Ciku Kimeria lives and works in Kenya as a writer, travel blogger and as a consultant on international development issues. She loves people, writing, learning different languages, and cultural exchanges.
Her first novel Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges has been well-received and has gained recognition on the African continent and beyond. It tells the story of a Kenyan middle-aged power couple and their complicated marriage. The novel explores issues of greed, revenge, betrayal and murder, and been described as “Wicked, funny, poignant, wacky, human, a big ball of fun and danger”; “A unique and captivating book”; and “Impossible to put down once you start reading.” Her novel has been launched and featured in events and newspapers, radio and magazines in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Somaliland. Ciku sat down with SSDA to speak about her far-reaching work.
What compels you to write?
CIKU: I think there are two parts to this question – what makes me feel the need to write and what makes me think I have something worth saying. I will answer the last question first. I have written for as long as I can remember, but it was only in the past 5 years or so that I began thinking I could write for an audience larger than my immediate family and friends. Watching Chimamanda’s speech, “The danger of a single story” was the first time in my life that I thought that I a middle class Kenyan with what I would describe as a “relatively normal” upbringing, had something to say that would be worth people reading. I’ve always felt that the space one occupies as an “African writer” is one of great importance and as such for one to occupy this space you have to be speaking of themes such as war, AIDS, FGM, child soldiers etc. After watching this speech, I realized that we do need a diversity of stories representing the African experience – where it’s noteworthy that this experience is highly varied, and no one story can be used to define each of us. What compels me to write? To silence all the voices in my head that only give me some respite when I put pen down to paper (or in most cases – fingers to keyboard.)
Your novel, Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges, is a multi-threaded exploration of marriage, greed and truth. Loneliness also plays role in the tale, despite the numerous characters and being mostly set in the city of Nairobi. As one character observes, Loneliness is a strange thing to bring up with anyone. If you are lonely, yet you are surrounded by people, they think that you are saying that they somehow cannot provide you what you really need. This made me reflect on your characters and how many are isolated by their actions and secrets. These days, the internet is full of articles and theories on how, despite technology such as mobile phones and social media, people are becoming increasingly cut off each other. But what is interesting about your story, is that this isolation is happening inside the family, the workplace. What prompted you to explore this theme?
CIKU: The theme of loneliness for me is an interesting one, as I see loneliness in different forms. One is the main form that rushes to our minds – lacking friends, not having family, etc. The second form of loneliness is what I would call “internal loneliness” and is a major affliction for those in our generation. Despite having many people in our networks (including virtual networks – Twitter, Facebook, etc.) how many people do we think really understand us? Truly know us? How many can one actually call on in times of need? I also sometimes think of loneliness as “Who or what am I missing?” as opposed to “Who is around me?” This way of thinking makes me realize that I could be in a room with a hundred people and still feel completely alone. I could have family with me, but feel alone as I think of the sibling I no longer speak to. In a room with my children and think of the one who I lost before they even had a chance to get into our world. Look at my phone to see Whatsapp messages in 7 conversations, but only notice the echoing silence from that person I was really hoping had missed me too. This loneliness is the one the Muriungi in Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges feels. The feeling that even though he is surrounded by others, he is invisible to them. That feeling that you will always be a hand no glove can fit – or a hand that is doomed to always be in gloves that are too tight or gloves that make your hand itch. Cinderella’s shoe with no foot that will ever fit into it. Now, that is loneliness.
Your novel is self-published. The book has been read by more people than many titles published by a traditional publisher. What did you do to ensure people heard about your work and read it?
CIKU: One of my greatest strengths is that I love people – absolutely love humankind and always expect the best from people. Fortunately I am rarely disappointed. As a self-published author, one has to be extremely strong-willed and good at building and fostering relationships. When you self-publish, people will only know about your book if you tell them about it. They will buy it only if you can convince them to. As such, if you are not a misanthrope, and are relatively outgoing and shameless enough, you will manage to sell lots of books even as a self-published author. The interactions I have had with people have been so important in getting my book into mainstream media.
