45.2 Feature: An Interview with Ndinda Kioko – 2018 BWR Fiction Contest Winner
Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker whose works have appeared on several platforms and publications including The Trans-African, BBC Radio 4, Wasafiri Magazine, Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara,and Jalada Africa. She has been awarded the Miles Morland writing scholarship, Wasafiri New Writing Prize, and the Richard & Juliette Logsdon Award for Creative Writing. She has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Oregon, and is currently an Olive B O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University where she is working on her first novel.
Interviewed by Chase Burke
Black Warrior Review: What can you tell us about Little Jamaica, the place? And can you talk a little bit about how an idea or concept of place factors into this story and your work overall?
Ndinda Kioko: Most of my characters’ worlds are modeled after the isolated small towns I grew up in where, as they say about small towns, everyone knows everyone. Different elements of Little Jamaica are borrowed from these different towns of my childhood. I was terribly homesick when I wrote this piece, so there’s that, writing the life of small towns as a way of recalling home, first, for myself, and then for my stories. In this story, place is especially important because it shapes the characters’ actions and intimacies. It’s impossible for the people of Little Jamaica to escape one another. If food burns in someone’s kitchen, you’ll hear about it in the market the next day. There’s an intimacy about it, but there’s also a little bit of terror in this closeness.
BWR: Not only are you a writer, but you are a filmmaker, with a number of credits to your name. How does your work within these different mediums inform your creative life? A more pointed question might be, Can you talk about how the work of filmmaking, be it writing or production, informs your work as a writer of fiction?
ND: When my friends and I started a small production company in Nairobi, I doubled up as a scriptwriter and a production manager. I had written for TV before, but I didn’t have much experience running a production company. So we were learning on the job. The writing sessions for our first TV show strengthened my sense of dialogue and subtext. I’m teaching Creative Writing now, and I’m always going back to some of my favorite TV shows and movies to teach dialogue and subtext. The management part of production forced me to think about the boring stuff, like the cost of an episode. For example, if a scene could be shot in the bedroom, there was no need writing it as a bar scene, because that meant more extras, which meant more money, which we didn’t have. We were pretty broke. In the last two years, I’ve been working mostly on fiction, and that producer voice still follows me. I think about economy a lot, in terms of language, characters, setting, etc. Does this scene have to be this long? Can I just hit it and go? Can the room be less crowded? This is probably why I avoid party scenes or only include them when it’s absolutely necessary. I just don’t know how to manage that level of chaos. Working in film has also taught me to pay attention to how my characters interact with their spaces and how that might deepen the reader’s understanding of them.
BWR: I’m struck by aspects of the POV in “Little Jamaica,” the multiplicity that it at times implies. There is, to some degree, an omniscient quality to the first-person plural, which brings to mind the observational eye of film. Yet inside the “we” there is an “I” that is telling the story. What led you to this voice, these voices, for this story?
ND: Originally, this story was in the third person plural. I didn’t like it. There was too much judgment on the people of Little Jamaica. Some god-like me sat up there saying, look at these guys! How lazy, how ridiculous their gossip-filled afternoons! I didn’t feel like I was complicating their relationships enough in that effaced point of view. My thesis adviser, Marjorie Celona, suggested the first person plural. It felt more intimate. More appropriate. There’s also something about the people in this small town owning their bullshit, the many ways they fail each other. The“we” still felt a little flat, distant and to be quite honest, exhausting. Some of my favorite writers manage to make the collective “we” work for the length of a book. Others like Justin Torres pull away from it and zoom into one character. I needed a choirmaster, someone to punctuate all this sing-songeyness, hence the first person. There’s also something about Priscilla being too alienated that made me sad. Yes, I get pretty emotional about my characters. I wanted her to have a person, no matter how unfulfilling their brief friendship. Eventually, the first person opened up an opportunity for a deeper exploration of the dynamics between Priscilla and the people of Little Jamaica, a deeper engagement with the question of private and collective grief, and perhaps look closely and kindly at Priscilla, away from the multitude.
BWR: You blend reality with fiction here. The Westgate mall attack that features in the story was a real event in Nairobi. But this story’s “event” is presented (at least at first) as impossible: the seeming return of someone killed in that real-life tragedy. What do you find that the “blending,” so to speak, of reality with this kind of implied impossibility — the dead returned to life! — allows you? I guess my question is this: You have purposefully anchored a story that invites fabulist interpretations in an incredibly specific, traumatic event, one with distinct socio-political ramifications. Why?
