The literati of Nairobi hopped about with geekful glee all of last week. Kwani was celebrating ten years of growing the creative industry and had invited two writers – two female African writers – to share in the public space: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (winner of the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing. Author of two novels) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (we all know who she is, yes?)
Kwani lined up a string of events for each of the five days of marking the anniversary. The events culminated with a book party at the Marshall’s Service Warehouse on Friday night, hosting the two writers and other artists. All enjoyable stuff.
As one of the literati, I wanted to meet both writers. And it wasn’t until I wormed my way into one-on-one interviews did I realize just how easy it was to.
I met Yvonne on Wednesday. Mid morning. At Kwani Trust office off Riverside Drive. We met in the room right at the top of the stairs.
Yvonne sat in an overstuffed wicker chair opposite me; a coffee table separated us. The window was wide open behind her, letting in a sporadic breeze that ruffled further the ruffle of her afro. It gave the her even more character.
Yvonne spoke in bursts and phrases, never quite completing a sentence. And when she did, question marks replaced the full stops. And she used my name as a punctuation point too often. Peachy.
There were moments when Yvonne would stammer to find just the right word, and she’d close her eyes, hesitant to use a lesser one. Words which would seem gaudy in anyone else’s conversation – like ‘alchemy’ and ‘impetus’ and ‘renaissance’ – fit hers with such sophistication. Such precision. Such finesse.
Occasionally, she’d throw her head back in a boisterous laugh; the type that reverberates through your body and ends with a dramatic wave of the arm. I laughed. Not at the wry humour in her responses, but because she was laughing so hard. A woman who laughs herself, and at her own jokes, is a woman to admire, don’t you agree?
We talked. We talked about how she has taken such a long time to admit she is a writer. We talked about her first novel Weight of Whispers; about how she took five days only to write it. About her (now launched) novel Dust; about the relationship she had with it in the seven years she was writing it. “There were two years when we were not talking to one another, the novel and I.”
We talked about style and craft. Briefly, about her siblings and about growing up. We talked about how unprepared she felt after winning the 2003 prize; when international publishers asked her to submit manuscripts for work she did not have.
All through, my head rested in my left hand captivated. My eyes glowed with admiration for everything about her and everything she represented in those moments.
Thirty-five minutes into the interview and Yvonne turned the tables around; she asked me questions about me.
“So do you write as well?” she said.
“Yes. I do write,” I said.
“What do you write Florence?”
Good question Yvonne. What do I write? I am still trying to incorporate my passions into my work. There’s stuff I write which pays but those are neither here nor there. Then there’s this blog, this silly little blog with its absent tagline whose essence of its existence I have not quite captured. Sigh. What do I write?
“I write creative non-fiction,” I said.
“Good. Good. OK. OK.”
“So what are your own struggles as a writer Florence?”
“Voice. Finding my voice has thus far been my biggest struggle.”
“You actually have it.” Yvonne said. “Even as you speak, there is a reflective poignant space within everything you are saying, and in your questions. I am interested in that gap between the said and the unsaid because it’s such a compelling gap. And within that gap, you know your voice. And you will find it.”
By this time, my head has tilted and my eyes were in a comma of emotions.
Her chaperone walked in to announce it was time for the second interview of the day.
I had spoken with Yvonne for 45 minutes.
Thursday. Thursday was a reading day; I didn’t leave the digs. At noon, curled up in my reading chair with a magazine open in my hands, the possibility I could meet Chimamanda (Chima) crossed my mind. So I sent a text message with the request to shadow the interviewer. The response was simple, “Excellent. Be at the WestHouse. 615PM sharp. Don’t be late.”
I was late. Twenty minutes late; the hotel isn’t the easiest to find for a first timer. Thankfully, the princess wasn’t ready so the interviewer and I sat around in the hotel lobby engaging in misplaced small talk for ten minutes. Then without warning, she appears. We scrambled to our feet to shake her hand.
Chima and I, we met at eye level, but not at girth level – she is slender, bordering on petite. She had her kinky hair done up in loose matutas. Looking at the ones at the back of her head, I could tell she had divided the sections of hair using her hands then plaited it herself. This hairdo would have been tragic on any other person. But on Chima, it bore an Africanly elegance.
She had on a peplum top that was separated into two colours at the bust area – courgette green for the top half, peach for the bottom half. Her skirt, pale yellow with a lace overlay. It ended right above her knees. The skirt fit a tad too snag forcing her to walk in a Penguin-like drag up the ramp to the conference room on the first floor. On her pedicured feet, a pair of uncomplicated black sandals that gave a hint of the long day she had had.
Upstairs, the four of us sat in a semi-circle at the edge of a polished mahogany table. She and I yet again met at eye level. Chima had her Doctor Husband to her right. I had my Doctor Interviewer to my left. And for those fleeting moments before the start of the interview, those fleeting moments, Chima and I were equals.
I was scared to speak though. I worried her sentences would strong-arm mine. Worried my nervousness would cause my voice to come forth in a timid high-pitched stammer. So I shadowed the interviewer as I said I would and I observed Chima instead.
I observed how she rubbed her red lips together and took a few moments to think before she spoke. How she coiled the loose hairs at the back of her head around her index finger then flattened them back into place, as she listened. Her fingernails were trimmed right to the finger tips, as do most writers
How she seemed to not want to talk about Pan-africanism or jaded African politics. And her impatience to whether the ‘overpowering feminine spirit in her work’ pointed toward her being a feminist.
How, when the interviewer asked her about the craft of writing, her voice softened to explain that when the writing is going on well, it was as if “the spirits are speaking to me. I don’t do anything else: I pull out of bed. I don’t shower. When I’m eating, I eat in front of the computer. I don’t pick up my phone. I feel as though I don’t want to miss a minute of it. And the thing that’s so wonderful about it is that I get so absorbed – when I look up to realize how much time has passed.”
How she threw a line, in her native tongue Igbo (the ‘g’ is silent), to her Doctor Husband. And they chuckled with the intimacy of a private joke shared between lovers.
I wonder what she saw when she looked at me: sitted with my back straight, eyes open in big circles behind my glasses, grin pulled across my face like a Chesire cat. Whatever she saw was confirmed when I asked her to autograph my copy of her novel on our way out.
I spoke with, sorry, stared at Chima for 15 minutes.