My book was first discovered by the owner of Bookstop – one of the leading bookshops in Nairobi. They then decided to have my book signing with Jeff Koinange – one of Africa’s leading journalists. He was gracious enough to have me launch my book at the same event as his. I will forever appreciate that – I was an unknown writer at the time and he’s the type of person who draws thousands to any event he attends. Eventually Muthoni Garland – one of the co-founders of East and Central Africa’s largest book festival – found my book in the bookshop – enjoyed it and invited me to be a panellist at the festival. This was in late 2013. From then, all the friendships I have made and the connections have seen me launch my book or speak in literary events in Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somaliland, Uganda etc. I have had my book covered and/or reviewed in BBC Radio 5, Daily Nation (Kenya), The East African, True Love magazine (East Africa), Ndege News (East Africa), Business Daily (Kenya), Daily Monitor (Uganda), New Vision (Uganda), Citi fm (Ghana), Radio One (Nigeria), and Ebonylife (Nigeria). I have also been fortunate enough to be reviewed by bloggers in the region who I really respect – James Murua, Harriet Anena, CottageAoll, Craving Yellow etc. All the media coverage has helped me connect to more readers.
In a nutshell, I would say that people will help you get where you need to as long as you let them know what you are doing and as long as you are willing to put in the hard work. I expect 2016 to be an extremely busy year, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Since publishing Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges have there been any lessons that have made you swear, 'Next time I'll do it different'? If so, what?
CIKU: One of the main ones is that I would not be as quick to give books to people I don’t know too well and collect money later. I really hate having to call someone once a week (for a year) to send me my money. There is really no joy to be found in debt collection. When too many books have been given out on credit, it really becomes a headache to collect.
For my new novel I also plan to get a publisher – there are many things to be gained from having people who are experts at editing, book layout etc work on your book. I would still love to be able to do the book fairs, book clubs and one on one sale interactions with readers, but I would love to have experts work with me on the technical aspects of getting a book out.
Lastly, what are you currently working on?
CIKU: I have been so good at avoiding answering this question for a long time, but alas… the day has come.
Here is a brief teaser from the novel I am currently working on. I am really excited about this one and sometimes I can’t sleep as ideas run around my mind.
“A mother’s deathbed confession threatens to tear her family apart. A son who bears a lethal secret. A son whose guilt threatens to subsume him. A daughter who seeks solace in the spiritual world at the risk of losing herself. A daughter struggling through the pains of growing up in this modern world. A grieving husband who mourns more than just the wife he lost. How far are you willing to go to find the truth? To Uganda? Cote d’Ivoire? Comoros? Brazil – to the end of the world…and at what price does this truth come?”
What have you been reading, lately?
My most exciting reads of the past few months have been Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu, Chuma Nwokolo’s Diaries of a Dead African, Zukiswa Wanner’s The Madams and Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc. I read widely, but of late I have been reading a lot of African literature. It is truly magical to meet all these authors I really admire in person. There is no way I will pass up an opportunity to buy a signed copy of their books from them!
Do you have any writing or editing tips?
What works for me: I do not write and edit at the same time. I write first, then edit when I am essentially done. The main reason is that if I wrote and edited each page as I wrote it, I will get demotivated and think that my work is really crappy, and that I should not bother writing anymore. I therefore let my writing muse run wild, then I conjure up the editing muse to make sure what I have written can be understood by others.
I give myself lots of time between writing and editing. If I edit my work too soon, I am still too emotionally involved to be logical when editing. If I give myself a long enough break, I can almost edit my book as if I am a complete stranger reading it for the first time. My family can definitely attest to me laughing alone in the middle of the night as I reread something I wrote – after a long time it’s as if someone else wrote it and as if I am seeing it for the first time.
After the initial round of edits, it’s great to have as many people as possible read your work before you publish it. The experts are great, but also you should test your work with your would-be readers. A book can be well written, but not be one that people will read. I want my books to be read. I think that’s what most writers want – they want people to read their work, relate to it, feel something about the work. The only way to know that prior to publishing is to test it with a diverse audience.
For more on Ciku and her work, visit http://www.thekenyanexplorer.com
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie