Nahida Esmail is a Tanzanian writer. She was born, raised, and lives in Dar-es-Salaam, where she writes part-time and is a fulltime mother of two girls. Her writing journey began with disappointment at the lack of books written by and for Tanzanians. Her goal is to write a book in every genre and to provide good books for young people with the hope that young Tanzanians will become strong readers and great leaders.
Her novels, Aiming for The Summit and The Detectives of Shangani: The Mystery of Lost Rubies, won the Code Burt Literary Award for African Young Adult Literature in 2016 and 2014. Living in The Shade was a finalist and Lessilie – The City Maasai shortlisted for the same award in 2017 and 2012. Bibo Learns to Speak the Truth was shortlisted for the 2013 Golden Baobab Picture Book Prize.
She graduated from Goldsmiths College, University of London, with a BSc in Psychology and completed a Masters in Child Development with Early Childhood Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. She enjoys reading, cycling, mountain climbing, photography, and traveling. She has lived in London, Cairo and Durban, and continues to explore the world with her children.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation is the result of a series of letters that scuttled along the electronic superhighway between Kampala and Dar-es-Salaam.
Davina: “A book in every genre” is a bold adventure, Nahida; I’m curious to learn how that’s going so far. What we should expect from you next? Something speculative? Or a spy thriller-horror? Maybe a travelogue?
Nahida: Looking at life from a glass half-full perspective, so many books need to be written. I have already published adventure, mystery, historical fiction, religious non-fiction, poetry and picture books. I have also written a variety of newspaper and magazine articles.
I have attempted a fantasy genre that is currently in the editing stage. I also got an opportunity to display my poem titled Twenty Twenty at a local art exhibition held at the Swedish Embassy.
Davina: Fantasy! Exciting! I bought a book, once, titled Teach Yourself Writing Fantasy. I didn’t read it to the end, which is a [long] story for another day but, in short, that’s partly how it started for me—through reading Teach Yourself books.
After the Teach Yourself phase, I attended writing workshops, and joined several readers’ and writers’ groups. But long before the workshops and writing groups, there was curiosity. As a child, I read a lot; I trace one kind of beginning of my writing journey to the point at which my curiosity, about what it’s like to be on the other side of the page, prevailed.
What’s your writing story like, and on which side of the Teach Yourself divide are you most likely to be found?
Nahida: I started collecting books before I was pregnant. Once I got pregnant, I was interested more in African children’s books especially Tanzanian. To my disappointment, I found that there were not many children’s books available written by Tanzanians, or even stories set in Tanzania for that matter. The few that I did find were not at the standard I thought children should have.
I believe everything in life happens for a reason and it so happened at that point in my life I came across this quote by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I took it as a sign. I wanted to write a story my child could relate to. Besides that, I also saw this as a chance to alter the stereotypical mindset of Africa being a continent of only disease and poverty. There is so much beauty in Africa and I thought that people should know about it.
So, there was a ‘Teach Yourself’ phase and later a ‘write how and what you know’ phase. It was a long and difficult journey. It was unchartered territory for me and the process of transferring a story from a notebook to an actual book was more work than I had anticipated. I attended workshops that were locally available. Learning about publishing and publishers, sourcing artists and approving designs, were all overwhelming initially. But it paid off and there is a great feeling of satisfaction upon the completion of each book.
Davina: How do you celebrate the completion of a book? I make small ceremonies of every writing project I successfully complete; I might reward myself by sleeping in longer the day after or gorging myself on ice-cream. I wonder if you throw any sleep or food parties to congratulate yourself.
Nahida: Firstly, I thank my Creator. As Muslims, we turn back to God for everything. If there is success, then it is only through Him. So, being grateful is something that should be valued.
Once I have finished a book or a project I am working on, I feel like a student who has just completed the hardest exam. I feel at ease and have a list of things I choose from. Meet up with a friend or friends for coffee. Watch a movie I’ve been meaning to watch. Go visit someone. Indulge in ice cream.
