If six-year-old Muthoni wa Gichuru had known that goat-herding would start her off in her creative writing journey, then perhaps she would have treated the task more lovingly.
“The truth is I hated goat herding, but it is through the loneliness that came with goat-herding that I learned I could create stories to fill the time. My father came with me sometimes, and he always read from a Gikuyu language book titled Kamina na Kamina (Kamina and Kamina),” Muthoni remembers, chuckling softly at the fond memories of her father, who would later narrate the stories he read to the family.
With only wild pigs and goats keeping her company, Muthoni’s imagination often went wild, and a lot of the stories she imagined then have come to life in her writing today.
“I got exposed to reading in the Gikuyu language from an early age. I read books like Nguku ya Wanjiku, Njoroge na Mubara Wake and Kamina na Kamina.”
Despite nursing dreams of writing for many years, it was her husband Joseph Kamau who finally convinced her to start writing in 2002.
“Why don’t you write stories that our children can read one day?” he asked.
She waited six years for that manuscript to get published.
The little girl from Matanya, a small village in Nanyuki, today has award-winning novels under her belt: Breaking the Silence (shortlisted for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and approved as a set book in Rwanda) and The Hidden Package (won the Burt Award for African Literature). Her short stories have also been featured in two anthologies, Fresh Paint (Vol 2) and Moonscapes (2016). Gichuru’s other books are The Other Side and Other Stories, The Scary Trip and Other Stories, The Bitter Sweet and Other Stories. These are part of the Zawadi series published by Storymoja.
The bachelor of science graduate recently sat down with Daily Nation to unpack her writing journey.
What has been the most seminal experience in your writing life?
I entered my first complete manuscript for the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa 2003-2004 and I got a letter saying I had been shortlisted for the prize from among 500 entrants from all over Africa. I realised then that I was good at this writing ‘thing’. It also opened the tightly closed door for me to be published in Kenya.
You know you will need to describe what that tightly closed door looks like…
For a creative writer who is unknown, it is very hard to be published by mainstream publishers in Kenya. Before I submitted my manuscript for the Macmillan literature prize, I took it to a couple of publishing houses and the response was, "The work has merit but we are not publishing something like that at the moment." It was a polite way of rejecting the manuscript.
Alright. What will success in writing look like for you?
It will definitely not be an award as awards are quite subjective, but if I have a story that is critically acclaimed by readers, then I can say I have made it.
What topic won’t you write about?
LGBTIQ issues. I don’t want to pretend to understand what it is all about and until I do, I would feel like and imposter. I feel like you can only understand your own sexual orientation and not another person’s.
So what themes dominate your writing then?
Social justice, personal development with a sprinkling of humour. I believe stories can change people’s way of thinking. Reading has made me realise that we are all the same. Different tribes, nationalities and even races are basically the same. I found characters that I know in books set in America, Britain and in other African countries.
It is now 14 years since you penned your first novel. You have survived this long as a Kenyan writer…what is the one single virtue that is needed to survive rejections, waiting periods, bad press?
Patience, perseverance. Don’t ever write only with the intention to win awards.
What are some of the most memorable responses you have received about your work?
Someone said she felt sorry about what happened to me after reading Breaking the Silence. The book is about a girl who is raped by her classmates. Another friend recently also asked whether I was writing from personal experience the story 42 Steps Up 42 Steps Down, published in an anthology, Moonscapes. The story is about a street girl.
What genres of writing do you want to pursue?
I would like to focus on short stories and writing thrillers. At the end of the day, I would like to write an epic novel that will be read by generations to come.
Is writing paying you?
Let me tell you this. Last year, I undertook the Storymoja challenge of writing 1,000 words per day for three months as a way of raising funds for building libraries. At the end of the project, I got a cheque for Sh30,000 and I almost fainted, because that was the highest amount of money I had ever received for my writing. The money was meant to compensate us for our day-to-day expenses while writing.
The Burt Award prize of slightly over Sh500, 000 is the most amount of money I have ever received from my writing.
Fortunately, I have a good job that feeds me, but even if the money was not there, I would still write.
That is passion right there…
But you know passion is not just the good things, it is the pain, tears, depression, wretchedness too that comes along with it.
What else would you like people to know?
I have seen people on social media dismissing awards…even if you want to be romantic and say, “Don’t write for competitions”, please enter your stories for competitions. Getting shortlisted and winning awards has definitely gotten me noticed, and in a way taken more seriously. It has created curiosity about my books and opened them up for wider readership.