By Amanda Thompson
Today’s Author interview is dedicated to a poet, novelist, playwright and critic from the East African country, Kenya. In 2001, he published his first novel, When the Whirlwind Passes, online. It is regarded asAfrica’s first purely ‘digital novel’. He has since published three more books: The Moon is Made of Green Cheese (2008), Kiss Commander Promise (2011), and Africa on My Mind (2013). His books are available on Lulu.com and via World reader apps/devices.
His short stories, articles and poems have been published in The East African Standard, Publishing Perspectives, Hjänstorm, Ars Artium, IFLAC Peace and Anti-Terror Anthology, Commonwealth Poetry Postcards, My Africa, My City: An Afridiaspora Anthology, AwaaZ, World Poetry Almanac, One Million Project: Thriller Anthology, AfricanWriter.com, Agbowó, SETU and IHRAF Publishes, among other journals and publications. Some of his writings have been translated into Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Swedish, French, Dholuo, and Kiswahili. His more scholarly work (including research papers on African literature and theatre) is available on Academia.edu. In 2014, his narrative poem ‘Someone in Africa Loves You‘ represented Kenyan literature on Commonwealth Postcards distributed during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. In 2017, Business Daily newspaper listed him amongst Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men‘. In 2020, he was a finalist for the Collins Elesiro Literature Prize. He is currently the Deputy Secretary-General of Kenyan PEN and a Regional Managing Editor for the global theatre news portal, TheTheatreTimes.com. His official website is www.AlexanderNderitu.com
- You are a novelist, poet, playwright and critic, can you tell us about your literary journey so far?
Yes. I started writing when I was quite young. Incidentally, I was born on William Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23rd), which is also UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright. When I was around 14 years old I used to create my own comic strips and superheroes, inspired by such characters as Batman, Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Modesty Blaise. I was also a very avid reader, across genres. When I was in high school, my class essays used to be read out to my classmates. By the time I was 16, I knew I was destined to be a scribe. Incidentally, I was a library captain in high school. I loved to explore the books, both fiction and non-fiction. I also discovered European and American classics. I wrote my first novel, When the Whirlwind Passes, when I was around 19 and I published it digitally when I was 22. It was inspired by a real-life high-society murder case that took place in Italy. Since then, I have written three more books: Kiss, Commander, Promise; The Moon is Made of Green Cheese; and Africa on My Mind. I have also published many poems and short stories in different countries – the UK, Israel, Sweden, Nigeria and Egypt, to name a few. I have also written six stage plays, my favourite of which is Hannah and the Angel which was a finalist in the ASSITEJ SA Scriptwriting contest. A recent poem I wrote, titled The Nigerian Convention on Nude Nice, was a finalist for the December 2020 Collins Elesiro Literature Prize.
- Your novel When the Whirlwind Passes, is Africa’s first purely ‘digital novel’. Do you believe that the future of the publishing industry is digital?
Not necessarily. Digital books are just an option that didn’t exist before. But it’s very unlikely that they will ever replace physical books, just like TV did not replace radio. Most people still prefer a physical book that they can curl up with and display in home library. E-books have their advantages. They are cheaper and faster to produce. They cost less for the buyer and typically have a much higher royalty rate for authors. Initially, major publishers resisted the e-book trend due to piracy but they have also entered the digital space. There are technologies such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) that protect books from piracy. Personally, I have books in both print and e-book format. I started with e-books but now I am creating paperback versions so that they can be sold in traditional bookstores and on the streets.
- The East is familiar with Nigerian writers who write in English much more than other nationalities in Africa, can you elaborate a bit on Kenyan identity in the global literary scene today?
Here’s an interesting fact: According to Worldreader, the app that carries my digital literature, I have more readers in Nigeria than in my home country. Nigeria is Africa’s cultural giant, not just in literature. Also in movies, cuisine, fashion and music. It’s also Africa’s most populous country. The Nigerian ‘brand’ is well known throughout the world. East Africans are avid consumers of Nollywood films, the Nigerian equivalent of Bollywood. Many famous African writers do tend to spring from Nigeria – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and so forth. By contrast, Kenya has much fewer notable writers but we excel in other areas including long-distance running. Kenya is also a major business hub – dubbed ‘the gateway to East Africa’ – and has the largest economy in the region. However, we have our own share of cultural icons including Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Writer and ‘language warrior’ Ngugi wa Thiong’o has often been expected to win the Nobel Prize for Literature but it is yet to come to pass. He once said that a writer should strive to win, ‘the Nobel Prize of the heart’, in other words, to endear himself to readers, and I agree with him. Incidentally, my most recent stage play script is about the life and times of Wangare Maathai who hailed from the same area as I do. It’s titled The Talking of Trees. I can’t wait to showcase it after the dreadful COVID-19 lockdowns that are killing theatre!
