On poetry, prose, and being a young fantasy writer in Nairobi:

An interview with Ray Mwihaki

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She is one of the pillars of the literary collective World’s Loudest Library (WLL). Her short story “The Third Set of Stitches” was published in 2018 on Omenana[1] and long-listed for the prestigious 2019 Nommo awards, given by the African Society for Speculative Fiction[2]. 2019 has been a decidedly productive year for Ray Mwihaki, as she has just published her second collection of poems and her second children’s book. She is also a gifted seamstress who works with wax as she works with words. Magically. Africultures met her in Westlands, Nairobi, where she works, like many young creatives, and where she attends WLL events at the Alchemist, a favorite haunt. 

 

In 2017 you told Geoff Ryman in his interview for Strange Horizons[3] that you only wrote poetry for a while because you wanted to “keep it simple and vague so no one can ask too many questions”.  Is it still true today?

Still true. It’s easier for me to hide in poetry. I can say a lot in very few words. If you get it, you get it and if you don’t, you don’t! The best thing about poetry is that it’s up to your interpretation. I may be writing about one thing and you’ll get something else out of it, which is fantastic. See, when you write in prose it’s that story, so I can’t really hide.

Why would you want to hide?

Mostly because… I’m bipolar and for the longest time, I didn’t know what was happening or that anything was happening, really. Well, living through a mental disorder is really just one of the reasons. It was an easy escape  when I started to perceive life. I started writing poetry actively when I was angry or elated. In my first book, I was celebrating a really dark period in my life. Anger and pain and darkness had been my comfort and companion for years. I knew nothing else. Even the beauty of life was seen through that lens of loss and sadness. I didn’t want my mum to know that this was what I was thinking about. I wanted to hide what I was feeling in poetry, to express myself in some sort of code. I used to get criticized a lot, in primary school, in high school, about many things. Writing was my rebellion. I used to get a lot of questions about the meaning of my prose, I had to explain everything but I didn’t want to dig deep, I wanted to let go, I didn’t want to relive it and that’s what poetry was for me: to just release. And you didn’t have to ask any question because whatever you’d understand would be different. But when it comes to prose everything is just taken apart and becomes really painful because I have to live every moment, choose a word for every feeling.

You just published your second collection of poems, in what sense is it different from your first collection Breaking the Epitaph?

In Breaking the Epitaph, I celebrate the despondency in life. The pain, the sadness, the anger, and despair. It was what came after attempted suicide and finally letting people in.

Candles Along Ngunyiri Street is in many ways a journey of rediscovery. The hazy space between life and death, when you aren’t sure whether you’re still breathing or you are full of life and wonder. It plays around with language and memories, and realities. Growing up, we primarily spoke in English but there were a few words we adopted from Kikuyu and Kiswahili. Most pieces are written like that. It makes me happy that I am in the land of the living, once more.

It must have been a form of relief for you to join a collective, when you became a member of the World’s Loudest Library?

Oh yes! I met Raph and Steve[4] at a bar. There was a bar at the top of the National Theater. I was an actress then. We used to go there after rehearsals. We used to go for a drink, hang out with people, maybe get our next job from there. And they were working at an advertising agency at that time and they used to come there for drinks. The entire place was very open. It was not like a normal bar where you sit at your little table and don’t interact with anyone else. Everyone interacted with everyone. So that’s how I met them. We went for a party, they just came from doing the PMBC[5] podcast and were talking to me about it. They were interested in writing. I was still in campus at the time and I was like my God, these people, they’re living the life I want to live! So we became friends and then my journey with WLL began.

At that time there were only two main collectives, Jalada and Kwani?, which were way up there. They were very elitist at that time. WLL felt more in line with my spirit back then. Jalada and Kwani? had a certain style of writing that they wanted, a certain type of stories. You had to fit in. The good thing with Raph, Sharon[6] and Steve, and all the WLL people, is that they didn’t want to write clean, neat stories, ‘for-funding stories’ basically — stories for European funding, that’s what Jalada[7] and Kwani?[8] were. Is it good enough to be a Commonwealth story? Is it good enough to meet those standards?

So we thought: OK, we are the other people, the ones who are chaotic. We write stories that people don’t necessarily want to write, we want to challenge what you people are writing, and what you people are writing about Africa. I mean we want to tell our stories as they are because our realities are different. So you can’t keep telling me to write stories that wear a little skirt and dance before the King, or is it Queen? We’re past that age. There’s a new reality. So you can’t expect me to write in the same style. Just so that it can be pleasing, it can be clean, and good enough for some foreigner somewhere to read. We want to write all the grime, all the filth.

