A Long Talk: Conversation Between Idza Luhumyo and Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.
From September to December of 2022, the two writers talk about writing from and about the Kenyan Coast: its influence and hold on them and their writing, how it inherently lends itself to genre-bending; their introduction to Story; the conditions that make their writing (im)possible; the intention and process for some of their published stories and so much more.

Clarie: Hello!

How’s everyone? 

Idza, it’s been about a month since you won the Caine Prize. How are you feeling about that now that, I assume, everything’s calmed down? What, if anything, has this win made possible for you and your writing? 

Khadija, your novel just got shortlisted for the Ursula K. Le Guin prize for fiction. How are you feeling? It’s coming up to a year since The House of Rust was published, no? What’s that been like? What has changed for you and your writing since your novel was published? 

Idza: Thanks Clarie. All the Caine Prize stuff was a little hectic. I’m glad it’s over now, and that I can return to my little corner. But I’m also slowly coming to terms with the entire experience, because it really was an experience. A whirlwind of sorts. As to what it’s made possible for me and my writing—I guess we’ll see.

Khadija, mambo? Congratulations on the Ursula Le Guin nod. I was just thinking the other day: I should read House of Rust again. I think I may have gobbled it down too greedily when it came out last year (has it already been a year?) How are you, where are you and—to lead with a hostile question—how’s the writing going?

Khadija: Hi Clarie! Hi Idza! I hope you’ve both been enjoying life. I was thrilled to hear of your appointment at A Long House, Clarie. It’s a great place and I’m a fan of it and your work, so seeing the writer and the place fit together feels right. And Idza, seeing you win the Caine Prize made me grin the biggest grin in the world, I was walking on air and still kind of am to be honest. And that story, I loved, loved it. Every Kenyan writer I know, we fist punched the air in the most feral joy, so congratulations again! But I also know you love to return to your little corner as you call it. The peace of the little corner is vital. I hope things settle a bit more for you, I just want you to know we’ve basically been partying ever since we heard the news.

Poa, Idza. I’m good Alhamdulillah, this year has been unexpected. That it’s really been a year, or practically is one, stuns me as well; months have raced past me and I’m still catching my breath. I was so thrilled you enjoyed the book, talking to you about it always made it all a little more real.

Making the short list for the Ursula K Le Guin prize was unexpected, when I was told it was like wait, what! Le Guin’s writing and her philosophies on the world and borders have always resonated with me. And I’d recently had her writing schedule as my mobile wallpaper for like, two years? Which is so funny because I’m about as good at sticking to writing schedules as I am at maths, which is not at all. I aspired to follow it! So it’s a little surreal, a little funny, a little heartwarming. Reading about the way the award came into being and why it was set up touched me a lot. Being on this list with writers I’ve admired, some of whom have been such a big part of my life as a reader and a writer and a person, is a wild gift. So I’m happy for the book to be included and you know, I don’t know exactly what it will all mean in the end either! It’s nice. It’s still so surreal to see how the book is travelling. 

Sasa, why are you asking me such a violent question! But okay, I’ve been playing around with some ideas and I’ve written a little bit of this and that. It’s been more planning and plotting than writing. I was in the SGR a month or two ago when a new idea kind of blindsided me. I’ve had pieces of a story floating around in my head and they bounded together as I stared out the window. So, I think I’ve got a solid book starting up but I’m trying to figure out a different approach. I’m also experimenting with some different fiction formats and trying to figure out the coding for writing some interactive pieces, which is frustrating sometimes since it’s not something that comes naturally to me—coding, I mean. But we’ll see! Fighting through it! I don’t know when I’ll finally have an interactive fiction piece out, in a year, in ten? Who knows. I’m still figuring it out. I’ve been reading a bit more though! As of writing all this, I’m in Tanzania with my family. It’s been a long while since we had a trip together so it’s been nice, a lot of driving. We’ll be driving back to Kenya in a few days. How about you, how are you? Where are you? How’s the writing going and how’s life in general?

Idza: First of all, I went to google Le Guin’s writing schedule quick-fast because, curiosity, but also because I need a schedule myself. You know, when I was just starting the MFA, I was fortunate to have a most fantastic writer for my first workshop and she basically told me your MFA years are (also) where you figure out the kind of writer you are, yaani, the “boring” practical stuff: what time of day do I write, how do I block off writing time, etc. I’m still trying to find a schedule that fits. I used to think I was not a morning person, but it turns out, I very much am. It’s quieter in the morning and your mind’s fresh. The sentences are crisper; the writing’s clearer. More importantly: my worrier of a brain hasn’t quite started worrying, so things are nice and calm. And then I used to think I like to write in the afternoon quiet and that’s still (mostly) true, but I also just don’t like structure like that. As soon as I feel like I have to do something, even when I’m the one holding the whip, I just won’t do it. It just won’t happen—it makes me feel like I’m back in boarding school. And when I do it anyway, the writing is just stale. All this to ask: do you think you’ve found a bundle of writing habits that you’re stepping into the future with? Especially because you’ve worked on a project successfully. I know you took months off and went away to work on HoR[House of Rust]. Is that how you generally do it? Time away and no social media?

I’m in Texas, MFAing. But the true truth is that I divide time between Texas and the Kenyan sections of social media, lol. I’m trying to be like you and get off social media, though. I don’t think you can be very active on the socials and get serious work done. I don’t know, what do you think?

The writing is very, very slow. I’ve been working on the same thing for a long while now and let me just say: every day I spend time with the MS[manuscript] I just have this new respect for anyone who writes a novel. Anyone who gets to the end of a story deserves makofi. Especially for the ones who did it while going about their day-to-day non-literary lives. And also, sorry to say, but if you’re living with someone who’s (actively) working on a novel, you’re living with a ghost. It’s a process that requires having so many things in mind at the same time. Which is basically how I’d say the writing is going for me. I’m writing as I’m living and reading greedily and meeting people and being in a new country and having new experiences and all that influences what ends up in the MS. It’s also a lot of thinking. And sifting through what you think. I mean, I like it, I don’t mind the process, I’m a brooder at heart, but it can be a bit daunting when you compare what you already have and what you’re trying to make.

I just find the interactive stuff so interesting. Tell me more? Also, are you finding working on a novel a little easier after having already published one? 

Now to put you on the spot: I’ve always been really intrigued about the Tz [Tanzania] connection you have, especially in the context of Swahili Coast lit, and the (sudden) interest in fiction from this region after Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel win. Kwanza nilikuambia how annoyed I was after everyone on Twitter was scratching their heads wondering who Gurnah was? I was like: “sit down, calm down, do you think you know everyone?” I don’t know that I have a question here. I guess I’m just prodding lol.

