Idza Luhumyo is a Kenyan writer with training in screenwriting and a background in law. Her artistic practice lies at the intersection of law, film, and literature.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place between London, England, and Cape Town, South Africa, through email.
Kris: Congratulations on winning the 2021 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Your entry, “Five Years Next Sunday”, is certainly a worthy winner. What does winning the prize mean to you?
Idza: Thank you Kris. Winning the SSDA prize means that the story I wrote resonated, at least on some level, and that’s extremely validating. As I often like to say, I’ve been ‘writing-writing’ for a couple of years now so winning a prize certainly helps in keeping the faith.
Kris: Winning a competition and seeing your name in print is certainly a validity boost for writers. They help us feel like there might be something we have that is worth saying. Writers, as humans, do get some of this validity from society, regardless of how tense their relationship might be. The tense relationship of people in society is something that your story “Five Years Next Sunday” engages with. For instance your story’s protagonist’s hair is connected to the five year drought that the area is experiencing. Only when she cuts her five year old hair does it rain again. She’s told at one point that she ‘owe[s] it to [her] quarter’. Her hair is already seen as community property. Her worth to the community is to give it what they want from her: and they want her to cut her hair so that it rains.
Idza: Right. And she has to come to terms with the fact that the cost of giving the community what it needs is banishment. It would have been much easier—perhaps for her, but certainly for her family—if she had simply elected not to grow the rain in her hair. But once she makes the decision, in the tradition of the women from her father’s side, she realizes that there are multiple interests in her hair, and that these interests are often in conflict, if not self-seeking. I know I have the benefit of retrospect here, but I think this is part of what I wanted to explore in the story: where the choices that are before a person turn out not to be choices in the true sense of the word, but just a balancing of communal interests.
Kris: I suppose your writing of choices ties into the writings of freedoms. One could ask how the story’s protagonist expresses their freedom. Even if she were to sell her hair to foreigners, as Honey suggests, and make enough money to live elsewhere, she’ll now be living with the people who monetize her looks. But the fact that she can think about these choices, and that she can discuss different ways of living, suggests that she still has herself. It reckons with an urgency seen earlier on when she says of her hair: “I forbid anyone to touch them”.
“We’re looking for imagination; we’re looking for a bridge, if you will, out of our own specific subjectivities and into other ways of seeing and being.“
Idza: I think the decision to grow her hair in spite of her family’s hostility is the first important way that she manages to keep some of her for herself, and maybe also express her freedom. In earlier iterations of the story, her sangazimi—her father’s sister—from whom she got her abilities, features more prominently and emboldens her to choose to grow her hair. It is from her that Pili truly understands what it means to be a caller. But I cut that part out because I felt that I had to start the story as close to the end as possible. Still, I think there is a way in which Pili understands that whatever freedom she chooses to express inevitably comes with a set of responsibilities. And always at a cost. Every one of the choices that she has to make with respect to her hair has a price tag. If she cuts it, she will be banished to the witches’ village. If she doesn’t, she keeps Seth’s love, earns her family’s approval, but lets down her quarter. So, with Honey, she thinks she has found a way out, a way that is in keeping with her desires, only to realize that it wasn’t a way out after all.
Kris: And what about the significance of “five years next Sunday”? Was this a random choice or is there something deeper here?
Idza: It’s not deep, not really; it’s just one of Pili’s lines in the story. I thought it captured what the story is about: that five-year mark where things would have to come to a head.
Kris: I read an essay of yours, How I fell in, out, and back in love with the leso. In it, you mention the work of the Ugandan Academic Sylvia Tamale. Her notion of “shameful sexuality” is quite evident in the story we’re discussing. Perhaps we can talk about this in relation to both Pili and Honey’s experiences? This is to say that we can address the intersection of race and gender on bodies.
Idza: I think we can, to some extent. And I also think that it is precisely this intersection of race and gender that allows us to examine how the scripting of female bodies plays out either within what I’ll call ‘out-of-place whiteness’ (in Honey’s case), or in proximity to whiteness (in Pili’s case). Pili is a young African woman of certain abilities whose value (at least to her family) increases when she earns the attention of a white man. Except the white man in question fetishizes her. And of course, her family encourages this fetishization, and cruelly burdens her with it, even though her own sexual interest lies elsewhere. Then we have Honey, who finds herself in a place where the tables are turned, and where her own whiteness is the very thing that comes between her and the subject of her desire. She feels that in order to be desired by Seth, she has to diminish someone else’s sexuality, which is itself borne out of a twisted racial fetish. So both women are kind of burdened by the rules of a game that they did not even seek out to play in the first place.
