Troy Onyango is a Kenyan writer and lawyer. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals and magazines including Ebedi Review, Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora and Transition Issue 121, for which his short story TheTransfiguration was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
His short story For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings? won the fiction prize in the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize.
His nonfiction piece, This Is How It Ends, was shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Nonfiction.
Troy, who was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship, is a founding editor of Enkare Review and the Fiction Editor of the East Africa issue of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.
Do you consider yourself an African writer?
The definition of who an African writer is has been a debate that has lasted as long as Africans have been writing and getting published.
Mostly, it has been because the writer of African origin is, almost always, given the burden to represent the whole continent.
A task which most – including me – find difficult and unfair. And it is. But I don’t shy away from being called an African writer, or even a Kenyan writer.
My being African (Kenyan) forms part of my identity in a similar way as my being a writer.
Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?
Only two? I have many books I hold so dear. Books, to me, are like people; alive, present, with personality. Asking me to choose only two people who I hold dear, as simple as it may seem, is such a daunting, unnerving thing.
But, put a gun to my head and I will choose Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Yvonne Adhiambo’s Dust. Can I add just one more? Please? Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.
What are your favourite 2017 reads, why?
Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness which has changed my idea of what a novel is meant to be in the way she weaves three stories and doesn’t leave out the political aspect of writing.
Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me which uses deceptively simple language in telling us a story of a couple struggling with childlessness.
This book was a delight to read in the way she kept surprising me with well-executed twists in the already fast-paced plot.
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, a collection of short stories that leaves you wondering what goes on in her mind. I was in awe.
Finally, Nthikeng Mohlele’s Pleasure, a novel that oozes so much beauty in the way it is written. The language alone is mesmerizing.
How would you describe the Kenyan literary scene with respect to contemporary writers?
The Kenyan literary scene is rising to reclaim its space on the African continent.
We have so many young Kenyan writers doing wonderful things and I can’t wait for when they publish their books.
Of course, there is a lot of restructuring that needs to be done so that more books can be published by the younger generation of writers, but that requires a collective push and more collaborations.
Your childhood favourite books?
Ah, that would be The Adventures of Thiga, the Moses series by Barbara Kimenye, and Njagi the Town Monkey.
If you were to dine with three writers, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Again, only three? Sigh. I am only going to mention those alive because it would be creepy to imagine dining with the already dead.
Well, the first would obviously be Toni Morrison who I – somehow, in some way – always dream of meeting. Her books, especially The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved, have had a significant impact on my life.
Then there is Hanya Yanagihara whose book A Little Life, a beautiful, tragic, giant-sized novel, shredded me into pieces. I cried throughout. Finally, Arundhati Roy. Do you need a reason? Well, read The God of Small Things.
Do you think book festivals and writing workshops are important to a writers’ growth?
Writing is such a lonely affair. The writer is, almost always, sitting alone in a room creating.
Festivals bring that space for the writer to find a society where they can exercise their awkwardness without the judgement of others.
Also, for the published author, festivals are a way to market their books.
Workshops provide room for the much needed critique and feedback on the work. Sometimes, other people can see things that you miss when looking at your own writing.
I enjoy workshops that have honest participants and the feedback is candid.
In your opinion, are literary prizes important?
Prizes are a good thing. They provide the necessary motivation for a writer. However, they shouldn’t be prioritised to the level that one is only considered a good writer when they have been validated by a – mostly Western – prize. We have so many brilliant writers in Kenya who haven’t been validated by those awards but that doesn’t take away from their brilliance. Above all, a writer, in my opinion, should write a story because it matters to them and not to win a prize.
What are you currently reading?
The Lives of Great Men, a memoir by Chike Frankie Edozien which is well written, honest and powerful. I have also started The Goddess of Mtwara, the 2017 Caine Prize Anthology.
Do you think book reviews are necessary in Kenya?
Book reviews are necessary everywhere, including Kenya. They show people are engaging with the work.
They are a good way of giving feedback to the author in a way that shows the person read and reflected on the text.