- 2014 Burt Award for African Literature Nominee/Short-listed
- 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing nominee
- Ist Prize, Adult Fiction Category – NBDCK Literary Awards, September 2008 Book Week
Inspiration to Authors - If Dad wasn't my partner in Crime, I'd not be an Author
- Written by Moraa Gitaa
Last Updated: 27 October 2014
An article by yours truly to inspire others!
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
My greatest fan passed on last month - Rest in peace daddy. If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be the writer or reader that I am today. Dad loved reading, after high school he went to Kiganjo Police Training School and though he never went to university, he was self-taught, took himself through vocational school and became an astute business man in Mombasa in the seventies and eighties. My mum who is also self-taught and also put herself through vocational school is also such a reader! What a blessing to any family. We always had novels and storybooks in the house. Dad loved order, style, elegance and excellence, thus he nurtured our creativity. He taught us to appreciate the finer things in life; if it was literature it had to be fine literature, music had to be fine music and wine or whiskey had to be the finest. By the time I was eight years old, ‘Hallo Children’ and ‘Read with Us’ bored me in class because I was busy reading Alex La Guma, Jaramogi, Jane Austen, George Orwell, Nabokov, Kenyatta, Ngugi, Chinua, Soyinka, Meja Mwangi, Mwangi Gicheru, Dickens and many more. I remember one day finding in dad’s room Mailu’s books ‘Unfit for Human Consumption’, ‘After 4.30’ and ‘My Dear Bottle’ and I wondered if the tiny books were ‘fine’ and why they were not in the book shelf in the living room – I found out when I hid in the bathroom to read them! Another time dad gave me Hilary Ngweno’s ‘Men from Pretoria’ – I’d never read a book by a Kenyan with such action. This was all before I discovered for myself James Hadley Chase, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Fredrick Forsyth, Sidney Sheldon, Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel. To date I still treasure most of dad’s first edition books. We grew up reading the three leading newspapers of that time everyday; Nation, The Standard and Kenya Times were all bought every day, and every Monday the Weekly Review was a must. Music in dad’s car going to school or on family outings was the music of Fadhili Williams, Franco Makiadi, Bruce Springsteen, Tabu Ley, Fundi Konde, Marvin Gaye, Billy Ocean, Mbilia Bel. Miriam Makeba, Billy Holiday or Bob Marley and so at school Mary Had a Little Lamb didn’t tickle my fancy at all.
An incident with my family’s obsession with novels stands out. Dad never perused the extra school text book lists we hand-wrote for him. He was too busy. Several bookstore attendants on Mombasa’s Moi Avenue knew our family well due to our frequent visits there. Whenever I knew dad was going to buy books for us, I would go and tell the attendants to wrap those books really tight so dad couldn’t even peep inside – he usually went and dropped our lists and picked the packed books later. One evening he called me to the living room - on the coffee table were three brand new Jason Bourne series I’d listed instead of text books; The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. He said sternly that I should never lie and instead ask for money to buy novels! Thereafter every week I would ask for three or four thousand and we would haggle down to two thousand! My brothers were not amused. This was because me and my siblings were in the midst of competing on who reads the most novels and who brings home the greatest reads. It had reached a point where one of my brothers reported me to mum that I wasn’t buying lunch at the school cafeteria and was instead saving to buy novels. The threat of a packed sandwich from mum for lunch made me stop skipping lunch! This was the best time of my life.
One day when I was twelve, I asked dad not to pick me from school or mum, because they alternated with the driver. Dad was skeptical and said we were too young to start boarding matatus. I insisted and started taking matatus or walking to second-hand book stalls in town. By my second year of this practice, some hawkers knew me so well they would call home to tell me that a certain book I had been asking for had been found – my parents were not amused by this new-found comradeship! Next I registered myself at the Kenya National Library and discovered another whole new world of endless books.
My ex-cop dad though principled, valued integrity and straightforward was my ally when it came to my writing - we were partners in crime; he was a cop when he initially went to Mombasa in the late sixties before he quit the force to become a businessman. At home us children were the cops and would twist him round our little fingers! When sent from school to get one of my parents because I’d been reading novels in class, you can guess whom I would go and get! After high school dad noticed I was always writing short stories and even a first attempt at novel writing, he encouraged and supported me. Sometimes he would read a few paragraphs and offer suggestions like putting my thoughts across in allegory form instead of putting it the way I had - this was when he thought I might step on sensitive toes.
