A while back, I was among those selected from across Africa to participate in a writing program, organized by Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE), dubbed Writivism. For somebody with one hundred or so badly written teenage poems lying forgotten in diaries and collecting dust and numerous futile childish attempts at writing short stories long before I knew what exactly it was I was doing, I suddenly found myself exactly where I needed to be. There would be no more fumbling around in the dark as I tried to perfect my craft. no more ruthless self-critiquing which is the worst kind. We are naturally more unforgiving of our own shortcomings than we are of others.
I was assigned a mentor along with a bunch of other aspiring writers from all across Africa. Our mentor was the famous Kenyan writer, Okwiri Oduor, fresh from winning the Short Story Day Africa Prize for her story, My Father’s Head. She has since won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing for the same story.
Naturally I wanted to check out Okwiri’s work so as to better understand her thought process and perhaps emulate her style. Little did I know that it was easier said than done. I would categorize My Father’s Head as African Spiritualism though a fellow mentee, Amy Heydenrych, termed it as Magical Realism which isn’t far off the mark.
This is what Okwiri had to say about what inspires her writing style:
I like to read writing from the world’s people of color. I find they have a way of interpreting the world in a manner that is familiar to me and I find their literature rich. The words sing to me, and the colors, they swirl before my eyes. When I was younger, I heard many stories told. Things happened to people that people around me knew and loved. Spirits visited. Djinnis lived in back yards. Women gave birth to bars of soap. This sort of world fascinates me. I imagine it is different from fantasy—it is an actual reality to some people out there. It is an alternate reality. Some people call it magic(al) realism. All I know is that the world is a wonderful, mysterious place. Reality is very relative. I like to explore this in my fiction.
They say that nothing invigorates creative juices more than the success of others. Suddenly I was supercharged with the urge to write and write and write until whatever it is that has always driven me to bleed onto paper was finally sated.
I got to understand what Okwiri’s writing process is. In her own words:
Deadlines help me find some clarity about projects that are close to my heart. It works in a peculiar way. For example, I have a certain looming deadline for a short story and all of a sudden, I cannot bear to be torn from my work. One sure-fire way of knowing I am postponing something is when I am working furiously at my novel, which at that particular moment is exactly the thing I should not be working on.
I, on the other hand, tend to start my projects with time to spare. This allows me the freedom to fine-tune whatever it is I am writing before the deadline or abandon one project and start a new one from scratch if I have to.
Okwiri chose a laidback approach when mentoring us. By us, I mean Amy Heydenrych from South Africa, Sharon Tshipa from Botswana, Okwudili Nebeolisa from Nigeria and I, representing Uganda. We used Gmail as a hangout and shared personal perspectives, writing processes, inspiration and the like. Okwiri’s advice and critique of our stories was invaluableO. I suddenly saw what I wrote in a different light and was able to see and rectify my numerous shortcomings.
I can’t speak for my fellow mentees but Writivism has exposed me to a literary world that had hitherto only been lurking on my blindside. I got to have a dialogue with a great African writer, got to make writer friends who share my love for the written word, I got to be part of an African Renaissance of sorts and I have to say, I am really proud for once to be part of the crowd.
This piece is the seventh and the last in a series showcasing new African writers. It’s a platform for these writers to share their story and reflect not just on their work but also on the African literary scene. Check back every Friday for a new interview. Thanks to the folks at Writivism for conducting the interviews and choosing to share it on our platform.