The flowers are in bloom in Nairobi but at the AMKA literature forum held on May 25 at the Goethe Institut, our hearts were in gloom. We had lost on of our own: writer and editor Wakini Kuria.
Our session begun with Tony Mochama, one of the moderators of the literary forum reading a poem he had written as a tribute to Wakini. As Tony said in his poem, we shall remember you not with gloom but with light.
This Saturday we would be having a mini poetry workshop facilitated by Tony as well as a session on short story writing. Tony took us through the first poem, From Within.
Tony said though the poem had a good rhyme, it lacked a good choice of words. He explained that a good poem has words that elicit feelings and avoids clichés.
The writer of the second poem, Jesus juice used words well but it was too abstract and the persona; who as one participant explained is the ‘I’ of the poem was not clear.
The final poem was Random girl on Random Street, whose persona, a ‘sponsor’, is lamenting how a girl has ruined his life. Tony said the rhyming was well done but he cautioned against the tendency of pieces of literature to moralize and challenged writers to just write something that can just be enjoyed.
Tony concluded the session by saying that writing a poem should not be whimsical but a well thought out exercise
Faith Oneya was our guest in the short story session. Faith Oneya is a journalist and author. She was published in Fresh Paint, an anthology of poetry and short stories published by the Goethe Institute, Kenya. She has authored a children’s book titled The Girl with a Big Heart published by Twaweza Publications, Kenya and her short story “Say You Are Not My Son” has been featured in the upcoming anthology titled Nairobi Noir, published by Akashic Books, Ireland.
Her story, An Abundance of Lies has been longlisted for the prestigious Short Story Day Africa Award, 2019.
I sat down with Faith to ask her a few questions and to get her views on the art of short story wring.
When did you know you could write?
My mother, a primary school teacher, loved teaching poetry and composition writing. She appointed herself as the voluntary poetry, drama and composition teacher at our school even though she taught at a different school. I was embarrassed having my mother teaching us.
She cautioned me against failing in her classes. It was only in my adulthood that I realised I actually loved to write.
When I attended AMKA, two of my stories had just been published in a Kenyan website called Kenyaimagine.com and one of my early mentors, Khainga Okwemba, who was Kenyaimagine editor, was also present and the feedback he gave me validated me, and that is when I knew I could write.
You story, Fresh paint, gave the AMKA anthology its title. How did that make you feel?
I felt proud and validated. Being featured in an anthology emboldened me to apply for other writing competitions, including the Kwani Short Story writing competition in 2012.
You have been longlisted for the Short story Day Africa, a competition that is said to be getting a better short list than the Caine Prize. How has it been like for you?
It has been an exhilarating and gratifying. All the 21 longlisted stories will be published in an anthology. The editing process had been thorough. I have learnt more about writing and editing in the past month than I have in the last few years.
On the craft of short story writing and the things you have learnt along the way;
What is the best way to begin a story?
I’ve learnt to start with an emotion- what do you want readers to feel? Happy? Sad? Angry? Make the readers care from the start.
My life as a journalist has taught me that a story is as good or as bad as the introduction.
I sometimes spend nights tossing and turning thing about an introduction for a story. I think writers must agonise over this first.
How do you structure a story so that the reader stays engaged?
You can have an outline for your story or you can do free writing. It simply means putting pen to paper and writing your story to the end without a care for grammar, tense, structure, etc.
This saves you, sometimes, from feelings of apathy, or even from writers’ block. There is no magic formula though. Just write.
It helps for a writer to have a notebook wherever he or she goes to note down interesting things that one can use one in writing.
How do you make the ending work so that at the end reader has that Aha moment? That pay out that rewards the reader?
Again, what emotion you want to leave your readers with- do you want them surprised? Angry? In love? Regretful? Once you make the readers care, it does not really matter how you end. Personally, I kind of love leaving readers yearning for more.
What other pointers have you learnt especially in the editing of the short story that has been long listed?
I’ve learnt that writing is rewriting. Never send in your first draft. Always let your trusted peers have a look at your work before submitting it. Peers who will tell you what’s good or what needs to be improved.
The Saturday’s session ended with our poet, Tony eulogising the fallen literary luminary, Binyavanga Wainana. Tony’s poem read in part;
Five years have passed, 4 and three quarter years to be exact
since we last perched up beside that bar at the end of the world called West End - as the sun rose up in the East on a Wednesday morning (near the end of August) - holding a beer, you; me with a glass of vodka turned scarlet by the rise of the sun
Neither of us knowing that this would be the last pre-stroke season that we'd have together - we were fish leaping joyously up out of the ocean at the stroke of daylight, unaware of what was at stake - of the seagulls circling above in circles, on stalk….
Muthoni wa Gichuru is a writer. She coordinates the monthly AMKA literary forums at the Goethe Institut.