Kris: It’s fascinating that you use the word “scripting” in relation to the bodies of Pili and Honey. It captures the performative nature of the bodies that they possess. But it holds more significance when used by a writer. The writer is, in many ways, the one who scripts. In this story you seemed to have captured something, and added, or wrote in, elements which draw the reader to questions of how and why the world functions as it does. My question then is about your opinions on writers writing to address social issues and writers writing to write fantastical stories. “Five Years Next Sunday” does both, so there need not be a binary between the two camps.
Idza: I agree that there need not be a binary between the two camps. But what I question is the very idea of ‘writers writing social issues,’ as my suspicion is that it is almost inevitable that any writing a writer does will address one or the other social issue, just by virtue of their being part of a social system. Which is to ask: what qualifies as a social issue, anyway? That said—and here I can only speak about my personal tastes and preferences as a reader—the writing that moves me most tends either to be imaginative (as in revealing one’s unique and singular vision of the world) or to address itself, somewhat, to something/someone outside of the writer’s own subjectivity. Double points if both elements are present. I’m probably conflating many things here, but I guess what I’m trying to get at is this: there is something specific that we are looking for when we go towards stories. If I wanted to read about the intersection between race and gender, for example, a quick online search would reveal quite a few treatises on the subject. But when we go to stories, to fiction, my sense is that we’re not necessarily looking for a political pamphlet, or a manifesto, or a lecture. We’re looking to be moved—literally, to be shifted from one position to another, whether emotionally or intellectually. We’re looking for imagination; we’re looking for a bridge, if you will, out of our own specific subjectivities and into other ways of seeing and being.
Kris: Your bridge analogy is one only a storyteller can come up with. It fits well into how stories can move us, or literally do move us, towards something. I’d say that one of the movements that “Five Years Next Sunday” engages with is the movements of humans coming to terms with one another. Pili begins the story alone, is given a task that has her placed in proximity with others and finds her life changed. In the end she is alone again, but seemingly wiser after the journey with others. She finds out more about herself when engaged with the lives of others.
Idza: I agree. There is a sense of isolation—loneliness, even—to Pili when the story starts out. And as much as she observes Seth’s emptiness, she, too, has been thirsty for some sort of love and acceptance from her family. When Seth and Honey show up, they provide her a chance to brush up against other people, to test out her abilities on the world. Whether this serves her well in the end, I cannot really say. But I do think it tells her something about herself, shifts her in a way that may have been impossible had she not met Seth.
Kris: And what about the secret room behind the painting? Honey is literally showing Pili Seth’s secret, and Pili does see herself in it. Her hair, in particular, is dominantly displayed. One can juxtapose the secrectness of Seth’s obsession in Pili’s hair with the public obsession in Pili’s hair by everyone else.
Idza: I think Seth’s obsession is more sinister. Also, apart from her family, people don’t really know about Pili’s abilities. If they’d known about her, she’d have long been banished to the witches’ village. So, while Seth’s obsession is definitely secret, her family’s benefitting from the hair is also secret.
Kris: Then I’m fascinated by the environmental aspect of your story. We’ve discussed how Pili’s hair is the source of rain for her community. In an age where water shortages are becoming increasingly common with the rise of global temperatures, how might humans continue their existence? Your story brings out how many of the social, economic and political strifes that plague Africa will continue alongside, possibly aiding, the slow destruction of Earth’s environment. I suppose the tension comes from the realisation that there are many different things that need to be solved to avoid the end. Yet you bring forth a solution in the character of Pili. The ambiguity of the story’s solution holds the power and presents a solution, but I’m still interested in your take on a divide: do we prioritise the environment or do we prioritise social strife?
Idza: I’m not sure I bring forth a solution as much as I pose a question. Or try to, anyway. I am trying to say something about the layered nature of reality and maybe suggest that, as long as we share this planet, everything will always be connected to everything. And hasn’t COVID-19 made this clear, or clearer, to us? So in the end, and I’m not sure I know enough to even speak definitively about this, but my sense is that you can’t really prioritize one over the other, because social strife and the environment are connected, no?
Kris : The sense of interconnectedness is what I got when reading your text, so I was just interested to see if there was any intention there.
Finally, where to from here? What kind of stories do you hope to write in the near future, and can we expect more prize titles to your name?
Idza: Unfortunately, you can’t really plan for prizes! But, as far as the stories I’d like to write are concerned, I really can’t say. I can only pledge to follow my curiosity and see where it’ll take me.
Photo credit for featured image of Idza Luhumyo: Paul Munene.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.