Our Everyday African Lives: A Dialogue With Stanley Gazemba
Stanley Gazemba (Kenya) is the author of three novels: The Stone Hills of Maragoli (winner of the 2003 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for fiction, published in the U.S. as Forbidden Fruit in 2017), Khama, and Callused Hands. He is also the author of eight children’s books, of which A Scare in the Village won the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for children’s fiction). A journalist by training, Gazemba has written for The New York Times, The East African, Msanii magazine, Sunday Nation, and Saturday Nation. He lives in Nairobi.
This conversation took place in a green sweet-spot in the cold city of Gaborone, Botswana and temperamental, chilly ugali-starved Nairobi, Kenya by Skype.
Gaamangwe: Stanley, congratulations on the publications of Forbidden Fruit. I really enjoyed reading the book. Even though the story is based in Kenya, I resonate with the lives and experiences of the characters in the book, perhaps because I have also lived in the rural parts of Botswana. The poetry and the vivid imagery is also quite incredible. What was the origin story of Forbidden Fruit?
Stanley: Thank you. I am excited, especially to be published in the USA as an African writer because I want to be read as widely as possible. I am glad that I have transported people to rural Kenya. Its really interesting to hear readers from all over the world who also personally relate with the story.
When I started the story I was reminiscing on how Christmas was like when I was growing up. I was writing about things I remember from the Christmas time of my childhood. Christmas was the finest time of the year; there wasn’t much work to do, there was a lot of food and festivities because the harvest was just in. It was rather a great spirit of celebration. I wanted to capture that. The fictitious village is crafted around a real village that I grew up in, and some of the characters are created around real people that I know. Of course overall the story is fiction. I created some aspects of the story as I saw fit.
Gaamangwe: I did feel that the story is written by someone who has probably lived a life similar to those of the characters or at least someone who has lived in a similar world. Was it easy for you to actually tap into your own experiences?
Stanley: I think that out of all the books I have written it was the most enjoyable and the easiest to write. I was basically immersing myself in a world that I know. So it was not challenging to write the book as compared to other books. Of course there were challenges like getting the plot to move properly and weaving everything together. But I think that is the sort of challenge that every author enjoys.
Gaamangwe: Yes. I also enjoyed how you created a slow-paced and detailed world, which was quite easy for us as readers to believe and immerse ourselves in. What was some of the tools that you utilize to create the book?
Stanley: I have always been the kind of writer who avoids what is taught in creative writing classes. The usual advice of plotting a story and having a skeleton of where and what you are working towards. I think sometimes when you approach writing in that way it becomes artificial, it doesn’t have that touch of something organic. Yes, there was planning but I didn’t do it in a structured way. At the time I was working as a gardener, so I had a lot of time to reflect on where I wanted this character to be, how I wanted the character to look like, what I wanted them to do in the story, and most of that stuff I was doing inside my head.
Previous to that I had been doing a bit of plotting and writing notes but I abandoned it because I realized it was interfering with my creative process. I would advise other writers to try this approach as it can help create a more smooth and natural story.
Gaamangwe: Was the main defining plot points also an organic, stream of consciousness creation or you planned them?
Stanley: I always find it mysterious how a story comes to be because when you are creating a story like that, most of the time the story happens in your subconscious. You are not even fully conscious of what is going on or that you are thinking about the story or the characters. You could be going about your daily job but at the back of your mind you are thinking. So when it comes to the actual writing, all these things start falling in place. How they come about, I think it cannot be truly known.
I have come to a story before thinking that this is how I want my story to go, and then it never gets beyond the second paragraph. So sometimes you think you have everything figured out but it never gets beyond the first paragraph. So I have ended up abandoning some projects. But for this particular book I didn’t experience anything of that sort.
Gaamangwe: When you think about the aspects of human nature that came through in this story, and thinking about them now after finishing the book, how important are those themes to you as an individual?
Stanley: When you are creating a story you don’t just want to create a story, you want to educate, question and reflect society back to itself. I have heard a reviewer who suggested that the book was a feminist piece but I didn’t set out to write a book about feminism. I set out to paint a story about our everyday lives. So the themes that came out of the story, I didn’t dwell on them. I leave that to the reader to share what they think and what they take from the story. If a theme comes, it’s usually something that is in my subconscious.
Cover Art by: Michael Choi
Gaamangwe: Is there a difference or some realizations that you see in your story when you are writing it and when you re-read it after it’s been published?
Stanley: Writing is strange in that every time you read your work there is always something you want to change or tweak in the story. It is definitely not the perfect book, there is always room to change something here and there. I think at some point during the editing process you learn to let it go. But given a chance yes there are certain things I will like to change for sure.
The thing that really moves me in any story is the humor. So sometimes when I read the parts in the story where Ombima is chatting with Ang’ote I am surprised by how spontaneous it was. The humor in the conversations between the characters was really surprising to me. Its very important to me to find the aspects of entertainment with what I have written before I can hand it over to the reader.
Here and there, I do find some stilted conversations mostly because I was trying to bring out Lulogooli expressions in English. Sometimes you find that some expressions sound too English if you try to look at it from the point of view of a native Maragoli speaker. It is kind of borrowed. Given a chance, I would have wanted them to speak in Lulogooli but obviously that would have been restrictive because I wanted to speak to a wider audience.
Gaamangwe: I talked about this with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, on how because the wider audience are English speakers, we write stories about everyday Africans who are not English speakers. Meaning we write stories about people who will never access those exact stories.
Stanley: Yes, it’s something that we have to live with. I will recommend that the African writer becomes a bit more bold in the sense that they shouldn’t just pick the medium they have been given and run with it as it is. African writers should try to bend the language and make it suit their needs, they should make their English written stories sound as African as they can.
I think Achebe achieved that. When you read his books, you know you are reading English but you aren’t quite sure if you are really reading english. You are almost reading Igbo! So it’s something that writers have to try to emulate. To write our stories in the english that is our own.
Gaamangwe: This is so true and important. I also think it’s important to tell our everyday lives, which is the essence of your book. What can everyday people teach us about ourselves?
Stanley: I have always been fascinated by ordinary people. Every time I visit a new city I want to live where ordinary people live. Because then I get a chance to experience the real lives of the people where they are in their most natural setting.
Everyday people are ignored all over Africa. In Kenya when you look at the politics; for as long as politicians have been in power, the ordinary people have not been in power. In the campaign period that’s when they realize the ordinary person is important. Only because they want to get their vote, so now they climb down from their pedestals and pretend that they are men of the people. But it’s all for show. Once they are elected they forget about the ordinary man once again.
So it is important to tell the story of the ordinary man because they are the majority, and these stories are important because there are the real experiences for a lot of people.
Gaamangwe: I agree. Writing these stories also reminds us that our everyday selves are important and matter. Thank you for joining me Stanley.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.