Author Spotlight: Alexander Nderitu

“I started self-publishing because I was young and ambitious and I knew that traditional publishers would not be able to keep up with my pace.”

Alexander Nderitu, like most writers, wants to be remembered for having made a major contribution to literature and with several of his works published abroad and his contribution towards the birth of Turkana’s first Creative Writers’ Association, in partnership with the Turkana County Government, he is certainly on his way.

In this interview, he speaks about his current and fourth stage play The Talking of Trees, a theatrical biography on Professor Wangari Maathai, the work that went into creating it and how he went from being the E-book guy to printing and publishing his books for home libraries across the country.

In your 2014 research paper, you wrote, “I just want to be remembered as one who made a major contribution to literature,” do you feel you have moved toward your goal since 2014?

Certainly. To name a few things, some of my writings have been published abroad, appearing in such publications as The One Million Project: Thriller Anthology, the World Poetry Yearbook, and the World Poetry Almanac. In 2017, Business Daily newspaper named me one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’. In 2019, my script for Hannah and the Angel was a finalist in the ASSITEJ SA Playwriting Contest.  In 2020,  I was shortlisted for the Collins Elesiro Literature Prize. I also landed a New York-based literary agent.

One of the achievements I am most proud of was facilitating the birth of Turkana’s first Creative Writers’ Association, in partnership with the Turkana County Govt. The intellectuals, artists and writers I co-trained are already producing works that document and celebrate their indigenous culture.

Self-publishing can sometimes feel like screaming into the void, why did you decide to pursue self-publishing? 

I started by self-publishing online.  My novel When the Whirlwind Passes was Africa’s first digital novel. I was young and ambitious and I knew that traditional publishers would not be able to keep up with my pace, and in any case, they’re mostly interested in curriculum material. After several years of being ‘the e-book guy’, Kenyans made me go into print publishing by repeatedly asking if I had books that they could hold and place in home libraries. I also noticed that while other authors and publishers could display their books at festivals and book launches, a digital author like me was hard-pressed to market his work offline. 

What does success mean to you and what is your secret sauce when it comes to self-publishing?

I think you’re successful when you attain a goal you set for yourself, or when you’re happy. If you’re the kind of person that earns a good salary but you hate your job, your life and the people around you, I don’t think you’re successful because you are not happy. We’ve all heard of well-off people who committed suicide or have turned to drugs and alcohol. Money is essential but to me, it’s not the only measure of success.

As for self-publishing, I think I am a fairly good marketer. I am also well known in the literary community, so that helps me push my paperbacks.

Nderitu at the 2021 NYrobi Book Fest

“I also like to document the times we are living in so that if somebody reads my stories fifty years from now, they will not just be entertained but will also learn about some true-life events.”

What has been the biggest asset for you in terms of making your mark and for marketing?

Tenacity. I don’t give up easily. If I have a goal, I will do everything I can to achieve it. Artists, and especially poets, are often thought of as dreamers, as opposed to realists. I would rather try and fail at achieving a lofty dream than not try and always wonder what could have been.

Marketing is a skill I learnt along the way, out of necessity. Most writers are lousy marketers. They usually focus on their craft but ignore the other aspects of the book business, including marketing and distribution. I once met a university lecturer who had a 300-page semi-autobiographical novel but not even her fellow faculty members had ever seen it! It’s a jungle out there for scribes, especially the self-published. One has to learn to market and sell their own books. Let no one lie to you that it’s easy. The new crop of Kenyan writers, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, are very adept at utilizing social media. Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are some of the best tools one can use for promotion. We also have a few independent physical and online stores that are doing a good job of connecting readers with books. Nuria Bookstore is a case in point.

What constitutes a great story for you?

When it moves me, educates me, or does both. A good example is The Word by Irving Wallace. It’s a thriller novel that shows how people can forge historical documents and fool even the world’s top experts. The same goes for movies and TV series. I like a show that teaches me something. For example, if I am watching a show about country music stars, I want to learn something new about the country music business. Or if I am watching a series set in Victorian England, I want to come away having learnt something about that time period.

In my own works, I try to include as many parcels of knowledge as I can, gleaned from research or introspection. I also like to document the times we are living in, so that if somebody reads my stories fifty years from now, they will not just be entertained but will also learn about some true-life events. So far, I have written a short story about the 1994 Rwanda Genocide which was published in the IFLAC: Anti-Terror and Peace Anthology (Israel); the 2015 Garissa College terrorist attack, which was published in the OMP: Thriller Anthology (UK); and the Westgate terrorist attack, which was published in the 2020 Ebedi Review (Nigeria).

You have a new book out, The Talking of Trees, how did the idea for this come about?

Around 2014, I wrote a paper titled Kenyan Theatre: The Good the Bad and the Ugly. In it, I wondered why we don’t have a major stage play on Prof. Wangari Maathai who is arguably the most famous woman to come out of Kenya. Around that time, a Nigerian musical on the life of Fela Kuti had made it all the way to Broadway, and South Africa had a blockbuster musical on the life of Winnie Madikezela-Mandela. In my document, I asked ‘How long will Kenyans have to wait for Wangari Maathai: The Musical?’ A local actor/producer contacted me and said, ‘You write the play, and I will produce it!’ And that’s how I came to write the play that I initially just wanted to watch. I should probably mention that I come from the same constituency as Wangari Maathai, so I already knew more about her than the average person. In fact, the Green Belt Movement was the first NGO I ever heard of as a child. She was also our MP for a while. I should probably not say this but when Prof. Maathai made her stab at the presidency in the early 1990s, some village kids laughingly asked whether her dreadlocked profile would appear on our coins!

