By Alex Nderitu
J.E. Sibi-Okumu is a playwright from Kenya. The socio-political evolution of his country is a constant inspiration for him. Almost all his plays involve music and dance. He also writes prose and poetry and is a regular columnist. He is a *Chevalier des Palmes Académiques.
[*An honorific title for services to French culture as a teacher of French]
1: Can you tell our readers across the world about your writing journey?
I would say that my writer’s journey began, tangentially, through a love of reading.
As a 7 year old, my mother and a I left an ancestral village, near the shores of Lake Victoria in what is now Busia County in Western Kenya, to join my father who had preceded us, having left soon after I was born, to be an adult, law student in England. I began primary level education in Year Three at William Pattern School in North London, a supremely baffling environment for which the first requirement was to learn how to speak and read a new language: English. I was up to the challenge and, by degrees, I became what is known as a book worm.
My father finally obtained his degree three years after we had come and we returned to Kenya a year after its independence, in 1963. That initial, deep immersion into another culture led me to excel in all things language-related: I learned Latin; I won treading prizes; I was a member of the school debating club, acted in school plays, wrote for the school magazine, kept copious scrap books and tried my hand at writing poetry, from my teenage years to the present day. I progressed, after high school and from university, to acting on our adult stages as well as in local and international films. I wrote a weekly theatre review and regular magazine columns; I was a freelance radio and television presenter and I became a teacher of French for over 25 years, on the strength of my academic credentials.
However, to earn a living as a full-time writer did not present itself as a viable option to Kenyans of my generation. Books did not make money unless they were placed on the national curriculum as set texts. It was only after someone dared me, with all my experience as an actor-director, to write for the stage that I saw the production of my first play in 2004, the year I turned 50. Luckily, it was greeted with not only local but international acclaim with profiles of me appearing in Newsweek International and the UK Independent. Thematically, I chose to focus on the transformation of my young country and its society in the prior manner of the Irish playwright Brian Friel and the African American August Wilson, as examples with whom I became acquainted. Ten years after, I had followed up with another five which now form part of my COLLECTED PLAYS 2004-2014, published in June, 2021. Also, quite fortuitously, I was urged by its editor, Peter Kimani to supply a short story for the collection NAIROBI NOIR from Akashic Publishers of Brooklyn New York. My submission, BELONGING, was to feature on the Honor’s list, among 10, of the Best American Mystery Stories of 2021 and I have entered it for this year’s AKO Caine Prize, awaiting June or July to find out how it fares. Therefore, I think that I can describe myself as both an early and late bloomer with more offerings definitely in my mind, across genres.
2: Can you tell us about your books and what impact they have made on the lives of readers and you?
I am a playwright, all of whose six, published plays, so far, have urged my audiences and readers to take stock of the historical upheavals which have defined my young country, Kenya, which has close to 50 clearly defined ethnic groups, all with different languages and cultural specificities, as it has grappled and still grapples, with the imponderables towards achieving true nationhood. How have ethnic clashes, political assassinations, attempted coups, ideological standoffs and the dictates of globalization in the wake of colonialism affected individuals trying to live their lives? I believe that the soul-searching which their stories engender involves not only Kenyans but Africans generally and, given our common humanity, others throughout the world who experience or have experienced similar challenges in different guises.
3: Awards or Readers, what do you think should come first? Why?
Readers, without a doubt, because of the mathematical formulation which has to accept that awards are awarded by panels of several judges whereas, with a bit of luck, one’s audiences and readers can run into the hundreds and thousands and millions and zillions. Further, one should not write with the aim of winning million dollar prizes – although they are a genuine enticement for a person with responsibilities anxious to make an honest living – but rather in the elevated hope that one wishes to touch hearts and minds and to help change the world for the better, even as one tries to entertain it.
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?
The matter of digitalisation is a difficult one for me to address from personal experience because I simply have no knowledge of the impact of digitalisation in Kenya. However, I do recognize that the world goes forwards, not backwards and, by that token, digitalisation represents the inexorable way of the future. And that being a future of great democratization of the reading experience because more people will be exposed to more, more quickly and more cheaply, as a result.
5: Each writer has a unique writing processes, 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?
Without a vibrant publishing culture there are few writers who can make a living entirely from their writing. In Kenya, it can best be described as a driven pastime, a sideline from the nine , day job. I wrote all my six plays as I held down full time employment as a teacher, with lessons to plan and deliver, exams to set and grade and reports, at several levels, to write. Therefore, as I have read of other famous writers, I did not write for hours every day with a walk and a meal in between.
Happily, now that I am retired, I am in a position to summon up a similar discipline. But writing is still conducted in solitude in a very individual way.
I would only suggest that Africa calls for more “choosy” writing, obviating some existent genres because its economies are yet to yield a vast a readership, purely for pleasure.
6: Have you ever encountered writer’s block? How did you manage to deal with it?
Not to admit to what is called ‘writer’s block’ is to claim that there is a writer somewhere who conceives of an idea and brings it to life from start to finish, without uncertainty.
I think that every writer has an auto-edit mode which calls for stopping when an initial idea is obviously grinding to a halt, so that creative repairs can be done and the creative journey can recommence. And so on, until it is brought to an end. Personally, I must say that I am a great believer in the workings of the subconscious mind. So, in my opinion, having ‘writer’s block’ is an integral part of the creative process and should be taken as a given of it: to be encountered and overcome. What would be unforgiveable would be to abandon a writing project with ‘writer’s block’ as the explanation. We writers should try to finish what we start.
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 mother land 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?
Having acknowledged that our written word, literary tradition is relatively short, it is also true that with every decade after the African independences of the 1950s and 60s, there are more writers coming out of Africa. And their output needs exposure outside Africa.
But this is not special pleading of a “look at me!” kind. As a Kenyan I can only name Tagore, Roy, Naipul and Seth as Asian writers. By which I mean that a measure of cross-pollination as we are not aware of each other’s existence both on the African continent itself and more so, elsewhere, aside from the West, whose publicity and distribution machines are extremely well oiled.
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?
Much of what is wrong with the world can be put down to politics and politicians.
Writers have the power to make incremental contributions to making the world a better place. In the same way that doctors contribute to curing our medical ailments so writers contribute to curing our social ailments: ignorance, prejudice, hatred and so on.
Through the stories we tell, we writers can play a transformative role in that we can change the way our readers and audiences perceive the world in which we live and our similar, human joys and disappointments within it .
9: As an acclaimed author, what is your message for the budding generation of authors across genres?
There are more stories to be told than there are storytellers. So, join the club!
10: What are your parting words to hundreds of thousands of readers of Asian Reviews?
“Our stories are your stories and your stories are our stories. So, let us share each other’s stories.”