Reading

Why We Cannot Ignore The Struggling Writer

As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed sometime back, I came across a tweet. This already established Writer, felt that the only way you could support a struggling Writer, was by giving him/her money. I couldn’t agree more.

A struggling Writer many times, is one who has not yet started making any money from their writing and if he/she has, it may not be enough to rely on as their only source of income. A struggling Writer may not have any published books yet. A struggling Writer can also be an upcoming Writer, since he/she might be working night and day, to get their name out there. Something that may not necessarily be a walk in the park.

Every established Writer was once a struggling Writer. They once knocked on doors, trying to get published or kept sending in their work to Publishers, in the hope that their manuscripts would be considered. There is also that struggling Writer who did not even own a laptop because he/she could not afford it.They had to spend most of their time in cyber cafes or on borrowed laptops, working on whatever stories they were writing.

That struggling Writer, who would keep on salivating at relevant books on bookshelves, but knew that he/she could not afford them. That struggling Writer, that nearly hid their face in shame, whenever anyone asked the question, “what are you reading?” because they never seemed to find books to read and yet it was crucial for them to be reading, if only to write better.

We might take some things for granted, such as having access to book clubs and easily obtaining new fiction works in the market when in the real sense, there is a struggling Writer somewhere whose locality is challenged in the reading department. Let’s be honest here for any Kenyan who might be reading. When was the last time you walked into a Kenya National Library just to read Fiction works on the shelves?

Books on a shelf. Image courtesy of pusle.ng

There was a time, when our National Libraries were relevant but in recent times, not so relevant. Not to dispute the fact that some Kenyans still frequent them. There are people for sure, who walk into libraries and spend a significant amount of time there reading. As a child in Eldoret town, I was a Library frequenter for the longest time, thanks to my parent who thought it wise to preoccupy me with books. I was even a member and had that Library card but as I grew up and got to upper primary, then high school, then campus, that changed.

In campus, I read the books I found on our campus library bookshelves. Luckily, there was a well stocked fiction section, which I discovered one day when I was bored and didn’t feel like studying academics related material. I stumbled on autobiographies by Hillary Clinton, Wangari Maathai and Cherie Blair as a result (remember, it was the fiction section but there were autobiographies there too), which I read out of curiosity and was not dissapointed. It was in our campus library, that I found and borrowed “I dreamed of Africa” by Kuki Gallman.

However, how common is it to bump into books by Elnathan John, Akwaeke Emezi, Lola Shoneyin, Noviolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Owuor, Mukoma wa Ngugi and the likes on our Kenya National Library bookshelves and especially in other towns and not the Capital? And that is why I believe, it is indeed very possible, for a struggling Writer to fail to read because they may not be able to find relevant books to read (not implying that other writers are irrelevant depends on what in specific they would like to read), may not know of any book clubs in their locality and may not be able to afford books.

It is imperative that we look at the challenges that a struggling Writer might be facing. God forbid, that such a Writer gave up because he/she decided that the odds must be against them and especially, in the event where they may be working so hard but failing to see the fruits of their labor. It is time that Established Writers became true to themselves if only to uplift those struggling/upcoming Writers who might look up to them for inspiration. Sometimes, what the latter needs might not only be money but for someone successful to sincerely say to them, “I was once in your position. I know how it feels to struggle, not to make any money and to have writing doubts.”

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What’s Your Biggest Writing Fear?

As a kid, who wrote a lot in her free time, my biggest writing fear was anybody reading what I wrote but it seems I wasn’t too good at hiding. I have an elder sister, 9 years older, which meant that when I was in lower primary, she was already in high school and had exercise books she had finished using, which still had some extra pages inside to write on.

These books of hers happened to be my preferred writing material. I used to think I was very clever then and she would probably never find what I wrote if I stashed it amongst other books. To my horror, when I eventually left for boarding school and she was now home awaiting to join college, she kept stumbling on what I had been writing at 7, 8,9, 10. I began writing really young. Come to think of it, I wonder what really was that scary about your sister reading something you had written. Nonetheless, back then, it happened to be my greatest fear.

