Writing for ourselves, and the world – A Conversation with Khadija Bajaber

Khadija Mombasa

In April, 2018, Kenyan Khadija Abdalla Bajaber was declared the winner of the inaugural Graywolf Press Africa Prize. Her winning manuscript, The House of Rust, which she began writing way back in 2015 but put on hold is inspired by the ill-documented history of the Hadrami diaspora residing in the coast region. And she does not hide her joy, and disbelief, that her first ever manuscript would be so acclaimed.

The judge of the prize, novelist A. Igoni Barrett, describes the script picked from over 200 submissions as ‘an exhilarating journey into the imagination of an author for whom the fantastic is not only written about, it is performed on the page. Khadija Abdalla Bajaber has infused new life into the age-old story of adventure on the high seas—with this heroic first novel she has struck deep into that mythic realm explored by everyone from Homer to Hemingway.’  The manuscript is expected to hit the shelves in 2020, while Bajaber will receive an upfront USD 12,000 cheque for her toil. We sought her for a conversation, and this is what she had to say.

In a different interview (with Mshale), you talk about writing our own alternative histories as opposed to foreigners writing them for us or depicting them from a distance. And you also talk of Graywolf (and other publishers) opening the markets for the authentic African voice. Identity and alternative history seem to be the major thematic aspects in the latest literature from East Africa. Think of Kintu. Think of Dance of the Jakaranda.

Ah, I said writing from the continent, not Authentic African voice. This issue of Authentic African-ness is something that needs to be examined. Graywolf has an arsenal of excellent books, they don’t create for the sake of mass producing to sell to consumers … managing African voices solely for a profit. They’re running a successful publishing house without making it feel like a factory. I understand they have a very small team and yet that team is dedicated and the works that they have produced are cared for.

Publishing houses have realized an increasing demand for writing from Africa, for different voices, so I wouldn’t quite say international publishing houses are opening up markets exactly, or to imply that the demand was never there, so much as pointing out that publishing houses are now more willing to listen than they’ve ever been before. I’m very lucky.

Introducing writing from the continent to overseas is great, but the future that I’m more interested in is how we can continue supporting publishing houses here to have just as much success. As a writer I want my work to have as much success as possible in the international market. I would also be grateful if one Kenyan, one countryman, felt recognised, represented, emotionally invested in work I’ve put out here. That is tremendously important to me, the domestic success of the book, to make people feel seen.

Identity, alternative history, I love these. It’s about reclaiming the narrative. If these are trends that are happening, they’re very welcome. I love re-imaginings, I love seeing things differently.

I actually don’t mind foreigners writing about places they don’t come from, I only caution them to care about how they write. I don’t think we should police. Write about us, just don’t steal from us, don’t make us less. If we policed we would have no good writing.

We have publications like Panorama Journal which take a different approach to travel writing when travel writing has historically been the whitest writing. Panorama targets travel writers of colour, minorities, locals, AND foreigners. Which is a way to allow for a place to have more dimension than just the foreign one, which usually either fetishizes or alienates.

When you’re writing about others not your own you should be eliminating distance not creating it.

Mombasa is a city of stories I would confidently say. A lot of fantastic television stories are told from the coast since very long ago. However, we haven’t seen as many books from this region.

They are there! Not all are traditionally published. We have Professor Ali Al’amin Mazrui, Abdilatif Abdalla, Moraa Gitaa – we have Abdulrahman ‘Abu Amirah’ Ndegwa, Lubnah Abdulhalim, Abdulqadir Mahmoud, Ahmed Shayo … many more that I am discovering for myself. There are those who are traditionally published, self-published, there are those who deal with traditional forms of writing and non-traditional storytelling, bloggers, youtubers – you have preachers and wedding singers, witches and gossipers, we are a story-rich culture. You haven’t seen many traditional books, yes – but books aren’t the only story form, it’s just considered for some reason more profound.

My grandfather was a poet, he always had these witticisms and old Yemeni Hadrami and Swahili proverbs – but he never called himself a poet, he might have laughed at me to do it for him.

I’m a member of several reader groups on social media and it seems most Kenyans are not keen on reading Kenyan authors. The reason most give is that Kenyan authors are yet to match other competing markets such as Nigeria and South Africa, and lately Uganda.

I know a few writers who would disagree with you and take offence about this. Kenyans read Kenyans but of course, some things are sold much better than others. It’s about packaging, it’s about advertising, it’s about a lot. Maybe it’s about escaping too, some Kenyan writing involves Kenyan conflicts and problems, we are already experiencing it – let’s go over the border and experience Ugandan problems yes? I’m joking. Is it really escape if you are running into another room in the same house?

Maybe it’s naive, but I don’t like the word competition when it comes to progress. Success is not a cake where there are limited slices, it is a well that never runs dry, everyone should be drinking from it. I think we can appreciate literature from other nations without devaluing our own, there are excellent Kenyan writers here. Kenyan writers are usually Kenyan readers as well.

I think it goes back to opportunity and access. The power that our publishing houses have. It’s that snake eating its tail again. It’s society and a great number of moving parts that need to be realigned. Kenyan writers aren’t lacking in success because their writing is inferior, I’ll not have that said. It’s other factors outside of the art, it’s the atmosphere and the space around it that determines its success. I don’t know really what to say. But I won’t have it said that Kenyans are ‘failing to match’ anyone.