Khadija: It’s so annoying that writing can’t just be vibes, it’s work and figuring out the “boring practical stuff” you mentioned. And boarding school? Oof. Like why wouldn’t you have a complicated relationship with structure? I experienced my run-ins with early cruelty elsewhere, in several environments where structure proved punishing, violent, humiliating. So there’s something in me that, like you, resists structure. I just say to myself “write.” And if I have rules it’s about what I shouldn’t do rather than what I must do: I’m not allowed to write when feelings are chaotic, else I won’t feel very well or very whole in the long run. So no reactive writing. No writing when I’m on the precipice. As for timings, morning used to offer me a similar clarity and focus as well, but I’m a 3pm to 5pm writer now. Day’s mostly tackled, the scheduled tasks are done, I’ve understood already what kind of shape the day has taken. It’s calmer, easier to predict, unless there are some surprises or irregularities.

As I tackle work that requires more moving backward or forward in time or between perspectives, I can’t unfold forward in the same way I did with the House of Rust. So I guess, the very nature of the project determines the approach, structure becomes useful then. I assume that with short story writers consistency is vital, and that consistency is fostered by structure. It’s not easier the second time around for me anyway. Are there any particular challenges you’re facing right now when it comes to finishing this novel? I know you got so many different shorter projects in development alongside a novel or three you’re working on and that needs a proper plan, there’s more multitasking, so is that where having a structure feels even more vital for you? How many projects are you juggling right now? Also, are you a planner or a panster? And how has the MFA structure affected your approach?

What kind of headspace do you tend to want to be in when you write? Is how you feel important in your process? Is that the time you pick up the pen or set it aside? It’s not hard to imagine you as this clear-eyed, intuitive writer who’s able to approach work with discipline, skill and imagination at the same time—your work is well-constructed and compelling, visually and emotionally, so I assume that you’ve got a certain mastery over yourself there, being in touch with feeling but never being overtaken by it. I wonder how you feel about that, if it’s true or not. And how personal and impersonal you get with stuff. Is distance important? Or if it’s a struggle or not one at all?

I do feel a deep interest and connection to everything that’s the East African coast. But I’m not anywhere near the sea. It’s a fairly remote, very basic-amenities place my father goes to for work. We got lizards, spiders, snakes, bats. We only recently got Wi-Fi. It’s nice and quiet. Girls ride their bicycles everywhere and I’m always stunned by it. It’s not something I see in the cities of Kenya, and I always think, how nice. To just, be a girl on a bike, going where a girl needs to go and be. I know it’s probably so uninteresting and not that rare in other places, but I’m someone who finds what could be mundane things wistful or charming. Texas, that’s somewhere new, you’re probably experiencing new things all the time. Are there things you’re soothed by or do, that you haven’t really gotten to do before? What small freedoms and pleasures are you partaking in? What’s been charming you, even if it’s only charming to you alone? You’ve been moving between countries, pursuing your dreams and your craft—is there a place that you find yourself more drawn to, or has a great importance for you—whether it’s emotionally or intellectually? Where is your heart, if it’s tied to place?

Tell me more about Texas! What do you love, what do you miss? And the MFA—are the workshops workshopping? Places like the U.K and the U.S, you can experience all these new things, and be in these spaces for culture and art and museums, and libraries! Is there anything that’s just blown your mind or anything that made you feel like, “ah, this is where I’m supposed to be!”? What are the things that come easier there? What are the culture shocks, pleasant or unpleasant, or whatever, that you’ve experienced? Are we crossing the street Kenyan style or the lawful way?

You’ve mentioned Kenyan twitter versus Texan twitter. Kenyan twitter: too smart and ruthless and funny for me, it’s impressive and frightening. What is Texan twitter even like? I’m sure they’ve got jokes, but that’s also like, such a shift tonally. Tell me more about this, please. Do you have to divide literally like with separate accounts? Because I’m trying to imagine all that happening under the umbrella of one account, and your followers possibly getting whiplash in the switch. Because again, it does feel like…different. What is Texan twitter teaching you? What’s being in Texas like? You were in the U.K before and now you’re in the U.S, what adjustments have you had to make?

As for socials. It’s horrifying but Idza, what if, what if you can do socials and do serious work? I think some people have certainly been able to hack it and it’s maybe—that’s not how I (and you, presumably?) work but what if it’s—how we’re meant to evolve? Do you see yourself evolving that way, or resisting it?

Never mind being on socials as a writer, just existing online outside of that, it’s still the wild west. I need to recover. If I’m online it’s to graze on content I enjoy and mind my business. Getting a ki-small email is enough to put me out of commission. I need to work on that before I can start engaging online. So I do still occasionally watch the tiktoks, the youtube, sometimes like on the Instagram—but I’ve become cautious of how these things can affect my brain and how I perceive things, and want to limit my influences and the things that interrupt my forming of myself. Is that something you’re sensitive to as well?

The Gurnah win was a celebration and well deserved. Awards are important in that they recognize creative work, and they introduce it to new audiences. The scramble so many regions had to purchase rights? The work wasn’t widely accessible, the mainstream publishing industry didn’t let it be. So how could you have known about him before now? Mainstream shelves weren’t set up in a way that could have let you. Gatekeeping manenos. It’s when shock over the perceived ‘obscurity’ is so emphasised and repeated a reaction…? Your confusion is not universal. Come on, now. Anyway I don’t wanna be a downer. The wedding singers disallow nonsense when they proclaim, “hatutaki wabaya kutuharibia.” Let’s hold to that and take heart.

As for interactive fiction. Goosebumps had these series that would give readers choices, you’d flip to a page. I love immersive stories. Interactive fiction can feel as straightforward as those books, or involve complicated code that determines character traits and values, which have consequences in the plot. The choices matter. A story has so much re-reading value because it has this branching narrative, different endings and outcomes, and experiences. When it comes to traditional storytelling your character voice is very clear, set. When it comes to interactive fiction you’ve got to write whatever different characters the reader feels like interacting as, choice and consequence makes the story a real experience, a living thing. It’s challenging to write. That’s what interactive fiction is. I’ll put you on some later, if you want. I also like writing in the second person. The very reasons people hate second person narration are the very reasons I find second person narration useful. Writers go “it’s invasive, it’s abrupt, it’s too intimate” and all I’m hearing is “I hate the sea because it has salt in it.” Second person does well in interactive fiction, and excellent in horror. “Unearned intimacy”, “overfamiliarity”, “forced direction/forced perspective…” So, you mean a tool whose characteristic features let me create untrustworthy narrators? Sounds like a good horror story to me, babes. 