I would like to, say, sleep in, but once I wake up for morning prayers, I find it very difficult to go back to sleep. I enjoy going out for a walk at dawn or cycling. I also enjoy swimming in the ocean. Reading a book. These are all my little treats.
Davina: Illustrations do much more than make a story colourful and eye-catching; they clarify several aspects of the plot, too, and make characters or subject matter relatable.
A few years ago, I participated in a poetry poster project; a collaboration between writers and visual artists. However, all I had to do was contribute a children’s story; the work of vetting artists and selecting artwork to include alongside my story fell to someone else, so I have no experience in either sourcing artists or approving designs. Could you summarize this process? Is there a list of things you consider before contacting an artist?
Nahida: For the books that I have published, I have sourced artists. Thankfully, for books that are published by traditional publishing houses, the responsibility falls on them and I get to give my feedback. Finding an artist that would suit your style is not always easy. I have been blessed to have worked with some of the best artists!
First thing is to ask your circle of influence if they know of good artists. One of the best places to go to is an art school. Students, who have just completed university, are looking for a job and you will get a good deal. Once you find a few artists, you can ask to see their work. Some will agree to do a sketch for free and you can decide whether their style is what you have in mind.
Then you decide how many illustrations will be required; agree on a price and a date of completion. It is also very important to agree what should happen if you are not happy with the finished artwork. If the artist agrees, then they can show you the stages of work so if there are any major changes it can be done then.
“Esmail does a great job of sharing the reality of the period with relevant landmarks and customs. Though the book explores slavery there’s still plenty of humanity as the story is told by the curious 14-year-old.”
Uliwa’s review reminded me of bits of Joy Mogami Gaamangwe’s conversation with Ayesha Harruna Attah about The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Ayesha says that after she learned that her great great grandmother was “kidnapped and ended up in the Salaga slave market,” her project became to “preserve the memory” of her great great grandmother and to “have her be remembered with dignity.”
“I calculated that she must have been in Salaga in the 1890s, and it turned out to be a dramatic period in the region’s history. Everyone wanted a piece of the place. And with that, Wurche’s character was born,” Ayesha says.
I’m curious about your entryway to the subject matter for Karafu, Nahida, if in some ways it was similar to Ayesha’s, and your position on the obligation of storytellers, if any, to the complex category known as ‘historical fact.’
I’m currently reading What Is History? by Edward Hallet Carr; Carr argues for “a model which does justice to the complex interrelation and interaction” between “the observer” and “the thing observed.”
“The facts of history cannot be purely objective, since they become facts of history only in virtue of the significance attached to them by the historian. Objectivity in history—if we are still to use the conventional term—cannot be an objectivity of fact, but only of relation, of the relation between fact and interpretation, between past, present, and future.
“I need not revert to the reasons which led me to reject as unhistorical the attempt to judge historical events by erecting an absolute standard of value outside history and independent of it. But the concept of absolute truth is also not appropriate to the world of history—or, I subject, to the world of science. It is only the simplest kind of historical statement that can be adjudged absolutely true or absolutely false.”
Carr’s argument interests me, especially since we are now living in the age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news.’ Do you, like Carr, believe that “the facts of history cannot be purely objective?” And how close do you suppose we are to the age of ‘fake history?’
“Creativity does not have a right or wrong answer. Creativity is the power to connect with the seemingly unconnected.”
Nahida: Around 1000AD, Muslim scholars developed a very elaborate method for testing the truth of the sayings of the Holy Prophet (Hadith). The authenticity of the hadith was enormously important because the Prophet’s words, actions and silent approvals are considered divine utterances on which Islamic law is assessed, along with the Quran (Holy Book of Islam). The authenticity of the source determined its validity – this was a long and tiresome process, meaning authenticity is determined and scaled according to the chain of narrators. This methodology amazed me and taught me the gravity of sourcing facts.
Also depending on who writes history books, some information can be omitted because the writer wants a certain perspective to reach the readers (bias). This is also omitted from the curriculum of schools, so children grow up learning only one side of the story. For example, the contributions Muslims made to civilization have largely been left out. For example, Al-Khawarizmi (Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi), the Persian mathematician who introduced the Hindu-Arabic numerals, replacing Roman numerals, and who created Algebra by combining Greek geometry and Indian arithmetic, introduced the basics of algebra that we use today.
