I like to think of myself as the Tsar of Sentences

Tony Mochama, One of the country’s finest young writers discusses his work and reveals how personal tragedy fertilised his mind. PHOTO/EMMA NZIOKA

What you need to know:

  • It’s just that, for a lot of folk, they let that child-like wonder and awe of the world go to seed, in the name of the phrase: “This is the real world.”
  • But know this — the quality of one’s writing is directly related to the amount of time one expends in reading. There is no short cut to that.
  • Kenya is a good country to be a writer at this moment of time and history.

    Just think of everything that has gone down in 2013 — the elections, ICC cases, Westgate, fake pastors, bus crashes, train wrecks — one cannot say there is a shortage of creative inspiration in this nation.

The stock answer I give to every aspiring writer who asks the proverbial question: Are writers born? Or are they made? is: “Every really good writer needs an early tragedy and a slightly malfunctioning childhood to fire up their inner imagination.”

Certainly, everyone is born creative.

When I watch my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Chelsea serving her dolls tea, and speaking to them sotte vocce, I don’t think, ‘wow, that’s crazy’ because I know there is not just a conversation, but an entire world playing out in her head, a valley of dolls going on in her mind.

It’s just that, for a lot of folk, they let that child-like wonder and awe of the world go to seed, in the name of the phrase: “This is the real world.”

Yet an inquisitive ‘what if’ make-believe world is a perpetual banquet. Sometimes.

When I was five, my (late) mother got a serious stroke that put her in hospital, in the twilight zone between life and death, for six months.

During that time, not having language at my disposal, I used to doodle all these elaborate — in as much as stick figures can be said to be elaborate — scenes of my mom, and us, in all these happy settings.

Picnics and sunsets, and all that kind of Tolstoyian “happy family alike” fantasies, when the reality was that mom was in a hospital bed in KNH, hovering between the Here and Here-after.

One of my earliest memories is the November she came out of hospital, saw these story drawings, and wept.

For years, she kept them in her desk drawer at her office at the Kenya Commercial Bank.

And then came primary school, and language beyond ‘ABC’, and by Standard Three, I had written my first story, something with a character called Tom Ofglasstin — not Norwegian, not at all, I had just combined nonsense, ‘Tom is made of glass and tin’ to invent his surname — and I suppose the name ‘Tom’ has stuck as a favourite for male protagonists.

I have used it often since, including in my latest work, the young adults school friendly fiction book Meet the Omtitas.

Reading, really, is the so-called secret, not just to literacy, but to being a literary person.

Right now, as I write this, my colleague from marketing Jerusha Ogone is reading a book, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink where he says that “most people assume the quality of a decision is directly proportional to the amount of time spent in making it.”

This is a fallacy, of course.

But know this — the quality of one’s writing is directly related to the amount of time one expends in reading. There is no short cut to that, and that is why I actively support Story Moja (publishers of my crime noir novella, Princess Adhis and the Naija Coca Brodas, 2012) in their schools’ reading campaign — no one is more irritating than the budding “writer” who aggressively tells one: “I wanna write,” and when you ask them what they are reading, they mumble, “gazeti.”

My mom made sure we had no television in our house until the 1990 World Cup, when the pressure on her became over-whelming, and she had to buy a set specifically for the football.

Which means, throughout primary, reading was our sole (and solitary) entertainment, and I rapidly moved from the Lady Bird series, to fairy tales, to any Enid Blyton book I would lay my hands on, to boys’ adventure series, to detective novels and legal thriller like Perry Mason — so that by the end of primary school, I had truly lost literary innocence by reading novels full of crooks and killers and beauties and beasts and diabolical schemes a la Jeffrey Archer and Sidney Sheldon.

The burgeoning very young writer must prepare himself or herself to be alienated in childhood, and often into adolescence. By this I mean the alienation of creation that is sometimes blissful, but often bewildering.

WRITING AN ESCAPE

This streak may mark you out from many of the kids around you, not because you are superior in intelligence, but simply because you perceive the world in an utterly unique way — and wish to capture it in pen and paper. It will stay with you, into adulthood.

As a child, I wrote wildly improbable (and unpublishable) tales to escape the dysfunctional domestic disturbances of a dipsomaniac dad. I wanted to float above reality, like those digitigrade animals that walk with their toes barely touching the ground.

To date, my all-time emotive song remains Suede’s By the Sea because of the lines “When I start my/ new life/ I’ll not touch the ground...”

Now, as an older, more experienced writer, one who has done creative writing workshops in a number of places in the Northern hemisphere, and benefited from the rarefied atmosphere of having been mentored or tutored by the likes of Russian Professor Mikhail Iossel and the famous short story writer George Saunders; as one who was among the first ‘Crossing Borders’ writers with the British Council back in 2003/2004 (which is why come Thursday, we’ll be among the Youth Cultural leaders in discussion with Tony O’Reilly at the British Council) and a long-term Kwanite? with the likes of Binyavanga Wainaina and Billy Kahora these last 10 years, I know writing is a labour of love.

It was Kahora, who judging my manuscript Dinner with the Dictators told me the novel was very good at sentence level.

Whatever else that means, as a writer, I believe at getting stories right at the level of the sentence, in order to deliver scrupulous, unflinching prose.
Like the novelist Martin Amis has said ‘all quality fiction is an unrelenting war against cliché.’

INNER REALITY

I like to think of myself as the Tsar of Sentences.

I believe I am now ready to take the plunge into the fiction of inner reality — and to that end, there is a biography of Suresh Kantaria (the chap who paid ex-wife Sh100 million as divorce settlement) in the pipeline for next year.

By April, I want to begin on a first tragedy novella, The Dying Game, in memory of my recently demised younger brother, Benjy. Because, as Stephen King wrote in Desperation, “Time is very f***ing short!” and one wants to plant a tall tree or two, before the credits roll.

Kenya is a good country to be a writer at this moment of time and history.

Just think of everything that has gone down in 2013 — the elections, ICC cases, Westgate, fake pastors, bus crashes, train wrecks — one cannot say there is a shortage of creative inspiration in this nation.

I recently read a report on a controversial couple that had gone across the border to Tanzania to buy 2kg of ‘maize meal’ and thought, “Boy, that VAT on unga must be really insane.”

I was also amused because this couple gave me the muse for the book Princess Adhis back in 2010.

I wish I could buy them a bag of millet, by way of saying “Asante.”

Tony Mochama is a poet and writer of four books. His fifth book, a collection of essays, Nairobi-A Night Guide through the City-in-the-Sun, comes out in January, 2014. He is a journalist with The Standard Group. [email protected]

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