Aaron Bady, editor at The New Inquiry, has a fascinating—archly described as “breathless, babbling”—profile of Caine Prize winner, Okwiri Oduor. In an interview, the celebrated writer, discusses her name change, her coming-of-age as a writer, her critical approach to literature, and her discomfort with her earlier writing. Bady observes:
Her discomfort with her earlier writing—an almost visceral recoil from its existence and continued circulation—is a feeling most writers will probably recognize. There’s also a measure of critical insight in it. She is much harder on herself than anyone else would think to be, but Okwiri Oduor is unquestionably a different writer than the Claudette who wrote stories about young love thwarted by tradition, or parental authority, or circumstance; as Okwiri dismissively joked, they’re the sorts of stories you might find in a UN anthology about on women’s rights. Even her novella, “The Dream Chasers,” takes Kenya’s 2007 Post-Election Violence as the backdrop for a story about star-crossed lovers, divided by tribal allegiance. But however stylistically virtuosic these stories might be, it can still feel like you’ve read them before: the children not allowed to marry because of their parents’ prejudices, patriarchal abuse, the violence of war… these are familiar narratives, rendered vivid and compelling, perhaps, but also recognizable and moralistic. There is also a temptingly false solution in each of them: just let the kids alone! Forced marriage, tribalist prejudice, or female circumcision; in each case, it’s tempting to find a rather simple and reductive take-away. If you take away the parents or patriarchs who violate and control their children, everything will be fine.
Bady, having read all her published writing, attends to her evolution as a writer, noting:
The stories that Okwiri has written, by contrast, are not stories you’ve read before, and they don’t finish, or let go of you when you put them down. Sometimes she writes beautifully, but her prose is never easy, and never simple. Instead, sense comes apart in her hands, and as her sentences warp and distort, the warped and distorted reality beneath comes into view.
In “Some Kind of Exile”, one of the more comprehensive interviews with Okwiri Oduor to date, Oduor describes the strictures of her upbringing, and her turning to writing as a release from them:
Then I started writing. I think I began because my folks, my parents, are very, very strict so I did not get to play out as much as my brothers did. For many reasons, the girl child is not… I don’t know, I always had to be more protected than the boys, so I wasn’t allowed to do as many things as they were. They were strict with all of us, but they were more strict with me. I wasn’t allowed to…. Well, I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of stuff. They had very strict rules about TV and what books we could read and what books we couldn’t read.
The interview also contains Bady and Oduor’s discussion of English and Kiswahili in poetry and prose, “mangling the language,” and her approach to her literary career. Crucially, Oduor describes the sacrifices and daily choices that must be made in order to write and develop one’s craft:
I think it taught me a lot about courage, the courage of having your work read and the courage of keeping on going, the courage and the discipline to complete a piece of work, from start to finish. It’s really difficult, but it taught me a lot about being a writer. You have to make choices; shall I go to class or shall I write? Shall I do this job, or shall I write? Shall I hang out with my friends? Shall I go to this party or shall I write? You have to make these decisions. Also, it taught me a lot about craft. I experimented with voice, I discovered how to be subtle and say things between the lines what I like and don’t like, what I like to do with language, what kind of writing really interests me. Things like that were very necessary. That’s what I think about them, it was necessary, it molded me. It was my education in writing.
In the interview, Oduor also talks at length about her experiences travelling in the U.S. and in Somalia.
Read: Okwiri Oduor’s Caine Prize winning story, “My Father’s Head”(pdf).