It was Muslims that first gave zero a mathematical property. Without the zero there would be no way to tell the difference between numbers like 51 and 501. But many people are still unaware of this part of history because it has conveniently not been passed on. We see a similar suppression of history when it comes to pre-colonial African history. The myth that Europe civilized Africa is still a persistent stereotype.
History is portrayed according to the ones who write it. Naturally historical events are complex; generally intertwined with failures and successes. Writing historical fiction should not negate the responsibility of fact checking and resisting biases.
Chinua Achebe said: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Let me give another example of how subjectivity can enter the history books:
Historical “hard” facts can’t be changed; for example, “Columbus arrived to Guanahani on October 12, 1492.” But the reading of the event is dependent on the historian’s point of view: “Columbus brought culture to the savages” or “Columbus was the first imperialist and came to enslave a whole continent.”
Did Columbus ‘discover’ America or did he find people living there? Was he searching for America or did he stumble across it? He was actually trying to get to India and thought the West Indies was India. Most people don’t even know that he never actually set foot on what is today the USA. So, in fact he didn’t discover America but was possibly the first European to set foot in the West Indies, thinking he landed in India.
This is false history.
For years, Americans celebrate Columbus Day as a national holiday for ‘discovering’ America but no one likes to talk about how he brought colonialism, death and destruction.
So, you can have some facts but with different interpretations depending on what side you are looking at it from. And written history is usually the historical narrative of the victors, the privileged. Although, if all history books, written by different historians at the same time period say the same thing, the words obviously may weigh more. There is something in research called “triangulation,” i.e. getting different viewpoints on the same event to establish whether the event happened or not and how it happened.
There is a myth that Christopher Columbus was the first person to understand the circumference of the earth through his travels, but 650 years before him Muslim scholars had figured it out; Al-Burini used trigonometry to come up with the Earth’s circumference that is very close to the accepted value today.
Even the history of Africa has largely been told by the colonialists. The liberation of Zanzibar is one example where there are so many different interpretations but in school students are only given one interpretation. When writing ‘Karafu,’ I turned to Tanzanian historians and their version of history, but also took some parts from the West.
Davina: Questions about how best to narrate a story—through whose eyes we should watch events unfold— preoccupy writers, too. Whose place, positon, view, should a writer privilege, and why?
My favourite point of view is first person, possibly because many of my favourite books are written in first person. I turn to second person when I’m writing something whimsical, non-traditional or experimental. Which point of view do you favour?
Nahida: I find the first-person singular, where the story is told from one individual point of view, makes it more personal and engaging. It can immediately put the reader into the character’s head, allowing for an intimate connection. The reader can feel what the character feels.
The limitation of using this point of view is that you cannot go into the mind of another person.
Davina: For Kenyan writer Jennie Marima, the writing process for children’s and young adults’ books is 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.”
Do you relate to this difference in approach?
Nahida: Jennie Marima is full of action and fun herself! I love her positive energy!
I have found myself wanting to promote some kind of social value when I write books for young adults, whatever the genre. Of course, I want the readers to enjoy the story but also learn through the story values like kindness and respect for humanity. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a thesis written on social values in my young adult novels. I am trying to create meaning.
Davina: In the thesis you mention, Social Values in Young Adults Novels: A Study of Selected Works by Nahida Esmail, the author, Moikan Senyi, lists a number of social (and moral) values that your books promote, including ‘a habit of generosity,’ ‘the attitude of heroism,’ ‘a spirit of adventure,’ and ‘environmental conservation.’ But I’d like us to first agree on who counts as ‘a young adult,’ since Senyi includes at least two conflicting definitions: “a person old enough to be in junior high or high school, usually grades seven through twelve” and a person “aged between fifteen to thirty-five years.”
Obviously, how one writes for a 17-year-old isn’t how one writes for a 34-year-old. So, let’s start with your classification; when you set out to write a story for ‘young adults,’ what age range are you typically thinking of?