Anyway, speaking of horror, the fantastic, the real or psychological, I’m a fan of eerie and surreal work. Your most recent story worked so well with its surreal elements. You write a world where girls with rain in their hair feel naturally real, and the way it unfolded felt eerie and beautiful. The betrayal at the end cuts all the more for it. It’s a beguiling read. The work I’d experienced from you before that one was very much rooted in contemporary reality, but yet the shift here felt so effortless that it can’t have been new or unfamiliar ground for you. Really well done. As the writer who actually had to write it, was it that much of a leap for you, moving towards the less real (but still compellingly plausible) worlds you built? And what are you interested in exploring in future, be it themes, genre, form? Is there anything you feel comfortable telling us (coz we are being read here right now) about the current novel you’re working on? If not, just tell me kando, I want to know!

Idza: No, I’m only working on one project now, so that helps with keeping things straight. I decided to uncomplicate my life, and momentum is what matters right now to me anyway. I’d say the main challenge, as per usual, is getting to the end of the story without getting distracted (bored, more like) along the way. Then the MFA structure—it hasn’t really changed my writing habits, but I get writer guilt much more frequently now, especially when I’m not writing as much as I (think I) should.

Distance is generally important. I’ve found that any kind of perspective—emotional, spatial, etc.—sharpens clarity. At the same time, I’m learning not to be too precious about anything. I write when I (can) write. 

On Texas: I’m still taking in the place. I’ll probably know what I think or feel about it after I’ve left. I don’t know, as I grow older, I’m finding it more and more difficult to come to terms with things as quickly as I used to. It takes me longer to make my mind up about things. 

It certainly has been interesting doing this abroad thing, but I often wonder why I had to go so far from home just to centre writing in my life in this way. Obviously, I know why. But I still wonder. My heart’s tied to (the greater) Mombasa, where I grew up. I don’t know why Mombasa continues to have such an impact on me. Compared to my siblings and friends for example, I’m the one who’s obsessive about it (maybe there’s some psychological excavation that needs to be done here) but I guess that’s part of why I write—to understand. I think it’s such a unique place in which to come of age, all those multiple cultural influences, that sense of being at the edge, even marginal, but also not completely cut off from the country & world. And then that Pwani aesthetic of being fiercely private but open. The unspoken morality, that sense of manners, respectability, slowness, proud resignation, the casual vulgarity, etc. I could go on. I don’t know. It has a hold on me. I’ve stopped questioning it.

Social media is one of those ones. I’ve always been neurotic about social media. I’m a serial Twitter user, I’ve had many accounts in the past. The problem is I usually want to flee as soon as I’ve created myself a bubble or community because I start to feel trapped, like I’ve become a brand or something. I’m happiest online when I’m anonymous. I got online at a young age— compared to people around me, at least—and I sometimes like to think that the internet and books also helped raise me. The internet was this agony aunt of sorts who I could go to with any question and it would spew out all this info that I needed or wanted. But social media, I just can’t find the best way to use it in a way that doesn’t make me feel manipulated and inundated not just with info, but with people’s thoughts, ideas, concerns, dramas…all the time. At the same time, what an amazing resource for finding your community! I’m happiest with social media when I’m using it like a digger of sorts. You know how you go to a library or thrift store and just dig to see what you find? I guess it speaks to what you mean when you say you go to “graze on content.” But the thing is, in these physical stores, you leave. In this (new) online attention economy, attention is the currency, and there’s this thing where you feel like you can’t (quite) leave, because these platforms are meant to modify your behaviour, to get you addicted to scrolling, and—ultimately—to not leave. That said, I imagine there are people who can use it well, but I don’t think I’m one of them. Not yet anyway. And I guess part of the reason I’m seduced by online anonymity is that it may be a way to use the internet in a better way? I don’t know. What I know is that I feel used, most of the time. Like I’m part of something I don’t quite know. Not to mention the distraction and its overall effect on my attentiveness. So yes, I do hear what you’re saying about limiting the influences. 

When I said I divide time between Texas and the Kenyan section of social media, I actually meant to say that this abroad stint has made me be on social media much more than I had been before 2020 (I’d successfully given up IG but then the pandemic made me return), mainly because I just want to keep up with the Kenyan conversation, as it were. I know nothing about Texan twitter, or if it even exists. 

I like that you mention the second person and its usefulness for interactive fiction. That’s so fascinating. I know quite a few people who don’t really like this POV, and just this week, I was listening in on a conversation where one of the speaker’s reluctance with it was that it almost always sounds gimmicky, that it’s the sort of storytelling technique that may be too reliant on structure or form to work. That, as a reader, you’re always aware of the writing, or the artifice of the thing. I don’t know that I agree, but I understand. It’s also fascinating to think about its possibilities for horror. I imagine it’s exactly the sort of claustrophobia that you want to induce in your reader.

First of all, I think I should make it clear that that story was written with SSDA’s [Short Story Day Africa] callout in mind. At the time, I was trying to submit something to SSDA every year, just as an exercise, and also because I kind of dig what the outfit does. So the fantastic and slightly unusual (unreal/istic) elements came out of that. But to answer you: it wasn’t a big leap, because the most interesting stuff—at least to me—was the relational tension between the characters. In this sense, the otherworldly stuff was the SSDA-imposed constraint I was working with, and once I had that down, then I was free to take the story where I wanted it to go.

I’m quite boring. I find that I’m still very much interested in realism, especially with the longer stuff. But also, what is realism anyway? Still, one of the things I heard constantly when growing up and what I like to repeat to myself is “usiseme kumaliza” (did you ever hear this?) so who knows where I’ll go in future? One of my friends, a poet, is often asking why us, yaani, African writers feel so welded to realism. I feel guilty when he says this, lol. Like I’m not being imaginative enough, “making it new” enough. But realism, that’s where my interest lies for now. I’m really interested in this relational tension between people, especially where there are power imbalances. It’s utterly, utterly fascinating for me. And it’s what my current work in progress is about, broadly. 

But I wondered whether I could pick your brain about realism. If you spent your childhood years in Mombasa, and went to schools in or around Mombasa, you know about Coastal folklore, most of it seemingly centering the ocean and its supposed mysteries. Then the cats, the women with horse hooves for legs, the voice at night that won’t stop calling out your name. I went to that school near the bridge (sitaisema lol) and I remember kids going into frenzies during classes and Christian and Muslim spiritual leaders sort of coming to chant the evil away, that kind of stuff. And they’d tell us it was because we were so close to the sea. I just had the sense, as a kid, that there was this otherworldly life that I did not understand but which was there. Now, if I have this stuff in my book—as you do in HoR—does this mean the book stops being strictly realist? There’s something insidiously lazy—and a little tiring—in placing the slightest slant from reality in the magic-realist category. And maybe I’m extra sensitive about these things now because I am showing my work in progress in a place that has different terms of reference, so to speak, but I wondered what you think about this stuff?  