As I have began putting my writing out there, getting into writing competitions and the likes, my biggest fear is for a beta reader to give bad feedback or for a publisher to reject my manuscript. I remember sending a collection of 10 short stories early last year to a certain African publisher and slightly over 3 months later, I received rejection mail. It wasn’t exactly my first rejection mail.

Back in 2014, a Kenyan publisher had equally rejected a manuscript I had sent. But you see, that time, I feared sharing my written work with beta readers. I figured that it was better for a publishing editor to be the first to read anything I had labored on. How wrong I was. Without sharing, I had no idea where my writing weaknesses were and if I had any for that matter.

When those short stories were rejected last year, I later sent them to a friend who is in the Journalism field and had previously interned/worked as an Editor in a media house not very sure which of the two positions. He took his time to read the manuscript and all that time I worried myself sick with what the final feedback would be. After he eventually finished, he sure did have feedback and it was not positive. It was constructive.

As he broke down to me what he had found problematic with the stories, it suddenly dawned on me why the manuscript had been rejected at the publishers. I know many times as upcoming writers, we tend to come to the conclusion that editors have something against us, being still relatively unknown and it ends up discouraging us greatly. Far from it!

They simply have no time to break down to you exactly, why they rejected whatever you had sent given the high number of manuscripts they might be receiving. So most probably, you get a polite rejection mail with maybe a sentence long reason why; it did not meet what we are looking for/our standards. At a point in time, I was one such upcoming writer who felt so discouraged and you can just tell from the length of time it took me from 2014 to 2017, to gather enough courage again to send something to a publisher.

Image courtesy of christopherfowler.co.uk

In as much as many writers may have a fear of sharing their work with friends/acquaintances once completed, we have to realize that their feedback matters a lot. Imagine them as readers who do not know you personally, but will one day purchase a book you have written, read it and most definitely form opinions over what they have just read. Their opinions in this case vary. Some may like the book, others not so much.

The best thing about sharing something with others, before it ends up at the publisher’s is that they can point out anything you need to change and you actually, have an opportunity to rectify it. Consider them more like a second eye. As a writer, I have had some trouble trusting people with my completed manuscripts so when choosing beta readers, make sure that they are people you can trust with your work, will actually read it in good time and are known to give unbiased feedback. Also be willing to listen and learn.

There’s usually that temptation to argue and defend something you have spent hours, days or months working on, especially when you feel like someone is attacking it. Try as much as possible to be reasonable and open minded when recieving feedback. Afterall, just because someone said something you disagree with, doesn’t mean that the manuscript now ceases to be yours. It’s still largely your effort and they are simply giving their honest, hopefully, opinion about it.

Of course your closest friends and family might always give you positive feedback, but you need someone who is never afraid to point out the negatives too. Sometimes, I count myself lucky that I have close friends who easily say what is wrong with my writing should I share it with them. I equally count myself lucky that so far, all those beta readers are people I can trust. And while in the past my biggest fear was giving people my work to read and critic, once you do it a couple of times, the fear kind of fades. Not completely, but to a large extent.

It may surprise you to learn that after I got feedback on the collection of short stories from my friend, the next short story I did and submitted to a writing competition, got shortlisted! My fear in this case, was conquered to a large extent. To be a writer, is to be courageous enough to face anything and everything this writing journey will throw at you. It is to be determined enough to keep writing in the face of frequent/once in a while rejections. To succeed, we need to start conquering our writing fears one by one.

 

On Reading And Why I Intend To Read More In 2018

My mum once worked in the Civil Service and many times in my childhood, I ended up at the office with her when she lacked someone to look after me back home. Now a child of around 4, 5 in an office environment with adults is not necessarily a fun thing for that child. So my mum, in a bid to keep me preoccupied and probably entertained, would take me to the National Library, a short distance away, help me look for books to read and request the Librarian to keep an eye on me.

