Muthoni Garland is an author, editor and co-founder of Storymoja.
What kind of college student were you?
Fun-loving and curious. I spent a lot of my time reading fiction and partying. I was also undecided about a career choice and eventually succumbed to parental expectations - literature.
When you started the Storymoja Festival, what did you hope to accomplish?
Our goal was to create a forum that showcased and celebrated writers, poets and artists. In 2007, we launched what we then called the “Nyama Choma Fiesta” in a field at Impala Club.
The major event was a storytelling competition. Our first winner was Eric Omondi, then a student at Daystar University.
He won an internship at Nation media Group, which propelled him to his now stellar career as a comedian. In 2009, we partnered with the Hay festival, the largest book festival in Europe. We worked with them for five years before going it alone with a more Afrocentric focus.
Are you happy with the progress of the project so far?
We are thrilled that the festival has grown to become the premier book festival in the region. So much more needs to be done though, to grow readers (of non-textbooks) to a critical mass that can sustain writers and publishers, and attract local corporate sponsorship. Our vision is to become the greatest gathering of African writers interrogating the African story.
Is literature doing enough to address the challenge of ethnic polarisation that Kenya is presently grappling with?
If more people read and discussed literature, it would grow their understanding and empathy, and thus make it more difficult to be disrespectful to those whose politics they disagree with. We cling to what we know, stereotypes and tribal jingoism, as though ignorance can save us or excuse us from accountability. But through reading, we might acknowledge our personal contributions to our collective failures. That said, the quality and range of literature matters. It is important to read outside our comfort zone, and to include books that mirror, challenge, inspire and provide insights. In my essay titled “I Have Cleared” I have written: ‘‘If we made genuine efforts to read widely, to question ourselves, and reflect on who and how we are as a people, we’d have to change our society.”
You once said that “economies can only be built on the foundation of knowledge and creativity”. Has this been the case in Kenya?
If we cannot imagine, we cannot create. If we do not create, we rely on others to do so, and consequently, we build their economies and impoverish ours. If we do not keep learning and growing, we will not be competitive, yet the world is changing at an exponential rate. We need to keep gathering insight knowledge to create and produce, otherwise, we contribute to the crises we face, in which too many young adults at the peak of their potential are always on the streets looking for non-existent jobs.
In “Halfway between Nairobi and Dundori”, you explore the fragility of human life. How are characters in the book similar to the Kenyan youth?
I leave that to readers to draw insights and come up with their own conclusions. But they can invite me to discuss it in their book club.
What are some of the attractive areas that budding writers can venture into if they hope to make money from literature?
Many writing sites online offer opportunities for writers to earn. Calls for submissions from publishers and organisers of writing competitions also offer a route to earning from writing. Storymoja, for instance, is currently looking for high quality young adult novels (no graphic sex) in English and Kiswahili.
How can young upcoming writers overcome the challenges of publishing in Kenya?
To make money from writing, write in a more focused manner. Approach publishing in a business-like manner. Research what publishers need, answer calls for submission of manuscripts, network, get better at marketing on social media and learn to negotiate. Publish a blog and submit stories or self-publish to online magazines to get a track record and find your voice and your niche. Join and actively participate in a writing community to keep abreast of developments and opportunities for honing craft skills and publishing. Read a lot! This will arm you with the knowledge that nothing else can effectively teach you about what works and why. Cream always rises to the top. Those who read diligently, those who invest in learning the craft will get published.
How can we promote the culture of creative reading among Kenyans?
A change of attitudes and behaviour will make a big difference. If parents truly understood the mind-blowing expansion that the culture of reading creates in children, reading would soon become the dominant culture. Children learn best by example. In the traditional culture, parents and older relatives told stories to children, in the certain knowledge that myths of our origins, imaginative stories of giants and night-runners, heroic and funny animal tales taught invaluable moral lessons in an entertaining way.
Besides reading and writing, what else do you enjoy doing?
I really enjoy swimming, storytelling, cooking and walking in nature, such as Karura Forest.
Are there things you wish you had done as a 20-year-old?
I wish I had talked more with my parents, dug deeper to discover their personal stories to gain insights about who they really were as people, not just as parents. I also wish I had learned to play the piano and the guitar.