I live and work in Nairobi, Kenya. I enjoy writing stories centered around sexuality and culture. In 2019, I was longlisted for Writivism Short Story Prize, and won Afreada Contest. I was nominated for Kenya’s Annual Sondeka Short Story Prize in 2020. My short stories appear in Digital Bedbugs Anthology (2020), Equipoise Anthology (2021), The Offing, Kikwetu Journal and Kalahari Review. Gladwell blogs at chingano.com.
You will die of a heart attack, should you regard writing like a true love, even though you know you cannot compartmentalize feelings. When you are a jobless Nairobian, squatting at a friend’s house in Zimmerman Estate and writing sounds like a plan out of your misery, don’t fall for it. Writing is unrequited love and will leave you damaged. You must follow this script to survive this craft. Surely, we don’t want you published posthumously because of little misdirection or misunderstandings :
Nkem, immerse your head in twitter and drown in calls for writers’ seminars happening out of Africa. Pore over them. Smile as you read. They want you to apply for the week-long seminars where you’ll get to meet book agents and publishers. Don’t dance yet when they say there is no application fee. Chew the instructions until you get to the bottom. Dab away your disappointment because you are ineligible: they’re interested in writers living in the UK, USA and Canada. Smile, child of Africa. Don’t feel awful; visa is expensive anyway and do you even have that money to waste? Maybe the plane would have crashed in the Atlantic Ocean because the village witch is not sleeping o. Plus, you are going to pay for an air ticket that is equivalent to buying land. Chineke! Are you even serious with your life?
Mutesesira, apply for the writing prizes and leading magazines in the world, even when the chances of their acceptance are thinner than an eye’s blink. Find those based abroad and not those lazy magazines with basic names and whose address is at gmail dot com. Refuse please. Nibble at the magazines that end with ‘Review’ like Chicago Review or Black Warrior Review. Smile through the straight-forward instructions because the theme about family cannot defeat you - your father has three wives and fourteen children. If there is a submission fee, swallow the painful lump and pay, which means you won’t be able to buy airtime for the next month. You won’t die, banange. When you sit to write the stories, remember there are specific things they want to read: girls suffering in the hands of Boko Haram; women refugees in Kakuma; the street kids walking half-naked; savages robbing graves; rebels eating humans in Congo Forest; FGM in Northern Uganda; child marriages. Your story about a happy child in Kampala watching telly downstairs as the maid walks around in a uniform is not palatable. Were you thinking of writing about your character vacationing around the Table Mountains in S.A? Ah. Your head is full of cow dung, no doubt. That story will not make it past stage one because in Africa, we don’t have televisions or own brick houses. Even submittable will roll its eyes at you. Let not post-election violence escape your mind or the interethnic and interreligious conflicts. If your narrator is the villain, the higher the stakes for you. Do not burden those majuu people with close-knit families supporting each other because their minds cannot digest this. Under no circumstance, should you talk about a conflicted girl who is in love with Jackson from three blocks away, because that is a stupid idea. Remind your thick skull, that it is same-sex love stories they want to read at this point. I don’t like how you are looking at me, as if what I am saying is madness. I have lived long enough.
Sesay, remember to attend all the writers’ conferences in the capital city, not just for the samosas and cocktails and chicken lollipops, but to look at published authors with a knowing smile. They will say, oh yeah, we met in London last summer? Look them in the eye and feign accomplishment before they swath you away with your shaky esteem. Pour out praises about their brilliant sentences and plot. Marvel at how good their text on futuristic Africa was appalling even though your brain shuts off anything science fiction. Nod. Point out their fluid storytelling skills; tell them they are geniuses. The temptation to tell them you are writing a book based on this and that will start poking from a distance; kill it before it blows up chances of the author liking you and agreeing to write a blurb in your book in the year 3001 when you finally publish. This is what they call networking, apparently. Smile until your jaws hurt.
Lulu, now that you’ve finally written the stories, send out your best to those places. I hope you read the instructions well-well when they said they are not looking for stories about rape or unnecessary violence; even though you are having a hard time deciphering what ‘unnecessary’ means because your second name is violence. Refuse to be lured to submit the story you wrote crying, recalling that night when you were gang-raped. No, the magazine does not want that nonsense because it reminds them of something. Send out the stories to different places after you have slaughtered a fowl for the gods of literature. Don’t tell a soul you’ve submitted for this or that because embarrassment is loud like a trumpet when you’ll get a rejection.
Deng, when you press submit, spring from your desk and carry on with life because the world goes on. Just after submitting, you’ll see a typo. Sit back down and hydrate before your skin starts flaking off. Go and rear chicken or plant potatoes or coffee or cashew nuts because at least, your efforts will unfold before your own eyes and you’ll get money, unlike the stories which you’ll wait and wait and nothing. No money, no acknowledgement, no exposure. Dust yourself up and play with your chicken and observe how they run, perhaps you will get new ideas for the next stories. Write even when the number of rejections is bigger than hospital bills. Small small rejections and you want to cry, when you survived crossing The Nile all your childhood, and even one time, your friends pulled you out of a crocodile’s mouth? Emerge from these threats.
Khumalo, get a job, for heaven’s sake, so that when people ask, what do you do for a living, you will answer with a strong voice, I am a teacher, a waitress, a farmer, a doctor. Not even at gunpoint, should you say you are a writer, because they will ask, wow, so you’ve published a book? Ehe, what will you answer? Do not carry the name writer with you unless you are Chimamanda Ngozi or Aminatta Forna or Zukiswa Wanner or Taban Lo Liyong or David Rubadiri or any of those authors whose books were published abroad; local publication, is that even publishing wena? Did you say you publish in your blog so you are a published author? Shut your big mouth. You are embarrassing our ancestors.