Khadija: What you said about it getting harder to come to terms with things as you grow older—I had to start learning to be unafraid of seeming fickle or stupid or hypocritical in my journey towards changing. Now I want to practise digesting in my own time and practising what it means to change.

On your heart being tied to the greater Mombasa: you’ve listed it all, especially what you say about others not feeling as tied to it as you do. If I feel it’s in me more than some others, it’s only because Mombasa and I butted heads more.

I love that you call the internet an agony aunt. Also, the urge to flee! I’m like that offline too: houdini. I found community online, met my best friend there—been speaking for years ever since. I remember discussing with another friend how they used to be on Instagram back when Instagram used to be a place where you post cute art and grainy pictures with friends, and I was like, wait, that’s what Instagram used to be like? Those weren’t my woods, so I never knew. Yeah, it’s a whole different animal. Every platform. I get neurotic about it too. It’s important to be present and to be in-the-know, and there are so many valuable relationships to have there, and I’m glad you came back so you could do that.

As for gimmicky, hey, the same things that make some people view the work as having any literary merit, are going to make other people feel that it has no literary merit. The work that people can read of mine, or that’s accessible to the public, might feel like it all shares core-sensibilities or vibes that lead it. But I am good at sounding very different, experimenting. The work is not just out there for reading. I’ve written plays and scripts and songs, gangster movies and period dramas. Musicals, game plots. There I approach genre and form in the general way genre and form is thought of, if only as fun writing exercises. I don’t think it’s what makes me or my work. I want to have fun with it and learn things, and see where it goes. And, I like that “usiseme kumaliza.” Who knows what’s next for any of us?

I do Remember it was for the SSDA call out, what a great place. I think I’ve internalised a lot of questions I’m asked about genre, and brought them to you the same way. I thought it wouldn’t get in me, but it did. You need imagination for all stories, but imagination means nothing without the real guiding beneath it. No one is “welded” to realism. I don’t get that. If you were “welded”, you’d be a journalist. So that isn’t it. Everyone is trying to say something in their stories, we just use different means to do it. I don’t think the real or surreal is what makes imagination levels. The writer has to do the work well enough to introduce concepts in a way that is interesting, compelling, plausible and doesn’t treat the reader like an idiot. Being able to imagine the nuances of either the “fantastical” or the “realistic” and the ways characters think, all requires deep imagination. You’re writing a story, that’s dream enough for anyone. Whatever the subject matter and “genre” used to do it in. Genre is important in marketing. An indicator for audiences who enjoy this or that, a courtesy offered to them for when they need to shelve the work here or there. When I’m earnestly writing a story that’s meant to be read I think more about how I want a story to feel when I’m writing it rather than where to place it.

Genre doesn’t matter unless you’re approaching genre directly in your writing, which then would require you to dissect and understand the markers and rules of that genre, that way you don’t end up writing the same story that’s been written a thousand times before and imagine you’ve broken new ground. And there’s nothing wrong with not breaking “new” ground, like it’s fine. I approached The House of Rust conceptually as a fairytale, but I wasn’t stern in steering toward that in application. Can’t get too precious. At the end of the day, relationships and connections, and the tensions as you say, in them, are the most important things and those can be complicated by the fantastic or the “real”. There’s no “poverty” story, as Africans are often accused of producing, there is writing how financial pressure can make honour or morality the luxury of the wealthy. There’s a thousand and one ways to uncover whatever you’re looking to uncover: you can stage it in the Central Business District or in the deserts of Mars. I still love visual spectacle, but it can’t be empty spectacle. Whatever events or devices, they need a logic to support their believability. Unless you’re writing nonsense, which itself is a “genre” too! Wah, inescapable. We’re trying to escape definition, and there, genre is at every turn.

Say no more, I know the school and you ought to write about it if you dare (spooky whoos). The House of Rust’s story elements and structure to an extent, is seen in most of the common fairy tales in the west but the values and spirituality that runs through it all, is very much Mombasa-bred and born, and that’s what makes the story “different”. I didn’t write it to be different, and if it’s different it’s certainly not “new.” If it’s different it’s because it’s not been granted an audience before and if it’s different it’s because I had a specific audience in mind. When you’re coming into yourself, especially early teens where your brain is developing more and you’re like uh, this is a society, what’s my place in that. And there’s that hurricane of the world. Everyone is so deeply spiritual, it’s not something you pick up and set aside when you like, it’s ingrained in our everyday life, on every level. There’s an acceptance of the unseen. So, what am I gonna call this? I don’t like categorization very much, it feels too small. It couldn’t be fantasy, it’s not a whimsical romp. It’s imaginative, but it’s working with the realities of its place. I’m not like uwu what if sea monsters were real uwu wouldn’t that be like, so fun! Like I did want to have fun of course, but it’s also got a basis in reality, a somewhat more fantastical telling of it. I’ve heard the schoolgirls screaming, I’ve hunted with the crows and I’ve readied myself for the dreams that were sent my way by the spiteful, and they did not win. I believe, is what I’m saying. But I also believe in the limitations, I can’t be more scared of evil than I believe in good. And not all strange is evil, and not all strange is all that strange. I embrace the knowing and the not-knowing of things. So, magical realism it is, if we must. I don’t know if there’s ever gonna be a classification that we can slot things into especially when we’re writing from these worlds and perspectives that can be so outside the main in subject or approach and telling, we can try but we don’t have to, not as storytellers, that’s for the story-sellers.

And who do we have to be making things “new” for? A thing not having been consumed or understood widely, doesn’t make it “new”. I don’t know that I’d call you sensitive, I think it’s a pretty understandable concern. I’ve explained already and I still do hunger for the fantastical, that’s where my interests have naturally leaned as an escapist. I used to think the more fantastic, the more successful the escape but that isn’t true anymore. Because you can escape into just about anything and I don’t read just for escape anymore.

So I love your stories of girls with rain in their hair, and I also love This is For My Auntie Penzi. They’re both riveting. Imagination’s in both, you’re going to have to work a lot harder at convincing me that you’re boring. I can’t weigh them against each other on the basis of genre: it doesn’t make sense to compare. You made it plausible, made me care—a story’s gotta have that regardless. The devices might be different, but at the core they’re still telling stories about people. They both moved me, and they both stuck with me. It’s not just imagery or visuals. Or “real” or “not real”—all stories are real. It’s the people in them. Outerspace, or haggling over mafenesi outside Uniform Centre, both will make you care if they want to.

