To wake up knowing your job for that day and the next is to think, create unforgettable characters, weave a plot, work out a dialogue, is perhaps a fantasy for many African writers.
In an interview with Ayobami Adebayo and Zukiswa Wanner during AMKA forum at the Goethe Institut on Saturday, February 24, I asked the authors whether they are able to live off writing. Ayobami Adebayo is a Nigerian author of the highly acclaimed debut novel, Stay with Me. Zukiswa Wanner is a South African journalist and award winning novelist based in Kenya whose first book The Madams was published in 2006. She has six titles to her name. The latest being a memoir — Hardly Working.
“Yes I do live off my writing,” Ayobami responded. Ayebomi acknowledged though it is very hard for a writer to live off their writing and that she has been lucky to be able to do so with the success of her debut novel. Zukiswa, who describes herself as an extrovert, was more elaborate in her response.
She affirmed she is able to live off her writing.
“Sometimes I undertake commissioned works, conduct workshops and only agree to writing fellowships that earn me some money,” she added.
AMKA seeks to nurture authors develop their writing. However, since its inception, there are a precious few authors who have developed their writing who can say that they are able to afford their ugali entirely from writing.
This does not mean the writers who have nurtured their craft at AMKA have not gone on to become successful.
Authors such as Okwiri Odour, winner of the 2014 Caine Prize was first published in Fresh Paint vol. 1, a publication by AMKA. Poet Adipo Sidang, author of the poetry collection, Parliament of Owls and winner of the 2017 Burt Award for African Writing, Kenya with his manuscript, A Boy Named Koko, is a regular at AMKA forums. Tony Mochama, a Miles Moorland scholar, who recently celebrated ten books published in ten years and is also a multiple Burt award winner, moderates literary discussions at the AMKA forums.
My predecessor as AMKA forum coordinator Gloria Mwaniga is published in Fresh Paint volume 2). She was shortlisted for the Writivism Prize 2016 for her story "Boyi", which has been published in the Moonyori Journal. She was also shortlisted for the highly-sought-after Miles Moorland Scholarship in 2017. Gloria is also a columnist with the Nation Newspapers.
I attended my first AMKA forum in 2009 having seen an article about it in the Nation newspaper. I travelled from Embu to attend the session and when I moved to Nairobi in 2011, I became a regular. My debut novel had been published in 2010 and I wanted to try my hand at short story writing. I would sit back and learn and in 2015 my short story "Boys and Girls" was published in Fresh paint Vol.2. In the same year, I was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize. I would go on to be published in Moonscapes, and anthology published by African Writers Trust in 2016 and Zawadi series, a collection of three books would be published by StoryMoja Publishers. I would also win the Burt Award for African writing the same year. My debut play, The Land Along the River, was on the list of commended plays for the BBC Radio play 2016 and in 2017, like Gloria, I was shortlisted for the Miles Moorland scholarship. Do we dare dream as African writers, to join Zukiswa and Ayobami in saying, I am a full time writer? Is it something we should aspire to? At the AMKA forum, one of our members asked Ayebomi how she manages her time to be able to write.
“When I started writing Stay With Me, I was employed and I would write even while stuck in traffic,” she responded. “Now I have more time to write because I am a full-time writer.”
Many of us struggle to juggle between our regular jobs and the daily hassles to put down a few words. Even with having five books published, I don’t see myself handing in my resignation letter soon and living out my fantasy of waking up every morning to just write. I’m sometimes forced to sleep past midnight if I have project I am working on.
Last year, I spent a week at Bulago Island in Uganda attending a Miles Moorland Creative Writing workshop with nine other authors. Joe Aito, one of the participants from Nigeria, who has a fulltime job and writes in the evening said he struggles almost every day with the decision to quit his job and become a full-time writer. I asked him why he cannot quit and he said he simply can’t afford it. I have been lucky to get an award which earned me a onetime lump sum. However, I am yet to receive a royalty check for some of my books, one of which has been in the market for eight years.
At one time, I listened to Kinyanjui Kombani, author of the Villains of Molo and several other books saying that he went out to check out the price of a Range Rover when his first book was accepted for publication. It only dawned on him later, when he came to know the low percentage in royalties an author gets and the few copies that get sold in a year, how grandiose his dreams were.
Some us might not have such dreams like Kinyanjui but surely it’s not too much to ask publishers to market our books to increase the sales and to give us what is due to us in royalties. Is it?
Muthoni wa Gichuru is the author of Breaking the Silence, The Hidden Package, Zawadi series- The bitter sweet and other stories, The scary trip and other stories and The other side and other stories. She coordinates the monthly AMKA forums for writers at the Goethe institute