Q & A: An interview with leading African author, Dr Peter Kimani
Dr Peter Kimani (2R) at the 2019 Caine Price for African Writing award ceremony held in SOAS University of London’s Centre for African Studies. Photo credit John Cobb/The Caine Prize for African Writing.
Dr Peter Kimani, founding faculty at the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University, is a leading African journalist and author of his generation. He has published three novels, including Dance of the Jakaranda, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017. His fourth book, Nairobi Noir—a fiction anthology excavating the history of Nairobi— is out in 2020 in New York. Dr Kimani has taught at Amherst College and the University of Houston, and was Chair of the judging panel of the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing—the continent’s preeminent literary prize and mentorship programme.
Dr Kimani, chatted on his writing and his experience as the first Kenyan to judge the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing.
Tell us a little about yourself. What inspired you to be a writer?
I’m a Kenyan writer, journalist and academic. I received my formal education in Kenya, Britain and the United States. I grew up in a small village in central province and Nairobi. Navigating between these two places meant I was estranged from both, and never quite belonged to either. This is a natural positioning for a writer, for you become the “outsider,” so able to see the larger picture of a family, community or nation. I knew I wanted to be a writer at age 16, but of course had no idea what that meant.
What was the first book you read that made a difference?
Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The story drew from an environment that sounded eerily familiar, peopled by characters with names that resembled names of folks I had known in the village. I decided then I could also write a story—just because another Kenyan had done it. Talk about audacity, but also what having positive examples can do to generations of Kenyans.
How many books do you read in a year?
I don’t count. But I’m very selective. Sometimes, I could read a book each month, at times more frequently. Yet, there times I won’t read at all as I am writing.
Who would you say are your favorite writers?
There are many: from Kenya to Nigeria, Russia to Ireland… So, Ngugi, Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, among others.
What are you currently working on?
Another historical novel Kalifornia set in Nairobi in early 1990s. It’s my first book set in Nairobi, so it’s a love letter to my old boyhood haunt. Additionally, my new book, Nairobi Noir, is out in New York and London next February. This is an anthology featuring a whole spectrum of Kenyan writers, both young and old.
Why do you think you were selected as chair of the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing judges?
I wish I knew!! Obviously, my last novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, was a big factor as it was internationally acclaimed. I was the first Kenyan to judge the contest.
How was your experience as chair of the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing judges?
It was a great experience. I chaired a panel comprising judges from South Africa, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the United States. We enjoyed working together, agreeing or disagreeing, but this was done in an environment of respect and accommodation and love for the written word. The Caine Trust and the literary community feels this was the strongest shortlist in recent years.
What do you think about the evolution of African writing and writers, as evidenced by the submissions to the Caine Prize?
This was the 20th year of the Caine Prize and looking at all previous winners, one can say the craft of writing is evolving. Writers are getting more confident, more daring, more refined.
As an accomplished writer, what advice would you give to young writers?
Good reading skills lead to better writing skills.
What words do you have for writers who plan to submit their works for next year’s Caine Prize?
I would urge them to try find their own voice, not to imitate others. Also, give their stories to others to critique and revise before sending out.