Nahida: Luckily for me, when I wrote my first story, I was told that it should aim for 12-to-18-year olds. This in itself was difficult, because what a 12-year-old may think is funny, an 18-year-old may not. So, really, it’s up to the writer which age group he or she wants to write for.
I have a 13-year-old daughter, so a lot of times I keep her in mind and it makes it a bit easier. Also, for example, when I was commissioned to write for Worldreader, the age category was narrowed and specified.
Davina: Aiming for the Summit is about Tanzania’s first ever all-girls football team, and their quest to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
In Everlasting, you wrote about how you and a couple of friends climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in support of mothers in need of neonatal care. In that same issue of Panorama, Ugandan writer and film-maker Dilman Dila‘s On Filmmaking and Travel appears. In it, he writes that he doesn’t remember when he developed the urge to travel but suspects that it had something to do with his father’s job as a newsagent who sold “both local and international newspapers”
“My father was also a communist; with a whole shelf full of Soviet Union and Maoist literature. Soon, one of my daydreams was travelling to China to become a Shaolin master.”
When did you develop an urge to travel?
Nahida: I have enjoyed travelling since I was young. My parents had family and friends in many places around the world. I have memories of my trip to Mauritius and the UK as a 7-year-old with the whole family. The travel seed had been implanted since then.
I travelled to South Africa, India, Hong Kong, The Netherlands, Mozambique, Malawi, Canada and the USA with my mother. I travelled to Scotland, Portugal and remote parts of Tanzania with my eldest brother in my teens and later to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Algeria. Travelling opens a whole new story-world. I travelled on my own to places like the Galapagos Islands, Slovenia, Malaysia, Spain, Namibia and Turkey, and also lived alone in Cairo for 5 years, studying a new language and meeting interesting people from around the world.
Recently, I have loved exploring mountains. It started with reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. I wrote two fiction story books since my climb to Uhuru Peak. After that, I’ve been to Machu Picchu in Peru, Mount Toubkal in Morocco, Mount Fuji in Japan, Everest Base camp from the Nepal side, and Mount Damavand in Iran.
Davina: I like ambiguity, especially when it arises from the possibility that the narrative is structured to create more than one level of meaning.
Poetry seems to me to offer more opportunities for ambiguity. I’m thinking now for instance of three lines from your poem, Twenty Twenty:
Faulty test kits
Papaya testing positive
Confusing your wits
‘Testing’ in this case could refer to checking for the presence of disease or examining knowledge of something. Has the papaya contracted Covid-19 or is it questioning the positivity with which we feel we now know what we need to know about Covid-19? When we encounter ‘confusing your wits,’ is the persona speaking of disorientation or mistaken identity? Of perplexity or of having mistaken one set of wits with another?
Nahida: It is said that an English teacher always interprets the meaning of something more than what the writer intended. When a papaya (pawpaw) and goat tested positive for coronavirus, I saw the funny side of it and there were already ideas for stories forming in my mind. I never got around to putting those stories to paper but I used ‘papaya’ for one of my poetry lines.
I think if you refer to papaya testing and coronavirus, it will automatically be known which country is being referred to. The three lines say a lot with how it was thought that the kits have ‘technical errors’ and how it confused everyone.
Davina: Hah! The English teacher, rather the teacher of English, in me likes this very much, this business of papaya testing positive! While we are on the subject of things I like, I enjoyed Foxy Joxy Plays A Trick. (My three-year-old nephew LOVES watermelon so I’ll read the book to him, too, soon.) Foxy Joxy reminded me of Mr. Fox from Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was based on Roald Dahl’s book, which I also enjoyed, which got me thinking of our tendency, as adults, to default to similes. “How many things does A remind me of?” then becoming the question we ask long before we ask “What is A?”
I thought about how much I struggle to find adequate responses to a child’s “What is that?” How hard it is to explain the essence of things without resorting to similes.
Nahida: It’s a possibility that Foxy Joxy was born out of the sly characters I would read written by Enid Blyton. I like Mr. Fox from Fantastic Mr. Fox and I love Brer Rabbit.