I liked that WLL just gave me that opportunity to do that, to just explore that. We had an edition that was called “Deep Dark Things” and people wrote on all the strangest things! Oh man, that was intense! [Laughter] But it was fantastic, that’s what I like. I don’t like things that are very crisp and neat, I’m not that person. Does that make me a messy person? I don’t know.

Who Dropped the Cake?, 2017, le premier livre pour enfants de Ray Mwihaki

Eventually you did submit your work to another platform, Omenana, who published “The Third Set of Stitches”: how did the editing process go?

I used to read stories on Omenana and never thought that mine would ever be there.

Why?

I have no idea. I’m just building confidence in my prose, still. I was in awe of guys like Tendai Huchu[9] and Derek Lubangakene[10]. I used to read a lot of their work on Omenana and I was like “yeah pretty cool, maybe at some point”. Then Chinelo Onwualu[11] sent me an email asking me if I wanted to submit something. She had read my Strange Horizons profile and back then Geoff had actually asked me if I had thought of submitting to Omenana. I told Chinelo “I don’t think I have anything but let’s see!” It was actually a painful process because she’s a really good editor: she had me question every single part of it. It was a really short story, really really short, less than 700 words — now it’s much longer. She kept asking questions: “What do you think?” “Why is this here?” “What do you mean?” “What’s the timeline?” And at that time I was heavily pregnant so I was very lazy, terribly lazy [Laughter]. I admire what they’re doing, I think it’s something I would have liked to do as WLL. We started a blog but we didn’t go far, we didn’t get as many submissions as we would have wanted.

Actually having the piece in Omenana basically set the wheels in motion. Now I want to write more. Let’s see how far it goes! I am really honored that this story made the Nommos Long List. It may not have made the shortlist but still, it’s a great start. It’s motivation to write more, write better, travel to the bowels of my imagination and push that envelope.

Where did you get the ideas for the “Third Set of Stitches”?

Part of the “Third Set of Stitches” is from family land wrangles. There’s a character in the short story who is basically my uncle. Even when I was writing it, I actually wrote it with his name. The main antagonist. In Kikuyu culture, during inheritance, land is a huge currency. Huge currency! Before, they used to give land to the boys only. Then they stopped doing that because people evolved and the government said that girls should inherit as well. People fight for land here, they kill each other for land, you will hit your brother, your blood brother — no, actually, your sister because she’s been given land, and you wanted more. It’s not that you don’t have any, it’s that you want more, which is idiotic. I feel like things should be freer, this ownership thing corrupts a lot.

The story comes from that and this culture of hiding rapists, and protecting them. Because if a girl reports that she’s been raped by someone in the same area, people tell her “let’s go there and talk to that person, make them apologize” or “marry this guy, marry your rapist”, or “let’s go talk about it”, “let’s just not talk about it”. There was a lot or rape going on in our village and it’s been hidden by everyone. You know so and so is a rapist but their family pays off the girl’s parents, or the girl is sent away, or married off, or something of the sort. It’s just ridiculous.

In “The Third Set of Stitches” there are passages written in Kikuyu…

That was a poem I wrote in English, that I translated into Kikuyu. I’m now playing around with using Kikuyu. My Kikuyu is terrible. Terrible! But no one would know! (Well, some people do and they laugh but it’s my Kikuyu! I am happy with it—for now.) We didn’t grow up speaking a lot of Kikuyu. My Dad is Bungu from Tanzania and my mum’s Kikuyu and growing up we spoke Swahili and English only. And my mum kept complaining that when we were young we spoke Kikuyu but when we started going to school we lost that and she’d like us to start speaking Kikuyu again.

People sometimes look at our mother tongues as inferior languages and I also thought that, as well. Then as I grew older, in high school another girl from another tribe spoke to me in Kikuyu and I couldn’t respond. I was ashamed. So I started practicing with my friends. My mum used to tell us a lot of Kikuyu stories, but in English. So I could only imagine how interesting they were in Kikuyu! In these stories some of the songs were in Kikuyu, but we didn’t understand them because the story had been told in English. Now I just ask my mum to translate these songs, and my Kikuyu is getting better. At some point I just found myself getting interested in writing in Kikuyu, writing in Swahili. People say writing in Swahili is hard, I actually quite enjoy it. So now I’m just starting to get around that, plugging a song from my childhood, or a phrase from my childhood into what I’m writing.

Naming is key to literary creation, you write and live under the first name “Ray”, which is not your birthname…

My name is actually Rachel but there’s just too much that comes with it. The religious aspect — for us it’s religion. My grandparents were Rachel and James, my brother and I are Rachel and James, my cousins are Rachels and Jameses. My grandparents got their names because they joined the church and they got baptized. But they lost their religion, their traditional religion. So why would I be trying to go back there? I refused to give my child an English name.