Those library visits would introduce me to the interesting world of writing and while mum always ensured I read age appropriate books, what she seemed not to have an idea of, was the fact that I was a pretty fast reader. Sometimes, I would finish reading all those books she had picked for me from the shelves before she came back, then proceed to get adult ones for myself.

One time, mum walked in on me reading the Princess Diana autobiography, where they gladly discussed her troubled marriage to Prince Charles and the men she had dated. I could just tell from the horrified look on her face, which she tried unsuccessfully to conceal, that she had not expected to find her child reading such a grown up book. I’m not sure whether the Librarian who was supposed to keep an eye on me that day, got an earful or not. Thankfully, that did not mark the end of my Library trips.

As I grew older, I graduated to reading newspapers. Whenever my dad sat with his paper, I was there peering at some of the pages until he pulled them out for me. I would then proceed to read even stuff that barely made sense to a lower Primary School kid then. Some of the things I read, would make sense much later in adulthood. So if there is one thing I always thank my parents for, it definately has to be allowing me to read. They never had any qualms about it.

Me and mum in the library as a child. She had this habit of writing the date and where the photo was taken and so this was March 1994 at the Kenya National Library in Eldoret town. I was 4.

Well, reading has taken an entirely different meaning to me in adulthood. As a child, I read for leisure. As an adult, I have to read as someone who identifies herself as a Writer. So yes, there’s the leisure aspect to reading now and equally, the learning  and appreciating aspect. I must confess that I haven’t been reading as much as I ought to in recent times. I’ve had so many excuses as to why I wasn’t reading until I started encountering the crucial question “What are you reading?” more often.

I plan for this to change in 2018. While back then in ’94, our Library shelves were laden with books from European and American Writers, nowadays, there is a lot from African Writers in the Market. I’m not completely closed off to reading works from the West, but I can’t help but notice the vibrancy and diversity in the African Literary World to be specific. One I really desire to be a part of.

Currently, I’m reading A Certain Smile by the husband and wife writing team Judith Michael. Judith is the wife and Michael the husband, something I found very interesting. To be able to write a book with your spouse. The story is set in Beijing, China where designer, Miranda Graham, travels to on work assignment and finds love in Yuan Li, a Chinese man but with an American father he never met. I like this book so much because you get to experience China in the process.

So I just thought it wise, to include a cover image of the specific edition I’m reading, since I’m not really doing a book review as such.

Cover Image sourced from Goodreads.

To my readers, what is your earliest memory of reading and what are you currently reading? I could do with some extra suggestions 🙂

 

Sunday At 11 O’ Clock

Sunday service in church. Artwork of Winfred Rembert. Pinterest

Our neighborhood was laden with interesting characters. It was not a particularly posh neighborhood. Simply, a typical Kenyan neighborhood made up of individuals who could afford to get by, with an open, dusty space separating the houses on each side and a common gate. Nobody needed the gate anyway, since all the houses were further secured with stone or hedge fences and a personal gate of one’s choice. The children played in the open space.

Anyway, as I was saying, there were interesting characters in our neighborhood. Jonny from Mama Kibet’s house at the furthest end across our row of houses, was one such character. He must have been in his 20s or 30s, I’m not sure which because other people’s ages hardly concerned me, save for mine but he was one of her sons whom I don’t remember, ever playing with.

Jonny was the neighborhood drunk. On days when he had some money on him, we all knew. He would drink himself silly and hang around the shopping center, hurling expletives at passers-by. When he got tired of making a spectacle of himself, he would stagger home muttering to himself or simply blackout right there at the shopping center, sprawled on the pavement.

Jonny was also a thief. Nobody else in our neighborhood knew this, but I say this because I know what happened to the pastor’s new flat screen television. They locked up the cobbler for a week. He was known to possess a habit of taking things that did not belong to him, but I know he was innocent. The cobbler, after his cell stint, never returned to his usual spot outside the common gate, for fear of further victimization.

One quiet afternoon, after I had just been sent home for fee arrears by the headmaster, I caught Jonny jumping over the Pastor’s fence. He had a sack with him that had something with distinct edges inside. He gave me a menacing look and since we had never spoken before, I chose not to tell anyone about the incident.