Writing a children’s book can be like doing an ambiguity test. When you ask a child and an adult the following questions…
What does happiness look like?
What is the shape of the letter B?
What colour is today?
What does pink taste like?
…the answers may be very different.
It’s like opening a gateway to creativity. Adults tend to struggle with non-literal thinking. Creativity does not have a right or wrong answer. Creativity is the power to connect with the seemingly unconnected.
Davina: My first journey into the world of psychology came courtesy of a novel I read in junior high school, whose protagonist suffered from a multiple personality disorder; that was the first time I’d heard of a ‘personality disorder,’ so I was intrigued! I started to read more about disorders and along the way discovered Freud, whose ideas continued to fascinate me well into adulthood.
During the last three or so years, however, I’ve grown mistrustful of Freud, and of some aspects of his pathologizing processes. I now find myself gravitating towards Jung, who isn’t without critics either but whose theory of collective consciousness and idea of universal archetypes appeal to a certain kind of storyteller in me.
Your first degree is in psychology. What drew you into this world, Nahida? Which personalities, or theories, in your field, have influenced your storytelling in the past or are likely to influence your storytelling in the future?
Nahida: Understanding humans—their behaviors, perspectives, habits, thinking, actions, characteristics, personalities, etc.—can be fascinating. This is what drew me to psychology.
After having come across so many theories, I believe you can find some good in a theory even if you don’t agree with every aspect. I am very interested in theories of emotional intelligence like that of Howard Gardener who argues that it could be evolutionarily functional for different people to have different talents and skills, and proposed that there are eight intelligences. I believe stories can help facilitate learning and increase creativity and emotional Intelligence.
While I was studying, I found all the theories fascinating. But along with the criticism of the theories, I realized no theory is perfect. Therefore, I took what I believed to be the good that came from each. The whole learning process may have influenced me, while I still continue to learn.
Davina: Do you compile authoritative guides on all your characters’ behaviors, perspectives, and habits—long before you start writing?—or do you prefer, like me, to wing it?
Nahida: I usually write about the character as I go along. So, like you, I also ‘wing it.’
Davina: I’ve always liked the idea of different kinds of intelligence; that we are all good at something, and that we should celebrate being good at even those things that don’t involve calculus and it’s logical-mathematically intelligent cousins.
What you said, earlier, about how stories “facilitate learning and increase creativity and emotional intelligence”…funny that you should mention this because I was thinking about this, this morning…my friend and I were discussing emotional intelligence the other day—how self-awareness is a necessary skill for, say, the management of expectations in our relationships.
While he agreed that one can learn self-awareness through stories, he thought this was more likely to happen if the book in question was a bestselling self-help book or autobiography of a famous person rather than a sci-fi or fantasy novel.
Nahida: Emotional intelligence can be learned by improving your ability to manage emotions by being more self-aware. Like Kahlil Gibran says, “Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge.”
There’s a quote by Lisa Hayes which resonates with how you speak: “Be careful how you talk to yourself because you are listening.” The brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and perception; what you tell it, the brain will believe. Being self-aware is being cognizant of our thought processes, our reactions to things outside of our own selves, our emotions and how we manage them.
Dr. Omar Suleiman also articulated it well: “You are but a collection of inputs. What you constantly fill your eyes and ears with will inevitably occupy your heart and soul. What you constantly allow to consume your thoughts will inevitably become your default frame of mind.”
As a writer, I believe emotional intelligence can be demonstrated in all genres, and not just self-help books or autobiographies. We can actually observe how children react to stories they read depending on how they view the narrative and the characters.
Davina: On Literary Globetrotters, “a class blog on conversations about international children’s literature maintained by Nithya Sivashankar’s students,” a one Daniel writes that Living in The Shade taught him “about a lifestyle and a plight against thousands of people that previously I had no knowledge of.”
He measures the success of your book by how much awareness it has spread about “people that deserve acceptance” and its explanations of “life lessons that anyone could benefit from.” By what criterion do you measure the success of your books?
