short story collection will become the first book I publish.

Something else I have been working on but sporadically is what I think is a novel. It’s very unstructured writing. It’s fragments based around a certain idea or what seems a story. The Kenyan life 300 years from now. It has a heavy sci-fi and urban fantasy element. Something I have been at for the last couple of years and now I have many fragments. They seem related. Maybe it’s a novel. Once I have the short stories out of the way, I want to dedicate some months to finding a way to bind these fragments together. Discover some structure that makes sense of them. Yes, I would like to have a novel published.

I am yet to see a chess book come out of Africa. This baffles me. It’s played competitively all over the continent and there are so many great stories associated with it. Especially in the few cities I have visited to play in events there. Some great games played that have hardly been annotated. This is something I would like to do sooner or later. Write the stories around the various tournaments I have played in, analyse and annotate some of the best games of African players.

I hope in 3-5 years I have a small body of published work. A short story collection or two, short stories in various journals, a novel, a chess book. Something to share with the rest of the world.

Which artists/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

Artists – I would like to work with photographers. I have no one specific in mind. They take a photo and I write a micro-story about what’s happening in it. Photo on top of page, my micro-story below. Or a series of photo’s and I interlink the micro-stories. I find this form of storytelling very interesting.

Publishers – Maybe Gollancz. Sci-fi was my first love as a reader and it would be smashing to one day have a work of mine published by the world’s premier sci-fi publishing house. Otherwise, any reputable publisher is ok with me.

Editors – Ellah Allfrey. I was stunned by how she handled my Africa39 situation. I was feeling down due to some personal issues and was almost not going to deliver and honestly thought I was going to be booted from Africa39 and she was like a real friend and made sure I got something in. That’s the editor I hope to work with.

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

I am involved with one of Africa’s newest literary outfits, Jalada, as one of its founder members. The other literary organization I have a relationship with (as a contributing writer) is Kwani?.

Kwani? is the organization I started with. They published my very first work of fiction (in the Kwani? 06 journal). Subsequently, Kwani? has published my works in its following journals. Besides that, it has opened doors for me to develop some networks within the wider continental and international publishing scene and given me the privilege to experience new literary adventures (for example, selecting me to attend the 2012 Caine Prize Workshop, 2013 Granta Workshop and so on). One important thing Kwani? keeps doing is scouting for new talent and then nurturing them via their various projects.

Jalada is something different. It’s a collective consisting of young African writers. The way it is run is unique. There is no boss. No leader. Everyone in the collective spontaneously does this or that job. There are no directives given by someone. Just suggestions by the members on what the next plan of action will be and by instinct we end up agreeing on a certain idea and it gets implemented. It might look like a ridiculous way of running a collective but strangely it works. There is a sense of freedom in this method and it feels wonderful to be working together with others in the collective in an informal manner and yet get things done. The relationships between us in the collective are therefore more personal and not like the formal, business like ones there would be in a more corporate sort of literary organization. I feel this is reflective of the way the new generation of African writers approach writing. I will call it the post-Binyavanga generation. I think the writers of this generation write in a more individual way. The new works that are coming out show a more diverse range of voices, ideas and imaginations than those that have come from previous African writer generations. I don’t think the post-Binyavanga writers care for any overall guiding philosophy. They just write about what they want to write. This is what Jalada represents.

And I am a part of Jalada and this post-Binyavanga generation.

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

Jalada is the first and so far only literary/artistic project I have been involved in. I haven’t been so involved with the administrative bits of Jalada. My main roles so far have been rather easy ones. Promoting Jalada by barking a lot about it here and there, being involved in the discussions for what the next anthologies will be and easy things like these.
The key thing I have learnt from Jalada is that the back and front offices of a literary collective can function entirely in virtual reality. Jalada has so far, after its creation, had only one physical meeting between the majority of its members. The rest of the jobs have been done almost purely via the internet and emails and online discussions and so on. Jalada offices are truly paperless. Even our anthologies are published online. Our founding members are scattered across three continents yet there are no gaps in communication. This is probably the shape of things to come in the African publishing scene as we move deeper into the 21st century.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?

I anticipate there will be representatives of big publishing houses present at the Hay Festival. They will be scouting for strong new works and voices.

