EVERY TIME I SIT TO WRITE, I THINK ABOUT MY CHILDHOOD | CONVERSATION WITH GLORIA MWANIGA ODARY

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GLORIA MWANIGA ODARY is a writer based in Nairobi whose work has appeared in The White Review, The Nation, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Munyori Literary Journal and Ebedi Review. She is a recipient of the 2019 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and the 2021 African Land Policy Centre Story Prize. Gloria has been shortlisted for the Writivism Prize and the Goethe Afro Young Adult Story Competition. She is currently revising her first book, an adventure novel that follows a young female drifter growing up in small towns across Kenya.

 

Hello, Gloria. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.

Thank you.

What prompted you to become a writer? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and how did you work towards actualizing the dream?

I was lucky because I had what some would call a literary childhood. My parents were Kiswahili language teachers with a huge library full of novels, plays and poetry books that my siblings and I devoured. My father was also a literature lover and a writer of Kiswahili books and I grew up watching him read and write every day. I even recall writers and playwrights knocking on our door, armed with manuscripts they wanted to discuss with Dad. Later, while studying at the University of Nairobi, I joined a writing group where stories were workshopped, that helped me develop my craft further. Another thing that helped me grow was writing book reviews and interviewing writers for the Daily Nation newspaper. I came to appreciate the critic’s point of view and the importance of standing back from one’s writing and examining it through critical lenses.

What was the process of writing your first book like for you?

The process for the different genres I write in are dissimilar. For the early stories and children’s books, it was a lot of trial-and-error, a sort of stumbling along as I tried to figure out what writing was all about. The thing that remains constant in my process is how much I read while writing. For me, reading and writing are two halves of a whole.

Have there been any radical changes between how you wrote your first book and how you write now?

I wouldn’t speak of radical changes, instead, I would describe the experience as a steady and slow evolution of style and process over time. These days, I prefer to make elaborate outlines before starting on stories. I also feel as though I appreciate the business of writing and the process involved much better. I’m also plugged into the literary community and quite aware of the politics and place of the stories I’m interested in telling.

What do you think makes a good writer succeed, and what are some of the literary trends and artistic (tropes?) you believe have impacted the thematic essence of the modern novel the most?

I don’t know what you mean by success and I honestly don’t know if I’m the right person to answer that question. The books that I’ve read and considered artistically successful always have a tenderness to them. I also love it when writers mold, knead and bend the English language into englishes that best embody their cultures, local languages and lived experiences as Jennifer Makumbi does in Manchester Happened. I am equally drawn to playful, funny and witty essays and stories that have an emotional core—those written from deep inside and narrated intricately.

On the literary trends and artistic tropes that have impacted the thematic essence of the modern novel, I can only speak of the African novel which I find to have really shifted in the last 5 years. Presently, there seems to be more emphasis on our diverse identities. Writers are also moving away from stereotypes and exploring newer, bolder themes and topics. We also have more diverse voices writing and that’s great.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your writing? What personal experiences have influenced your writing the most?

Being a Kenyan and writing about Kenya is enough connection between life and work, methinks.

For someone who has written a lot and who is constantly writing, how do you remain innovative?

By reading other writers. I read frequently and obsessively. I read established and new writers. I read outside my comfort zone. I take stories apart and try and figure out how writers put them together. Each writer I read waters and weeds my garden of words. They all give me something new with which to approach my own work. That, I believe, is what helps me stay innovative.

Apart from being a writer, you are also a creative writing consultant. Can you give us a brief idea in terms of what the role entails and if it has had any influence on the way you write?

The creative consultancy role entails helping corporates and individuals tell their stories in fun, imaginative ways. To do so, I have to approach every technical writing assignment with a storyteller’s mind and look for human angles from which to approach it. I then employ creative writing tools in developing the article, essay or memoir.

I think my writing influences my consultancy work and not the other way round. This is because I tend to approach technical tasks artistically and to make careful decisions about which words to choose and how to shape the text. I then keep shaping and reshaping the words until they do what I want them to do.

We noticed you write children’s literature. In the past few years, it seems there’s been an explosion of children’s literature writers. Do you think children’s fiction is growing faster than most people realize?

It depends on where you are looking. In places like the USA and the UK, the market for children’s literature has always been huge. It is only in recent years that Africa is trying to catch up with the rest of the world in production. So, yes, children’s literature is growing really fast on the continent and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Still on children’s literature. What inspired you to write children’s fiction? Would you say you becoming an educator with access to children provides you with enough stories and resources to work with?

Being an educator, being around children all the time, observing them and knowing that I can communicate with them well is what inspired me to write for children.

I may have considered hanging up my boots as far as children’s writing is concerned but then I volunteered at a primary school in rural Kenya and was astounded to find out that the pupils couldn’t read because they didn’t have access to books and the school lacked a library. That encounter strengthened my resolve to keep writing for children. It also put in me a desire to feature children from rural areas in my stories. So, my forthcoming children’s books on the geographical processes and physiography of Kenya are set in rural towns down from the Coast, to Longonot in the Rift Valley and all the way to Kabarnet—the tiny town where I taught for 8 years. It is important for me that children in these far-off places see themselves, their parents and cultures represented in the storybooks they read.

When writing for younger audiences, would you say creativity and empathy are more important than facts? Some children’s writers in the past have opined that being objectively accurate isn’t exactly necessary, especially if doing so gets in the way of a good story. This suggests they may not do a lot of research into the themes they write since they already have a predetermined goal for the story. What do you think about this?

I think creativity and empathy are important in all genres. I also think that the choice of whether to focus on creativity, empathy or facts will depend on the objectives of the piece of work one is creating and whether it is meant to entertain, educate or pass across an important historical or geographical fact.

How do you think your stories impact the children who read them? Is your primary aim for writing this type of stories to enlighten or entertain these children, or is there a part of you that wants to inspire the next generation of storytellers through your writing?

This is a great question. I really hope that the stories I write impact the kids who read them. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up reading and so, the entertainment value of books isn’t lost on me. I vividly recall reading C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first novel of his fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia and getting completely gobsmacked. I vanished from my bedroom, got into that cupboard with Lucy, fell into cold Narnia and lived there with Aslan, the beavers and the white witch for the duration of the book. Nothing can ever erase the magical sensation of bouyancy I felt when I turned that last page. I want that for every child.

Looking through all you’ve written so far, as well as the many other stories you may still choose to publish in the future, do you imagine that as a child, you would have enjoyed reading your own books? Or is that a thought you don’t factor into your writing process?

The adult I am today is always writing for that child in me. So, I would expect her to enjoy the stories because they are shaped by her reality. Every time I sit to write, I think about my childhood, about the stories I read and those that I would have loved to read but didn’t because they weren’t available or had not been written yet. This is what determines the stories I choose to tell and how I tell them.

So, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to? Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue your readers?

I’m currently revising an adventure novel that follows a young female drifter growing up in small towns across Kenya. I’m always fascinated by the streetwise, brave children in towns and marketplaces across Kenya who are forced by circumstances to find ways to care for, protect and bring themselves up because their parents are unable to do so. I wrote this book for them.

Finally, if the world’s last remaining library was burning, and you could only save three books, what books would there be?

Nora Ephron’s essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman because of her witty and hilarious take on womanhood and ageing. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See because of its dazzling prose, astonishing language and because it is a book that one must read with all their senses and all their empathy. Margret Busby’s New Daughters of Africa because I am a sucker for short stories and because saving it would mean attending a perpetual literary feast with 200 remarkable Black women.

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