Burt Award for African Literature
As a result of such family support, last month I emerged as one of the winners of the Burt Award for African literature, Second Runners-Up to be precise – I dedicate this award to my dad Ishmael Gitaa Orobo, without his support, I wouldn’t have been writing. After the award one critic wrote that because I have two novels I was maybe expecting to trounce the other two writers - truth is that I was actually taken aback by my nomination yet excited at the same time because my genre is adult fiction and my Burt novella ‘The Shark Attack’ was my first attempt at YA fiction (Form 1-2 age bracket) which had been written more than ten years ago at night with my daughter sleeping on my laps! And rejected by more than four local publishers/or silence from them. Nevertheless, I know all three of us wanted to win first prize but in reality in the end we were all winners. My nomination/short-listing in March was so encouraging that I polished another manuscript that I have for Class 7-8 which has been accepted by another publisher and a Form 3-4 novella yet to get a publisher. Another critic recently critiqued The Shark Attack as a book that uses the symbol of the shark to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem of drug abuse.
Art is a universal language. It helps us bear witness and interrogate – it holds people’s attention, stimulates and inspires us and this is what I aspire to achieve with my treatises. Though challenged by mild Dyslexia in my formative years and my daughter a more severe form, I have come via research for a book I’m writing, to appreciate Dyslexia as a gift. Dyslexics are creative – Examples of creative people challenged by Dyslexia are Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Whoopi Goldberg, George Bush Senior, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and many others – I just wish that prominent Kenyan personalities challenged by the disorder can go public (research shows that 20% of the population are afflicted by Dyslexia) this will encourage young people affected by it to pursue their creativity.
It was inculcated in me in my formative years by my parents that once I opened a storybook I should never close it without reading it all from cover to cover. Nowadays do our kids read? Currently if you are not on Instragam, Viber or WhatsApp on your Android touch screen phone – this generation tells you that you are not in it or in this world! They also keep you up to speed by telling you that YOLO no longer means You Only Live Once but You Only Live Online! Our children are busy speed dialing, speed speaking, speed cramming (not reading), speed dating and literally speed everything.
My nineteen-year-old daughter would rather watch Khaleid Hossein’s ‘The Kite Runner’ as a movie than read the novel which sits pretty on our bookshelf! She is studying Graphics Design and Animation due to her creative genes. But why don’t they like reading? I blame our 8-4-4 system of education which is one of the worst enemies of creatives. These kids do a lot of cramming in school that once they clear high school, they do not want to read any book! 8-4-4 doesn’t encourage creativity and totally stifles the Creative Economy because even Arts subjects though taught in some schools is not examinable. There is completely no time for students who are gifted and talented in areas like writing, music and painting to explore and nurture their passion – schools are busy enforcing emphasis in scoring As and Bs in subjects they deem to be more important. It is thus such a shame that the Government has imposed VAT on books. People who are genuinely interested in buying novels are the ones who can’t afford them because they are busy chasing rent, schools fees and money for food.
First Literary Award
In 2008 when I won First Prize in the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK) Book Week Awards for the Adult Fiction Category, I felt vindicated and it was confirmed to me then that my writing was valid despite several rejection slips. And to imagine that I heard of the award a day to the closing date for submissions. This award inspired me to complete my novel ‘Shifting Sands’ from where I had lifted the winning excerpt. There was no turning back.
KPA Writer’s Workshop and The Penguin Prize for African Writing
During the 2009 Nairobi International Book Fair organized by Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) I heard from a friend of a must-attend writer’s workshop half an hour to the start of the workshop! Luckily I live a 15 minute drive away from Sarit Centre and I was on time. A session by Professor Henry Indangasi changed my writing for the better. I learnt that I should not waste adjectives and when I qualify a noun I should make it unusual and interesting. My writing talent is in-born but truth be told as Stephen Partington recently opined in a literary discourse there are some aspects of creative writing that need to be taught.
It was interesting to learn from Prof Indangasi that as writers we have ideologies and perspectives and that we should avoid changing our positions mid-stream. This is dangerous and you risk losing your reader. Consider doing so only when your protagonist has something to gain. Over time I’ve come to learn that a point of view is not only grammar but also a bias. Prof Indangasi stressed that from your very first sentence you have to grab the reader’s attention. When you write your first sentence you have two options – you can respond to all other sentences it seems to invite or sit back and listen to the silence it invites.
I wished the good professor’s session would have taken the whole day but it was only half an hour. Later when I went home I got out all my writing (changed all my first sentences!) and started re-worked my entry for the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing, I only had four days to the deadline for submission and it was God’s grace that I hadn’t submitted the manuscript the way it was! Later in September 2010 when I got a call from the prize administrators that my entry had been short-listed out of approximately 300 entries from African writers globally and was in the top 6, I almost toppled out of my seat in delight. To be honest, I credit this short-listing to the 2009 KPA workshop and Prof Indangasi (and I’ve never had the chance to share this with him) because there are some things you cannot learn even from various on-line writer’s forums - maybe this is why last week Nobel Literature Prize judge Horace Engdahl said that Western literature is being impoverished by financial support for writers and by creative writing programmes.
