Irene Melissa Ojoro is an author and playwright from Nairobi, Kenya. She has authored Perfect Timing (2019) and co-authored Untamed (2021) which are amongst her accomplished fiction works. She is also a certified scriptwriter who has written several scripts out of which twelve have been performed. They include Ataraxis (short film), Unfading Scars (stage play) which received a remarkable appraisal in 2017 and 2019 respectively, True Spots and Fostered from a thought (drama scripts) which got shortlisted in the African Writers’ Awards 2020 and 2021 respectively. She is an affiliate member of Writers Space Africa (WSA) and part of its subgroup WSA-Kenya‘s editorial team.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation took place between Kampala and Nairobi via WhatsApp.
Charity: Irene, thank you so much for joining me in this interview. How are you?
Irene Melissa: I am fine, thank you. How are you?
Charity: I am well, thanks. Congratulations on the publication of your newest book: Untamed. Its title is what drew me to it. I was curious to know what the story is because the title presents it in a way of “not doing things the conventional way,” you know. Like “Hey there…I am unbwogable(slang for unchallenged)…I am as raw as they come and I do not bend to societal beliefs.” Tell me about it. What guided you in choosing this title. What do you, overall, consider when choosing a title for your work?
Irene Melissa: For both my books, the titles came about after the book completion. I normally have an idea of what I want the story to fall under but giving a direct title before the book completion is not my thing. I do this because after the completion I can look at the book from another angle.
Untamed was inspired by the fighting spirit of the main characters. Their spirit was unshakable despite the many hurdles they had thus the title Untamed.
Charity: I noticed the “fighting spirit of the main characters” in the way they did not give up on their love for each other. You write beautifully! The characters naturally come off the page and allow us to feel what they feel and see what they see. I am shaken by Petina’s fury and my eyes water at Ngoni’s plight and the burden on his shoulders; while Zuri is such a force to reckon with.
How long did it take you to write and finally publish this amazing book?
Irene Melissa: It is not me alone actually. I co-authored it with a Zimbabwean writer called Calvin Chikwata. It took us twenty-one months, almost two years.
Charity: Tell me about the story in Untamed. What inspired you to write in this direction? Is it a real-life story?
Irene Melissa: No, it is not a real-life story. We wanted to write something that people can relate to; something that focuses on our African culture. That is why we ended up doing both Zimbabwean and Kenyan settings. We know about the American love stories, interracial stories but what about Africa’s intercontinental love stories?
Charity: Oh wow! How were you able to do this? Did he specifically write the parts set in Zimbabwe and you worked on the ones set in Kenya? It’s brilliant how you make us cross borders and back showing us the different cultures, beliefs, and ways of life.
Irene Melissa: We wrote it chapter by chapter. We live in different countries. He is in Namibia and I am in Kenya. Surprisingly, our editor too couldn’t make out who wrote which chapter. We did the plotting together. Then started on the drafting. We created a discipline whereby every person would have a week to read through and then continue with the story, making sure it flows according to our plot lines. So Calvin would write his chapter approximately 1500-2000 words and send it to me. In turn, I would read through, write my part according to the flow and send it back to him. We did several drafts before coming up with the final manuscript.
Charity: Ah, now this is what we call skill. Wow! Well done. The two of you I bet are good friends. This takes me to the friendship between Ngoni and Tichaona in Untamed. They are surely genuine friends that support each other regardless; something that I consider a luxury of sorts. Having a friend is one thing, but having someone with whom you share dreams and inspirations is icing on the cake. Writer friends are just awesome!
Irene Melissa: We met through a writing group called Writers Space Africa. We were both undertaking a scriptwriting course. This idea popped up randomly in one of our chats but we did not know how far it would go. Let’s just say it was God’s will.
Charity: God’s will indeed. Speaking of God’s will…I notice that this book reflects so much on God and prayer. What message does it carry? What was the objective?
“I can say that my writing is realistic fiction. There is someone out there who will relate to what I write and most of my inspiration is drawn from day-to-day life experiences. “
Irene Melissa: The story itself revolves around a young dating couple. They are both Christians but Zuri is not only a Christian by name but also through actions mainly because of how she was brought up. As for Ngoni, his father and step mum are more traditionalists even though they believe in God.