Moumou, when you enroll in a writing masterclass, discard all the things you learnt in school as the teacher walked around the class with a cane because you didn’t remember the simile for ‘as happy as a king’. In the masterclass, you will be told, less is more. Cut off funeral scenes. Cut off adverbs. Cut off dialogue unless it is relevant, unless it is contributing to the plot or is a sub-plot. They will illustrate this with Ernest Hemingway’s work, White Like Elephant Hills. They will drum to you about showing and telling; that showing is better. They will tell you about character interiority; they like internal conflicts and complex characters. But they will not remember that Africans don’t allow anxiety when it comes to love and cannot sit and ask themselves questions. Instead, they will match to the person disturbing their heart and ask, do you love me or not? We can’t live guessing when we will sleep hungry and then guess if we are loved or not. We are not afraid of rejection because our hearts are hardened pots. The masterclass will make you think that humans on pages are robots. It will make you feel like shit when your work is critiqued because those people will tell you: something is not working in this story; the plot is not realistic; the character’s motive is not powerful enough.
Préfradet, for the love of God, read books. Cannibalize on anything readable. Eat books. Sleep books. If you feel rich enough, pay subscriptions for those sites that charge a fee. Don’t be that fool who says they love writing but not reading. Eh, so you don’t want to read other people’s books, but you want them to read yours? May lightning visit you when the sun is high up in the sky and strip you naked before your crush. Have you not heard from Lisa See? Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.
Pauline, don’t be a fwaa fwaa writer. Looks are within your reach unlike acceptances for the stories that you have no direct control over. Wear your hair in dreadlocks or rugged and attach a cowrie shell. If you can’t, shave in a dramatic way, like Jordan or punk or dye your hair with a color people cannot forget. Red. Purple. Yellow. Green. Even when you’ll look like a walking tree or as though you are carrying fire on your head, ignore the stares and carry your head with importance as if it is Chinua Achebe’s. If anyone makes fun of you, convert them into characters in your book and kill them. If hair is not your cup of coffee, explore other body parts to prove you are a creative. Pierce six holes in your ears and fill them with studs and protuberance of the map of Africa, a pot or a fly whisk. Pierce your nose to intensify your artistry; it is the epitome of serious writers. Pierce your belly button. Pierce your tongue or your eyelids or the side of your mouth. Have a ginormous tattoo from your neck; let it crawl into your back or inscribe it on the arm, wrist, ankle, finger. If you are too lazy, throw in goggles and the eighties look. You must stand out.
Tewodros, when the ghosts of suicide wave at you at night through your window as you sit behind your computer, close the curtains. Blast music. Eat. Close your eyes and ears to the voices luring you to reach the razor and slit your wrist, to jump off the balcony, to swallow the pills, to drown. No, there is no meaning in death; there is meaning in life. Imagine leaving behind the fresh breath to remain suffocated under the earth’s belly. Imagine the music, the food, the beautiful people coloring the world. Refuse to throw all these away. Imagine being published posthumously and you can’t receive an award. Imagine being forgotten. How tragic! Refuse to float out of life like a particle.
Mungwasingizwe, when talking to other creatives, you will realize there are topics that are dangerous to touch on because somehow, someone will be offended. You will see so many tags. It is important I remind you to speak your mind. Do not play safe or you will lose yourself trying to impress the whole world. You will joke about meat, the non-vegans will be offended, about lettuce, and the vegans will say you have no right to talk about lettuce. You will talk about how as kids, you went into the forest to lumber, the conservationists will want you dead. You will talk about cremation; the traditionalists will want you dead. You will realize everything offends. Just remember, however, you don’t have answers to everything and the world does not owe you any explanation.
Jean-Batiste, on that chart or vision board in your room, describe yourself as a budding writer or an emerging writer with cutting-edge narration. Fill it with affirmatives. Imagine yourself as the winner of the Man Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Pulitzer Prize, and Nobel Prize for Literature. For more believability, write a three-hundred-word document about you, as the winner in year X. Quote long dead authors in your acceptance speech, make it as natural as breathing. Close your eyes and see yourself on the podium, accepting the prize. Laugh until you cry. Sleep smiling. Wake up in the middle of the night, sweating with joy because of the dream that was so vivid. Let that voice ravaging your creativity lie next to you until it tires and leaves. Attack the pen and let it bleed away in the pages. Release the constipation. Finish that novel; don’t just dream.
Hayat, when your novel is ready, start spamming book agents who represent your genre. Query them. From here, I advise you to carry on with your life, after sending out to hundreds of agents based in USA, Canada, UK and Australia. Go marry or get married. Birth six children. Don’t check the email yet. Let your children go to school. Watch the sun rise and dip every day. Watch the days fold away and emerge again. Watch governments exchange hands. It is important to remind you not to check your email yet. Retire. Get frail and have crow feet. Cling on the rope separating life and death and beg your great great grandchild to now check your email. There will be no mails from the agents. Die in peace. Life is that way.
Asma, when your guardian angel finally remembers you and your manuscript lands in the right hands, cry child. Cry for all your types out there in pitch darkness and raging seas, whose books and stories will never see the light. Shout until your voice is hoarse. Wipe the snort and get to editing the book as the editor suggests. Edit until your fingers go sore and your buttocks flatten. Edit until the final book in your hand is not what you started with. Kill the darlings even when they hug and lure you. Listen to your editor even when you want to put their head in a mincer and mince them away. And when they are finally happy with the changes and you write the dedication, please, don’t say cryptic or abstract things as if you are Shakespeare.
Write your dedication this way:
This book is dedicated to all writers out there, trembling behind screens, wiping tears, questioning their skill. Your story is valid. All you need is conviction. May your stars align.