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Interview: Guest Editor John O. Ndavula

Flash Frontier: Which writers (poets, novelists, short story writers) from Kenya do you most recommend, and why?

John O Ndavula: Lily Mabura stands out for me as a short story writer and academic. She is well known for her story ‘How Shall We Kill the Bishop’, which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2010. Her work is suspenseful, witty and experimental. She pushes the reader’s imagination almost to the brink.

FF: Can you tell us about your own writing? What has most influenced the way you think about creative writing, and how you practice it?

JON: I write short stories, children’s stories and poems. Reading the works of other African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o made me think about my responsibility in the society as a writer. I write stories that make readers reflect more about their society.

FF: Your story ‘Chicken Run’ appeared in the inaugural issue of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature. It is about fear and confrontation and discovery – of truths, of oneself. We wonder if it grows out of personal experience or pure imagination – or a combination of both. And how to those things work in balance for you as a writer?

JON: ‘Chicken Run’ attempts to capture events surrounding the 2007/08 post-election violence in Kenya. My home town, Turbo, was worst hit by the violence. Events in the story could have happened to anyone who survived the violence. So, the story is a combination of my observation and imagination. As a writer I try to distance myself from events as the happened by taking on a fictional character and letting my mind wander.

FF: We’d love to hear more about Kikwetu – the journal for East African writing. Can you tell us about how it was founded, and who is involved in the project? Can you tell us more about East African writing, based on your experience with this journal?

JON: Kikwetu was founded as a response to established journals which tended to exclude emerging and promising writers from East Africa. Our model was to mentor emerging writers and giving them space to publish. Christine Mwai, Micheal Don and I founded the journal. Our experience has revealed that there is a lot of promise from East Africa. Writers need just a little mentoring to make their stories tick.

Some East African writers, with links to their recent stories:
FF: You have participated in SmokeLong Quarterly’s international series by being guest editor in Kiswahili. How do you find transitioning between Kiswahili and English? Do stories translate well, from one to the other? I am thinking of the way James Kemoli Amata spoke of his desire to use simple language in his storytelling in his interview with you at SLQ in September. Sometimes ideas – their complexity, or even their simplicity – get lost in translation. Do you write in both Kiswahili and English – and do you find it challenging to move between the two?

JON: I write in both Kiswahili and English. My experience, however, is limited to writing Kiswahili poetry. I find that there are certain ideas that lend themselves well to one language rather than the other. This makes translation a daunting task because nuances of meaning get lost. For example, there are lots of assumptions regarding context when writing in Kiswahili. When translating such a story, we may fall in the trap of explaining contextual issues instead of letting the narrative flow.


John Ndavula

Catching Clouds

Water color clouds collect over the horizon. I ride my bike, with a tailwind urging on, to catch the clouds before they form and fall as rain on the green and me. I peddle through pines and find the country road dusty, when the hills tease me I stop to rest where sunbeams peek among sagging branches where unseen twigs snap thinly. I work the bike to a hill’s brow that opens up to distant blue lands, when I turn the rain clouds I set out to catch are way behind me.

FF: Your most recent book is called Social Media and Political Campaigns in Kenya – which has more to do with your research in communications than creative writing. Can you tell us more about this project, and your interest in this field? Do you find this overlaps with your creative writing, or are these two separate areas of interest?

JON: The book is the first scholarly book in Kenya to explore the relationship between digital networking sites and contemporary Kenyan politics. Digital communication is an emerging area in communications and it has so far received very little contextual scholarship, especially from developing countries. As a writer, it is exciting to contribute to this emerging area in communication studies. Fiction and academic writing are two different ball games. The first requires an active imagination while the other rigorous academic research. However, writing simply involves working with words, and writing skills are transferable across genres.

FF: You speak of your favourite childhood book in another interview. It was a book called Blue Flowers. Can you tell us more about this book, and why it made such an impression on you?

JON: We had access to very few children story books growing up. Blue Flowers was one of the few books I read as a child. Sometimes I would read books like Cinderella and Snow White which captured experiences far removed from my reality. Blue Flowers had children characters who looked like me and played with flowers like me. That is how the book came to have such an impression on me.

FF: Where do you currently live, and how does this impact your own writing? Tell us a little about your writing space.

JON: I live in Nairobi City where I have a full-time job. Often times I have to wake up quite early, beat the morning traffic, so that I can spend a few hours writing before the day’s activities begin. Given a choice, I would prefer to sit outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air to write.

FF: Could you comment on your choices for this month’s issue of Flash Frontier? What did you find most compelling about the works selected?

JON: The works submitted were of a high standard and from diverse backgrounds. Writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, who won the Caine Prize in 2002, warned of the dangers of a single story from Africa. My selection aimed at providing a window into the diversity present on the continent.

FF: Thank you, John! An honour working with you this month!
John O. Ndavula’s latest book is Social Media and Political Campaigns in Kenya. He has also recently published literary criticism books on fiction from East Africa and Europe. He teaches mass communication and creative writing in universities in Kenya, and earned his PhD in Mass Communication from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. His story, “Chicken Run,” appeared in issue 1 of Kikwetu.

John guest edited the October 2018: AFRICA issue of Flash Frontier


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