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How poet's dream of being published abroad came true

  Moraa with a copy of one of her poetry books. [Courtesy]

Scholastica Moraa could not hide her joy when she received information  that the Italian translation of her poetry collection, Sometimes Love Lives Here, will be coming out in June.

“This publication is done in Italy but I’m definitely going to order some copies so I can put them on my bookshelf and cry,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “I’m lying. I will order so that I can see and believe like the Thomas I am. It still feels like a dream.”

The deal to publish her book in Italy was struck last September at the Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF), organised by the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA).

Though she is a published poet and an award-winning short story writer, Moraa had never attended the NIBF until last year. The 2023 NIBF edition was different. For the first time, there was a special pavilion dedicated to rights trading. It was the brainchild of eKitabu, KPA and the African Publishers Network.

“Being my first time at the NIBF, my sights were firmly set on the discounted books,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised when I bumped into the Rights Café at the eKitabu pavilion.” She says she was hesitant, at first, because the catalogue did not indicate any agent who dealt with poetry.

There was also the fact that she thought that only ‘serious’ writers were holding talks with the foreign agents. “I leafed through the catalogue and was instantly drawn to the profile of Valeria Paolini, an agent from Italy. It indicated that, among others, she dealt with women issues,” adds Moraa.

Since women issues form part of her forte, she was encouraged to sit down with Valeria. In the course of their conversation, Moraa mentioned that apart from being a short story writer, she is also into poetry. “The moment I mentioned poetry, Valeria’s eyes lit up and she told me how much she loved poetry,” says Moraa.

Valeria disclosed that she knew a publisher in Italy, who would be interested in working with Kenyan poets. “Since there was a long queue of writers seeking to see the agents, our conversation did not last long,” she says adding that before leaving, she exchanged contacts and gifts with the agent.

“She gave me a pencil and I gave her one of my poetry books,” she recalls with a shy smile. 

Three weeks later, Moraa reached out to Valeria on email and was surprised that the Italian remembered her. “She gave me an email address, where she asked me to send PDFs of my work, which I did,” she recounts.

In January, Valeria emailed back with good news. The publisher she had told Moraa about (Nonsolopoesie Edizioni) had loved her poems and would like to publish them, both in English and Italian. The publisher later sent her contracts for two books, Sometimes Love Lives Here and Beautiful Mess.

Looking back, Moraa was pleasantly surprised that her conversation with Valeria, at the Rights Café went so well. “She was very kind,” she says of Valeria. “Once we started talking about poetry, the conversation flowed easily. To be honest, when going into the Rights Cafe, I didn’t expect it to bear any fruit.”

What is her reaction to the positive response from the Italian publishers?

“Excited is an understatement,” she told Maisha Yetu. “It was the most unexpected good news I’ve ever received in my life. Meeting her was kind of fishing in a place where no one has ever fished before and your hook catches a fish.”

When she received the contracts, Moraa, who turned 27 in April, says she got so excited she could not sleep that night. “I kept reading the contract again and again. I kept going through my poems trying to confirm if they are indeed mine or if by any chance I sent someone else’s poetry,” she says.

Clearly, this publishing deal means a lot to her, considering she has self-published all her poetry books. Getting a European publisher who is interested in her poetry is a big deal. “All publishers I’ve tried in Kenya frown when I mention poetry. They advise me to try writing novels instead. I also feel that this is an affirmation for poets that their work matters,” adds Moraa. 

Valeria, who has translated Moraa’s book is quite impressed with her work. “Her poetry is exquisitely personal: her first collection, Beautiful Mess, reminded me of pop music a little bit, as it could have easily had me singing along as I read,” she wrote in an email response. “That’s what I love about poetry in the first place: even more than prose, it lends itself to countless interpretations.”

“I cannot wait to share her voice with my corner of the world. I’m certain Italy will fall in love with her just like Kenya did,” added Valeria.

She described her experience at the NIBF, including the hospitality, as amazing. “Meeting with publishers, authors, and fellow agents gave me a chance to broaden my horizons and discover stories I’d never otherwise have come into contact with,” she explained.

In 2022, Moraa won the Kendeka Prize for African Literature with her short story; Chained. This is the haunting tale of a 22-year-old girl, bleeding in the bathroom, staring at imminent death after procuring an abortion.

Moraa is an Actuarial Science graduate from Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology with a number of poetry publications to her name. Beautiful Mess, her first book was published in June 2022.

It was shortly followed by Dreams and Demons, co-authored alongside Anyango Nyar Aketch, Emily Millern and Winnie Madoro, which was published towards the end of 2022.

Her latest book, This Heart of Mine, which she co-authored with Betty Kilonzo, came out in July last year. All these books are self-published. Self-publishing, she explains, is easier and faster. “Most publishers only accept novels and I’m not writing those yet,” she says.

Her dogged determination to become a writer of note is influenced by many things. “Most importantly, I want my daughter to look up to me and say... ‘my mother didn’t give up. She kept going on regardless. So I can’t too.’ But I also want young mothers out there to know they are not limited,” says Moraa, who recently finished her Masters in Strategic Management degree at Mount Kenya University.

The writer is the curator of Maisha Yetu, an online media platform for books and the Arts.

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