In the 1940s, Samuel Beckett wrote his classical play Waiting for Godot. To me it’s one of the most captivating and mysterious plays ever - two men stand on an empty stage, hands in pockets, staring at each other: no action and no plot, they just stand there waiting for Godot to come. But who is Godot? Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes intimates that, Godot ‘stands for the pipe dreams that a lot of people hang on to as an escape.’
Awards for African literature like the Burt are encouraging. Writing of younger African writers is increasingly being shaped and dictated to by western literary prizes. We do not have to write treatises on suffering and poverty stricken African children in war-torn countries. I know that John Ruganda reminded us in one of his plays that a beggar’s knees are supple – in other words beggars are not choosers! But we can still write about our challenges without necessarily going down this road.
To western audiences it is usually more authentic for Africans to make war than to make love so writing a romance novel or a daring love story from Africa (like my first novel Crucible for Silver & Furnace for Gold) is not the norm. As Kenyan writers we thus need to ask ourselves the question of identity – Who are we as local writers writing for?
Coming back to that 2009 KPA workshop of 2009, I have come to appreciate that language is a place of a difference of opinions and your first intervention (that very first sentence) points towards a bias that will most probably conflict with other directions, and it might elicit debate on the literary landscape. As a result as you go along you learn that this process of articulating your personal point of view is not frictionless. It is thus my job as a writer to become aware of this process and exploit it if necessary. That is why when it comes to my writing I’ve heard the following words from one local publisher to whom I submitted one of my manuscripts: wild imagination, controversial, unorthodox and unconventional – all in one sentence! But my believe is that if as a writer you are writing on topics that everyone else is writing about, there isn’t much for readers to gain from your treatises. This is why in my formative years and in upper primary school I didn’t get along well with organized fun, organized education and organized religion, I did things my own way which has translated into my writing – I write what I want like topics people want to push under the carpet eg; drug trafficking and why we have an increase in home-grown alleged terrorists. This has served me well because artistic minds need solitude, avoid routine, work unusual hours and prone to day-dreaming about their next work!
I also do not want to be pigeon-holed remembering that Dambudzo Marechera once said – ‘If you write for a particular society, race or nation – f**k you.’ and American poet E.E. Cummings did opine that ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.’ So please, let your writing be unique.
Most importantly when I buy a novel, I want to stay open to the surprise of everything, so kindly indulge me with shocks, twists and turns that reach out and grab me by my throat.
Initially in the early years my writing was a form of self-therapy and indulgent: no witnesses, no audiences, just me and my private thoughts because on my bookstore sojourns, I couldn’t find any local novel from young writers documenting experiences I was going through as if nothing cutting edge ever happens to Kenyans - very safe writings. In recent years though I’ve lost the privacy of writing because now my thoughts are in the public domain articulating things I’ve experienced.
...Finally as the Beckett play draws to an end, those two gentlemen are still standing on the stage doing nothing, just waiting. So it is with Kenyan and most African writers but the difference is that some are writing with the intention of waiting to win a literary award! When the 50th anniversary of that play was celebrated, a critic asked Beckett, ‘’Now will you tell us who Godot is?’’ Beckett’s answer: ‘’How should I know?’’ Waiting for Godot is a parable of many struggling local writer’s lives – meaningless and empty, a pointless matter of writing and waiting – unless of course you don’t mind the tedious art of writing like me because it is an inborn obsession almost like a terminal disease with no cure that has resulted in me being termed as a little insane by some friends. I always ask myself, did Beckett mean Waiting for God? Because surely that is whom Kenyan creative writers are waiting upon for divine intervention to convince our publishers to give fiction publishing the same attention they give to the school text book market. It will also be encouraging if only the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts can up their game in promoting the creative and artistic industry.
I’ve never written with winning a literary prize in mind (I never even knew Moran Publishers had submitted my book for the Burt Award until it was short-listed, and for the Penguin Prize I was indulging my flights of fantasy!) that is why most of my works coming to light recently are from manuscripts I wrote over ten years ago, with a little revising here and there. Parents should be at the forefront of teaching children the value of reading for leisure, if this value is not instilled how do we encourage them to develop a reading culture?
The bottom line of good writing is to first have confidence in your writing, then follows self-discipline, perseverance, patience and reading a lot. And writing and re-writing and revising and revising and revising. I can’t go to sleep at night without writing something (even a sentence) or reading a novel, or a newspaper, magazine, anything. I also read in queues at the bank and anywhere I’m supposed to queue, instead of complaining that the queue is not moving! I pick up a book to be entertained, educated and enlightened, the same reason why I write novels – to entertain, educate and enlighten others. I also do not engage in a war of words with critics and I feel that this has been crucial to my growth as a writer. Where is the time to engage in such? Currently working on my sixth and seventh books, it’s back to resistance, rejection, isolation, distractions, unstructured and stolen time, and more loneliness.