Ten in 10: Inspiring journey of Mochama’s literary world

Tony Mochama is a media practitioner, poet and writer, currently celebrating the publication of his tenth book in ten years as a professional author. PHOTO| COURTESY

Journalist and author, Tony Mochama, is commemorating 10 years as a literary writer.

The all-things-Russia-admirer, blonde-highlighted dreadlocks, literati argot speaking activist and almost ever-smiling wordsmith has released 10 books within this period.

Mochama gets star-eyed whenever he has to talk about books of any kind, being an avid reader, but he gets especially impassioned when it comes to his books and his writings.

Mochama had just turned 30 years old and had been going to St Petersburg, Russia, for six weeks from 2004 to 2006 for Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) on scholarship. It hit him that he was turning into an ‘I-will-write-one-day’ kind of talents he had come across many times in his field.

“I gathered the hundreds of poems I had from the scraps of papers I had written them on. I knew some of them were pretty good, and I had to write others to complete the collection. This became my first book Literary Gangster,” says Tony.

He has always been a compulsive writer. At nine years old, whenever he was bored in class his mind would wander and characters would come to life. His most memorable one being Tom, who went to the moon for adventures.

He didn’t even have to have oxygen supply. He’d even write war stories from the different nations represented in the Bible. He was and still is a history buff, his wife Flora Njagi wonders how many more history documentaries he has to watch.

His scholarship to SLS came about after he met Mikhail Yosef, a literary enthusiast, at Kwani? in 2002. After a series of meetings with Mikhail, Mochama, along with other writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, Billy Kahora, Martin Kimani and others, got the scholarship worth Sh300, 000 each.

“In Kenya, I just used to hear there was Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the other old writers before SLS. Then I got there and found out there was a whole global scene to writing. I’ve met serious writers like George Saunders (2017 Man Booker Prize-winner), Matthew Zapruder, Anthony Swofford, Deborah Treisman (Fiction Editor, The New Yorker), and it made me more experienced. I realised writing is not just a gift, it’s a skill you have to develop. I had to get up and write,” he says.

Mochama says his best time to write is at 3am. He takes it as seriously as architecture, engineering or medicine. It also needs a lot of research. In his second book, The Road to Eldoret, he still made what he calls ‘rookie’ mistakes.

His poetry anthology had been received controversially as he was said to have broken a lot of literary rules with it. He rushed to put out the second one to show he could also do short stories. He now says almost all of them could have done with a bit of a rewrite, in hindsight, and maybe one might have even challenged for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

His third book was inspired by an incident he witnessed coming out of his workplace at I&M Building one day.

“Chinedu and Akinyi (of the Deep West controversy) were chasing each other in vehicles, while screaming at each other. That scene was so insane that I thought of a modern crime noir novel, not having come across a good one, and came up with Princess Adhis and the Naija Coca Broda. It combines political corruption, sex safari rings and drug deals,” he says.

His then editor, John Mwazemba, dared him to write a children’s book that was as good. His blood got boiling, as he prides himself on being able to write across genres, and he came up with Meet the Omtitas. Working on this book felt like a cleansing from the previous one because of the innocence it required to write for the young adult audience, and won him a Burt Award in 2013.

And so, every one of his books have been inspired by different things he comes across. He says he just notes down what he might want to write about and then whatever idea it is that bothers him the most when he’s done with his most recent project, he pursues as his next. He says thinking about what you will gain financially before engaging anything, especially writing, is working backwards.

“It means they don’t have a compulsion to write but to do a business. It’s a good thing to win prizes and that your books sell, I just had my book Modern Poetry for Secondary Schools approved by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development last month. But if you don’t feel like you would even scribble on the walls if you were in a jail cell, then you have the wrong motivation. If you master your craft and have discipline (not just writing when you have nothing else to do, or when you get inspiration) then it will come,” he says.