Not even Njambi, the Pastor’s daughter who had the most sweetest, dimpled smile and the perkiest boobs I had ever seen in my 16 years of existence. That evening, I saw Jonny lying on the pavement at the shopping center in an obvious drunken stupor. The TV must have fetched him quite some good amount. I will tell you about Njambi after I have finished telling you about the other characters in our neighborhood.

Mama Kibet who is Jonny’s mother was one of those things my mother called Prayer Warriors. I am not very sure what that entailed but I know mum loved to pray a lot with Mama Kibet and other neighborhood women like Mama Odhis. Odhis was a short form for Odhiambo, who was still in lower primary with his sister, Atieno. I once heard mum tell the nurse who lived in the house across ours, that Baba Odhis was a womanizer and slept with the mboch. Then they had laughed and high fived as if they had just won a bet on SportPesa.

That online betting game that dad had threatened to chop off all of my fingers, if he ever caught me playing at Muli’s cyber. I am scared of dad and that is why I have never placed a bet on SportPesa. All of my friends at school regularly play these betting games but I never get near any computer. My father is not one to joke with. A retired civil servant, he is of the school of thought that sparing the rod spoils the child. Come to think of it, which African parent is not of the same school of thought?

Anyway, as I was saying, mum and the nurse were laughing at Baba Odhis for sleeping with the house help or was it Mama Odhis, for having a philandering husband. I was thoroughly confused because Mama Odhis, Mama Kibet, mum and the nurse all called themselves Prayer Warriors and prayed together most Sunday afternoons. I know they also prayed fervently for Jonny to stop drinking but it never seemed to have any positive effect on him. As a matter of fact, it was as if he was sinking deeper into alcoholism with each passing day.

Sometimes, I wondered if dad was also like Baba Odhis. Soon after his retirement, he had gone back to the village to his first wife. He only came once every month to see us in town and hardly told us about our half brothers and sisters, only mentioning to mum when they had just joined campus or secured employment. I wouldn’t dare ask mum about dad’s other wife lest she slapped me the way she had slapped my sister Sandra the other day, for losing money meant to buy gas for the gas cooker.

Like dad, mum could be strict. She was a secretary at a government office so we had to be disciplined and not embarrass her to her peers. Mum’s strictness however, could not stop me from pursuing Njambi, the Pastor’s daughter. The one whose father’s TV had been stolen by Jonny, the drunk.

Njambi was the last born in a family of 4 daughters and the only one left at home with her parents. Her father ran the tented church at the shopping center. The one with a huge sign bearing a picture of him and his wife, Njambi’s mother. Mum once muttered that she found Njambi’s mother self-righteous. She was not even a member of their prayer warrior group. As for me, I was more interested in Njambi than what my mum and her mum thought of each other.

I knew Njambi liked me as much as I liked her but she was scared of her father. He forbade them from talking to boys and wearing trousers. But even in those long dresses that Njambi sometimes wore to church, I could see her boobs. The ones I dreamed of touching one day if Njambi allowed me to get that close to her.

At school, it was difficult to talk much for she was always surrounded by those pesky friends of hers. I tried successfully though, on most days, to walk home with her just to marvel at how her voice sounded and her beauty. We would split up when we neared home, to avoid raising suspicion or someone seeing us together.

Her father was rumored to have whacked the living daylights out of a neighborhood boy he had accused of preying on one of his daughters. They had just been talking innocently, but that did not stop the pastor from drawing a stick he kept for disciplinarian purposes. The poor chap had been left with painful limbs as a reminder to keep off the pastor’s daughters.

I did not want to end up like that boy but sometimes, when the temptation got too much, I would peep through a carefully hidden hole I had created at the back part of our stone fence. I was lucky most of the time to find Njambi hanging clothes outside to dry. Other times when I was sure her parents were not around, I would hiss her name through the peep hole. It had since become our secret communication zone.