I ask about song, because you do put that up on instagram every now and then. Do you write with music or not? Is music important to you as a writer, or even just as a person? I love wedding songs, they’re so warlike. I can’t sing any of them, maybe a chorus here and there. I listen widely, I’ll listen to anything that kind of pleases my ears, but when it comes down to it and you looked through my list of liked songs, most of them are indie or alternative. What about you? Sometimes there are songs that have not really inspired stories, but have played in the background on loop as I write them. Sometimes I think my brain instinctively wants cinema. Past two days my brain was like, we have to listen to Teenage Dirtbag RIGHT NOW, and did that for hours. It’s so shoutable. Another song that’s been mesmerising me recently is Disco by Surf Curse. It’s also shoutable and danceable, even for me who cannot dance. What’s your music? Please tell me one of us can dance at least. And on the heels of risking sounding predictable, what are you reading now? If you’re not reading anything, dodge that question—writers are not always reading, you know! Sometimes we are just staring into space!

Idza: First of all, Khadija, congratulations on winning the Ursula Le Guin Prize. Wow. I hope you’re somewhere savouring this moment.

After evading it for about three years, the COVID bug finally caught up with me. It was awful (I think I now have some idea of what “sick as a dog” means). I was glad to see your email come in and glad to have time to think about what you said. The thing about COVID (any illness, really) is that, when it hits you, it sort of requires you to just stop (lay on your bed, more like) and suffer. Which is to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about butting your head with Mombasa. Why do you think it was this way? And which specific aspects of the place did you find yourself at odds with? Do you suppose it’s because of how you’ve chosen to live your life, as a writer, as a woman who trades in imagination and ideas? I’ll admit, part of my difficulty with this writing thing has been the public aspect of it, and that “striving” aspect to it, especially if you’re also trying to eat by it, and also because you can write all you want but publication is a different matter altogether. And then si wajua tu Pwani culture, and that tendency to frown at excess ambition, no matter how you perceive ambition to be. I used to be so embarrassed to say I’m a writer. In fact, part of my discomfort with something like the Caine Prize was its visibility, how it forced me to finally “come out to my people” as a writer. And it’s not just the simple fact of being an introvert and being averse to too much attention, but it’s also that thing for “oh so you think you’re the one who can tell our stories?” Especially when you’re like me (us?) and kind of provincialized yourself, and decided that you’re a writer who’s preoccupied with writing about/to/around Pwani life. Maybe I’m just navel-gazing.

At the same time, I think every so often about this interview I once read by this writer called Borges, where he was talking about the idea of being a ‘professional South American.’ I sometimes worry about being a “professional Coasterian.” I don’t want to act Coasterian, I just want to be me, with all my eccentricities and I’m also hoping that my writing is going to be some sort of record of my eccentricities. I once had this conversation with a writer, and we were talking about the writing life and all that stuff, and she told me that I was lucky because I was from the Coast, and therefore I would always have something to write about, while she felt that she had to work really hard to find something to write about. She was like, you could literally write about ukwaju and someone somewhere will be interested. And I thought that was interesting, because I’d listened to her talk, and I knew her sense of humour, and saw how she had insight into the multiple worlds she’d lived in, and I knew that she had a unique point of view on the world, that she had something interesting to say. But I was also a little troubled by what she said, because she was essentially saying that the marginal (and anyone who writes passably well about it) will always have an automatic edge because people love the different or exotic. But I think there’s a difference between being different and being good. And it cuts both ways because even when people can’t see how good you are because they’re caught up in the fact that you’re different, it’s not entirely impossible to get so caught up in difference and have the good stuff pass you by. Lol. I’m not sure I’m talking about writing anymore. But I keep thinking about this because in a sense this is the conversation that seems to be happening right now among some sections of the literati, where certain demographics (in the States, recently) are complaining that it’s becoming difficult for their books to get published now because the publishing industry is increasingly privileging a certain (marginal) story. Have you seen this conversation? I wonder what you think.

“I love wedding songs, they’re so warlike.” That’s a line!

I like music, but I don’t think I like it any more than the next person. I’m just really glad it exists. It will be playing while I’m writing sometimes, but not as a rule. Music is a matter of mood for me. I like when different voices enter each other and create harmony. I don’t know how else to say that. I love Neo-soul. I love funk. I love whatever Anderson .Paak does. Robert Glasper’s experiments. Rumba sounds so good! I know I’ll play Bango and Bongo a lot when I’m homesick. And also when I’m writing some parts of my novel, because music is a quick transporter. Khadija, pole, but there’s no way I’m not going to ask you about Taarab. Am I turning you into the professional Coasterian? Maybe. Pole. But I’m very curious: what kind of music did you grow up listening to? And not just you, and not just music. I’m curious about any kind of art that the people around you were “consuming” when growing up? Where was it from, do you remember? I ask because in all the places I’ve lived, the owners of the houses we lived next to have always been Muslim, and I was so fascinated as a child because what would be playing (loudly, in the afternoons!) would always be Taarab, songs in Arabic (genre sikumbuki), and lots of Asian cinema. Which I guess takes me to asking: how do you think you became a writer? Like, why do you think it was you who became a writer and not your class-five deskmate, for example? What books did you read as a child? Something tells me you read a lot of Goosebumps? Am I right or am I right?  

Sometimes we are just staring into space! Currently, I’m reading a lot around Simone De Beauvoir and Vivian Gornick, whose books I only started reading properly this year. It’s been really interesting to discover their work. How about you?

Khadija, can I ask you about Gujama? The sisal. 

​​Khadija: Thank you, Idza. Sorry you got COVID, I hope you’re feeling better now. Being sick and suffering does make you think a lot, and it can be lonely too, so I hope you’re alright. As for the question about butting heads with Mombasa, it’s a combination of a lot of things you mentioned, and other things I’m still unpacking. Which is why I became a writer, I guess.

Ambition and Pwani. Gosh, you’re spot on. Yeah, the humility, and the virtue of smalling oneself—I need there to be psychological studies. Yeah, we can argue the spiritual and religious reasons for why humility is important but Pwani humility doesn’t realise that having absolutely no ego is just as much a sin as having too much. It’s so damaging. Are there any other Pwani-isms that have been on your mind, or that you feel are things you revisit in story?

