I fell in love with Okonkwo’s strength when I was twelve. You would not believe me when I tell you that reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was my key into the world of African Literature.
And you’d be right, because I had been reading books by Asenath Bole Odaga like ‘Munde goes to the market,’ before I encountered Okonkwo.
Africa has literary giants, and though Achebe’s works are timeless, I still feel as though he should have received a Nobel Prize in Literature, but maybe time will tell and the greatest prize any writer can get is that of being constantly read. Every time someone picks a book to read, the story begins and characters come to life just then.
I started writing when I was twelve. My first piece was a letter to my Dad asking him how heaven was and if he could ask God for permission so he could attend a debate I was participating in at school. It was three foolscaps long and I remember returning home with the letter in my pocket to find that we were having Ugali and sukumawiki for supper again. I was so disappointed that I volunteered to light the jiko only to watch the letter go up in flames.
The second attempt was when I was fifteen and I had a crush on this guy called Martin. He was the cutest boy around who always had his hands in his pockets and walked like the soles of his feet had springs. I wrote him a poem and he asked me to be his girl. (PS: I have not seen him in a decade! So, I hope he reads this and uses Google to catch up with me 🙂 )
I wrote another story in high school called “Butterfly gossips,” that talked of twins who fell for twins. (Seems like I had a thing for romances even back then)
But, years later and so many stories written, when I sought out publishers for my first book they kept saying that they were seeking “an African voice,” and it bothered me so much.
What was this African Voice?
How did one get it?
And how lucrative was this for any Writer living in the continent?
I struggled with this for years and I came to know two things:
1. It is true that every writer has their own voice.
2. No one knows exactly what this voice is and it can take a lifetime to fully comprehend it.
When my mentor read Fire, he called me at 11pm. I was sleeping and my phone rang and I remember being so angry, but he told me something that will always stay with me. He said, “you have started on a journey Dora, and this will lead you to places that you have never imagined you’d go. You write with the wisdom of the old, and I will expect much more from you. This is the start, your next book had better be worth my time.” I could not sleep after that. This man whom I call my mentor sometimes reminds me of Master Yoda, and sometimes Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” song describes him best!
Africa still has great Writers. I can walk into a library and spot the African literature section and know I will not run out of good books to read. My childhood was filled with songs, rhymes and legends all based in Africa. As I grew older my Mom added Shakespeare’s works and Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories. I found myself chasing cattle in Cyprian Ekwensi’s works, and learning about crime in John Kiriamiti’s book, and seeking reconciliation in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s “The River Between.”
People will always compare one thing to another. As a reader I do that even though I know each book has it’s own plot. I do compare books written by the same writer. But, after all this time, I know that there was only one Chinua Achebe and there’ll never be another.
Publishers are business people, they will always be on the lookout for something- and it does not mean that I am not African enough. It just means that I speak but their ears are not wired to listen to my voice, not now…but soon enough they will.
I will keep on writing.