Nahida: By feedback such as that of Daniel. When I come across a student who says they have read my book, and even if they don’t praise it, I measure that as success as the student was able to complete reading it.
I have been invited to talk about my books in some schools and I also measure that as success of my books as the students would have read it and it stirred enough interest to want to meet the writer.
Davina: Daniel also writes that Living in The Shade manages to successfully convey messages about friendship, acceptance, and trust. He however doesn‘t think you were “as successful” with the use of hashtags “in the same way a middle-aged mom would be”:
“The references to Instagram or the times the group would stop to take a selfie were at least once in every chapter. I do understand that social media plays a huge role in this story, but the use of it just felt forced at times. There was one point at the end of the story where the girls were worried about their friends being killed but they begin to get more excited about their post about their friends starting to trend. It felt as if the way it was written they were more excited to be internet-famous. Saying this, I realize, this could just be my interpretation as an American in his 20’s. This could very well be how technology and social media is viewed and talked about in Tanzania for this specific age group.”
Nahida: Coming from the USA, I understand why Daniel would feel that the girls felt “more excited about their post about their friends starting to trend.” However, according to the story, girls with albinism are always seen as a target, so when they get feedback and see the world wants to help, they feel the support and see this as an only opportunity to help save their friend.
There is only one selfie queen in the story, and I believe you find such characters everywhere around the world. If you know of those that enjoy taking selfies, then you would understand that it’s not forced but sometimes overdone. This was to draw attention to people with albinism also having selfie queens just like everyone else.
Davina: When you spoke about being commissioned by Worldreader to write a story for young adults for a women and sports series, I forgot to mention Marwa Zein, the director of Khartoum Offside, and her interview with Andariya:
“I used to play soccer in Mecca when I was younger. This film made me dig into why women are frowned upon in sports; which further led me to study religion then spirituality and mindfulness. I studied heritage and history and why we’re a third world country when there are first world countries on a different development tangent. Through the girls whose stories shape the film, I saw the challenges football presents in their lives and with their families and society at large. The issues revealed by the different dynamics touched me and my own challenges and standing up for what I believe with my family and society.”
How much of yourself ends up in your work?
Nahida: In Tanzania, female participation in sport is now increasing but there has never been a restriction. Personally, I’ve been fortunate not to have any imposed obstacles. I have always loved sports and adventure, but never intended to pursue them professionally. However, for females who do wish to pursue sports professionally, there needs to be sincere commitment from all structures: family, community, society and government.
I adorn the scarf and enjoy reading detective and adventure stories. I think all this finds its way into my fiction in one way or another. However, there is a huge part that doesn’t. Maybe one day in a fiction book for adults.
Davina: It’s not only writers, artists, that like to anthropomorphise. Scientists do, too; I was thoroughly amused by Julian Davies’ Anthropomorphism in Science:
“Humans seem able to make a ‘pet’ of almost anything; researchers working with E. coli or S. cerevisiae might well develop an affinity for their subjects. It has even been reported that microbiologists in a German sewage plant play Mozart to their hard-working microbes to enhance their efficiency in biodegradation.”
“If we accept the essential roles of microbes in our evolution and existence, should they be afforded some rights akin to UN charters?”
As a writer, I acknowledge that I am occasionally called to dabble in the absurd. So I’ll close with an absurd question: do you foresee us living in a world in which bacteria have [pseudo-human] rights?
Nahida: As a non-scientist, that’s difficult for me to predict. However, in the literary world, it’s our imagination, however unrealistic, that propels a story. Bacteria as animate beings in literature could easily be fashioned (more likely in children’s literature, for example). But as for bacteria with pseudo-human rights… I’ll leave that to the scientists.
Davina is a reader who happens to like writing. She writes in several forms (including poetry and essays) but is for some reason most drawn to the short story. Stories are how she makes sense of the world, and of her (imagined or otherwise) moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical place in it. She’s committed to the creation of a legacy that equalizes the telling of stories. Her range of interests include [eu]social media, the mothering of the tongue, and English which, despite our sincerest efforts to preserve it, keeps breaking (sometimes into more pieces than we can pick up).