T5 Interview with Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • I would always be telling stories to myself, if no one wanted to hear them.


  • I’ve always done that, whether or not I wrote the stories down, or wanted them published.


  • As for other lives waiting to be lived, I only have this one. Which is the point. I don’t know what the future will look like, there is much to appreciate in the present.

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, a writer, won the inaugural Graywolf Press Africa Prize for a first novel manuscript in 2018. You can find her work at Enkare Review, A Long House, Lolwe, and Down River Road.

1. Congratulations on your first novel which comes out this week. What is it about?
Thank you. It is a coming-of-age story, I suppose. That is the shape it took as I was writing it. The book is about magical realism in old Mombasa. I always wanted to read a wild adventure story set in my hometown, and tackling it with an almost fairytale approach and structure meant I could tap into a side of Mombasa I feel has been less explored – mischief, slyness, shrewdness and terror that lies beneath all that charm. The storyline follows a girl who sets out to sea on a boat made of ancient bones, accompanied by a scholar’s cat, to find her father.

2. What does it takes to apply for prizes like the Graywolf Press Africa Prize?? What happens after, do you get an agent? Do you get to pick the cover?
I wouldn’t have known about the competition if it wasn’t for Twitter. So, keeping an eye out online helps. There are very few prizes that have upcoming writers in mind, so you’ve got to hunt and leap. It just so happened that I had the manuscript ready a year before, so I only needed to type it. I did that carefully, and in the process, I got to polish my first handwritten draft. I don’t regularly apply for prizes like that, and I have never applied for anything expecting to win, which means I can easily shrug off a rejection email. I’ve applied for residencies, but received very few acceptances.

Right now, I’m not hunting for an agent. But then again, the way I entered this wider scene was because of the prize, which is not the usual way one gets their first project through the door. I was lucky for my first project. When I finish a second project, I’ll look into getting one.

About signing contracts, I would advise anyone to take a good look at the paperwork and figure out what works and doesn’t work for them. Not just when it comes to novels, but even shorter works – whether you’re an independent writer or getting employed. Find out all the information and don’t negotiate from a place of desperation. And, reach out privately and politely to writers who’ve gone through the publishing process over the years. You’ll find that a lot of them are happy to share what it’s like and what to expect.

3. What did you learn about yourself when you were writing this book?
That I am capable of applying myself, that I have more hope than despair in me, that I love my home, my town and my family, and that there is something wonderful to share about this place. And, scary as it is to put it on a page, it’s worthy of sharing.

4. What did you think about the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah? Have you read his work?
It is wonderful to see him get recognised. You feel a sense of pride – he writes from an experience that is familiar to many here, and that is just now becoming familiar abroad. I’ve only read excerpts from his books, so it would be dishonest to talk about his work, but I feel happy for him because I see him drawing from his heritage, and I want to be able to do that deeply too. I think of my own heritage as part of the tapestry of Mombasa, which is larger than myself, larger than just one prescribed ethnic group – and each of the many cultures lends itself to a particular note or colour in that picture.

5. Do you think you would ever have been anything else other than a writer? Do you feel like there are other lives in you yet to be lived?
I would always be telling stories to myself, if no one wanted to hear them. I’ve always done that, whether or not I wrote the stories down, or wanted them published. As for other lives waiting to be lived, I only have this one. Which is the point. I don’t know what the future will look like, there is much to appreciate in the present. So, I want to be able to appreciate the present more, even as I move towards the things that I want.
 

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