“There is a difference between thinking about things and seeing them written out on paper. That is the power of writing.”
Wanjiru Koinange is probably best known for her debut novel The Havoc of Choice. Originally published in 2019, the book is set during the post-election violence of 2007 and paints a vivid picture of a family journeying through a politically fractured country.
Beyond being an author, Wanjiru is also a great advocate for libraries and as a co-founder of Book Bunk, she has restored some of Kenya’s most iconic libraries including the MacMillan Memorial Library, The Makadara Eastlands Library and the Kaloleni Library.
In this interview, she talks about the just concluded NBO LitFest, a festival hosted by Book Bunk, research as it pertains to writing fiction and details about when to submit manuscripts to Book Bunk.
NB: This interview was conducted prior to the NBO LitFest but in case you missed it, you can still watch the discussions and performances on their YouTube and Facebook channels.
“NBO LitFest is a celebration of African cities.”
Just to start us off, tell us very briefly about the NBO Litfest?
NBO Lit Fest is a festival that is hosted by Book Bunk Trust where I am co-founder alongside Angela Wacuka. The festival is a celebration of our city. It celebrates writings that have come from the city. It is also a moment to celebrate the 90th birthday of the MacMillan Memorial libraries. Having just completed the restoration of the Kaloleni and Makadara branches we thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the 3rd branch as we embark on its restoration.
What would be a primary pleasure for anyone intending to watch the NBO LitFest?
Tune in for some thoughtful, considerate and deliberate conversations about our city. Stories inspired by Nairobi, written in Nairobi, about Nairobi, by Nairobians and people across the continent writing about their cities. We will have people like Lauren Beukes from South Africa who has been renowned for writing incredible crime fiction within SA and the US as well. Rémy Ngamije whose beautiful book Eternal Audience of One takes us through Nairobi, Windhoek and Capetown. It will be a celebration of African cities.
Obviously, COVID-19 has changed many things but did you face any hurdles while organising this event for a virtual audience?
Yes, COVID has been a major barrier because when we planned to have the festival it was not in anyone’s realm of reality. In our hearts of hearts, we wanted it to be a physical festival in the libraries but of course, we cannot do that now because it would limit the number of people who could attend. A virtual event will reach more people. We are certain that in a few years we want to have a wonderful festival in Nairobi.
“It was very important for us…to put money in artists’ pockets.”
How does planning a virtual event differ from planning a live one?
There is no difference. In terms of the budgeting and the manpower required; I think it’s a mistake to think virtual events mean less because they are on Zoom.
Would you say that the mission of NBO Litfest is to provide a platform for authors both new and old? How so?
The vision of every lit (literature) festival is to showcase authors but in our case, it was very important for us that having seen what the impact of the pandemic has been on the creative industry, that we put money in artists’ pockets. So everybody who is participating in it has been paid. The work we do at BB (Book Bunk) does not only centre library work but also centres on creativity within them. One of the top goals, in addition to showcasing the authors, was to make this a revenue-earning opportunity for creatives in the city and beyond.
What constitutes a great book for you?
For me, a great book is one that I can access in terms of language. I really appreciate easy reading or language that sounds the way people speak. If you are writing about Kenya, I like it when the language pays homage to the people. Authors like Jackson Biko do that incredibly well. Something I strive to do with my writing. A good book is also one with characters who come alive and I’ll remember once I have put it down. Lastly, I love books that are emotionally true. It doesn’t have to be a big historical or autobiographical story but just one that rings true emotionally. Even a simple love story or a coming of age story. If the emotions you feel are true; then that has been a worthwhile experience from a book.
“It took me 8 years to work on The Havoc Of Choice because I was writing about a very difficult period in Kenya’s history.”
It’s been said that research can become a distraction from writing. Having written The Havoc of Choice, how do you balance research and real-life stories with the actual work of writing?
I am a journalist by training. Although I don’t practice the kind of journalism that I am drawn to, it is one that plays with that line. With The Havoc Of Choice, I really played with the line between fact and fiction. There wasn’t really a need to make many things up in that book. Even if it is a work of fiction it is very closely based or linked to actual events. There is no such thing as too much research from where I sit. When I write something I want it to be as well researched as it can be. It took me 8 years to work on The Havoc Of Choice because I was writing about a very difficult period in Kenya’s history and I didn’t want to get the facts wrong. So I put on my journalism hat first and after sitting with the setting of the book I then began to create the characters and put them in this setting I had already known from actual events. The things the characters say are fictional but the things that were happening in the plot are true.
The best books are well researched; those that take actual lives and honour them in fiction. As writers, it is something we cannot take lightly when writing about people’s lives. Research as much as you can because if you don’t then you end up hurting people by assuming things about their experiences, history, and culture which can be dangerous. Research and fiction are two peas in a pod. Most good writing comes from good research. There are some really imaginative authors like Margaret Atwood and Octavia E. Butler who can conjure up these worlds that I don’t even know how they did it but even they have said everything as magnificent and strange as it may have seemed was based on some real society somewhere. So, research is key for me.
“This book has really changed me and it continues to do so even as audiences read it and come back to me to share their feelings about it.”
There’s a belief among authors that every book a writer writes teaches them something new, what did writing your book teach you?
Writing The Havoc Of Choice definitely showed me all of my privileges, all of my biases, it showed me all of the things that I had accepted as truth even if they weren’t mine or I didn’t believe them. This book has really changed me and it continues to do so even as audiences read it and come back to me to share their feelings about it. I am not the same woman I was as I began writing it 8 years ago or even a year ago when it came out because I have been forced to see myself through my characters, through the lens of readers, through the lines of the text I have written. For the most part, I am very proud of what I see. I can say that because I know I took my time to make sure the work would be something that I am proud of and I would stand for and defend. I completely agree that everything you write should change you. Even journal entries, right? They shift something. There is a difference between thinking about things and seeing them written out on paper. That is the power of writing. It commits something into reality and shows your thoughts back to you to see if they really ring true and if they don’t you have an opportunity to correct that.
That’s a great assertion on writing, I might use that later but to finish, and this is important, when will Book Bunks be accepting new manuscripts?
We keep pushing dates because we want to be ready. We are aiming for the first two quarters of next year. Stay tuned to our social media channels, Bunk Books, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. From the gaps we have identified we will be prioritizing fiction and children’s books.
If you were a food what would you be?
Mango (fruit) or rice
What books/shows/movies are you currently watching?
Can’t remember! The last thing I watched and loved was the remake of Cinderella
Book: Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
What’s your favourite destination?
Diani; I love the ocean.
If you were a song which one would you be?
The intro to “Midnight Train”