Your win is a huge leap not only for you as a writer, especially this being your first manuscript, but for the Kenyan literary circle as a whole. The last time a Kenyan won a magnificent amount of ‘royalty’ for fiction was 2014, in the Caine Prize for short stories. Would you say that the short story seems to be pushing the full-length novel to the periphery in Africa? Does it bother you if so?

I think the short-story form is wonderful, it feels more accessible and to me, it’s the best form of writing. I am frankly more familiar as a reader, and then more intrigued as a writer, by the short-story form. I could never write a proper short story, there’s a certain skill and finesse that I simply lack. It’s the haiku of story form, more intricate, closed like a fist, packed and making its punches count. Short-story writers are truly masters of writing, I respect and admire them.

I’d like more conversation about the short-story form, I find it more intriguing to me, more rewarding as a reader. I haven’t read many African books, but I’ve been reading African poetry, African short-stories. The works of Troy Onyango, Linda Musita, Abigail Arunga, Carey Baraka, Michelle Angwenyi … are just a few of the phenomenal examples whose work is always an adventure. How I performed my pregnancy by Linda Musita and Troy Onyango’s The transfiguration are some of my favourites.

Recently I was able to read an incomplete version of Grace Ogot’s Tekayo. I was mesmerised by it. How does one say so much with so little?

I don’t think the short story is pushing anyone out of the way, in fact I think short-stories need more love. Have you tried writing a short story? It’s not simple at all. Some of these writers don’t even get paid! I used to get annoyed when literary magazines would ask you to submit never before published poetry and then, on top of that, say that they won’t pay you. I’d get annoyed, but I’d accept, I’d understand. This is not to say poetry shouldn’t be paid for or it doesn’t take a lot of care to write, but people write 5k worth of excellent short stories, and don’t get paid?! It’s … baffling.

Thank you for speaking so about my win, but I don’t see these things as being in conflict or in competition. You can’t have too much when it comes to creative work, can you? Okwiri Oduor’s My father’s head felt like a triumph for all of us. I was very proud, it’s a very stunning story she wrote and she deserved the win.

There was the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2013, the Jomo Kenyatta prize, Etisalat Prize, the Jalada Africa prize, Wasafiri New Writing prize, the Wahome Mutahi literary prize, the Nyanza Literary Festival prize, the Brittle Paper Literary Awards. Kenyans have been nominated or even won. Winning prizes is nice, money is also nice. But this talk of ‘royalty’ … it doesn’t sit quite right with me. There are many prizes that aren’t the Caine prize, that aren’t the Graywolf prize but are vital still. When we hear about them, our voices should be just as loud if not a hundred times louder because they’re our own. This is a huge prize but the literary circle in Kenya was doing great work before and will continue doing great work, this isn’t the first win for Kenyans nor will it be the last.

I’m not bothered at all because I see nothing to be bothered about. Short-story writers don’t get the recognition they deserve compared to book-writers, considering they write hundreds of little five-page books all the time.  If I had to be bothered about something, it’s that.

Now that House of Rust is with the publisher, are you working on something else we should watch out for?

I’m not sure what I can say at this point yet, but I work with really, every genre – from action adventure to historical fantasy to contemporary murder mysteries. I’ve been writing a long time, juggling at least eight projects at once. It’s not the starting, it’s the completing. ‘House of Rust’ is the first project I actually saw through to the end, that was such a goal achieved for me, being able to see the story through to the end.

I am thinking of completing a Young Adult novel, I’ve got an Afrofuturistic spy thriller in the works, I’ve got an alternate history fantasy story, I’ve got an anti-hero team taking on a fantasy monarchy … look, I’ve got everything. It’s the completing, there’s the rub.

At your age, what you have already achieved is just but a dream for many novel writers who have gone before you. Even though the book is expected sometime in 2020, do you feel any pressure on your person as a writer?

Wouldn’t you? I feel a pressure, I feel under the microscope. There’s a pressure to be very knowledgeable, very articulate, very interesting – I don’t want to pretend to be these things. I’d rather just put out the work than have my work viewed through a lens, that lens being ‘who is the author’.

This is a dream, I don’t know if it will stop feeling like one, I’m scared of missing the step, coming down the stairs that would tumble it into a nightmare. I feel very exposed. I’m expected to cultivate a certain dignity and gravitas, and I don’t know if I can.

I feel a pressure when it comes to putting out more work, … there’s a lot of expectations here and a lot riding on this for me, I want to make sure I honour my home – that’s a great responsibility for me, so striking that balance between entertainment and truth … that’s a challenge, I hope I do it justice.

Which contemporary Kenyan author would you put your finger on as ‘a must read’ at the moment? Any particular reasons?

We’re talking about books, right? How can I not say Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor! I don’t think I’ve ever responded so strongly, emotionally to a work before (Odidi, I will never forgive and I will never forget). She made me laugh and cry so often, so of course it’s her. God keep her for the agony that she has caused me and so many other Kenyans. It’s like one of those movies that are so excellent and so beautiful but you know you can only watch them once. Why? It’s called ‘self-care’. It is probably the most cinematic novel you could ever read, it’s got such style. I’m not good at describing and critiquing work, I can only tell you how it made me feel. It made me feel Kenyan, it made me feel human.