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Publishers do not seem to 'prioritise creative works’

By Lucas Wafula | May 14th 2016
Goro Kamau is the author of Nyota’s Dream, Let Her Be, Sara and the Pirates, Frogs for Sale. He also contributed the title story in the short story anthology When the Sun Goes Down, a set book in secondary schools. He is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at Laikipia University. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

Goro wa Kamau’s appearance shouts ‘beware, Professor on the prowl’ even before he speaks. Yet his easy-going manner sets you at ease. “I don’t think I have a reasonable answer why I write,” he says and busts out laughing when I ask him why he writes.

“I think I write because I must. If you are meant to write, I don’t think you have much of a choice in the matter. Then when I look around me, I see so many stories that need to be told.”

Mr Kamau, who was recently nominated for the Burt Award for African Literature, believes he is just trying to tell some of those stories, expressing himself in the hope that in the process, he might inspire and make a positive impact on some reader.

Like many authors of note, Kamau never had it easy; being published was never easy. “Our publishers take too long to make a decision on a manuscript and even longer to bring it out!” he complained. “Our publishers do not seem to prioritise publication of creative works,”

Kamau observed that even when a manuscript is accepted, everything is at the mercy of the publisher. “As a writer, you are often in the dark. Publishers can make things easier if they gave some kind of a timeline.”

Regardless of the hard knocks, which make some people with the potential to write to be discouraged, Goro grew a thick skin and kept on writing. Eventually, he was published and now his novella, Ghost and the Fortune Hunters (LonghornPublishers Limited) has been nominated for the Burt Award.

In this novella, Kaboci lives with albinism. Nicknamed “Ghost” by his classmates, he is kidnapped by “fortune hunters” as he goes to school. The thugs hope to get rich by selling the boy to witch-doctors in Tanzania. Fortunately, their plan goes burst and they are arrested and swiftly jailed by Tanzanian authorities.

It is a novel about disability and about an albino’s dreams for a bright future, about the problems and aspirations of young people and about crime and punishment. The way Kaboci manages to escape from his captors even before they are arrested gives the reader hope that despite challenges, Kaboci will ultimately realise his lofty life’s dreams.

This literature don views writing as a labour of love. He sees his nomination for a prize as a kind of vindication. Writing is worthwhile, after all. “It’s humbling to know people who care about literature and writing thought that my work was worthy of an award. I don’t take that for granted,” he says. “My greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that, thanks to the sponsor of the Burt Awards, my book will reach so many readers. I can only hope it will have a positive impact on them, one way or the other.”

What inspired him to write this novella? The stories in media, he says. Kamau was inspired by a story in the media about a man who tried to sell his albino friend to witch-doctors in Tanzania. He got curious and started following reports about the ritual murder of people living with albinism in the vain belief that charms made from their body parts can bring somebody good luck and fortune. This is the idea that he explores in the novella.

Writing routine helps

Armed with this germ, he set out to develop the story. “You know, an idea is not a story. It took long to have a storyline to go with the idea I had,” he notes. When he started writing, he was beating about in the bush trying to come up with the story. “I always feel my way into a story because I cannot work with an outline.” Slowly, he built his story. He wrote and re-wrote. He did this for six months.

“I had to learn as much as I could about albinism as I wrote: the facts and the myths and a lot of other things.” Finally, he discovered the main character. “I just let him lead me down the path; I tried to write almost every day.”

Like most writers, Kamau believes a writing routine helps. He pushed himself to write even when he didn’t feel like it, writing mostly early in the morning. He also wrote during times when he felt the story flowing. Usually, he writes for hours on end.

“I often find that I might end up throwing away what I have written but I don’t count that as wasted effort. It is what I like to think of as feeling my way into and around the story. It is an absolutely essential part of my creative process.”

Balancing between his day job and writing is a challenge for this lecturer. At the same time, writing about disability is always difficult because he never wants to seem to patronise those who face such challenges especially by writing about it in a “clichéd” way. “I had to constantly remember that the physically challenged are not seeking sympathy, yet it is not easy for anyone to live with any kind of disability least of all a sensitive teenager. Still this does not mean the physically challenged forever live in a cocoon. They have hopes and aspirations just like anybody else,” he says.

This made characterisation a slight challenge for Kamau. Further, his ignorance about albinism meant more research.

“I had to read on the subject and then use my imagination to write what I had to write,” he adds.

A writer can never be an objective judge of his own work. Behind even some of the most successful writers were often great editors. Good editorial support and feedback can be invaluable. One can always learn a few tricks about the craft of fiction from a good editor. With his work undergoing editorial changes, Kamau believes that it will get even better.
What tips would you like to give other writers? I ask.

“The thing is a writer is not the one who wants to write. A writer writes. One must have persistence and passion to complete a task. Nevertheless, one also needs patience. Do not rush your first draft to a publisher because that can only lead to rejection,” he advises.

Kamau thinks young writers should have friends or mentors who can comment on their work; not the kind of friend that strokes their egos by praising every word they write but a knowledgeable friend not afraid to be ruthlessly honest with them, if necessary.

“Find someone who doesn’t love you to read your manuscript. That’s the only way to get some honest feedback. Also, read, learn and write and then write some more. You will get there. Writing is a marathon,” he adds.

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