By Alex Nderitu
Stanley Gazemba’s novel, ‘The Stone Hills of Maragoli’, published in the USA as ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (The Mantle, NY) won the Jomo Kenyatta prize for Kenyan Literature in 2003. He is also the author of ‘Khama’ (shortlisted for the Wilbur and Niso Smith Adventure Writing Prize, also published by The Mantle), ‘Ghettoboy’ (shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize) and ‘Callused Hands’. His collection of short stories, ‘Dog Meat Samosa’ was recently published by Regal House Publishing of Raleigh, USA. His novel, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ will be published in Sweden in 2022.
His articles and stories have appeared in several publications including The New York Times, World Literature Today, Nairobi Noir (Akashic Books), the Caine Prize Anthology ‘A’ is for Ancestors, Man of the House and Other New Short Stories from Kenya (CCCP Press) and The East African magazine. His short story ‘Talking Money’ was featured in ‘Africa 39’, a Hay Festival publication that was released in 2014. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, ‘Africa 39’ features a collection of 39 short stories by some of Africa’s leading contemporary authors.
In addition, he has written several books for children, of which ‘A Scare in the Village’ (OUP) won the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize (English Children category). Stanley lives in Nairobi, where he continues to work on other writing projects.
1: Can you tell our readers across the world about your writing journey?
I started writing in my school notebooks when I was about 11 years old, mostly imitating the American and British writers that were very popular at the time, among them The Hardy Boys series and Secret Seven. Barbara Kimenye’s “Moses” series was also very popular with us – I guess as boarding school students we could relate to Moses’ adventures.
I thus started imitating some of these stories and trying to come up with my own escapades, which I illustrated in pencil. I sent in my first manuscript to Oxford University Press when I was in Form One in 1986. Unfortunately, it didn’t impress the editor, and so was never published. But I was jolly proud of the rejection letter I received and was assured that I was on my way to becoming a published author.
Gradually I started improving my skill and venturing into the novel form. It is a long story, but the short of it is that I have lost a number of handwritten manuscripts in the post! I guess the experience helped to thicken my skin!
2: Can you tell us about your books and what impact they have made on the lives of readers and you?
To be honest I was hoping to become famous at 25 and bank my first million and marry the most beautiful girl in the world and go and live on the beach happily ever after! Sadly I am yet to attain that dream. It has mostly been a frustrating journey, thanks to the rogue publishers I have had to deal with along the way. But I haven’t given up! I am hoping to make it big sometime soon so that when I die my readers will come to my funeral and say: Here lies a great author! My dreams are still valid, to paraphrase our big star in Hollywood, Lupita Nyong’o.
On a serious note, the feedback I have received from my readers so far has been very encouraging. I think those who can lay a hand on my titles appreciate what I do! Of special mention are kids. They make your heart melt when they tell you they read your story and found it very interesting. As an author, you are lost for words when you hear such words from a kid.
But again there are those who don’t find my writing interesting; mostly adults! I guess you have to live with that as well as an author!
3: Awards or Readers, what do you think should come first? Why?
My very first novel, “The Stone Hills of Maragoli”, published in the US as “Forbidden Fruit” won the Jomo Kenyatta Award. It was both a good thing and a bad thing. For one, those fellows gave me a cheque for Kshs 50k (about USD$ 500). I felt very grown-up when I walked into my home pub that evening. But what I didn’t know was that all those fellows in there had seen my photo in the Sunday paper, and somehow they believed I had bagged a million. Meaning I was expected to buy them drinks. My friend, I had to sneak out of there when I came to terms with the harsh realities of fame without considerable fortune! Anyway, I guess it is the life every author should be prepared for. But if you ask me, I’d rather an author gets famous on their third book, after they have matured and learned to live with the success.
4: We all know that digitalisation has conquered every nook and cranny on the earth, and it has invaded the publishing industry. However, some areas on the earth are slow in embracing digitalisation. How has the digitalization of the publishing industry affected the African writing community and their readership?
