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BY THE BOOK: Ndinda Kioko

Saturday January 6 2018

Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer who was listed and published in the Africa39 project, a selection of 39 writers under the age of 40 from Africa. PHOTO| COURTESY

Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer who was listed and published in the Africa39 project, a selection of 39 writers under the age of 40 from Africa. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer who was listed and published in the Africa39 project, a selection of 39 writers under the age of 40 from Africa. Her works have also appeared in several other publications including The Trans-African, Fresh Paint – Literary Vignettes by Kenyan Women and Jalada Africa.

Her short story, Jagged Edges of a Disappearing Woman was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4. She has produced one TV show for M-net Africa.

Ndinda is a Miles Morland scholar for 2014 and is currently in University of Oregon completing her MFA in Creative Writing. She is the winner of the 2017 Wasafiri New Writing Prize.


Are you tired of interviews yet?

I really don’t like them, not one bit. I believe very strongly in privileging the writing first, letting it speak though I know this is not how things work, not when visibility is the currency, not when one is trying to get an agent or a publisher. Can you imagine the life of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante before that awful intrusion of privacy in 2016? There’s something wonderful about that facelessness. I would love that, but I’m not Elena Ferrante.



What irks you the most about places where writers gather to meet, whether on the continent like Writivism and Ake, or festivals abroad?

 I like these gatherings. I’ve met some of my favorite people here, some lasting friendships. But I have to say, I’m not a big fan of that conversation about who is or isn’t “an African writer” and what is or isn’t “African writing.”  It’s exhausting.


And what is your definition of that? Is there one?

I try not to worry about that. To be clear, I’m not saying this conversation is not important. “We” want to figure out who “we” are, before someone else does it for us. But in the process of doing so, we must be careful not to pigeonhole ourselves.

What I’m saying is, we need to expand the conversation a little bit and ask other questions, most importantly, questions that engage with the work itself.

These same questions about “who is” and “what is” were asked at the Makerere African Writers Conference in 1962, and we are still asking the same questions 56 years later.

We need new questions. Questions that engage directly and more critically with writing from the continent. Questions that go beyond what’s on the cover of a book.

Questions that cultivate a space for the growth of writing in the continent. Let’s not reduce NoViolet Bulawayo’sWe Need New Names to an artefact for conversations about poverty-porn. What else is there to talk about? What is this work trying to do?


Is there ever some sort of tokenism for the 'black' 'female' writers?

What do you mean? There’s no such thing. Why do you ask?


Because sometimes it seems that the place offered at the table is disingenuous, almost. The female writers are a lot fewer in a lot of spaces, and the male ones are touted more often.

Oh, but I don’t see it as disingenuous. There are very few women, for sure.

The other day, someone asked me why more women in the continent are winning all the prizes and getting publishing deals and if this is a trend now which is kind of a silly question. I don’t see this place at the table as “offered”. I think they have earned it.

I’m happy that writing by women is finally being recognised and getting published and not because people want to even out the numbers, but because these women are so talented. But I’m still worried.

If we’re not careful, there might be a generation of future readers who will never know of names such as Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, Grace Ogot, Maaza Mengitse, Shailja Patel, Bessie Head, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, etc.

The “canon” is extensive. It is diverse. Think of how easily some names like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe come to mind.

One might ask me, to whose mind, but I’m talking of a system that privileges male authors in conversations about literature, in the curriculum, you name it.


You are a friend to several prolific African writers, such as Okwiri Oduor, Clifton Gachagua, Emmanuel Iduma etc. How does this impact your writing, at all? Do you read them in envy?

 Of course I envy them. How could I not? Have you read them? My god, they are brilliant. I feel very fortunate to have these friendships.

One of the best things a writer can have (other than money and talent of course) is the gift of creative friendships—friends who lend you their eyes, who are willing to survive your first drafts.

We say that writing is a solitary affair, but there’s a community, the lovers and the friends who make this work possible. I have been so lucky in this regard.


What are you feeling about the cultural switch to living in the USA?

I’m about to pack my bags, but yet to get used to the weather. It’s always raining in Oregon and that’s just not good for my afro.


What happens after this?

 After this? I want to find some sun and go to Al-Yusra for biryani.


Can you give us an outline of what your book is about? I know this question must also tire you, I apologise in advance.

I read somewhere that it’s bad luck to speak about your work before it’s published. It stops belonging to you and starts belonging to the world before it even has a body.

It’s like letting the guests taste the githeri before it’s fully cooked. The only thing I can say is, it’s about love, sex and death.


Will you ever go back into production? Is film ever something you miss?

 Oh those were good times! I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I do, I want to go back to production. I’m done with grad school in a minute. Would you work with me?


Of course. Just don’t make me direct anything.Do you feel like this is what you are meant to be doing? Is this the perfect expression of your creativity?

Writing? I’ve never been more sure about something the way I am about writing. I love sentences. I love getting out of control with my commas.

I love the things one can do with language. It’s not always easy, but it’s the way I feel when it’s done, when I’ve got a story in front of me, a world that didn’t exist before I started typing. It’s a wonderful feeling.


What do you miss most about home?

Family, friends, dancing, and living in a city where I’m not constantly being asked to explain myself.


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]