Kiprop Kimutai is a Kenyan writer whose fiction has been published by Kwani? Trust, Jalada, Painted Bride Quarterly, No Tokens, Acre Books, Caine Prize and Farafina.
He spoke to Nation.co.ke about his literary favourites.
Tell me the three books that excited you the most in 2017?
I meticulously choose my books, knowing that each will excite my thoughts, feelings and perception in unique ways. In 2017, I read Petina Gappah’s Elegy for Easterly, a collection of short stories curated around political events in Zimbabwe.
I have never been to Zimbabwe but Petina took me there. I felt its angst, its joys, its frustrations, its humor.
Of course, as a foreigner I can never fully understand what it means to be Zimbabwean but I believe I came quite close. Then there was Tim Butcher’s The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War.
I have always been curious about World War One, since its outcomes keep defining our world. You can easily trace political leanings of current superpowers and the current gun culture in the remotes parts of Africa to WW1.
Tim gleaned all information he could about Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife Sophie. Of course it is still debated on whether Gavrilo precipitated the war, but it is a wonder how a poor person, who spent most of his life angry, ended up altering the world.
Then there was Mohale Moshego’s The Yearning. This one is a tender, comforting book that handles grief, pain and love really well.
Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?
Beloved. It is the first (and I think only) book that made me cry. There is a scene in the book, where a preacher lady named Baby Suggs, gathers an African American crowd in the forest and preaches to them.
It is what she says that moves me. She tells the crowd to love their necks for they (white slavers) would rather tie a noose around it. She tells them to love their hands for they (white slavers) would rather cut them off. It is a book that I have never fully understood. The resolution kind of leaves you with many questions.
But it is perfectly done. I keep going back to the book, many, many times, just for its beauty of prose. The other one is the RiceMother by Rani Manicka.
It is a family saga that follows generations of a family living in Malaysia, placing their sideshows against Malaysia’s dramatic history, such as the
Japanese occupation of 1941. The matriarch of the family, Lakshmi, has actual tiger blood in her and has remarkable displays of heroism.
Your fauvorite childhood books? Why?
I read the oldies as a child. My father had a giant book, Literature of the Western World, by Wilkie and James Hurt.
So I read Homer, Aeschylus, Chaucer, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Chopin, Fjelde, Strindberg, Woolf and so many others. I loved their mastery of language. But then Chimamanda came along, and I found a writer who looked like me, who wrote about my world.
If you were to dine with three writers dead or alive, who would they be and why?
I would want to dine with the committee that wrote the King James Bible. I would actually want to sit and watch them write. I think they were fantastic. They were separate individuals but wrote as one, and they wrote so beautifully. That version of the bible is a work of art.
Most unforgettable character from a book?
Mr Watts in Mister Pip. He is a teacher in the island of Bougainville, who introduces a student to Charles Dickens’s book, Great Expectations. The students avidly reads the book, and finds solace in it when war breaks out in the island.
Which book do you wish you had written and why?
I am good with the stories I have been given by the world. I only claim what it is mine. Excess is not good. Jesus even said pluck out that eye that makes you envious.
If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you?
King James Bible. It is such excellent literature. Then anything by Yuval Noah Harari, and a laptop that will mysteriously connect to the internet and allow me to read online as much as I can.
Do you think book festivals, literary prizes and writing workshops are important to a writer’s growth?
They are. Validation, as ephemeral as it may seem, is important. You need to be invited to spaces where you can connect to an audience. It is redeeming. Also, at times you need an escape from the scurry and scramble of living in a capitalist world to just write. Workshops provide that.
What are you currently reading and what do you plan top read next?
I am currently reading The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I shall not give a synopsis for it has so many layers. All I will say is that it has an actual tiger and even a tiger’s wife. It is a story about how we fashion reality according to our beliefs and our expanse of information. It is also a familial story about love, hope and determination.
The next book I will read is A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna. It is a scientific and biographical account of how Jennifer and her team stumbled upon a gene-editing technology that allows you to alter the proteins in the DNA structure to produce any desired effect.
What are you currently writing?
I prefer to leave that unsaid. It is precious. It is not yet given to the world. The time will come when I will speak about it from the rooftops. For now, I prefer to just write silently in the night while the whole world outside is quiet. All I will say is that I am currently exploring new ways of thinking and existing as a human being.
BY THE BOOK is a literary series that covers authors, bloggers, actors, academics and poets of note in the African continent. For comments or inquiries, e-mail: [email protected]