Both Calvin and I are Christians so we wanted to bring in the aspect of Godly dating. Zuri was the main driving force to this. We also wanted to be real and not make the book sound ‘too religious’. The two were facing challenges that normal couples do. How they handled those challenges is what made a difference. When you read the scene at Mt. Pfungwe, things got intense. They almost could not control their emotions and of course, sex before marriage is considered as fornication. The main aim was to bring out the truth in the reality of young Christian couples’ relationships. Then there is another aspect of forgiveness in the final chapter. In as much as Petina made Ngoni’s life miserable, there was no way Ngoni could claim he loved God if he did not love Petina back and the best way of showing love is through forgiveness.
Charity: I love the way you beautifully pass on a Christian message through a fiction book; as opposed to the non-fiction, self-help books we often see. You have talked about forgiveness and I remembered the relations of the characters in this book. You present us with a case of a blended family and the main character, Ngoni, suffering under the weight of his stepmom and who he has failed to call “mom” but continuously calls “aunt.”
He is loathed majorly for being male since his stepmother did not bear any boy-child. She has only two girls and feels threatened by this Ngoni, for whom culture has placed high on the throne as the absolute heir to the dad’s estate. Regardless of all the trauma, she takes him through, he does not reiterate with evil.
Irene, what’s the situation like in Kenya today? Are girls/women now comfortably owning land and inheriting estates from their fathers? What is the life of a typical Kenyan woman as far as land and property rights are concerned?
Irene Melissa: I would say there are some communities still regarding men as top priorities in society. It does sound stereotypical but it is something that happens. For instance, in my community, I cannot build a house on my grandfather’s land. I talk about my grandfather because I lost my parents at a young age before they built their home. I cannot dare claim my father’s share of land (I don’t even know if it still exists).
Charity: Huh! This is sad! It also makes me think about arranged marriages where it is solely the parents’ idea and the intended couple just has to learn how to love and live together. This book uncovers a perfect way out of such predicaments; standing strong and following your heart. Do what you want to do and society will fall in line. You do not have to follow anyone’s path if you do not want to. The main characters stuck with each other even when Zuri’s parents did not approve of her relationship with Ngoni. I read with a racing heart, hoping that it was going to be a happy ending. (I’ll not tell them if it was or not. Let them read the book)
Love, Loss, Identity, and Friendship are strong themes in Untamed. What is your other book Perfect Timing about?
Irene Melissa: My main focus in Perfect Timing was gender roles. It revolves around the life of a once poor young village orphan escalating to a twice rich matured city dweller, Amanda. Her entire life was synchronized with torrents of pain, sickness, anger, grief/death, disappointment, conflict/tension, reconciliation, and piety. Even more to the point of rejection and dejection from her once the man of her dreams, or to put it in simple terms; her causal soul-mate Ronny. The villain later turns to an ultimatum of conversion and reconciliation.
The book is also a gripping digest of the endemic woes confronting the cradle of a girl child, typically the plight of an African girl child who is swallowed by the mysteries of time. She is unsure whether the dancing competition which did not favor her, ushered new dawn which is to be a dim later, or whether Ronny is genuine to offer money after losing the competition or what best is to follow Susan her mother’s advice of prioritizing school before advancing into love affairs or her instincts which seemed to dominate only little does she know that everything has its own time and season.
I hold this book close to my heart as it brought out hope for several women who have experienced what the main character, Amanda, experienced.
My goal in writing our African stories, in African settings with African characters is portrayed in the book.
Charity: It is because of such pieces, work such as this, that the world has slowly relaxed and accepted/respected people’s wishes. Recently a Ugandan friend of mine married his long-time fiancée, a Tanzanian, and for sure it was all merry-making from both sides. I was excited and impressed to see elderly people willingly taking flights to go and celebrate this union. This is a journey away from the days when relatives and friends boycotted others’ weddings just because their partners were not ‘one of them’. This reminds me of this quote by Chinua Achebe from No Longer at Ease. He writes, “The impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”
Your book Perfect Timing presents hope for a woman faced with trials that would otherwise break her, but for her strength to hang in there and string threads of hope together…to end into something beautiful. Life is not a leveled ground. We stand on the earth and let it take us wherever, as we hold tight onto hope and dreams for a soft landing. What did you learn when writing this largely amazing book?
