Children’s Literature and the Fragility of Attention: A Dialogue with Jennie ‘Shi’ Marima
Jennie ‘Shi’ Marima is an award-winning Kenyan author. She is fascinated by good stories, the great outdoors and loves trying new places and experiences.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place in Kenya via email.
Edith: Jennie, thank you so much for joining me in this conversation. It’s been a year since your book, Trio Troubles, won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in the Children’s English Books category. How was that experience? And since the win, what has changed for you, as a children’s book author and also as Jennie?
Jennie: Thank you so much for having me. I am extremely honored to be invited for this chat.
Wow! It’s a year already! Winning the prize was such an honor. I felt like I had been paid a massive compliment for my work. I was/still am deliriously happy. Since the win, I’ve got quite a bit of attention; I had some interviews in the Nation newspaper, Nafsi Gardens, another with the Writers Guild of Kenya. Then Alliance Française Nairobi, through their Mbogi ya Mawriters Forum, very graciously organized a launch for the winning book and all this was featured in the very popular and influential James Murua literary blog. That was a LOT of attention for this relatively ‘shyish’ writer. I was quite overwhelmed.
What has changed… Confidence in my writing shot up, my struggles with imposter syndrome faded into the background whereas in the past they would be center-stage to almost crippling levels. I was so pumped! Super motivated to keep writing and to actualize all those crazy story ideas in my head. And even as I enjoyed the win, basked in the new found recognition and was beyond honored by and thankful for all the press I was getting, there was a part of me that wanted to go into hiding to process it all.
Edith: Wow! I actually feel the excitement in your words.
Writing is a laborious and lonely process. And there is no formula to it: no fix the plot here, add a little setting, mix it with this quantity of dialogue, plus a sprinkle of conflict and voilà, an award-winning book. As writers, we mostly grapple in the dark and hope our creation is worthy. So, for your work to be publicly acknowledged, awarded and celebrated is a big feat. Once again, congratulations.
I’m surprised, but actually not surprised that you mention having had imposter syndrome. Trio Troubles is your sixth published book, right? One would expect that you should feel that you ‘deserved’ this. I see this imposter syndrome in myself, and in other writers too; we then deprecate ourselves, feel unworthy, have low self-esteem, and garb ourselves in sensitivity towards our works. What made you not confident before in your writing or as a writer? And obviously, because not all writers will win prizes, how can we self-affirm and validate ourselves and our works outside of awards?
Jennie: Thanks Edith. That’s a very interesting question.
I could probably have a different answer depending on what headspace I am in. For right this moment though, I think imposter syndrome was fueled by the things I believed about the path to ‘success’. I had long believed that for something to be great or successful, it would have to be exceedingly laborious and painful. For me, writing was never a pain, always a joy, it was my release, my long sigh after doing life, it was that deep breath one takes after a long demanding day…
Seemingly effortless, yet not. It’s a paradox. I am not saying that I never got stuck, or wrote myself into a corner, or that I was never frustrated or on the verge of tears many times, I was all those, but it was never burdensome. I never thought of it as work. And in my head, because it was birthed from joy and not pain, it couldn’t be good. I was always suspicious, always waiting to be found out that I was just having fun while the real true genuine writers woke up at 2 a.m. to write, tore their clothes in frustration and hated every moment of it but loved the outcome.
That said, imposter syndrome should only be entertained to the extent that it keeps you grounded, keeps you teachable, keeps reminding you that you have not arrived yet, that your best work is still somewhere inside you, waiting to be written. Outside these, for me, it is a thief of destiny. It will deny people the privilege of reading you, learning and being inspired by you and nothing could be more tragic. However insignificant you may think yourself, you may be surprised you inspire more people than you could realize. If you write for prizes, you’re setting yourself up for a major heartbreak because they may come or they may not. And sometimes it has nothing to do with whether you’re good or not. Sometimes the stars just align (as they did for me last year) and you win and sometimes they don’t, but you still impact.
Edith: What an insightful answer, thank you for this. I am constantly amazed by the different places that writers draw inspiration from, and that for you, writing is a joy, a sigh of release— that’s a refreshing perspective.
Personally, I find myself writing from a place of unwanted responsibility. When I ‘find’ a story that needs to be told, I always feel burdened to write it and not doing so makes me feel irresponsible, like I’ve failed that story. So, there’s always this pressure to write about the things I care about.