I dislike being introduced as a writer, for similar reasons as you. It isn’t the dominant idea I want to base my understanding of myself on. I must be Khadija first. What would you be doing if you weren’t writing or storytelling? Apart from just being Idza, what would be the additional thing you’d be doing in place of the writer part if you weren’t a writer, do you think?

The Caine Prize must have been insane, even with an achievement like that, your feelings of joy or accomplishment can be more complicated than people would expect. About who should tell the story and so much more. Did people congratulating you and saying they were proud of you discomfit you? Be it Pwani humility, being introverted, or not claiming to be the one telling “our” stories. You say “I’m a writer” or are introduced that way, and it’s discomfiting if people somehow hear “I am the one” when you have not claimed that.

I don’t want to be a professional coastarian either, I want to be me, which comes with its own expectations, concerns, and confusions. The different/good is often on my mind on top of that and it puts pressures on me at a time where I am trying to view myself as a student, someone whose craft is still being improved, and someone whose self is still being formed at the most basic level. I’m trying to have this tolerable mindset towards myself and my work, and all these questions in regards to publication and the landscape of it are important to me as a listener—I want them to inform me in so much as conducting myself responsible and ethically and with awareness, but I also don’t want them to interfere with this very private war I’m fighting with myself. They do make me question realistically the worth of my writing and what factors have contributed to where I am and keep me humble, but I want that to be humble in the healthy way, rather than the Pwani way. I need these things to make me consider my place as a writer in such a way that it doesn’t bleed into my understanding of my worthiness as a person. And keeping these two things separate isn’t so cut and dry. I’ve got to keep the focus on the things I can control right now, which is the quality of my work as it pertains to my own satisfaction with my work, and meeting the ethical principles that I have as Khadija.

Finding interesting things, that’s a struggle for every writer. And telling compelling story depends on the writer’s interest and ability to find subject interesting and make subject interesting, rather than there being a lack of interesting things around us. If a writer imagines Coast has an unfair advantage in this regard, I think they ought to believe in themselves a little more. I think the question of different versus good is something we can’t ever let go of, even if we wanted to. And one can provincialise themselves, or be horrified to realise how their work is received is outside of their control. I don’t worry about it right now, I think I’m certain of what I want to write, the more confusing worry is what others project onto all of that and that interfering with my mind in future.

Novelty does factor in how a story is judged, its likelihood of having a publication: the novelty hunter who exotices the work, and the naysayer who believes the work cannot be better than it is just exotic, both do not engage with the work critically. What they project is always a bigger God. And there, I step away from the matter. The moment anyone tries to tell me who I am, or my intention is sneeringly assumed for me, it is no longer constructive or a discussion.

On that note, in regard to the matter of publishers giving voices space based on the minority factor rather than merit, I’ve not been following up. I’m offline these days and would thus be unaware of any recent developments. I’ve not been in the loop. If true, then we shouldn’t defend ourselves here, because it isn’t really about us, or for us. Because if the majority believe that they have been gatekept out of the institutions that they, the majority, run, that’s a family dispute. Thoughts and prayers.

I feel like I’m talking to you in real time too, hence why I end up saying so much, and kind of thinking my way to the end of a sentence to know what I feel or mean. You and I talk every now and then, mostly through text, and I get excitable when I talk to you because you know, I like you a great deal. And for every ten thousand words you read here, I’ve cut out twenty thousand more. Gosh, you’ve asked all the questions that make me talk so much. Later on you’ll see I’ve talked a lot about the media I was exposed to, I expect you to go into length when you answer that one! It’s crazy to me how much childhood years contain and hard to summarise them for myself. I remember asking this poet I love, like how she keeps from rambling (I was desperate to learn) and manages things so articulately. She said “The simplest thing to say is usually what I try to say” or something along those lines, and I wanted to cry because she was right but how can I even begin to learn how to make things simple for myself when my brain is nearly 24/7 just circus monkeys rioting in a pie factory.

I don’t know if I cut out the bit where I tell you how I grew up looking for monster lore for different countries. I remember there was this creature with backward feet—it was listed under ‘Africa’, I think maybe East Africa (but I’m not sure), and it ate people. I couldn’t find the more specific origin, and I’d read it so many years ago. I tried to find the site again when I wanted to write about it, but no searching would bring it back to me again. So, I had very little detail, but I wanted to run with it and write a horror story that was African—but make it specifically Kenyan, and Coast. Hence all the issues about land and boarding school and so on and so forth. I wanted to create a kind of Mombasa Gothic or a Pwani Gothic. We used to take these Sunday trips to Vipingo, very long car rides back in the day, to eat mshakiki. There’d be all these sisal fields, endless, tidy, orderly soldiery lines of sisal, and every few minutes baobab. Once I saw a mbuyu so mythologically huge but on the next trip I tried to find it, like it had disappeared. So it felt like I’d imagined it. I knew I hadn’t but I never saw it again. I looked for it for years. That’s my Moby Dick or whatever, I never read it so I don’t know. Anyway, I started writing The Sisal House, because I didn’t know the name of the creature but all I knew was that I wanted to write about those sisal fields, but like, make it a horror story. I wanted to experiment with the idea of Pwani Gothic or something. What makes monsters scary isn’t that they want to eat you or how strange they look. It’s what they reveal about ourselves. And it was so strong, visually, so instantly, this scene—it was the first scene to come to me—of this lax panga, in the hand of this dazed individual, swaying in orderless sisal. The gasoline footprints. The rap on the knuckles. Sisal is supposed to be planted neat and straight. But not here, it’s wild. And him being caught in past trauma that still feels current. And then him lowering himself down next to that bracken stream, both dream and dreaming. I knew I was going to write the monster but it was Peter that began the real of it. He asserted himself so clearly as the one who’d take me through this story. And then Moraa, who is so strong in herself but somehow brittle. These siblings had distinct characters. And only then does the monster make a physical appearance. And I remember summers in Tanzania, and the bats in the roof, that peaceful place. I wanted to write about the natural tenants of places, versus the unnatural tenants. Siblings trying to fix this broken house. Siblings who have been betraying each other their whole lives; who’ve defined themselves by the approval(or disapproval) of their patriarchal father. In choosing to strive to secure his love, or striving to be free of the punishments of failing the expectations of that love, they’ve been halved. Moraa is mean and driven and tough, and better suited to being heir. But her father still gives Peter, the failed, softer and long-mocked son, the house—their father mocks them even now. I was interested in the way we conspire against ourselves to meet standards or be free of them, and how it keeps us divided. I was also interested in the tragedy of the intellectual eldest daughter who imagines she’s not like other girls, because daddy told her she wasn’t. There’s that old Bonnie Burstrow quote ending in “…the collusion doesn’t save the daughter from the mother’s fate”, which, yeah. Collusion is fascinating. One sibling elbowed her way to the table, and another sibling felt crushed beneath it—the tragedy is that they could only have loved each other if they’d worked together to destroy the table. I wrote the ogre who feeds off of discord. He sows or deepens discord, and the siblings are in that house like people trapped in a dream. They’re fated to lose. It’s his kingdom, his hunting grounds. The deliciousness of the meat lies in its treachery. Moraa and Peter betray one another because they’ve been doing it all their lives. I like horror with a psychological element, and I wanted to explore these tensions in an environment where we’re not sure what’s real, and what the true origins of the house are, and who’s seeing what. It mirrors I think the treacherousness of society’s expectations too, what we make real and what we make up, and how we lose and lose and lose. I finished Sisal House and submitted it for the Commonwealth prize but eventually she came back from the war, still shiny and young. I don’t know at which point it was but in the creative writers league group chat this fantastic poet called Mwabundu Sekeseke wrote a poem titled Gujama, and we were like, what is Gujama? He said it’s the name of an ogre in the Mijikenda stories, and he talked about its grotesqueness, its backward feet, its craving for human blood—it matched the so far nameless monster in The Sisal House. And it made me more confident in my story because now it could be confidently placed. So the title changed from Sisal House to Gujama, and I went back with this confidence and deepened some of the disturbing elements of the monster, rejuvenated. And because of finding out the monster’s name, I was able to believe it more and amplify its strangeness more. Mwabundu Sekeseke’s poem grew the monster in my eye, because getting that cultural context made it realer. It’s almost a story that wrote itself, and I don’t have those too often, and the title change kind of locked it into place. A Long House gave the story its editing skill, and then a place. And I think it’s the short story that I’m most proud of because I was really going deep into the thing I enjoy most in horror. It felt closer to home, and I was able to deliberately lean into the shifty untrustworthy idea of what is real or true, to create greater unease. Like I said, I love unreliable narrators.