Irene Melissa: Patience. We should not expect something to happen then boom, it happens how and when we want it. We simply need to trust the process.
Charity: Very true about this. And writing itself is one such process that can give you shocks and surprises. From writer’s and reader’s block to rejections and then good news and publications. Regardless, we keep writing. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Irene Melissa: First of all, discipline. I had this issue of procrastination whenever it came to putting ideas together. The more I procrastinated, the more I became frustrated and writer’s block would kick in too. After its publication, I got to understand the different avenues involved in publishing. It broadened my mind. The other change I made is editing, for self publishers investing in a good editor is key. I also started learning to write drafts before the final work.
Charity: I also prefer to write down hard notes before hitting the keyboard. Procrastination is my weakness too. I see opportunities and I promise myself to work. Then before I know it, the deadline has passed or it’s too late to put a good piece together. I am glad you got your way around it. Getting down to work after a rejection is even worse. After what you consider hard work has not paid off, it gets boring to start a new project or even polish up this one. How do you handle rejections? Have you got any anyway?
Irene Melissa: Yeah, I have encountered rejections. For instance, with my first publication, I visited traditional publishers, but in Kenya, they are currently doing only school books that are either children’s literature or school textbooks. So, they were not accepting fictional work. It got hard for me to go to hybrid publishers because for them they are just so expensive, like very expensive, plus they do not do any marketing for you. In the end, I just opted for self-publishing. The reception for my first book was not that good because as much as I was known for my scriptwriting, not many people knew me as Melissa the author. So it was so hard for me to navigate with my first book. And yes, I also got rejections when it came to me stocking them in bookshops. And how did I handle them? You see, for me; my writing is not all about what it is going to bring in for me. It is just my passion, yeah. So, I am doing it for the impact on someone else out there. As much as I am not going to get the kind of returns that I expect to get and of course I do have bills to pay, I do not keep my focus on that alone. So, the greatest response for me would be having ten people tell me this book touched their lives in one way or another. That is what keeps me going.
So like with my first book, I got someone who told me that the story I wrote is exactly what she had gone through in life; everything. From the beginning to the end. It is her story. I was so amazed and shocked at the same time because I did not know her before then. I met her in a writing group WSA-Kenya and after I’d told her about my book, she bought it. And she is hoping that the way my story ended in that book, makes way to her life too. So yeah, for me the most important thing is the impact my books are having out there. This is why I love to write Christian-based realistic fiction. Okay, I am not shutting out other religions (laughs) that is why my second book does not have any scriptures. But I bring them to a place whereby my stories are based on the things that people go through, not just picking a story from nowhere and expecting it to bring some kind of teaching in someone’s life. For my second book to be accepted in one of the largest bookshops in the country is a large achievement for me, because it is self-published. I went through the same things as with my first book. I hired my editor, printers, designers and I can say they did a good job, in comparison with the first book. There are mistakes I learned from the first time and I was careful not to repeat them. So, with writing, I think it is a growing process. I mean, it never stops. Learning never stops. If I get to do the third book, God willing, I will be sure to make use of these precious lessons learned so far.
Charity: Have you ever been castigated for your writing? Sometimes people who are not amused by (don’t appreciate) what we write are so harsh. Your know-how, for instance, writing on pro-same-sex relationships, abortions, divorce, and the like does not go down well with our relatives, friends, and acquaintances who are against them. In the end, some writers have had to write anonymously or under pseudo names. I know of one who will not share her work on social media because her family might chance upon it. Have you had any issues with let’s say non-Christians?
Irene Melissa: I have not had such an experience. My first book contained a lot of scriptures even when I was doing a fictional flowing story, but it has been read by non-Christians too, and the feedback was amazing. The only challenge I faced was with getting places to stock it. One of the bookshops I went to rejected it because it sounded more like a motivational book. They said they accept motivational books from only accomplished people; the likes of TD Jakes, Joel Osteen, Kamala Harris. It is easier for their motivational books to be bought and read by anyone and everyone. But now you see for me people do not know who I am. Secondly, I am self-published so I am not under any publishing house or corporation that will help me in terms of marketing and exposure. My books do not have extreme sexual scenes. Some people have advised me to take my first book to high school but still, the book has some words that would not appeal to their standards. Both of my books are for young adults. I am very cautious with what I write. Even with films. It is just my principle and how I write.