- There is a drastic decline in the readership for poems across the world, as a published poet what is your opinion on that?
Even here, most mainstream publishers won’t touch a poetry manuscript unless it’s a potential anthology for schools. As I understand it, ‘poetry’ can no longer be defined because Free Verse has made everyone a poet. However, Spoken Word poetry has been thriving. There are numerous poetry groups, ‘slams’, showcases and ‘open mic’ sessions throughout the continent. Some performing poets also have books but these are almost always self-published. Literary magazines also have regular callouts for poetry. We also have some reputable poetry awards such as the annual Babishai Niwe Poetry Award. Written poetry is not quite as popular, however. And neither are traditional verse forms like Sonnets and Roundels.
- Usually, writers are mostly limited to one or two genres. But you have stretched your wings in all the areas of the domain of literature: our readers may be curious to know more about that.
Oh, yes! I believe I have written in every genre. I once wrote the script to a documentary commissioned by the Sugar Directorate of Kenya! Initially, I wanted to be a novelist. But I enjoyed reading poetry and I was able to get a couple of poems published in The East African Standard when I was in my early twenties. I also love theatre. Around 2005, I wrote a short comedic play titled Hannah and the Angel. It co-won a Theatre Company playwriting contest and was recently a finalist in an ASSITEJ SA scriptwiting contest. I write short stories because I have a lot of ideas in my head and writing novels takes a lot of time and research. I only when I’m inspired. It’s all very organic. I didn’t set out-to genre-hop: it just happened. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons I write in so many genres is because I’ve got a very eclectic reading palate. In the early 2000’s, I used to download movie scripts from sites likeScript-O-Rama.com and read them for pleasure. I am currently reading a copy of the annual Best American Short Stories anthology. I started reading poems before I discovered I share a birthday with The Bard. When I was young, we lived a walking distance away from a public library. I discovered much great information there – stuff about machines, space, prehistoric animals, classic children’s fiction, and so on. The more one reads, the wider their scope grows.
- Your work spread across several themes such as history, culture, poetry etc: What is your opinion about the importance of cultural awareness for a writer?
I think it’s very import. In West Africa, there’s a term called ‘griot’. A griot is a traditional storyteller who kept the village stories and poured them out in words or song. He was like the village library before there were books. The death of a griot was like the burning down of a library. We need more griots in Africa. Modern ones. Artists who use cultural products not just to entertain or as a passion but to also educate and inform their communities. For example, in my poetry book, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese, I have poems about African wildlife, the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railways by Indian platelayers, and the nature of the River Nile. All the information in those verses is accurate, although it’s presented as something that’s just fun to read. It has been said many times, by other people, that a good way of teaching people is by telling a story. For example, it’s easier and more fun to read a historical thriller by Dan Brown than to read a text book on the kind of subject matter that he writes about. And it’s more enjoyable to watch the Titanic movie than read online articles about it. So what writers must learn to do is weave their thoughts, ideas and philosophies into their stories. The Swahili have a saying: ‘Mwacha mila ni mtumwa’ (‘He who abandons his culture is a slave (to another’s culture)’.
- It is said that a writer often expresses his/her feelings/thoughts and emotions through his/her characters (at various levels, of course). Do you think so? If yes, can you elaborate?
Yes, we often use characters as vessels to convey our own thoughts, ideas and emotions. However, it is important not to confuse the author with the main character of a story, or the persona with the poet. When you write, you play God. You decide the outcome of events and the fate of the characters. Therefore, you cannot be any one character, unless you’re all of them at once. For example, I have written stories from a woman’s point of view. I’ve had characters plying professions that I have never been in, like the military. Research and being a keen observer is important for writers, and journalists. I would also recommend a rudimentary study of Human Psychology – what makes people do the things they do? Is it True that our personalities are formed during childhood? Are Carl Jung’s ‘archetypes’ the equivalent of different roles in a stage play? How would a person naturally react to a given situation? So, in conclusion, the author should not be confused with the characters but he does have overall control and can sway things in order to make a statement or advance a course. For example, we have seen some LGBTQI+ writers in Africa write about same-sex relationships.
- Getting your first book published is not an easy job. And, almost every author has to pass through a difficult time for his/her first creation to get published. Can you share your journey to get your first book published?