“Imposter syndrome should only be entertained to the extent that it keeps you grounded, keeps you teachable, keeps reminding you that you have not arrived yet, that your best work is still somewhere inside you, waiting to be written.“
Jennie: Interesting that you speak about writing from a place of responsibility. I think this is one of the things that fueled my imposter syndrome. I felt that ‘proper writers’ wrote from a place of responsibility and here I was writing for the sheer fun of it. Writing the story that was bubbling in my head, not necessarily to teach or to make any grand philosophical point, but simply to write a story that I would enjoy, that would transport me (as many stories I love do) from the everyday mundane and make me pause, think, laugh or reflect.
Edith: You said in a previous interview, “It is not fair to compare authors—or people for that matter. We all have our own unique ‘signature’ styles with which we express ourselves in speech and in writing.” So, I guess we all bring different flavors in the writing process, which is good.
Jennie: Agreed: we all do bring different flavors in the writing process, which is everything.
Edith: And still on the writing process, in your 2014 interview with Laura Holland from the “Sisters Keepers” anthology, you said the following:
“Many of us grew up reading books from the West and imagined that that is how we should write, too. The settings were unfamiliar (it doesn’t snow here, for example) the expressions, foreign—but we learned to love the stories anyway because we loved reading and they were good stories in all fairness. It’s refreshing to now see more and more Kenyan stories coming up, told through our lenses…”
I totally relate with this because I grew up reading The American Girls’ collection, Famous five, Hardy boys, Goosebumps, etc. It’s been 6 years since you held this interview; do you think much has changed, not necessarily for Kenyan, but even African literature? Would you say that we can now write our own stories in our own ways without Western influence or is it still in the birthing process?
Jennie: That’s a difficult question to be honest, but my short answer, from my limited perspective is YES. We are writing our own stories but we are also a work in progress. We still often depend on the West for grants and opportunities to tell our own stories. We still haven’t fully owned the process yet.
Edith: I like that. “Work in Progress” means we are not where we used to be, we haven’t arrived yet, but we are on our way there. And I agree with you. African literature is a work in progress. I was reading an essay by Ben Okri titled “The future is African Literature” and he writes,
“African literature can no longer be contained in a continent, or by a school, or a name, or a homogeneity. It is a literature of all schools, of new schools without a name, a re-invention of the past, a transmutation of the storytelling earth. There was a time when African literature was treated with a ghettoization. Now it is a universe. It always has been the fact that the excellence of its practitioners transforms the perception of a place, a school, a tradition, a nomenclature.”
Reading this, I couldn’t help but think about your award-winning children’s book, Trio Troubles. This book rightly transcends place; it’s literature that brings together space so that Canada and Kenya merge and are trans-mutated in one universe, in one place.
Was this deliberate for you in the creation of this book? To challenge and even bridge the perception of place and identity, so that children can look beyond it?
Jennie: When I was writing ‘Trio Troubles’, I just wanted to try an adventure story for a younger audience. Around the time, I was also doing a lot of hiking and I’d meet people from all over the world, especially Europe and America. I suspect some of those interactions filtered into the story. I saw my characters how I saw the people I hiked with then—as people. Regular people out for an adventure. I don’t think I was deliberately trying to challenge and even bridge the perception of place and identity. And if the story did, it was entirely unconscious. But I am glad the story did more than I had planned. I suppose it’s true what they say, that stories do have a life of their own, independent of the author. I love it when my readers own the stories and find meaning in places I had not deliberately intended.
Edith: Oh yes, stories have lives of their own. And talking about the unconscious nature of stories. I’m curious about the difference or similarities in your creation process for children’s books and also for young adult (YA) books, both of which you write.
You have published two young adult books; Just This Once, which was a Burt Award finalist, and The High Road. The themes in these two books are very profound; from identity, relationships, cultural differences, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, I could go on. Do you find yourself consciously thinking of the message you want to pass across in the YA books or do you just write and the message will follow, either consciously or unconsciously? Is that different or the same as how you write children’s books?
Jennie: The writing processes are quite different. For children’s books, I find myself looking for action. I try to have some sort of action in every scene. They are harder to write because I sometimes have to act out the scenes to be able to see and describe them better. For YA, I go for emotion. I want every line to evoke some type of emotion whether it is nostalgia, longing, annoyance or regret. In 2016, I wanted to write a story where the characters are confronted by tough choices. I didn’t know what the choices would be, just that they would be tough. I wanted it to be about a group of teenagers each embroiled in a mental tug-of-war. In fact, I started off with the title “Choices”, having no idea what the outcome would be. And then I wrote the first scene and it pretty much determined what the story would be about. Writing “The High Road” was an emotional roller coaster. The characters took me to places I had never even been, experienced pains and heartbreaks I could not begin to imagine. I remember sobbing as I wrote some parts. Good sobs. Creative sobs.