The cover of “The Talking of Trees.”

“I wanted to create a work of entertainment but I also wanted to capture her (Maathai) essence.”

Agreed, Wangari Maathai is one of Kenya’s most revered figures. Were you nervous about how your portrayal of her might be interpreted at any moment while writing this book?

I was very concerned about her portrayal. I wanted to create a work of entertainment but I also wanted to capture her essence. I wanted the portrayal to be such that if someone who knew her watched the play, they would say, ‘Yep, that’s her alright!’ One thing that concerned me about the way she spoke was that it was often didactic, preachy. Normally, when you write a play or novel, you keep the language as colloquial as possible. Wangari Maathai was an intellectual, the first woman to earn a doctorate in East and Central Africa, an Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi, and an author. If some of the lines in the play seem a little too ‘formal’ or ‘intellectual’, then it’s not my fault! She was a real person, not a fictional character, and the playwright had no choice but to present her as she was.

How much research did you have to do for this stage play to ensure her legacy was respectfully portrayed?

I wrote this play over three years. I was interested in not just her but also the other people she interacted or tangled with. I watched countless documentaries in order to see how the real-life people of interest spoke, dressed and acted. I also read her writings. I tried interviewing people who knew her but it was an exercise in futility. You have to remember that until the Nobel Prize win, Prof. Wangari was more popular abroad than at home. Some people I interviewed felt she was overrated. Others were enmeshed with her. One theatre critic tried to convince me to cast a certain radio personality in the key role. I got tired of talking to respondents. After all, I was writing a play, not a biography. Luckily, there’s plenty of information about her in the public domain.

But talking of respect, I tried to present a balanced view of the events and characters. For instance, President Moi’s national unity efforts and conservation initiatives are also acknowledged in the book. There’s a cop character who is often harassing Wangari but at one point, he offers her a lift home. I wrote this play with no mens rea: let the viewers decide who the heroes and the villains were.

Is the book entirely based on truth or are there points where you practised creative freedom?

The Talking of Trees is a work of fiction and should be read (or watched) as such. It’s based on actual happenings but that’s where reality ends and imagination begins. For example, when Wangari was protesting the proposed commercial development of Uhuru Park, she wrote a letter to the then-president, H.E. Daniel Arap Moi. In my play, I imagine what the contents were, based on her stance on the project and her level of education. But we don’t have the actual letter. Also, there are some obviously made-up characters, such as Bwana Pesa and Bwana Fisi, who represent capitalistic greed and corrupt politics respectively. Even death appears as a character, called the Grim Reaper, and cracks some jokes! Do you remember when the Redykylus comedy trio used to perform skits of Moi and his bodyguard dancing? In this play, Moi performs a rap song while his enthusiastic bodyguard delivers the chorus. The rap song, titled ‘”M-O-1″ was partly inspired by a viral clip of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni rapping for the youth.

Alex Nderitu speaking at USIU’s inaugural Library week

“The Talking of Trees was begging to be written. There have been some plays and books on Wangari but nothing befitting her stature, as far as I know.”

What are some of the key moments from her life that you highlight in the stage play?

The Kennedy Airlifts, the founding of The Green Belt Movement, fighting the construction of the ‘Uhuru Park Monster’, the Release Political Prisoners pressure group, the fight for Karura Forest, winning of many awards culminating in the Nobel Prize for Peace, her death and legacy.

How does writing a stage play differ from how you would write a novel or a collection of poems?

When one writes a play, one does so with the picture of a physical stage in one’s brain. The entries and exits of the characters are essential. The placement of props and position of actors at any given time is also key: are they at Stage Right, Stage Left, Centre Stage, Upstage or Downstage? You must also consider the practicalities. For example, if in one scene a female character is at a dinner party and in the next she’s at home in pyjamas, you need to create enough time for the actress to remove make-up and change clothes. When one is writing prose or poetry, there are no such considerations. If, for example, you’re describing a businessman in a bank negotiating a loan, you need to describe the environment and the characters (because the reader is not in your head) and use ‘situational language’ – principal, interest, long-term, short-term, stuff like that. But you don’t have to worry about what happens in the next scene. It could be the same businessman on a plane, or having a meal in a restaurant, or in a love scene, or on the beach in swimming trunks, or whatever.

Do you agree with the statement, “you have to write a book that wants to be written”? Why?

I’ll say yes because a play like The Talking of Trees was begging to be written. There have been some plays and books on Wangari but nothing befitting her stature, as far as I know. And I am glad I wrote it because if I didn’t, it would probably have been written by some foreigner. There’s already a beautiful song and video about her by a musician who seems Spanish. No doubt, in the future there will be movies and TV shows about her. I am just glad that I wrote the first major play about a true-life heroine. In other words, I prefer it when Africans tell their own stories.

Quickfire

If you were a food what would you be?
Pilau.
What books/Shows/Movies are you currently watching?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (a play) and The Crown (TV series).
What’s your favourite destination?
The East African coastline.
If you were a song which one would you be?
You Can’t Hold Me Down by Us3.

You can buy Alexander Nderitu’s The Talking of Trees here or visit his website here for more information.

  

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