BY THE BOOK: Thomas Mlanda

Thomas Mlanda is a writer, literary theorist and critic. PHOTO| COURTESY

Thomas Mlanda is a writer, literary theorist and critic. He’s also the founder of Set Book Help, an initiative that seeks to revolutionise the consumption of Literature in Kenyan secondary schools and help to cultivate a reading culture. He spoke to about his literary favourites.


1.Tell me the three books that excited you the most in 2017?

I tend to pick an author whose work has excited my interest then follow up on their general literary output. Two thirds of those books would be by the US Nobel Prize winner, John Steinbeck: The Pearl, and TheGrapes of Wrath. I’m in awe of Steinbeck’s social awareness. The third one is a book-length essay by Jonathan Franzen, Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels. 

2.Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?

Those must be from my little home library; the classics Metamorphoses by Ovid, and Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. I’m told Metamorphoses is one of the texts that William Shakespeare was properly schooled on while at Stratford Grammar School. My reading of it is a treasure hunt. Meanwhile, I’m stuck on a continuum of personal inquest on why at some point in history, the popularity of The Communist Manifesto was only second to the bible.

3.Your favourite childhood books? Why?

As a kid, I had the hots for Ladybird Fairy Tales Series: Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, etc. They were the most in the collection my father would buy.

4. If you were to dine with three writers dead/alive, who would they be and why

Mmmh. That’s tough. I’d go for Chinua Achebe, Dambudzo Marechera and Warsan Shire. I’d seek to know Achebe’s position on the world debate between low and high culture in literature, especially in the context of African literature. Dambudzo Marechera’s life is an encyclopaedic definition of rebel. I love social misfits, the break-away elements in society. Warsan Shire is simply ‘’terrifying, and strange, and beautiful: someone not everyone knows how to love.’’

5. Most unforgettable character from a book?

Peter Van Houten, the author of An Imperial Affliction in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

6. Which book do you wish you had written and why?

John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. It is brief in length, homely to the reading mind, and multi-coloured. Such are qualities of a cloth I’d wear over and over again.

7. If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you?

First, I’d carry a notebook. Then two books by the Israeli historian, Noah Yuval Harrari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind; and Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

8. Do you think book festivals, literary prizes and writing workshops are important to a writer’s growth?

Yes. Writing workshops can be a meaningful stage for a writer to have their work peer-reviewed, and to connect them to others of shared gene. Literary prizes, on the other hand, serve to bring obscure writers to the notice of the reading public; while book festivals are an important platform to promote the works of authors.

However, I take issue with literary prizes for taking the role of being a curator of literary taste. Such is an extension of the privileged straight, white male syndrome.

9. Tell me about the last book that made you cry?

A short story, not a book: When the Sun Goes Down, by Goro wa Kamau. The story revolves around the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, told in a refreshing way that each detail shoots directly to the soft areas of ones feel.

10. Among your contemporaries, who d you consider the most exciting newcomer in the writing world and why?

Kindly allow me space for three: Abu Amirah (Kenya), Immaculate Acan (Uganda) and TJ Benson (Nigeria). Abu Amira’s smooth weave of language and narrative is admirable, while T.J Benson’s bold experimentation of style is beautifully unapologetic. Acan’s writing bears an erotically addictive feel to read over and over again.

11. What are you currently writing?

I am currently in the formative stages of writing a biographical work on the life of Kabwere wa Wanje, the famous medicine man and Mijikenda Kaya elder, who is my grandfather. I am also working on a couple of short stories which explore the phenomenon of religious extremism.

The stories draw from information I collected in the course of extensive study on religious extremist ideology in Africa, Middle East and the West.


BY THE BOOK is a literary series that covers authors, bloggers, actors, academics and poets of note in the African continent. For comments or inquiries, e-mail: [email protected]


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