When I was a month pregnant I was just fantasizing about the name Bali. I know there’s Bali in Indonesia but it’s not the reason. Whenever I tell people “My son’s name is Bali”, their reaction is “Where does that come from?” “What does it mean?”. I thought  I made it up and then I found that it actually has a meaning in Hindi. It means happiness, love, peace, and compassion, but it can mean whatever he wants! It means whatever he is that is Bali, it doesn’t have to be anything else.

Just like Ray for me is some type of freedom, reinvention and the memory that a brighter day does, in fact, come.

Life Goes Round, 2019, le second livre pour enfants de Ray Mwihaki

You just published your second children’s book, does it entail a specific creative process for you?

The children’s books really come as a way to protect my son from a narrative that he may come across that gets him to question his reality. In the first one, it was mostly to normalize his reality. My brother asked me why there wasn’t a father in Who Dropped the Cake? That’s exactly how it was intended, a story about a single parent home and a cat…cats are awesome. In Life Goes Round, I remind him never to be afraid to start again, to appreciate the moments as they come, good or bad, because it isn’t permanent.

I can say the most painful part of this process is getting the illustrator, my brother James, to deliver on time.

What kind of books do you read?

I’m currently reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu — Geoff Ryman introduced me to her writing — it’s good! It’s magical realism. I did not choose this label for my own writing, Omenana did. I don’t know what magical realism means, I don’t even know what that entails as a term, as a defining factor. I classify my work as fantasy, most of the time.

When I buy books, I don’t just buy books in a certain genre. If the story is interesting enough, I’ll get it. I love Nnedi Okorafor’s work. Oh man, I want to write like her! Her stories are set in Africa (she’s American of Nigerian ancestry) and I like that her stories are very authentic, they have this authenticity : you can see the places that she’s talking about, you can see the people that she’s talking about, that’s something I really admire. I loved Binti, Binti is short and sweet, I love that kind of writing. Who Fears Death is also very good, Onye[12] is my spirit character.

Nnedi Okorafor is one of the major voices in afrofuturistic literature today (although she now insists on being called “Africanfuturist”[13]), and Black Panther probably had the same impact on screen. What is your take on that film?

I think Black Panther is a westernized idea of what Africa would be… It’s a fantastic story, brilliant. Our own people acting and… I prefer work that’s for our audience and then everybody else. Same way that we have work that has been created for a western audience and now the rest of the world has to either enjoy it or not. I’d like it to be the other way around. I’d like African stories just told in their truth and using…if it’s accents, let them be as true to the stories that they’re telling as possible. Black Panther is trying to mix very many cultures in one film, but I prefer stories that are written for us, made for us and then the world watches our thing. Black Panther is not our thing.

I am a lot of times pressed to agree with Nnedi on the Africanfuturist label. I feel it comes close enough to what I write. Although again, I don’t like labels much.

What are you currently working on?

It’s early stages. It’s actually a fantasy novel  that touches on feminism and the place of menstruation in African culture. How we don’t talk about it and why that could be. I’m raising a few questions. I wanted to do that with a friend who writes really good poetry. She’s a very strong feminist, she has a very interesting view of womanhood and every time I spent time with her I feel like my own sense of womanhood is renewed. She makes jewelry and attaches stories to them, which I found really interesting. I wanted the project to be an interaction between the characters in a book and actual jewelry. Most of the characters have got their names from her jewelry pieces.

In some cultures in Tanzania when a girl came of age, when she became a woman, the lights would be left on for an extended period of time in the compound, to announce that there was a girl here who was ready for marriage (it still happens today although rarely). I wanted to write about that. Once you started menstruating you were being groomed to be someone’s wife (I dislike that). Suitors were welcome and this used to happen even if you started menstruating at 10, 9. Family would start welcoming them, then there would be a party, where you’d find your suitor. That’s when the lights would go out in the compound.

My story is about these five girls who have hidden that they have started menstruating. It is set in an alternative reality where warriors are grown, not born, and they’re grown from the first menstruation, it comes into an egg once you leave it. The younger you are, the more valuable your egg will be because the stronger the warrior who will grow from it. Because we live in a world of corruption, people have found ways of stealing these eggs. It’s set in future Eastlands[14], so the green spaces where they plant the seeds are just small tracts of land: people can go there and try to steal. They steal the warriors and sell them and try to do different things with them. I’m still trying to get my head around it. It’s a lot to do with greed and how we look at women as tokens, trophies. A woman has more value if she has children. A woman is of more value if she’s married. I don’t agree with those things.

