Wanjeri Gakuru lives and works in Nairobi. She is a writer, journalist and a familiar face to anyone who has been to a literary festival on the continent. She spoke to SSDA about her work.
How has your work as a freelance magazine journalist contributed to your fiction writing?
WANJERI: It effectively killed it, really. I attended a writing workshop in 2014 and one of the lessons I took away from it was that my creative non-fiction voice is my true asset. I have journalism training and an interest in telling other people’s stories but I struggle to build truly authentic fictional worlds. The workshop showed me that it is easier for me to embellish the truth than to tell outright lies.
In 2015 Paste Magazine named you as one of the top '10 Travel Bloggers of Colour You Should Follow.' I have looked through your beautiful site. What has travel blogging brought you beyond the benefit of providing a record of your adventures?
WANJERI: Thank you for your kind words. I was delighted and deeply humbled by that inclusion. I’ve always enjoyed documenting my experiences on the road, or in any space in which I’ve “othered” myself. (It could be as simple as visiting an eatery in a different part of town). Allow me a little vanity as to say that I think I’ve written some of my most beautiful sentences while trying to capture the essence of these locations and how being in them made me feel. I can only hope people reading the pieces enjoy my examination of the boundaries of self and [my] seeing life though several lenses.
I read some of your poems, including The Unsaid. Do you find you need to embody a different space — either mentally and / or physically — for poetry than you do for your other writing?
WANJERI: In my early 20s, I self-identified as a poet and spoken word artist. By then I’d nicknamed myself mawazo mengi which is Swahili for many thoughts/ideas because I lived inside my head quite a bit. I suppose I still do. There was a huge poetry movement in the mid-2000s in Nairobi. Everybody wanted to be a poet and there were enough stages erected to feed this frenzy. However, as I sought to grow professionally, I realized that my poetry was very personal. I also wasn’t producing new material as quickly as I’d liked and when I tried to enter competitions where one was required to write on a specific theme or slams based on that, I failed miserably. My work hadn’t grown arms and legs and moved outside of documenting my experiences and meditations on life. Thankfully, I was in university then and discovered magazine journalism. It allowed me to write prose with poetic inclinations; a few flowers among the hard facts.
You have played a major role in putting together writing festivals, including working as Festival Consultant for Writivism. That sounds like a big job with a fair chunk of stress. But I could also see how it might provide a rush, as all these various pieces snap into place. What is the experience like for you?
WANJERI: I’ve always enjoyed solving problems and festivals flare up with so many little editorial and production fires that, for some reason, I really like putting out. I’ve worked in and around literary festivals for the last eight years. I’ve bobbed around as a volunteer handing out programmes, reported on festivals and spoken at and taught sessions.
Festival work is often maddening and exhilarating but quickly over in a few days. This year I’ve been working in Kwani?’s editorial department and producing their monthly Kwani? Open Mic event. This, coupled with serving as Jalada’s Events Manager, has allows me to see the other elements at play: the fundraising, securing of speakers/talent, budgeting, scouting locations, hiring equipment and so on. It has enriched my understanding of how to make literary events work and hopefully will make me a better consultant.
Lastly, what question do you wish I'd asked? Please answer it.
WANJERI: I wish you’d asked me what one thing about my writerly journey I regret having done or not done. To which I’d answer that I wish I’d began close reading of certain texts earlier in my life and [read] more African authors. Maybe it’s a factor of ageing or exposure and experimentation or an increase in confidence, but before I had this foolish notion that my originality would be eroded by reading the exact type of writing I wanted to try. How ignorant! It will only grow my writing and as long as I’m careful not to plagiarize ideas then I’ll be alright. I suppose I should be a little kinder to myself because no one can tell you some of these things really. You come to these understandings in your own time.
On Wanjeri's Bedside Table
Wanjeri Gakuru is a creative writer and freelance magazine journalist living and working in Nairobi. She is a StoryMoja Fellow and an alumna of the 2014 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. Wanjeri is also a member of pan-African writers’ collective, Jalada. She blogs at www.wanjeri.com