For me, this is such an emotionally effective piece. It hits hard, and it keeps hitting. What, for you, is the key to writing a piece that resonates on an emotional level?
Hmm, I would say empathy and vulnerability.
One of my favourite things is the idea of empathy as an aesthetic. To be a good storyteller in my opinion, is to be open to world views outside your own; this creates room for you to love your wholly human characters even when you don’t agree with them.
The vulnerability part, I think, is the willingness to put the hard parts of yourself on the page. I cried while writing parts of this story because I was drawing from my own grief. And to be that honest about all the feelings you are processing is hard work, especially when you don’t have the answers, just the questions that become the story.
What was the inspiration for this story – where did inspiration start and how did the story develop?
This story was in conversation with multiple different things happening in my world at the time I began thinking through it. Around 2017-2019 there seemed to be a dramatic increase in suicide attempts (or maybe there was just more visibility around them), especially among gendered males and more so in art spaces in Nairobi. There felt like there was such a heavy disconnect when it came to conversations around mental health between our generation and our parents/elders.
The other thing I was thinking through was the misconceptions around queerness in conservative spaces back home. But I also knew that this is not a story anyone else should tell for us but us.
Lastly, I was in a season of multilayered grief and loss, working through my own relationship to death as I struggled with my mental health. I feel like I resonated heavily with Nyokabi and projected a lot of my own experiences/thought process onto her.
A lot of my work is based on a rejection of linear conceptualization of time and is in opposition to the chosen one trope which comes across as exceptionalism—an idea I abhor. So all these things combined and became Nyokabi’s and Baraka’s and Time’s journey.
This story tackles some very tricky but important issues. Was it difficult to write, in terms of content or messaging; was there a process of wondering if you wanted to address these things? Or are these the kinds of topics which you tend to be drawn to write about?
It wasn’t as difficult to write as it was to revise. You’re right in that so much of this is sensitive, and the story is very Kenyan with its whole chweest. My first audience being those back home made it so I had no desire to center anything other than a Kenyan experience. That said, queerness and mental health still carry heavy taboos, so yes, there was a moment of asking if we are ready to have some of these conversations in public.
Though, I must say I am grateful because my work is able to be what it is only because it builds off of work that has come before me and conversations that are already happening around me. At this moment, I want to draw attention to the work around repeal-162 in Kenya, which is a collective movement that challenged the penal codes that criminalizes sexual conduct between two consenting adults of the same sex.
I also just love the stories and essays Binyavanga Wainaina left with us before he died. It is important to know that my work does not exist in a vacuum and that this is just one story. It doesn’t try to represent all mental health; it doesn’t stand in for all grief stories, or all versions of queerness, or all Kenyan experience. And I want it to stand in conversation with all the other ways of being.
Utilizing Time as a point of view gives this piece an unexpected dimension, making it more dynamic. What was the thought process behind having Time as a witness, instead of solely utilizing the dual viewpoints of Nyokabi and Baraka? What effect do you hope to create for the reader?
Ha. I am merely a vessel and time told me she wanted a voice in this story, so who am I to refuse? Lol.
My own personal politic is that I reject Western notions of ‘time management’ which attempt to control, utilize, and dictate time. That’s very capitalist perspective. Hence the adage “time is money.”
I was thinking through if I truly lived with an understanding of John Mbiti’s conceptualization of African time, it meant understanding that time is not a thing that controls us or that we can control, but an active participant that carries us through our story.
I am hoping readers will be left reevaluating their relationship to time in a way that eases some of the immediate intensity of loss.
One side of this story, for me, is about grief. But there’s this other side, a related side, which is about love, and the many ways people experience it or demonstrate it. This line stands out for me: “Their ‘I love you’s’ are present but more unsaid than said;” it informs the overwhelming emotions Nyokabi experiences, and stands in relationship to the ways in which the other members of the family express and experience love. Some of this is subtle and delicately drawn. What is important for you in these depictions of family?
Whew. It’s funny because I was so sure that I was only going to write black joy stories in my lifetime and here I ended up writing a black grief story. However, as I have been learning, emotions aren’t linear and/or binary.
Joy can coexist with devastating loss.
It was incredibly important for me that Baraka’s life and loves took up as much space as, if not more than, his death. That their story, even with the conflict in the interworking of the family unit, still reflected their deep love for each other.
I have a soft spot for Mama Nyokabi (Noni). I also think Baba Nyokabi (Ken) is trying his absolute hardest, but grief really has a way of turning us into versions of ourselves that we do not recognize. There are so many layers in the ways we are taught to love as black people and, specifically in this story, as African ex-colonized people. Where there is an internalized idea of what success is, of what being a man is, of what being a woman is, of what being a parent is or a ‘responsible child,’ of the sacrifices parents make for their children to have a “better” future.
I really love Jamaica Kincaid’s “GIRL” because it shows in one way a parent who seems to be shaming her daughter, but who is actually just saying, for me to have survived this world in my skin, I had to move in a particular way, and if you don’t want the world to beat you to the ground then you are also going to have to move in that particular way.
Which just brings us back to empathy. I pray there is always room for empathy and vulnerability.
What do you love most about this story, and what do you hope the reader gets from it?
So many things. I loved writing the scenes in Mombasa. The Bahari is my favourite place on Earth, so anytime I get to write the Swahili Seas into story I take the opportunity. I also resonate with Kabi’s googling literally everything and the way her anxiety presents itself.
I really really love Mad-ma Nyasi. She’s so cool and always talking in circles in a way you have to work really hard to catch up with her, like an African fairy godmother.
I hope the readers get something that resonates with their spirit. What that thing is I don’t know, but I am very excited by the possibility of different people bringing different experiences to their interpretation of this story.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up for new fans of your work?
Cool thing! This story is part of a novella! So hopefully that will eventually be published and the readers can get to see more of Ma-Nyasi (Njeri) and dive a little deeper into Nyokabi and Baraka’s history.
I am also currently working on my thesis project, which is a novel that centers a travelling word inspired by black prophetics across the diaspora.
I also co-run Voodoonauts (a free Afrofuturist workshop for black SFF writers) with three wonderful writers: Yvette Ndlovu, H.D Hunter, and L.P. Kindred. We are working on different programming in collaboration with other more mainstream organizations like Clarion West, and, possibly in the works, we are curating a black SFF anthology.
So many wonderful storytelling things to look forward to.
Spread the word!