(The book has evolved quite a bit since this interview. It’s an entirely new animal.)

[1] Tri-monthly magazine open to submission from speculative fiction writers from across Africa and the African Diaspora. It was founded in 2014 by two Nigerian writers, Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu. According to the websiteOmenana is the Igbo word for divinity – it also loosely translates as “culture” – and embodies our attempt to recover our wildest stories. We are looking for well-written speculative fiction that bridges the gap between past, present and future through imagination and shakes us out of the corner we have pushed ourselves into.”

[2] Founded in 2016, the African Society for Speculative Fiction is an organization of African writers, editors, comic and graphic artists, and filmmakers working in the fields of speculative fiction such as fantasy, science fiction, stories that draw on traditions, horror and philosophical fiction. Members nominate any published work for one of the four Nommo Awards (Best novel, Best novella, Best short story and Best graphic novel). The Nommos are twins from Dogon cosmology who take a variety of forms, including appearing on land as fish, walking on their tails – their give the Society its logo.

[3] Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. His 100 African authors of SFF” series, published on Strange Horizons, started on Tor.com in 2016. There are 13 chapters to date and each one focuses on a different location, giving a short description a the local cultural life before moving on to a series of interview. This impressive work has been awarded the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Non-Fiction in 2016.

[4] Raphael Kariuki and Mwangi Ichung’wa.

[5] Pods Must Be Crazy, a podcast presented by Raphael Kariuki, Sharon Omangi and Mwangi Ichung’wa. The podcast dealt with many topics, from music to literature and life in general, punctuated by DJ Raph’s tracks. Sadly, it doesn’t exist anymore.

[6] Sharon Omangi.

[7] Jalada (“book cover” in Swahili) is a pan-African writers’ collective based in Kenya. Since 2014 they have published 2 to 3 themed issues a year, among which Jalada 02: Afrofuture(s) – short stories and poems centred on the genres of Afrofuturism and AfroSF – in January 2015. Together with Kenyan publishing company Storymoja and Kwani Trust, they award the Jalada Prize for Literature. In November 2018, co-organized the Outriders Africa Symposium: East Africa with the Edinburgh international Book Festival.

[8] Kwani Trust was one of the sponsors of the workshop that resulted in the foundation of the Jalada collective. This “African Fiction Omnibus” whose name means “Why?” in Swahili, was founded in 2003 by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina with the money he received from the Caine Prize (for African Writing) he won in 2002. On top of the several-hundred page annual Kwani? journal, Kwani Trust also publishes pocket-size books and organizes the bi-annual Kwani Literary Festival. Wainaina’s untimely death on 21 May 2019 was has been mourned in Kenya and all over the world, with a series of celebrations of his life and work.

[9] Tendai Huchu was listed among the top 10 Contemporary African authors by Africa.com in 2016. The Zimbabwean author is best known for his debut novel The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). His work pertains to many different genres but his fantasy and science-fiction short stories were published in AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012), the anthology of speculative fiction African Monsters (2016), the science-fiction and fantasy magazine Interzone and the online speculative fiction magazine Electric Spec. His last short story, “Njuzu”, has been shortlisted for the 2019 Nommo Awards.

[10] Derek Lubangakene is a Ugandan writer whose short stories appeared in the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology (2016), Apex Magazine (specialized in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror) and Omenana. His last piece, “Origami Angels”, was published in the 11th issue of Omenana (April 2018) and has been short-listed for the 2019 Nommo Awards.

[11] Fiction editor and co-founder of Omenana, described by Geoff Ryman as “one of the indispensable figures in the history of the rise of modern African SFF [Science Fiction and Fantasy]. As a writer she was there, or nearly there, from the beginning. As the fiction editor and co-founder of Omenana (along with Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu) she has already shaped the writing of a generation, and continues to be one of the still points around which the entire field revolves.”

[12] Onyesonwu (Onye) is the protagonist of Who Fears Death (2010) and gives the novel its title: Onye means “Who Fears Death” and is the prophetic name given by the survivor of a genocide to her strange daughter, a child of rape desperate to elude her would-be murderer and understand her own nature in a post-apocalyptic Africa. The book is being developed into a TV series by HBO, with Game of Thrones’ George RR Martin as executive producer.

[13] Nnedi Okorafor, “I am an Africanfuturist. BEFORE you start asking for or debating its meaning, please call me the name first” (Twitter 4 November 2018). On 16 April 2019, Orkorafor announced the creation of a  TV series company for Africanfuturist stories called “African Futurism Productions, Inc.”

[14] Very populous district of Nairobi.

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