“Just This Once” was born out of lines I heard a character say on a TV show. The lines were “pick me, choose me, love me”. I was stunned by the audacity. Were people even allowed to say that out loud? There was both an entitlement and a desperation. The emotion in those lines was haunting. They rang in my ears, refusing to be quieted. I wrote some sort of poetry piece around those lines, but it did little to quench that feeling of a larger story wanting to be let out. That’s when I knew therein lay my next book. The book would be about wanting to be picked and chosen. I can tell you, I did not find rest until the manuscript was done. For both YA and children’s books, I usually don’t have a clear road map for how the stories will pan out. They come to me in bits. I have to write the bit in my head before the rest of the story is given to me. Sometimes the bit in my head is a paragraph, sometimes it’s a single line, sometimes it’s a whole chapter. I am like an obsessed manic person when I am in that zone, and many times the stories surprise me too.
Edith: My goodness, what insightful deep thoughts here! Are you sure you haven’t given away the best kept writing secret in the world? I didn’t know this—that for children’s stories action is vital, and for YA it’s the emotion. This makes all the sense in the world—children like to see things happening while for young adults it’s about feelings. Why do I suddenly feel like I can write these genres now?
I have written a short story that went on to win a writing competition, and the whole premise came from a documentary I watched on Al Jazeera. I guess television has a positive influence on us writers. Which works both ways; most— if not all—TV adaptations come from the written word.
On the topic of your readers, you have been involved in The Literary Caravan by the Goethe Institut Nairobi that visited primary and secondary schools. And I believe you facilitated a creative writing workshop in the forum. How was that?
Sometimes I am afraid that the literary arts are fading, especially because we go by and unfortunately live by the tag of “starving artists”, and since there is not a lot of monetary reward for our works, that future writers will not be there, and even if they are, they will be academic and not creative writers. What did this workshop reveal to you in that aspect? Did you meet a lot of children who said “I want to be a writer” and were passionate about writing? Is there hope for the future? Apart from all that, how was it in general?
Jennie: Happy to share the secret!
The Literary Caravan, organized by, among others, the Goethe Institut and the Writers Guild-Kenya, was so much fun! Most of my productive time is spent sitting quietly behind a screen, so you can imagine what a treat it was to go on a road trip and get to speak to students about what I do! It was so fulfilling to see the students’ eyes shining with interest. I still remember the forest of hands raised, fingers snapping, the ‘teacher! teacher!’ with burning questions. The way their eyes lit up when they found out I wrote one of the books in their library! Pure heaven! In one of the schools, we were pleasantly hounded for autographs. It was such a blessing! In another, they wrote us what an impression we had on them. Little cute notes like “I’d like to study Publishing in Moi University like Rehema” or “My dream is to be a librarian like Elizabeth”. My favorite one said something sweet about me! And I kept it so safely even I can’t find it. It was the true celebrity life! Many of the students said they wanted to be writers. In some schools we had writing exercises and their work was very impressive. Some of the older ones had blogs or were planning to start blogging. One, in particular, was such a fan of Biko Zulu, he could recite some of his blogs by heart. Best spent time ever! The future is bright!
Edith: Wow, what a wonderful time you must have had and it gives me pleasure to hear that! And I love that expression, ‘the forest of hands’.
You have published six books now, and have massive experience in the publishing industry. I know there are specific challenges that face children’s books writers e.g. finding & funding illustrators, publishing in a very ‘choosy’ market etc. What has been the biggest challenge for you, even in the initial stages and is it easier and better now? And what would the ideal children’s literature industry look like for you?
Jennie: So, I have been on both ends of publishing, meaning I have worked for a publisher (as an editor) and been published by different publishers. From my previous life as an editor, the challenges included finding good stories, convincing Finance to prioritize them, finding reliable service providers from evaluators to illustrators, the nightmare that can be editing and proofreading, the very resilient typos that sneak their way to press, getting authors excited about the marketing processes, getting through to schools via teachers who often make the primary decisions about which books to recommend for the school…Every component has its unique highs and lows.