I’ve talked about Gujama, and my very visual-drawing-me-in way of approaching it. Your turn. What was your process for This Is For My Auntie Penzie Who—. I bring up this story again because it’s one of my all time favourite short stories. I’ve wanted to hear you talk about it for ages. Which of your stories is your favourite? I’d love to hear about that as well. This Is For My Auntie Penzie Who— felt very familiar, in its Pwanisms, and the mind of a child is really interesting in understanding complex matters. We studied this story in Makena Onjerika’s Nairobi Fiction Academy and we were really struck by it. How did you begin writing that story? It’s told through the lens of a child, and it’s able to embody that young, absorbing, way of looking at things as they unfold. That’s a very specific perspective to write. Are there any perspectives you find easier or harder to write? Penzi, who the whole flat turns against, for her booty-shorts and her smoking, and the shamelessness she’s accused of, which is even more shameless, because it ignores the “good” opinion of others. It feels like the rejection of “love.” Was that name chosen purposefully, like for illuminating irony, or am I projecting? How she choosing to be herself was punished in her own community, but when the mzungu woman did it no one batted an eye. I could picture that apartment, it reminds me of so many of the flats of Mombasa—how everyone is so involved. The way we surveil and police one another. It made me feel very complicated because it felt like, the end of girlhood, where you really learn that there’s a way you ought to be, and what you’re not allowed to become. And ultimately you might end up having to choose between being a traitor to yourself, or be marked as a traitor to your community. But even as the end of the story and the realisations our protagonists has, is so heavy, it’s not quite the end of girlhood because Aunty Penzi is still very much the person she wants to be like, she sees the strength of her freedom, even while having reminders of what ugliness was in the punishment for it. I guess, that’s me as a reader, and I want to know what was going through your head when you were writing, what was happening in your head, what made you pen this story. And what did you edit out and why. Would you mind talking about it? Also, how many unpublished stories or works in progress or abandoned projects do you currently have with you?

It is transportive, as you say! I like whatever it is that Anderson .Paak does too—just, very infectious. Bango and Bongo for homesickness made me smile. A few days ago I caught a performance on local tv of Them Mushrooms and was like, Idza! Taarab? Zein L’abadeen is still very much iconic. Arabic music? Language barrier prevented me. Though when I got older I looked for and do love Arabic Alt-rock. What else? The radio stations in Mombasa: they did some stuff (what they could), and then the rise in more modern Kenyan youth-focused music

was amazing to experience. Weird and inappropriate radio host conversations sometimes. My brother left his laptop with us when he went to boarding school, and he had all this music he’d downloaded and I just spent hours burning the floor with the bottom of it, playing everything. The Libertines, The Arctic Monkeys, like, not niche, but new to me then. And we used to listen to Enrique Iglesias and Eminem and Mariah Carey to and from school. And abba (my parents love Abba) and Bob Marley on road trips to Vipingo for mshakiki. And all those sisal fields, there’s where Gujama is spiritually set. I feel like I’d need a whole three hours to talk about the evolution of music. It was transportive, and like poetry it is at once both vague and exacting, something somewhere, snags at you. Mid teens I’d begged for an Mp3 player, and I cherished it, on Saturdays I’d camp for Rick Dee’s and the weekly top forty, just so I could manually record the songs I liked. And when I got home from school sometimes there’d be teen-geared like music time. Music isn’t vital to my work but I like it for the same reasons I like poetry. And music has always been a way that I could connect with a good friend of mine. What about you, you spoke of Bongo. Was home very musical? And what did you read? And where did we get this stuff? There were video stores back then, I remember some of them collapsing too, when dvd eventually overtook the cassette. R.I.P Movie Mahal. Did you forget those, because I forgot those, until you asked me which unburied the memory.

Oh no, I’m like you because ours was the only house that wasn’t playing Indian movies. I thought it was like a Coast thing because nearly everybody was playing Bollywood. And oh my god, wait, Idza, do you remember the soap operas? Like the Filipino ones, Angel or I don’t know, what was it? And the latin ones. And the American ones. The Bold and the Beautiful, Young and Restless. I was never allowed to watch the last two. Tell meeeee, do you remember Alejandro and Carlos Ruis (Louise? Idk). I just remember their names. I need words from you to unlock further memories. I used to die trying to catch Charmed, Gilmore Girls, shows like that, when I was younger but I gave up (we weren’t allowed tv on weekdays). I don’t think I ever experienced like a continuous story arc on TV until I was seventeen and knew how to stream stuff. And then there was the whole world of Manga. Speaking of technology, just a few weeks ago we were discussing social media. It’s an honour to watch twitter burn alongside you. We may have started it. Come on now tell me your favourite shows and what you’d watch. I feel like I’ll be able to access an old nostalgic time, and I want to listen to you do that too. Tell me.

