Erick Livumbazi Ngoda is one of Kenya’s prolific authors of young adult literature. We got into conversation with him to understand his journey and what he is up to in the coming days.
Most of your acquaintances know you as a writer. Do you write full time? When did you start? How was the experience?
I cannot remember wanting to be anything else except a writer – as far back as I can remember! I have had to take up employment at some point in a bid to make a living, but I have been freelancing for different publications since my school days. I have written for Young Nation, Fleur Ng’weno’s Rainbow Magazine, Florence Kirimania’s We magazine, and even the Daily Nation and The Standard.
I published my first book in 1999 when I was barely out of my teens. I decided to take up full time writing after The Burt Award 2013. Being one of the winners gave me the confidence and inspiration. It is not always easy but I somehow manage. I also shadow-write, consult and edit for other writers. I hope to get a column in one of the local dailies soon.
You are an award-winning writer. Tell us something about the Burt Award, and how it made you feel as a writer in general when you were runner-up with A Name for Himself in 2013. Does an award make a difference for you as a Kenyan writer, in particular?
Winning the award was a major turning point. It came as a total surprise because I believed then that such things were only for people who knew people. I wasn’t even sure that my publisher had submitted my script and didn’t think it could win even if they did. Since the award is assessed anonymously, being one of the winners (first runner up) between a well-known celebrity writer and an English professor gave me the confidence I needed.
The award opened new doors for me. Now everyone in the local publishing and literary circles knows my name, and I don’t think any of my scripts after that has been rejected. I get calls from local firms requesting a script from me, and organizers of literary competitions contact me directly for entries.
There are other contests you have entered and won or got shortlisted. For instance, you were among the winners for the WorldReader Anasoma Writing Contest, and your book The Wind Under His Wings (which I was privileged to edit) was shortlisted for the Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, all in 2017. Tell us about the winning script, Making the Team and when it will hit the markets in paperback.
The Anasoma Award was another total surprise. I sent the pitch for my entry just about an hour to the submission deadline, and I wrote it hurriedly in a cyber café, so being shortlisted from 366 entries was a pleasant surprise. Frankly I thought it would end at the shortlist because the competition was so tight and I thought my fellow contenders were so talented and deserving.
The hard copy of Making the team should be in the market by the end of April according to my publisher. It is a very short novella about a girl who could pass for a boy because of her physical looks. She is a talented footballer who wants to play football professionally. It is a book about bending rules, defying norms and beating odds. It is inspired by boxer Fatuma Zarika.
“We could see talents,” said Anasoma Writing Contest Chief Juror Professor Clara Momanyi, delivering glowing remarks on the books she reviewed. “In their creativity we could see future Chinua Achebes, Ngugi wa Thiong’os, Sembene Ousmanes and Buchi Emechetas of tomorrow.” Do you agree with this statement, in the sense of the validity of the comparisons?
I was deeply honoured and humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as these great minds and literary giants. That said, everyone starts at some point. I think it is easier to get somewhere in this field now than it might have been for those people in their day. I have always admired Achebe’s writing; borrowing from our rich cultural heritage yet creating timeless works with a limitless appeal. I work every day to be able to achieve such finesse. Among my fellow winners is a young lady whom I think writes exactly like the late Grace Ogot! As older great writers take the bow, there is enough literary talent in Africa to take up the places they leave.
Where would you rate your experience dealing with publishers over time at 1 – 10? (10 being excellent, 1 being extremely frustrating). Anything you wish publishers knew or could do different?
As of now, I would say around eight, going up to nine with one or two publishers; but as I have mentioned, my name is known so my scripts may get an ‘above normal’ attention in some places. The situation was different way back – perhaps three to one (haha!). I believe that for most upcoming writers that is how it is.
It could be better if publishers came up with a system of identifying good scripts and getting back to writers in good time. Sometimes all an upcoming writer needs is some feedback. Tell them why they have been rejected and how they could improve – some tips and guidelines.
There is this saying in the writing world that writers eat their passion. Is it possible for a Kenyan-based fiction writer to live entirely on royalties?
Passion is one thing, but one has to make a living too, pay bills and support dependents. Some publishing houses get mysterious and difficult about royalties, but if you have a certain number of books that sell, I think you can make a comfortable living from writing. Especially so, if you take up extra writing jobs the way I do and also sell some of your work on online platforms like blogs, lulu.com, amazon.com and the like.
Maybe we should mention the list of books you have published so far, starting with the most recent?
After A Name for Himself came the sequel The Wind Under His Wings (2015) then The Lost Herdsboy the same year. The other title in the Mollusk trilogy, A Different Kind of Flower is almost out, as well as Making the team. Others expected this year (2018) are A Burst of Birdsong, Living with Melisa, Joyride and The five thousand shilling job.
What is your advice to budding authors in Kenya, as they try to find their footing?
It is not an easy route but if you are sure you have what it takes, do not give up. Just write, and write some more and keep submitting however much you get rejected. Someday someone will notice you. Rejection does not necessarily mean your work is bad. Also check the kind of work that different publishers take before you submit to them. Most importantly, read the works of established writers and learn from their style and what makes them tick. Reading also improves your writing and language skills.
What should we watch out for from you in the coming days?
Apart from the books I have mentioned, some of which could be out as early as later this month, I will also be publishing more online. I have an idea I am implementing but I want it to be a surprise in the literary circles. You can be sure it is something that has never been done before.
Featured image: Anasoma Writing Erick Livumbazi (far left) with other contest winners with Chief Guest Lady Laimani Bidali. Photo credit/WorldReader