As an author, just getting a pair of eyeballs on your manuscript, especially one they didn’t ask you to write, is nothing short of a miracle. Getting published, even for us who fancy ourselves insiders, is very competitive; the time it takes between the Yes from the publisher and the actual publication, the rejections, feedback that is impossible to implement, parents telling you to make your book more like Dork Diaries because their kids have no interest in anything local, I could go on and on. Also learning that publishers have numerous projects and priorities and that the universe doesn’t revolve around my one story is sometimes earth-shattering because in my head my story, the labor of my imagination is the most important thing in the whole wide world (to be dramatic). I guess the ideal world would be one with less of the frustrations listed.
Edith: The resilient typos, oh that’s a nightmare. And those are the ones readers immediately see. And I also understand the mindset of ‘the universe revolves around my story’. Sometimes when I send out my work and I’ve not heard back from editors after two weeks, I start to think “Hello, that’s like the best story ever, why aren’t you getting to it immediately?” But yes, there are a lot of setbacks when it comes to publishing, and I wish there was a magic solution, but there is no happily ever after here. I would say self-publishing and platforms like Amazon Kindle have made life easier for authors. Oh, and blogs too.
It’s also really frustrating to hear parents say that their children don’t like to read local books. Shouldn’t they be the ones encouraging them to read such? Looking at the West for example, we see children’s books being adapted into films and cartoon series e.g. Harry Potter, Curious George, Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, okay I could go on until eternity. Children get excited and eager to read from books that they’ve ‘watched” on TV. Do you think more collaboration between African children’s authors and children content creators in the TV industry would make a difference?
Jennie: One thousand percent YES! I would welcome and wholeheartedly embrace any collaborations that expand how we tell stories!
Edith: An observation I have also made is children like to read and parents buy a lot of storybooks for them, but that slowly but surely, somehow changes in high school and then as we transition to adulthood, the reading culture fades. What do you think happens in between?
Jennie: I imagine a young adult has way more things calling for their attention (and their little pocket money, for those who have) than a child would. Our books have to now compete with Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, that fashion piece, the endless supply of TV shows, and whatever the latest trendy thing is. Also, for disadvantaged children, books are a luxury. Will they eat or meet personal needs like sanitary towels, or buy a book? All so very delicate.
Edith: Oh yes, and books aren’t cheap. You talk about books now having to compete with Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc. and I am reminded of your YouTube channel, Shi Scribbles. I love that you have embraced that platform to talk about the literary; from book launches to writing activities, and the videos are so bubbly and fun. Why is this channel important to you? Why did you start it and what do you envision for it?
Jennie: Thanks! Starting a YouTube channel was the very last thing I ever thought I’d do. A few months before I did, I’d received some disappointing news for some work I had put my heart and soul into. I drowned my sorrows on YouTube (if that expression can be used like that!). It became a welcome distraction watching, especially, Kenyan content. One day, a thought popped into my head that I, too, could create content. The thought refused to go away. After a few months of resisting it, I decided: what harm can it do? and it would be a good excuse to learn how to edit videos. And that’s how it all began. In my head it was just something fun and light that I did when I had a bit of time: but then one day at the bookfair, I met a gentleman from Nyeri. He said he learnt about the Nairobi International Bookfair from my channel! and came all the way. He was also so inspired by the Peter Ngila interview that we did and was so delighted to meet him at the bookfair. I was so pleased that something so fun and light has that sort of impact. I’ve not been very consistent though. It’s very demanding to review hours of footage, edit (as I learn how to) and so when I get pulled into an assignment, I am not able to multitask. Blame tunnel vision. But I’d like to get back to it sometime. If it is useful to someone somewhere, then I’ll have accomplished my mission…
Edith: And I must brag, that I too have been featured, or rather appeared in an episode on your channel. So, yay for me! And I would like to encourage our readers to check it out and to encourage you to get back to it. Sometimes it feels like what we do is not big enough, but somewhere somehow, it is creating ripples.
Jennie thank you so much for speaking with me. This discussion has been enlightening, and such fun.
Jennie: Yes, you have and you were an absolute star! You were so cool to agree to. When I have a moment I’ll get straight back to filming. I am so honored to have been asked for this interview. It’s been a while since I talked about my work in this type of situation so this was refreshing… therapeutic even. Thank you!
This dialogue was edited by Kylie Kiunguyu.
Edith Knight Magak is a writer and editor living in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Critical Read, Urban Ivy, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jalada, Six Hens, among other places. Edith writes about writing, depression, trauma, family, history and sometimes murder. In 2019 she was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award.
When she isn’t writing or working, she fills her time taking long walks, scribbling poetry, or reading short stories. Edith is a member of the African Writers Development Trust.
Edith believes that the future of African literature is creative nonfiction.