Of my part-time writing job that finally paid off

As my readers know, I write in two genres, the factual ‘Surgeon’ Diary’ and the fictional novels.ILLUSTRATION | J NYAGAH

Photo credit: NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • In my novels, I have to write sizzling hot bedroom scenes to make the narrative realistic, and did not think that my patients would like their surgeon to write vivid details of what happens in closed bedrooms, however true.
  • My first novel was published in February, 1978 and the Surgeon’s Diary made its first appearance in the Sunday Nation of May 25, 1980.

I think it was at the turn of the century that John Sibi Okumu, one of our brilliant journalists, interviewed me on the ‘Summit’ programme of KTN, appropriately on the top floor of Laico Regency Hotel.

It was soon after my book, Behind the Mask, the third volume based on the Surgeon’s Diary, was published. His first question was: “Daktari, you are a famous surgeon, a published writer, a distinguished Rotarian, a family man with a wife and two children. How do you manage to juggle all these activities?”

Since it was the first question, I realised that my reply would make or break my TV press-conference. I thought hard and remembered that Chekov, the Russian doctor-author, had been asked a similar question, and I could take a cue from his response.

When asked how he coped with his busy medical practice and prolific writing, he replied: “I look upon medicine as my lawful wife and literature as my mistress. When I tire of one, I go to the other!”

POLYGAMOUS SOCIETY

Slightly modifying Chekov and taking account of my locale, I replied. “In the polygamous society that I live in, I am officially allowed to marry more than one wife. So I have acquired four – Surgery, Writing, Rotary and Marie!”

The interview ran smoothly thereafter, but I did not realise that being a live programme, Marie was watching it, until I reached home. Instead of congratulating me on my performance, she remarked: “I don’t mind being one of your four wives because my three co-wives are inanimate, but I don’t care much for your pecking order, putting me last!”

Once again, I sought refuge in our African culture and replied. “In our culture, the last wife is the youngest, prettiest and the most loved!” Marital harmony was instantly restored.

 Since then, the popular belief is that I have four wives. In fact, the subtitle of my autobiography is ‘The Story of a Surgeon with Four Wives’. It might be a sales gimmick to arouse a reader’s interest while browsing in the bookshop.

I write under the pen name of Yusuf K Dawood for three reasons. First, I wanted a relief from a surname, difficult to pronounce and spell correctly. Secondly, in my novels, I have to write sizzling hot bedroom scenes to make the narrative realistic, and did not think that my patients would like their surgeon to write vivid details of what happens in closed bedrooms, however true.

Finally, I wanted to commemorate my father’s name, who had visited the Dean’s office in Miraj 26 times so that his son was granted a seat in the medical school.

gained more popularity

In time, the anonymity got blurred and the pen proved mightier than the scalpel, and Dawood gained more popularity than Kodwavwala — because my pen touched more people than my scalpel.

As my readers know, I write in two genres, the factual ‘Surgeon’ Diary’ and the fictional novels. Both germinated at roughly the same time, but for different reasons. My first novel was published in February, 1978 and the Surgeon’s Diary made its first appearance in the Sunday Nation of May 25, 1980.

Dealing with the fictional novel first, the trigger was stress, which was generated from running a hospital with so many conflicting interests, especially converting a loss-making institution into a break-even. I am not the type who is easily stressed and even if I am, I don’t show it on my face.

pathological mode

Obviously, my tensions were bottled up and needed an outlet lest they exploded in a pathological mode. I needed a healthy catharsis. The cathartic was writing a novel in which my adversaries could be turned into villains and my supporters could be made heroes.

That would release me from tensions brewing inside my psyche. I realised that writing a novel was like nurturing a child inside the womb and with rejection slips from the publishers, the pregnancy runs the real risk of a miscarriage.

 On the contrary, with some writing ability and a bit of luck, the pregnancy might go to full-term, a child might be born with ravishing beauty and I might produce a bestseller.

So every weekend when the hospital was quiet and I was not called to deal with an emergency, surgical or otherwise, I sat in my study room, closed the door and wrote my maiden literary effort, in long hand.

My hospital secretary typed it after learning how to decipher a surgeon’s writing. Some days the pen moved briskly producing sheets of papers, and other days, they remained blank.

I realised that to get published, I must be authentic. I could do better than having a hospital as my background. After a couple of years of this part-time writing, I completed my novel and did not know what to do with my typescript.

It stayed in my study until Alma Tenant, medical records officer at the hospital, suggested that I submit it to a publisher to evaluate it. So I contacted Henry Chakava, managing director of Heinemann, whose office was at International House.

pleasant surprise

His reaction when I went to deliver my precious manuscript was: “When did you find time to write this?” The question was apt because his wife was a nursing Sister at the hospital, from whom I had obtained her husband’s office phone number, and who had informed him of my punishing schedule.

To my pleasant surprise, a few weeks later, I received a letter of acceptance. Laban Erapu, a Ugandan exile, was Heinemann’s publishing editor, and he and I sat together to edit my manuscript. Finally, we settled on the title No Strings Attached.

 It was launched on Friday, March 3, 1978 at Serena Hotel, with great fanfare, and with Charles Njonjo, Kenya’s first home-grown Attorney General, as the guest of honour. On that fateful day, Kenya acquired a new author — I became a published writer and acquired a new wife, ‘Literary’ to rhyme with Marie, Surgery and Rotary.

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