What you need to know:
- She studied at Kenyatta University, from where she transitioned to Brown University, USA upon receiving a Fullbright scholarship.
- Currently, she stays in Venezuela, where she teaches language and literature and writing.
Abdala: Publishers do not ask for poetry manuscripts
Cynthia Abdalla is an emerging Kenyan writer with a passion for poetry. She believes that poems are a means to convey deep messages without overwhelming the reader. She is persuaded that if one needs to convey a message, then one must do so precisely but effectively.
Her poems and short stories have been published by The Tokyo Poetry Journal (Japan), Kwani Uchaguzi edition 8 (Kenya), Ake Review, Kalahari Review (Kenya), Nalubaale Review (Uganda), Quaibell Magazine (USA), Active Muse (India) and Ghana Literary Journal. My Six Little Fears is her latest piece of work. It is her first complete poetry collection.
Cynthia holds a degree in linguistics and literature. She studied at Kenyatta University, from where she transitioned to Brown University, USA upon receiving a Fullbright scholarship. Currently, she stays in Venezuela, where she teaches language and literature and writing. She spoke to Nobert Oluoch Ndisio about poetry and her new book.
Writers’ paths are lined with challenges. Among others, writers have to contend with solitude, manuscript rejections and meagre returns from their trade. To stay the course, a writer, therefore, needs a constant supply of motivation. Upon catching up with Cynthia, I sought to know the inspiration behind her love for writing.
“My love for writing was inspired by my love for reading and telling stories. From a tender age, I involved myself in all matters language. I read lots of books and wrote poems and essays, with a lot of love and ease. I wasn’t going to have my passion for writing end there. I had to put my passion into some action. And writing poems is that action.”
So, who does she write for?
“My audience is primarily word lovers – people who value the use of language and its ability to unite and heal. Thanks to poetry, a lot of broken hearts have been healed. Through poetry, a lot of love has been shared.”
There are a variety of literary genres at a writer’s disposal. Why, poetry? Her response was an emphasis on what she says in the blurb of her latest book, My Six Little Fears – her preference for brevity.
“Poetry is about precision. I have always had a problem with long winded conversations. Therefore, poetry gives me a chance to speak precisely and effectively. You can tell an incredible story in very few words.”
The uniqueness of My Six Little Fears lies in its size and content. Both are small. Some poems in the collection are, in fact, as short as two lines.
What is My Six Little Fears all about?
“My collection is about life experiences, nostalgia and a bit of mystery. It encapsulates all the things that have had an impact on my growth as an individual and as a member of the human race. All poems touch on aspects of my life that mattered at one point in my life, giving me a chance to share my story with poetry enthusiasts.
“The poems in the collection are products of a thorough selection process. Out of the 32 poems, 20 have previously been published elsewhere. And of them all, My Six Little Fears has been published the most.
“In the course of my interaction with students, I have realised that many of them no longer have the patience to plough through big books. My Six Little Fears is, therefore, the solution to this challenge. It is a book a student will read in thirty minutes.”
Poetry is deemed to be the least popular of all literary genres studied in Kenyan education system. I prompted Cynthia to share her position on this subject.
“Ridiculous! This needs to change. Students must be encouraged to read and even write poems. We need to look at the poems we teach, too. If you insist on approaching poetry through Shakespeare, I can guarantee you that you will lose quite a lot of ground with students. We need to start with the familiar then progress onto the unfamiliar when tackling poetry. Secondly, poetry is music and children love music. This is a good place to start.
“My poems are short and easy to read and interpret. This makes students engage with the book at a personal level. If they can see themselves in a poem, then they can develop a love for it. The use of indigenous terms and African imagery in the book is also something that students can relate to. For your information, I have recently started donating free copies of the book to a few schools in Kenya so that their shelves have a poetry book they can relate to.”
Cynthia talks boldly about her interest in promoting the reading culture in Kenya. Why would anyone use the least popular literary genre to promote the reading culture?
“Do you know what? This ‘least popular literary genre’ needs to be promoted at many levels. I appreciate the novel and short stories competitions out there, but I think there are tons of poets out there who are equally gifted. Also, it is my favourite genre. Short stories and novels come a close second.”
My Six Little Fears is a self-published book. Was this decision informed by publishers’ attitude towards poetry?
“Absolutely! No one asks for a poetry manuscript. If you wait, you wait forever. So I decided to do this myself and get my work out there. I am sure it will pay off. I also want to urge mainstream publishers to open more opportunities for poets. I have been to lots of Open Mic nights at the Phoenix Theatre and there is a lot of talent out there that needs tapping.”
In spite of living and working abroad, there is a spark that lights up when she talks about Africa.
“Growing up, I was always obsessed with leaving my country and going abroad. Then I went and discovered some quiet truths about home and its place. I saw the pride that other people had in their own countries and continents and this made me quite reflective. I love my continent and all of us should do the same. It is a beautiful place with beautiful and honest people.”
To perfect their art, people often either secretly or formally understudy their models. Writers are no exception.
“My literary models are Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know it sounds strange that my inspiration comes from novelists rather than poets. But it is simply because of their ability to effectively speak to their readers through their stories. Then there is their ability to use imagery in their works. Imagery is a device that I employ with a mark of generosity in my poems.”
"The future is bright and I intend to keep pushing hard and to get the mainstream publishers thinking hard about poetry.