Pato my best friend at school, had just experienced his first sexual encounter. I know this because he was dating one of those big bodied girls in our class and he had told me himself. I must admit that I was very envious of Pato’s encounter. Njambi would not let me hold her hand. Not even kiss her. She shyly shooed me away when we neared home, on those days we walked together. But I could not let Pato beat me to the game.

So after much thinking, I suggested that I had just got a nice movie which my ample research told me Njambi might secretly love to watch. We all knew the pastor was a tyrant who never allowed Njambi to watch anything other than Christian themed shows. But here was the catch to my plan, we could only watch the movie, when neither of our parents were around.

I must have done my research and convincing well because for the first time, Njambi shyly agreed to do something at my bidding.

“Sunday at 11 o’ clock.” She surprised me further by setting the timing.

“What about church service?” I was slightly uncertain, knowing that Njambi never missed church with her parents.

“Don’t worry, I will come up with something.” She assured coyly.

At that moment, I swear my heart could have leaped out of my chest. For the first time, I would have some private time with Njambi. I could have as well searched on tutorials of what to do with a girl when the two of you were alone. I couldn’t wait for Sunday.

By Sunday morning, I had crafted a clever plan to remain behind when mum and Sandra attended service. It was very evident that mum preferred Sandra’s company to mine. So when I feigned a stomach ache, mum did not press me much with questions. She only reminded me to wash the breakfast utensils when I felt a bit better. I could see the twinkle of glee in Sandra’s eyes. My 14 year old sister could be so selfish. And now she had all the time to talk about “woman things” with mum on their way to church.

A few months back, I had discovered in Biology class that the “woman things” Sandra claimed to talk about with mum, was actually the monthly period. But who cared what mum talked with Sandra? I had the house for a few hours to myself and Njambi was coming over. So I quickly washed the utensils, tidied the house, took a shower and counted the minutes to Njambi’s knock on the gate.

At 11 o’ clock, just as Njambi had promised, there was a knock on the gate. I quickly went out to welcome her. She was wearing one of those long, brightly colored, flowy dresses that she liked to wear on Sundays. And her boobs, oh, they were so near I could touch them. I was eager to get things started, so I plugged in the movie CD on the DVD player and we waited for the movie to start. In that short space of time, before the CD began playing, I found out that Njambi had feigned a headache to skip church. Perhaps she wasn’t entirely innocent as I had thought her to be, I concluded inwardly.

I decided to keep some distance from Njambi so that I did not make her uncomfortable. My plan was to move closer as the movie progressed and she got more comfortable in our house. Then I would equally have some juicy story to brag to Pato with, the next day at school. That is if my plan went extremely well.

It was a nice teenage themed movie which Njambi seemed to really enjoy. She even got comfortable and placed her feet on the sofa. The plan was working well. So I equally made myself comfortable and laid on my back at an angle where I could pretend to be watching the movie, when in reality, I was looking at Njambi’s boobs. The ones I was so crazy about. Were these the “raging hormones” that our Biology teacher Mr. Musonye mentioned and got the girls giggling in class, which made me literally lose my mind at the sight of Njambi’s boobs?

I must have drifted off to sleep because I later woke up with a start, a stinging pain in my arm. As I quickly recollected myself and made sense of the surroundings, there before me stood the pastor fuming, with his stick. Njambi was not in the room. She must have ran out on seeing her father leaving me to face the full wrath of the pastor.

“You are the neighborhood boys who want to spoil my daughter!!!” He raged, bringing down the stick on me several times. Each time, delivering stings of pain on my arms and legs. He lifted me up from the sofa and gave me a whack on my bottom which landed with such force, it felt like I had just sat on hot charcoal. I couldn’t help yelling in pain.

“Who knows what could have happened to my daughter, had I not forgotten my church robes in the house and came back for them?!” He shouted. “I will teach you a lesson!”

In my excited state, I had forgotten to lock the gate when ushering in Njambi. And as if God had decided to punish me for lying to mum and Sandra on a Sunday, I had fallen asleep on the sofa. Only for the suspicious pastor to walk in wielding a stick, when he found his “sick” daughter missing at his house.

Mboch-Kenyan slang for househelp