To be honest with you computers have ruined this business. It pains me when readers share pdfs and e-books online without paying the author a cent as if authors live in a public park and have no bills to pay!
It was better in the older days when authors sold a few copies but got paid for it. Now at the touch of a phone or computer button and there goes an author’s lunch! There’s also this crop of authors who have been made y computers who specialize in copy-pasting other people’s work, and who know nada about the craft of writing, but who are so tech-savvy they have millions of followers on social media! I guess my point is, much as digitalization has opened up the world, it has also ushered in ‘cardboard celebrities’ by the dozen. But, hey, it is our bold new world, and we have no choice but to learn to live with it!
5: Each writer has a unique writing process, and most of them are influenced by their surroundings, cultures and lifestyles. Can you tell us about your writing process and how Africa has influenced it?
I used to be a night owl when I started out, but I had to stop when I got married because the noise of my manual typewriter used to disturb my wife when she was trying to get some sleep!
I think the thought process is clearest in the deep of the night, at that witches’ hour. But it is up to the author to make adjustments depending on how it affects the people around them. If they don’t then there’s a risk of them being labeled mad!
As for inspiration, there’s nowhere better than a dark corner at your local pub at the end of a long busy day. The stories you will hear and observe at that hour will guarantee a best-selling novel. There’s something unpretentious about fellows after they have one or two pints under the belt, including your village pastor. And, yeah, if you walk the villages of Africa you will never run out of stories to tell!
6: Have you ever encountered writer’s block? How did you manage to deal with it?
The block is something every author should be prepared to deal with. Sometimes you have this brilliant idea in your sleep and then, when you sit down at the computer in the morning you realize everything has mysteriously evaporated! It can be very frustrating. When I was still using a typewriter I usually wrenched out the paper, tore it to bits and flung everything at the wall. Thereafter I went out for a walk in the trees to calm down. The story usually came back in its own time. And woe unto you if the story woke you up at midnight. You would have to bang away at the keyboard like a maniac because, just like a wicked seductress, the jinnee of the stories can be restless when she has a good grip on you!
7: Africa is the cradle of human civilization, and it’s the most diverse continent in the world, home to vibrant cultures. It’s also the motherland of several great personalities in global literature. What is your opinion on Africa’s contribution to global literature, and how we can promote African literature on the world stage?
African stories simply haven’t been exploited fully, thanks to a toxic publishing atmosphere and the poverty that sucks on us like a tick, and which makes books a luxury on the continent. If we were to do away with the bottlenecks we would unleash the full potential of this continent on the world because we are the cradle of mankind! If only someone shot all these politicians who start wars and do all these crazy things that make us the laughing stock of the world!
8: We live in a divided world in many dimensions and literature is no exception. We, as authors, still believe that literature can help unite the world and heal the planet. How do you perceive the divisions in our sphere its impact? What are your suggestions on how literature and authors can contribute to restoring unity in this world?
The Bible tells us that God created the world in six days. What it doesn’t say is that after God had created Adam and Eve he also created these unique fellows called authors, who can do almost as much as God did, only that they do it in their heads! We are a special breed, my friend. That’s why people still talk of Shakespeare ages after he was laid to rest in his six-foot abode at Westminster Abbey! We authors are the salt of the earth. Without stories we are nothing!
9: As an acclaimed author, what is your message for the budding generation of authors across genres?
Wow, that’s a tough one! I guess my message to them is to simply keep going and never stop!
10: What are your parting words to hundreds of thousands of readers of Asian Reviews?
Thanks for this. I think it is in order for me to blow my trumpet. They should look out for my explosive novel, “Footprints in the Sand”, which will be published in Sweden later this year. It is a project that has been in the waiting for close to thirty years. It is as unconventional as they come because first of all, it defies commodification by genre. I once showed it to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s publisher and he came short of telling me; what the hell is this? It took a crazy Swede to put it on the market, after sitting on my bookshelf for all that while. And, hey, it was written for my childhood sweetheart who gave me the boot!