Moraa Gitaa is a writer whose short stories have featured in anthologies like Transition, Author Me Author Africa Anthology, The World’s Magazine - Africa Fresh! New Voices from the First Continent.
Gitaa is also the author of a number of books among them Hila – Storymoja Publishers, The Shark Attack – Moran Publishers, The Con Artist – Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB), Shifting Sands – Nsemia Publishers, and Crucible for Silver & Furnace for Gold.
Her writing has received numerous awards among them the 2014 Burt Award for Young Adult African Literature, Penguin Prize for African Writing Short-listed (2010) and the 2008 Development Council of Kenya (NBDCKV) Annual Book Week Literary Awards, 1st Prize Adult Fiction winner.
Gitaa, who is also a social protection, peace and conflict practitioner and a lover of social justice and human rights issues, spoke to Nation.co.ke. about literature.
Tell me the three books that excited you the most in 2017?
Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses and Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians.
Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?
Four: Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Richard Wright’s Native Son – first editions from our parents which shaped my perspective on issues social justice.
And Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s autographed first edition Secret Lives short story collection – because of an inspiring conversation I had with him when he was autographing the book for me.
Your favourite childhood books? Why?
Growing up our home was full of books. Bookstore/ library visits were an almost everyday occurrence so settling on a few is difficult. Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Alfred Hitchock’s The Three Investigators and Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, not forgetting Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
I have fond memories of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – When I was 5, I would spend afternoons digging in our backyard wishing I could fall down a rabbit hole. Mum and dad had to gently explain about fiction to me and that I wasn’t going to fall down a hole into Wonderland!
Not forgetting many comic books among them Tintin and Asterix.
If you were to dine with three writers, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Nawal El- Saadawi, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou – They have taught me to write on what others may deem as unspeakable, unconventional and unorthodox.
Which book do you wish you had written and why?
A combination of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account because we have similar history from Kenya’s coast along the Indian Ocean of undocumented narratives on slavery/explorers’ expeditions.
If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you?
I was fortunate to have been to Robben Island and visited Nelson Mandela’s cell at the prison during the first anniversary celebrations of his death. An inspiring visit for myself as a peace and conflict practitioner.
I would carry several books but a must-carry is El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, Arundahti Roy’s God of Small Things and Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss.
The depth of the works, play of language and turn of phrase by these authors is amazing in the way they manage to artistically transform the ordinary into art.
Do you think book festivals, literary prizes and writing workshops are important to a writer’s growth?
Festivals are great for networking and well-curated workshops give excellent feedback to authors. Residencies and fellowships that pay are also important because they enable a writer to finish writing a book without distractions.
However some prizes set agendas for writers and I don’t think writers should have a collective purpose.
I believe each writer should figure out their passion rather than trying to fit their writing into a gatekeeper’s agenda, which is the reason the nonconformist in me writes that which terrifies me, the salient yet difficult social issues of moral complexity which people are grappling with but won’t talk about.
Most unforgettable character from a book? Why?
Several but I’ll select two. Ipek in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow because she’s a symbol of feminist struggle in her search for identity amidst politics of resistance in modern Turkey against a contemporary conflict between Islam and secularism.
My hometown is Mombasa and I have a fondness for Islamic and coastal culture and influence or narratives.
One of my works in progress is about Mombasa youth and a search for identity among other challenges like radicalisation.
A second character is Chantal in Milan Kundera’s Identity, because Kundera portrays Chantal’s search for identity in a way that makes one feel like you are oscillating in between boundaries of dream and reality with Chantal, which is surreal.
Tell me about the last book that made you cry?
John Green’s YA novella The Fault in our Stars about two teenagers’ experiences with cancer, family, loss, bravery and first love.
Among your contemporaries, who do you consider the most exciting newcomer in the writing world and why?
Rwandese Immaculée Ilibagiza and Congolese Fiston Mwanza Mujila for exposing me to narratives from a part of the continent whose literature we’ve not had much access to due to them being a Francophone region. I’m thankful for translations which are making more literatures available.
What are you currently writing?
I’ve just completed a couple of children’s books. I’m also polishing a memoir on challenges of dyslexia/dyscalculia and depression.
Dyslexia has variations and mine was dyscalculia, which is a challenge with processing figures/symbols. We think with the right side of the brain (in pictures and are creative/photographic) and not the left (analytical). We interchange similar words and reverse/invert numbers.
Many influential personalities in western countries have come out about their challenge with dyslexia/dyscalculia but in Kenya our prominent personalities who might themselves (or their children) have this challenge shy away from discussing it.
I hope my memoir will help parents or children who are affected by the conditions (which in many cases induce depression if not diagnosed) in one way or another, because my daughter was also challenged by dyslexia in her formative years.
We never totally overcome the challenge which is actually a gift for creatives, but learn to adapt and incorporate our unique perspectives into our creations.
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]