Thanks for the book recs! I’m reading a history on Ibn Battua right now and some nonfiction stuff. When I was younger I loved reading everything, like trashy romance novels even? And Goosebumps was the only refuge I had because I seriously could not give even the pretence of being interested in Enid Blyton: Famous Five, The Hardy Boys shenanigans. [The Adventures of] Tintin was also not for me. Asterix , Archie Comics were fun and like all this stuff wasn’t even mine. I didn’t own these media. I’d go to family’s houses and they’d have these collections and books, or comics. So I’d get it from them or sometimes the library. As I grew older I started picking up denser work, or period drama stuff. I wasn’t in it for classics, I was in it for corsets. Pygmalion the stage play. Found Orlando, which I loved. I tried to read everything that intrigued me even slightly in the school library. I miss that, I miss all that time to just, be absorbed. What were your favourite childhood books? What’s the first book that made you cry? And if you can remember, what’s the first book that made you gasp and go “I want to write”?

Idza: Khadija,

I’ve been thinking about an answer to your question, and the more I think about it, the more I start to think that part of my discomfort about being introduced as a writer is because a big part of being one—especially in these parts of the world—is about self-justification. I don’t know, no one asks themselves why they’re a teacher or plumber: it’s just a job. But writers—and artists, by extension—find themselves having to provide reasons. You know, I used to scoff at the preciousness of people who’d say things such as “my identity as a writer/artist” but the more I think about it (which I suppose is also to say: the older I grow), the more I understand that while being an artist may be said to be a job just like anything else (Zadie Smith says writing “is just something to do”), it also entails putting some—if not most—of who you are (your identity) into whatever you’re doing. So in that way, yes, your art can be inextricable from the core of who you are. 

If I were not a writer, I’d be doing anything else to make a living, to be frank. I’m not really precious about work and can do anything. But I would have to find ways to live imaginatively, even if that would consist of arranging/decorating my space or being extra precious about the colours of the clothes I wear, or just something.

Thoughts and prayers! Lol. Enough said.

“Soldierly lines of sisal.” How apt.

“The natural tenants of places.”

Gujama. How fascinating!

I like listening to writers talk about their (back) stories—it’s so fascinating to see how all these disparate things get shaped into a narrative with legs. Sometimes I think we’re so lucky to go through life like this, it’s such an interesting way to pass our days.

This Is For My Autie Penzi who— was a long time coming. I read Alice Walker’s For My Sister Molly Who in The Fifties and had such a strong reaction to it. It’s still one of my favourite poems by Walker. I remember thinking, yes, that’s exactly who or what my big sister was to me. That sense that someone has ventured out into the world from this little place and then come back to fire your imagination. I wanted to write something that sort of responded to that feeling. 

And then: I was always that annoying kid who delighted in adult inconsistencies. I liked to catch adults in lies or hypocrisies. I’d be like: “Mbona huyu akifanya hivi ni sawa, lakini huyu akijaribu…” That sort of thing. And Pwani culture—and if I’m being very specific, Mijikenda culture—can be really conservative and obsessed with respectability, so over the years I became a little fascinated with rogue women, those who actually decide to live their lives as they deem fit, society’s eyes be damned. So that was Auntie Penzi, and that’s how she came to be. The things that happen in the story came together as I wrote it: I can’t really account for them all. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen: “If I knew where stories came from, I’d go there more often.” 

I find it easier to write from the perspectives of people younger than I am. Writing about a little girl is (relatively) easy, but I’m finding it really taxing but certainly much more interesting, if not outright humbling to look at life from a fifty-year-old woman’s perspective, for example. It takes a lot of humility (and patience) to be able to write about actual people, and not just (mere) characters who only exist to serve your story. 

I smiled when you talked about your brother because I had the same exact situation: my brother’s laptop and rock music, which I found perfectly captured my adolescent angst and that eternal feeling of being misunderstood, lol. “I’ve become so numb!” The melodrama, lol! I also have older siblings so I inhaled all their music tastes. Of course, I remember the telenovelas. I have a mark on my face because of Maria De Los Angeles. You couldn’t tell me anything when Jorge was on the screen. I actually enjoyed—and continue to enjoy—Swahili telenovelas, especially because I find that there’s just something about Pwani actors that makes the whole thing compelling. It’s probably a language thing? Maybe acting in the language in which you think makes it more natural? I’m right there with you on Rick Dees Weekly Top 40. I worked my way through my primary school’s Pacesetter’s library collection. Made friends with a classmate whose sister had an enviable collection of Shout Magazine, Animals & You, and all the Sweet Valley books—all the way to university. Did you ever get Elena Ferrante fever? I keep saying Elizabeth Wakefield is the prototype for Elena Greco. I also read all—if not most—of Enid Blyton’s books. I had a lot of time to myself as a kid and all I did was “consume” stories.

I can’t remember the first book that made me cry (they must have been many, I was such a sensitive kid, everything made me cry), but the three that made me feel that okay, maybe I, too, could write a story were: my sister’s copy of Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus.

It’s been so lovely chatting with you, Khadija. Congratulations again and again on winning the—inaugural!!—Ursula Le Guin prize. Looking forward to even more stories from you.

Khadija: Oh no, it’s come to an end! I’ve really loved talking to you, it’s been so interesting and exciting; I was so giddy with some of these. Being able to connect with you and listen to you. Thank you. Full disclosure from an intensely private and cagey person: having conversation in the context of like, being read, could always be a weirder and more uncomfortable experience, but I itch a little less knowing I got to do it with someone like you, and knowing that Clarie’s the one who set it up, and the one who’ll ultimately know best what to do with it. It’s why I said yes. Thank you, Clarie. Make us look good, Clarie. Congratulations on the Caine Prize, Idza. It’s a fine hopeful feeling, knowing you’re out in the world, working at your craft and your peace. I can’t wait to see what’s next. But ah, the end of the year is waiting on us, tapping its little foot. Maasalama, tuonane inshallah!

Idza: Working at my craft and my peace. Somebody say amen! Thank you Khadija. Thank you Clarie.

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber is a Kenyan writer and the author of The House of Rust which won the inaugural Graywolf Press Africa Prize and The Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. You can find her work at Enkare Review, A Long House, Lolwe, and Down River Road among others.


Idza Luhumyo

Idza Luhumyo has training in screenwriting and a background in law. Overall, her artistic practice interrogates the intersections between art, law, and power. She is building a body of work which attempts to capture a specific Kenyan Coastal vernacular.