ND: I always have a hard time separating these two: fabulism and realism. There’s so much wonderful and terrifying strangeness in the world. I mean, who knows what’s possible? Who knows the limits of this thing people call realism? Consider this: at my cousin’s traditional wedding, I was rushing to greet my grandmother whom I hadn’t seen in months. I remember extending my hand and waiting for hers to meet mine, and she just up and died. For weeks, I wondered if I’d killed her. Of course, she’d been unwell, but my goodness, this world is a strange place. I want my fiction to reflect this strangeness. I read a story once in a Kenyan newspaper about a man who for a long time, was believed dead and buried. Dude just showed up on a random afternoon months after they’d mourned and buried him (they’d buried the wrong body). A few years ago, the newspapers in Kenya ran a story about some Jesus Christ guy who was seen walking barefoot on Moi Avenue in Nairobi, taking selfies with fans. Of course, he was just some random guy. Whether these things are believed true or not, they are sort of embedded into the daily-ness, parts of the texture of daily life. I guess as a writer I’m also thinking of my role in keeping the memory of this real traumatic event alive. There’s a lot of secrecy surrounding the Westgate Mall attack. Even now, I’m not sure what really happened. There has been a lot of fictionalizing from the government and from the media. The mall has since reopened, and it’s as shiny as ever. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor has this wonderful sentence in her novel, Dust. She writes: Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also Memory. This sentence haunts me.
BWR: Reading this story made me think of “multiplicity” in a number of ways, not only in the voice/POV, but also in the action of the story. Priscilla is both alive and dead, both survivor and transformed ghost. (Multiplicity is maybe not the best word for this?) The lines are blurry — you are asking us to hold various realities, various truths, in our minds at once. A lot of that comes down to perspective, of course — what seems real to one person or a character might not appear so to another. Can you talk about that a little bit, and maybe how you view fiction’s role in making us (readers) consider, or reconsider, possibility?
ND: That’s how we are as human beings though, right? We are a mess of contradictions. We are neither this nor that. We hold many truths. So many versions of ourselves at any particular moment. I think it’s Walt Whitman who says “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He probably meant something else, but he’ll have to bend to my meaning here. He can’t hear us. O grass of graves. When writing about a place, or about people, I’m interested in reflecting this kind of complication, and responsibly so. I also really like the idea of fiction providing more than one experience to readers. A Kenyan, for example, might read this story and have a different experience from say, Greg in Maine. Which is not to say that one experience is truer than the other. They are all a reader’s experience. As you mentioned earlier, to some, the story invites fabulist interpretations, and that’s great!
BWR: What do you want this story to tell us about grief? What about death?
ND: I was asking questions about how we experience grief privately and collectively. How we perform grief. How other people’s grief becomes our own for one reason or the other. For a long time, I couldn’t mourn my mother, and I found it easier to consume other people’s grief. It just seemed easier. I was also ruminating about death, specifically in Kenya given the increasing cases of femicide: how the dead woman disappears, remains unnamed, and the events surrounding their death are turned into spectacles. If she was last seen with a man, it is not her death that seems to interest the media, but the fact that she was with the man. And who was this man? The man is eulogized. His death is the death that’s investigated. The woman becomes nothing but a footnote.
BWR: Finally, what is next for you, Ndinda Kioko, writer? What are you reading? What are you working on?
ND: Right now, I’m surviving the winter in Hamilton New York, completing a teaching and writing fellowship at Colgate University, and working on a novel. When people ask me what it’s about, I say it’s about sex, death, and women. Who knows what it’s about? My reading has been a bit of a mess lately. Each writing day, I crave something different. So I’m reading many books at the same time. I’m obsessed with Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I feel so lucky to have this book accompanying me as I write my first. I’ve also been rereading Toni Morrison’s works. On my bedside table, I have Carol Maso’s essays on Language, Longing and Moments of Desire and Emmanuel Iduma’s brilliant travelogue, A Stranger’s Pose. I just bought Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s new book, The Dragonfly Sea. I tremble when I think about what it might do to me.