Kenyan author Stanley Gazemba is best known for his book, The Stone Hills of Maragoli, which won Kenya’s top literary prize, the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2003. He is currently a regional editor with an organization called Music in Africa (www.themusicinafricaproject.net) and a content specialist with www.kwetuu.com – a website that plans to sell short stories and poems as downloads to people’s phones.
In this interview with Africa Book Club, he talks about his childhood and his writing.
You’ve had a remarkable life, Stanley. Tell us a little more about yourself?
I am a journalist by training, and I have written for a number of newspapers including Sunday Nation, The East African, Saturday Nation and The New York Times. Earlier in my life, I worked as a gardener, brick-maker and tea-picker, meaning my hands aren’t as smooth to touch! I also have musical ambitions. I am hoping to find time to go back to the studio to complete my album, of which one track is already done. I am also a dad of two boys and a girl. In addition I love the outdoors, and I hope to retire to farming. I guess that says something about me!
What about your childhood?
I was an adventurous and rather stubborn kid. I often got in trouble for it. I grew up in the country and I loved to romp in the mud in the valleys of my village herding cattle, and thereafter go for a swim in the river. You bet as we were swimming the cows were feeding on someone’s maize…and there would be consequences! My parents were both teachers, and they had a rough time keeping me looking like a teacher’s son! My daughter, Millie, is already showing traits of this. She is always getting in trouble with her mum. There is no writer in the family, yet.
So, what inspired you to take up writing?
I always liked stories. My parents took me to boarding school when I was eight. It was far from home and the food was bad. I longed for the valleys of my village. To escape the confines and routine of boarding school I delved into story books, which allowed me to fly out of my ‘prison’ into the fantasy world of the stories. Consequently, I started practicing my own stories, initially immitating other writers. Naturally I became quite a smooth liar!
Would you like to tell us about your award-winning book, The Stone Hills of Maragoli?
In The Stone Hills of Maragoli I was trying to reconstruct Christmas time in the village during my childhood. It was simply the finest time of the year. The weather was fine, the harvest was in, and the relatives who lived in distant towns had come visiting. It was party-time in the village…all that we kids did was feast on roast maize until our bellies were round like drums! As evening fell we would go off to the choir practice and sing in the moonlight in welcome of Christmas, when we would have chapatis, chicken, sodas and other delicacies. That is what I was trying to recapture. Of course the village I created and the characters and their dramas are my own. But they very much borrow from the people I knew in my childhood.
The literary scene in Kenya appears to be picking up. Is there a strong reading culture in the country?
Kenyans are reading, but mostly books from other countries because local publishers concentrate on text books at the expense of novels and story books. The cost of producing books is also prohibitive, making books unnecessarily expensive. There is also the issue of pirates, who flood the market with cheap books and steal the author’s money. We are watching technology, and hoping it will change this.
What has been the response to your work so far?
The reception to The Stone Hills of Maragoli was good. The readers who have interacted with me felt it was an enjoyable story. A university student who studied it recently told me some of the students who studied it innitially thought it was simplistic, until they started delving into it. I hope the publishers could put in more effort marketing it so that it could reach more people. I’ve had people from my village asking me where they could buy it…meaning it isn’t being marketed well.
Was this your first book? Are there others? How long have you been writing?
I started writing way back in the mid eighties – around 1985 in long-hand in my school notebooks. Actually the first manuscript I submitted to a publisher around 1986 was done in my school notebook complete with pencil illustrations! You can see I am a veteran!
The Stone Hills of Maragoli isn’t my first book. There are others that were written before it that have yet to be published. There are others too that I wrote after it that are awaiting a publisher. Besides it I have also published stories for children and young adults, and also short stories, some of which can be viewed on my website: www.stanleygazemba.kbo.co.ke. I have published another novel, ‘Khama’ available as an e-book on Amazon. I am also publishing another novel, ‘Callused Hands’ soon with Nsemia Publishers, and I am waiting to hear when Kwani? will publish my novel ‘Ghettoboy’ that made the shortlist of a recent competition, The Kwani? Mauscript Project.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice came from my long time editor and mentor, Susan Linnee. She always reminded me not to be pompous and to concentrate on telling the story in a straight-forward, simple way. It is tough advice, because writers naturally want to show off! I am still grappling with it.
Are there African writers that have inspired you, or whose work you admire and would recommend to anyone interested in exploring African literature?
Chinua Achebe, Meja Mwangi, Sembene Ousmane, Chimamanda Adichie, the earlier Ngugi wa Thiongo, Peter Abrahams, Elechi Amadi…there are many. but those will suffice for now.