Writing for the Eye: A Dialogue with Idza Luhumyo
Idza Luhumyo is a Kenyan writer. Her work has been published in Popula, Jalada Africa, The Writivism Anthology, Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly, MaThoko’s Books, Gordon Square Review, Amsterdam’s ZAM Magazine, Short Story Day Africa, The New Internationalist, The Dark Magazine, and African Arguments. Her work has been shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, and the Gerald Kraak Award. She is the inaugural winner of the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award (2020), winner of the Short Story Day Africa Prize (2021) and winner of the AKO Caine Prize (2022).
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place virtually between Lagos, Nigeria; Sokoto, Nigeria; and Texas, USA.
Uchenna: Firstly, congratulations on winning the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. I’m curious to know what that feels like. Having the same story on two prestigious prizes, first, the Short Story Day Africa Prize and now the AKO Caine Prize. How does that make you feel? Also, you know how after creating something, it looks so good that you tell yourself it’s going to do so well? Was this how you felt after writing Five Years Next Sunday? Or are you shocked at the whole reception?
Idza: Thank you. It is thrilling. I’m glad that the story continues to resonate with people, but I certainly did not see it coming. So it’s a wonderful surprise!
Uchenna: The last time we conversed, you closed off the conversation by saying that we can’t really plan for prizes as a response to Kris’ question about what’s the next prize for you. Yet, here we are not many months later, discussing another prize and still Five Years Next Sunday, it is not just thrilling for you, you know? For us as well.
Before we talk about this wonder of a story, I would like us to talk a bit about your writing. What mostly informs your stories and how do you approach the story ideas you form or get?
Idza: I mostly just follow what I’m curious about and then just take it from there. Writing then becomes this process of discovery. Something else: most – if not all – of the stories I have written so far have featured the Kenyan coast, so I guess that answers the question of what informs my stories.
“Dabbling in screenwriting helped me think a little differently about stories, especially with respect to how one goes about externalizing the internal.“
Uchenna: I find it fascinating when I converse with writers and they talk about this idea of discovering the story as they tell it. It is like the story is telling itself and the writer is just there as a vessel. It is almost magical, that transition between just an idea to a fully formed story and I feel like we don’t applaud it enough.
Read a tweet recently that said that we often do not realise how powerful writers are, to take a subject so common and still make wonders off it; to give flesh to a fresh idea and fill us with so much to know about it. It got me thinking, you know? This power isn’t as emphasised as it should. (Laughs).
Were there times you yourself were amazed by how much you were able to make out of just an idea? Especially an idea so minute to how the story eventually turned out. Can you remember which of your stories got you that way?
Idza: Writing stories is not easy, but there are times when I have found out that this discovery process can be enjoyable. I once read somewhere that writing can also be thinking, which might explain why you might start out with one thing and end up with something completely different. Maybe because along the way you might stumble onto something you did not even know you knew.
Uchenna: Writing can also be thinking is such an interesting way to put it really. And yes, exactly. You discover new ways the story can go, and new layers the story can birth and you begin to find yourself telling more and more. It is such a thrill whenever this unearthing happens because it is as though the story finally bares itself to you.
Was it this way for you while writing Five Years Next Sunday? Did you start out with one thing and end up with something completely different?
Idza: Yes. The characters, for example. The only one I had at the outset was Pili. But the rest came about as she went about her world, so to speak.
Uchenna: Interesting. One recurring response in your interviews about this story I would like us to explore, is how in your earlier drafts, there was more to Pili’s sangazimi. The auntie whom you had hinted passed on her calling powers to Pili. I think it would have been really lovely to read more about this auntie because it sorta provides a back story to Pili’s character and their shared experience would become a backbone poor Pili can lean on in navigating this burden of her hair.
Is there a reason you decided to not go with it?
Idza: Exploring that aspect bogged down the story. I wanted it to be about Pili, but introducing the aunt made it about the aunt and Pili. I also wanted to start the story as close to the end as possible, so as not to lose the momentum.
Uchenna: Reading the story again I picked on this not-so-subtle jab on Western validation which is quite still evident today, it took Pili drawing Seth’s attention for her own mother to acknowledge her. I remember Pili’s shock when her mother okayed her referring to her as mom, something she barked at. Poor Pili would then learn that even this delayed recognition was transactional when they started profiting off her hair.
Can you talk about this thing we do where we fail to see people or things closest to us and only do it when others (especially white people) do? That thing automatically becomes our favourite like we were waiting for their validation.
Idza: We certainly can extrapolate and have it speak to bigger themes about Western validation, as you said, but it is also a commentary on human nature. We tend to become (more) interested in things/people once we have seen that we can benefit in some form.
Uchenna: I know, right? It’s interesting. What strikes me most about the story is how, in just a few pages, it manages to branch into various themes and commentaries. I have read a couple of thoughts on your stories and I have seen the approach, from the metaphysical to a commentary on climate change, to a commentary on agency, to gender to sexuality. And personally, then there is Pili and the biblical Samson and how like Pili, it is to love, he falls prey and loses his hair. Did you think it would have such multiple interpretations?
Idza: Yes, I see how it is possible for the story to have multiple interpretations. I have heard it called ‘layered’ on numerous occasions and I suppose that’s part of what allows this multiplicity of interpretations.
Uchenna: Layered is the perfect word. Although I haven’t seen any review talk about its semblance to the biblical Samson story. So much power attached to one’s hair and then losing it to the one you thought loved you. It was the first reference I picked and I now wonder if this semblance is simply a coincidence. (Laughs).
Idza: Yeah, that was a coincidence. What I mean to say is that it is not what I had in mind from the outset.
Uchenna: As someone who engages in both prose and screenwriting, has either influenced the other? Is there a way you write scripts that you’ve come to recognise as an influence of prose and vice versa?
Idza: Dabbling in screenwriting helped me think a little differently about stories, especially with respect to how one goes about externalizing the internal.
Uchenna: Do you mean in your expression of your characters, screenwriting has helped you flesh them out? Could you explain, please?
Idza: Yes, that’s what I mean. How I like to think about it is that it’s helped me write for the eye, and not just for the ear.
Uchenna: It’s really been lovely having this conversation with you, to wrap up, is there something you’re currently working on that we should all be excited about and anticipate?
Idza: I’m working on a longer project at the moment. We will see how that goes. Thank you for having me.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.