Yes. Getting published by mainstream or ‘traditional’ publishers is still not easy, especially if you’re not an already established writer or a famous person. However, the opportunities of getting published in journals and anthologies has increased since the birth of the Internet. The Internet has also helped African writers connect in a manner that was previously impossible. Many African online journals contain contributions from all over the continent. Literary festivals are also hotspots for writers and readers from different nationalities to mingle, have fun, and exchange ideas. The first pieces of writing I published were poems that were published in a local newspaper. I then managed to get some short stories published on literary websites. For example, a short detective story starring ‘Kenindians’ (Indians of Kenyan nationality) was published on AfricanWriter.com . Incidentally, another short story featuring South Asians living in Kenya was recently published online by SETU Journal, a peer-reviewed Hindi and English literary journal. My story is titled The Love Parade. Later, after responding to online callouts, I managed to get some short stories published in international book anthologies, including the IFLAC: Peace and Anti Terrorism Anthology (Israel) and the OMP: Thriller Anthology (UK). Along the way, I had picked up several awards and nominations and been covered by various news outlets. Eventually, a literary agent based in New York contacted me. In future, I will channel my longer works of fiction through him. It’s easier to get published by the mainstream players if your work is submitted by an agent. Aspiring writers should pursue agents more than publishers.
Alexander Nderitu (second from left) speaks at the African Writers Conference in 2020. The other panelists are from (L – R) Cameroon, Nigeria, Mauritius and Kenya.
- What can your readership expect in the near future? Can you tell us a bit about it?
I have so many works in the pipeline. The ones coming out shortly include paperback versions of my e-books, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese, Africa on My Mind and Kiss, Commander, Promise. My second solo poetry collection, Where the Kremlin Live, is also about to drop. I am still working on my vernacular poetry book, The Mathematics of Carey Francis. Some of the poems are already available online as teasers. For theatre, I have plenty of works in store including a beefed-up version of Hannah and the Angel, a play about Nobel Prize winner Wangare Maathai, and a thriller about African vampires. I have also completed enough short stories for two themed collections and will be releasing them in the near future. I mostly write short stories these days due to shortage of time. I am also hoping to stage my romantic play, The Stacy Walker Interview, online later this year. The script has been opened by over 50,000 readers on the Worldreader app and received almost 2,000 ‘likes’. Apart from my own plays, I am a theatre critic. I will be a judge in this year’s Sanaa Theatre Awards. Given the circumstances, I am sure many of the nominations will be for online productions.
- Are there any authors you admire deeply, and why?
I have so many favourites, I couldn’t possibly list them all. I have heroes in different genres. For example, my vernacular activism was heavily influenced by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. My all-time favourite humourists were S.J. Perelman and Wahome Mutahi. My thriller writing would be non-existent if it weren’t for the works of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Fredrick Forsyth, John Le Carré, Adam Hall, Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jack Higgins. They blew my mind. My poetry was influenced by very many greats including William Shakespeare, P. B. Shelly, Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gill Scott-Heron, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Amiri Baraka, and Langston Hughes. To give you an example of how inspiration works, when I was a preteen, the Mahabharata TV series was broadcast in Kenya. (Ramayan as well, but the Mahabharata was the greatest epic I had ever watched.) Decades later, I wrote a poem called Arjun, about the famous Pandava marksman, and it was published in the peer-reviewed Ars Artium journal, Volume 5 (2017), edited by Vijay Kumar Roy. My mind could still the characters and storyline!
- Aside from writing, what are your interests? What do you like to do to unwind?
So many interests! I love listening to Hip-Hop music, watching Battle Raps, Mixed Martial Arts, Professional wrestling, and football. I take incredibly long solitary walks. And I love wine and the company of women. I especially like women who books or poetry. I’ve actually been on a date and spent time talking about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner! I don’t care if some people think that’s geeky – it’s a very powerful poem!
- What is your opinion on the need for people to engage in the creation (or consumption) of the literary arts amidst the ongoing, and rather stressful, COVID-19 pandemic?
The arts have always been a place of refuge in times of strife. Unfortunately, this particular pandemic has affected the world in such a manner that it has made it very difficult even for the creators of artistic content, especially when it comes to events. Pre-COVID-19, the literary landscape was awash with literary festivals, book fairs, book launches, poetry events and so on. Due to the financial crunch that came in the wake of the pandemic, consumers have less money to spend on books, and publishers/authors have fewer spaces to promote their works. At this point, many artists, across disciplines, are in survival mode and if they can find paying opportunities to tide them over the pandemic, they should pursue them until the day normalcy returns. It’s a dark time for the arts.
- What is your message to budding authors around the world?
If they really feel that you were born to write, then you should pursue your dream relentlessly.