Charity: In his interview with Brittle Paper, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o says that the Kikuyu culture where he grew up informs his approach to his novels. “My fiction – novels and short stories – are an extension of the storytelling of my childhood… But at the end of it all, my writing comes off the free flow of imagination.” What are those influences that have produced your work? Is it Bible stories, childhood stories? What influences you to write?
Irene Melissa: My inspiration comes mostly from what I see around. I can say that my writing is realistic fiction. There is someone out there who will relate to what I write and most of my inspiration is drawn from day-to-day life experiences. Bible stories, yes, because for the two books, religion was a huge theme. The writer I admire most is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I have read most of her books. I love her descriptive way of writing.
Charity: I like that your stories are based on things that people go through. This clearly shows that you enjoy what you do. I could adopt this book, Untamed, into a movie because it portrays the real day-to-day lives of so many people around us. I’m sure very many people identify with this story. Is writing something you have always wanted to do? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Irene Melissa; Yes, writing is what I have always wanted to do. Back in Primary School, I used to love languages, that’s both English and Swahili, and when it came to composition writing. I would find myself exceeding the required number of pages. At times, it got me into trouble with my language teachers because in primary school there is a page limit. But I often found myself going a page or two more than the required number because the story would keep flowing and the words would not stop (laughs). Most of my classmates used to complain about the method of giving us writing prompts, whereas I loved it since it would allow me to create something from just one sentence. It is at this point that I realized I loved languages more than sciences. I would top the class in the former and not so well with the latter. In high school, when I was sixteen, I read How My Death Saved my Life by Denise Linn and told myself I needed to do something with my passion. This is when my writing ambition burst open. I started writing my first book. I used an exercise book. I made use of the early morning preps time to delve into writing and reading more. When I was seventeen, I gave this draft manuscript to my English teacher to go through. He was very supportive. This book surely needed a lot of work. A lot of editing, structural and character development. But he encouraged me to keep doing what I loved. He tried to interest me in poetry as well but I have not been able to catch up on that side. I am more drawn to prose and scriptwriting. I started writing professionally in 2016, after high school. I was in a church ministry group that brought together different creatives. I was the main writer of the group. Every month we had an opportunity to present stage plays. I started getting confident in my work and in 2018, I started selling off my scripts to production houses. In 2019, I finally published my first book. I have written seventeen plays, and out of these, nine have been performed as stage plays and two as short films. Nevertheless, I consider myself a work in progress. Even with two books out there, I am still learning. Learning from other authors and peers. I studied Computer Science but also continued with my passion by attending different writing workshops, courses. I got certified as a scriptwriter by Acacia Film School, currently known as Acacia Publishers. All in all, I am still building my craft.
Charity: You are surely making steady progress. Apart from Writers Space Africa, where else has your work been published?
Charity: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, a Nigerian writer, is positive about African Literature crossing borders. In an interview with Short Story Day Africa where he was a judge for their 2015 prize, he said, “I would love to see more intracontinental engagement and better utilization of the literary space. I would like to see South African and Kenyan books in Nigeria’s bookshops, Nigerian books in Tanzania and Uganda. I want to read Ghanaian books in Abuja.” You and your co-author Calvin Chikwata did a great job in creating change on the literary scene. How has Untamed been received in Zimbabwe?
Irene Melissa: Untamed has been received well in Zimbabwe especially the e-book. My co-author is currently living in Namibia so he has not started selling any hard copies in Zimbabwe. This situation of being away from home has slowed down things for him.
Charity: I am glad to meet someone who brings us words of inspiration in a fun way. Thank you for sharing your work with us.
Irene Melissa: Thank you too for seeking me out and acknowledging my work. I am humbled and it is a big pleasure.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the project coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. Her work has appeared in The Kampala Sun, Afreecan Read Magazine and is forthcoming in Sahifa magazine. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother.