I am a witness that Kenyans read avidly

A silhouette of writer Morris Kiruga. PHOTO| COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • As someone whose written series that clock 10,000 plus words, I can tell you that Kenyans read voraciously.
  • The other problem is that we, Kenyan writers, haven’t been writing for Kenyans, stories about Kenyans.
  • Our language is still colonial, and when street-speak makes it to our writing, it is italicised; we also try to satisfy everyone with our writing which is not possible.

He is a non-fiction writer and researcher who is not afraid to say it as it is, especially when it comes to matters governance and economic empowerment.

In September 2018, his publication, The Man who Sold a Country, became an internet sensation as it was released at a time when the reality of Kenya’s bloated foreign debt was beginning to sink.

Morris Kiruga—some call him Owaahh after his writing website Owaahh.com—speaks to Life&Style:

What are the three most memorable books you have read so far?

This is a hard one. Why would you ask me such a hard question? If I had to choose, gun to the head, I’d say:

Looking for a Rain God: It is an anthology of African short stories that was once a set book in Kenya. It was where I first read Hama Tuma’s "The Case of the Prison Monger", a story about an Ethiopian man who would rather be in jail than in the world of the free, because life is hard.

Next one is Niche by James Harkin: In the book, Harkin uses anecdotes to show why the age of the giant corporation is slowly waning, and the time of the niche market is nigh.

Lastly, Sapiens by Yuval Harari: Absolutely fantastic. If you want to read the story of humanity well-told, and so simply so that you feel Harari is oversimplifying it, then this is the one.

How many books on average do you read in a year?

I cannot put a figure to that. I buy many books and read different things every day. And if I’m reading a book for pleasure, I read it slowly, sometimes over years. If it’s important to something I’m working on, then a day doesn’t have enough hours.

Which is your least favourite genre of books?

Fiction. I’m not sure why or when exactly this happened, but I find it harder and harder to read fiction. I think it’s because I’m a non-fiction writer who discovers every day that the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. I also particularly hate motivational books, despite owning and reading a few.

What's the size of your book collection?

I need new shelves! I don’t know how many physical books I have at the moment, but if I had to estimate I’d say somewhere between 300 and 500 copies.

Which are your two most treasured books and why? Would you lend them out?

I’ve kept physical copies of Looking for a Rain God and Pride and Prejudice since I was six, so I guess it would have to be these two. And no, I wouldn’t lend them out. They are part of me now.

If you were to become a character from a book, who would you be and why?

Definitely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes!

Why? Because I investigate stories, I don’t really research them, and I use so many methods to find information that it sometimes freezes my writing. Unlike him though, because I write stories from what I find, I have to switch between logic and feeling over and over again.

If you had the opportunity to meet three authors, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

Kurt Vonnegut, Chinua Achebe, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Vonnegut because have you read that man’s sentences? His sentences are so beautifully crafted that I often end up not knowing what the story was about.

Achebe because of the storytelling! In his stories, I see how we can use English to tell African stories, and tell them well, and in our own way. To him, English is only a tool of expression, and a tool can be bent to fit the purpose.

Hunter S. Thompson because what madness was that man? There’s a rawness with which he wrote stories that you don’t find a lot anymore. He doesn’t hide how he feels about his subjects, and how he lives his life.

Christmas is around the corner, if you were given an opportunity to chose three books as a Christmas gift, which ones would they be?

My wish list has 1,000 books I want, need, and must get. But if it was a gift, any non-fiction book (and not motivational ones) that challenges what I already know about anything.

It could even be a book on trees.

What is that book you read that was completely out of your comfort zone?

James Harkin’s Niche. I got the copy when I was struggling to reclaim my original idea for my brand, as a niche content product for nerds who don’t care about word count or even language itself.

When your work starts going mainstream, as mine somewhat did, you feel the inclination to pander to the middle market. The book felt like a direct assault at this, and inspired me to fall back to writing for my niche.

If you were to recommend three books to a 10-year-old, which ones would they be and why?

There are too many to list, but I’d recommend any book that challenges and teaches what they love the most. And of course, at that age, with lots of visuals, and combined with writing material to doodle, take notes, write reviews and rewrite sentences.

Have you ever had a bad review for your work? What did it say and how did you deal with it?

Of course. But the worst ones are about the quality of my stories. And the ones that sound like an 8-4-4 teacher marking. I ignore them now, mostly.

I reply to a few, like someone who said I write well but he minded that I curse a lot in my writing; I sent him on his way with a Bible verse (1st Thessalonians 4:11-12).

What are your thoughts on society’s reading culture today in the face of popular culture?

People read! As someone whose written series that clock 10,000 plus words, I can tell you that Kenyans read voraciously.

The problem is how to translate that into money, into works that people will pay for. The other problem is that Kenyan writers haven’t been writing for Kenyans, stories about Kenyans.

Our language is still colonial, and when street-speak makes it to our writing, it is italicised. We also try too hard to write for everyone. We can’t satisfy everyone, even within the same demographic.

What are you currently reading?

Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma. I am two chapters in, and I can tell that this is one of those books I’ll read and re-read for years.


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