Until my inclusion in the Africa39 list, I hadn’t taken myself seriously as a writer. I took writing to be just another hobby that I enjoyed and was probably a little good at. The surprise inclusion in Africa39 has made me more serious. I have become more methodical and disciplined in my approach to writing. I will be coming to the Hay Festival armed with a collection of short stories and some chapters of a novel in progress. I can’t be too sure since I am talking about myself, but I think I have an interesting, weird and fantastic way of storifying reality. Even though I write primarily for myself, I have a strong desire to share my creations with the rest of the world and I hope the Hay Festival opens up some opportunities for me to do so.

What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

Specific? I don’t know.

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?

I can speak only about my own locale – Kenya.

First up, the literary tribalism present in the Kenyan scene is wrecking havoc. Different writers have slotted themselves into this or that faction (the two main tribes being the so called ‘Kwaniacs’ and “Anti-Kwaniacs”, and then there are the generational factions of the oldies of the Ngugi years and the scholars who back them up vs. the ‘unlearned’ new generation of writers). There is a lack of united front when it comes to writing.

There is a lack of proper scouting for new talent by established local publishing houses. There was a gap of like two decades between the exile of Ngugi and the emergence of Binyavanga, and now Okwiri has won the Caine prize more than a decade after Binyavanga and Yvonne did so. Due to this lack of zeal to search for new talent, Kenya, unlike say Nigeria or South Africa, does not produce a continuous stream of good writers and fiction works. Mediocrity is therefore celebrated and when real talent does emerge, it is not recognized properly. I suspect this may even be the main reason fueling the literary tribalism in the Kenyan scene.

How am I ‘ameliorating’ these difficulties? Being a part of Jalada is one way. As a collective we don’t give a dik dik crap about literary tribal factions. The Kenyan members in Jalada come from across the various divides and they work together harmoniously. One reason the more corporatish publishing houses (Kwani? et al) have trouble constantly discovering new talent is because they need to go through due process and their approach, when executing their projects (aimed at scouting for these guys), must be structured. Jalada is more informal, we meet new writers online, at some odd spoken mic or lit thing, on the streets, on facebook or twitter. Therefore, Jalada is able to quickly catch these guys. Our second anthology already showcased some young Kenyan writers who have never been published before and the quality of their work is decent. And in the upcoming third anthology we will showcase some more.

In order to overcome these challenges, the big local publishing houses clearly have to find some common ground and work together. Literary tribalism has to be actively murdered. To seek out new talent, these publishing houses have to evolve and incorporate new methods of operations…like a symbiosis of structured with a dash of the informal thrown in. All this is possible.

But I would also like to point out there has never been a better time to be a talented and promising writer in Kenya than today. Perhaps this also applies to the rest of the continent. The scene is full of positive vibes, a great sense of hope. There is joy and fun in the literary scene. And all this actually outweighs the negatives I have mentioned above. Possibilities for good writers are opening up like crazy.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39 writers?  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)?

Naturally, I am most familiar with the works of my Kenyan and Jalada colleagues in Africa39 (Gazemba, Gachagua, Musita, Ndinda, Okwiri and Novuyo).

“Madman at Kilifi” by Clifton Gachagua

All of them are very good but my favourite from this pack is Clifton Gachagua. I actually think he is a genius. Clifton’s style is cutting edge. It’s an experience to read his poetry. It’s like what this Blake fellow said…to see the world in a grain of sand. Every line of his poems contains multitudes. A Milky Way inside every blue star (this is my weak attempt at a poetic line!). I am in awe of the kind of zangy compression he achieves while at the same time it’s airy and you can move around. It’s a very different and unique kind of poetry. It’s his own thing and you will not find it anywhere else. There is his incredible blog (“Drums of Shostakovich”) and his debut and prize winning poetry collection — “Madman at Kilifi” (this one is a must have for any serious writer).

Like everyone else, I have read the works of the more famous writers in the Africa39 list, the Literary Rock Stars and Caine Prize winners and Divas (Babatunde, Mengestu, Chimamanda, Taiye etc), and enjoyed them.

Out of curiosity, I hunted down the writers who were unknown to me (until the Africa39 list was unveiled) on facebook and twitter. Found the interesting journalism of Shafinaz Hassam and so on.

I can’t say the outset which writers I want to work with and on what projects. I have not thought about it. Maybe things will happen via the communication on social media with some of them, maybe when we meet on location at Port Harcourt something will click and a project idea will develop. Who knows?

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