Wanjiku Kimani and Empress Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki opens up her world to Silas Nyamweya.
How would you describe yourself? Never takes life too seriously, lives for the moment, doesn’t live by societal rules, laughs loudly, loyal, a dare-devil and tries not to worry about things that may, or not, happen in the future. A mountaineer, because there is nothing as liberating as conquering great heights. The ascents remind me of life, and whenever I summit, I am ready to summit life in general.
Briefly tell us about your writing journey. Accidental, and sort of caught me by surprise. I did, however, ‘publish’ two novels while in secondary school, hand-written, and I think the whole school queued to read them. Then I forgot about writing for a long time until I moved to London, and one Topi Lyambila asked me to do something for a website he was running. I cannot even remember how the conversation started. Then I got a little depressed by London, and a friend asked me to pen down my thoughts on stuff I missed about Nairobi. Those thoughts became my first novel, Nairobi Cocktail.
Did you always want to be a writer? No. I never really was focused on being anything. I just wanted a soft life.
What was the ‘aha’ moment for you, when you realized that you wanted to pursue writing as a career? When I got a weekly column in the Nation Newspaper, The Dalliance Diary. It ran for seven years.
What do you write about, and what is the genre? Romance fiction, but I prefer exciting characters that depict THE real life, so I focus on the so-called delinquents, the pariahs.
Tell us a bit about your column ‘The Villager’…I was born and bred in the village. I left when I started working, travelled the world, and then moved back to the village, because it is authentic and peaceful. Even the annoying village people are authentic. It is that genuineness I try to capture.
You are often seen wearing Rasta colours, plus you have dreadlocks. Tell us a bit about your love for Rastafari culture and what influence it has on your writing. Are you a Rastafarian? Is there a connection? I locked my hair about 24 years ago. It was a fashion statement back then. Along the way, in search of myself and questioning faith and religion, I started looking around for something that I felt deeply, because it sure was not the faith I was born in. Rastafarianism won by miles, because as far as religions go, it is the most peaceful, though most misunderstood. A true Rasta will always choose peace, choose to spread love, not division, choose to find good in everyone. However, during the same search, I delved into, for lack of better description, religion of our ancestors. Now, I pray facing Mount Kenya, but Rastafarianism is my lifestyle. The two are a perfect blend. It affects my writing because I believe it is the reason I choose the ‘untouchables’ as the focus characters. Everybody has a chance for redemption, deserves to be heard, and my books give them these chances. The only people I will not try to sanitise are rapists and molesters.
Awards/recognitions/nominations if any… None, and I blame my laziness to pursue any. If I never get any, I will not lose sleep, or think less of my prowess.
Where do you get your inspiration from? I am very observant, a good listener and I eavesdrop a lot, and I also over-think stuff.
Who are your favourite authors, and authors you look up to (local and international)? I couldn’t pick one if I tried. I have read too many books and too many awesome authors to pick. If however, a gun was held to my head, I would choose Nducu wa Ngugi, one of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s sons. Internationally, Ayn Rand.
Best book you have ever read…Ayn Rand’s Fountain Head. A mix of simplified philosophy and pure entertainment.
Best book you have written and why…That’s like asking me to pick my favourite child.
Do you have a mentor in the writing field? Who, and why did you settle on him/her? None. I tend to pick different things from different writers.
One African author you would love to meet, why, and what will you tell them if you do meet? Ugandan Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I would hug and tell her, you rock, girl!
How many books have you published so far? Kindly list/share their titles. Nairobi Cocktail, Immigrant Cocktail, A Cocktail from the Savannah, A Cocktail of Unlikely Tales. That they all have the word cocktail is part of branding, now I am known as the Cocktail Empress in many circles. Also, I have multiple main characters, and finally, life is a component of different emotions, characters, experiences – a cocktail.
How many books have you sold so far? Many, but not nearly as many as I would like to sell.
What has been the reception for your books in the market? Not disappointing, but I am waiting for the tipping point for the millions to pour in.
Tell us a bit about your latest book and what inspired it. A Cocktail of Unlikely Tales is different from the other three books, because it is a collection of a novellas. During corona, a group of authors, I included, thought of doing a joined project, and we were to each give three short stories. The project was a nonstarter, and I was left with three stories I did not know what to do with. I decided on a solo-project, and wrote five more stories. All have corona reference, but they are not morbid. It a bit like archiving the confusion corona meted on us, how we started responding to situations differently, because we did not feel so immortal anymore. They are love stories, and as expected, the characters are not your squeaky clean type.
How do you deal with writer’s block? I take long walks, or enter a matatu. It always works.
What challenges are you facing personally as a Kenyan writer? Since I published my first book in 2014, a lot has changed for the better. I do not have much to complain about, but I wish people would buy more fiction that self-help books. This is a biased point, of course, because I do not read self-help books that do anything but help. Also I want to sell more books, and I wish people could discover the joy of escaping in a fiction story.
What is the biggest challenge facing Kenyan writers currently? Distribution logistics, especially because there are more self-published authors than ever before.
If you had the power to do three things for Kenyan authors, what would they be? Put their work on the international map like Ugandans, South Africans and Nigerians, teach them to have no shame in marketing, teach them to have one another’s backs.
What future plans do you have for your writing career? Quite simple, actually. Write more, sell more – enough to give me my chosen type of soft life.
How do you ensure work/life balance? That I work from home makes it a little easier for me. I do not have a schedule, I just follow my mood, but of course, when I have commissioned work, I put away my own. Also, I fear burn out, so if I feel like it’s getting too much, I stop press!
Delve a bit into your love and family life… I am married, and happy – onto our 15th year. I love being married, but that is perhaps because I am married to a friend who gets me, doesn’t try to change me, who supports rather than curtails, and is not threatened by my achievements. We have two girls, 14 and 12.
Where can we get your books? Available from me through Facebook, Empress Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki, or through Nuria on Moi Avenue, The Bazaar, 11th floor, Suite 1105.
If not an author you would be...A divorced drifter
Your pet peeve...Between the drivers who step on the gas pedal when you try to overtake them, and pessimists/complainers, I don’t know which one to pick. Equally annoying.
When in doubt you...sleep, whatever time of day.
Favourite Nairobi restaurant...None. I hate the city
You never leave home without...my lip gloss
Your go-to person for advice…depends on the issue. Different people for different seasons
Your most prized possession...my hiking boots
Song that is always on your playlist...Can I say artist? Bob Marley
Words you live by...Own today and live it well. Tomorrow is not yours
Message to our readers…Please buy and read my books, I need to fund my soft life. Plus, they are totally worth your money.