The Art of Soliloquy

It’s 2354hours. Tuesday the 31st. I keep throwing a cursory glance at the clock on my laptop, five minutes to beating the January 1st deadline. Cut-off, that’s what they call it. I fear that if I don’t publish these pieces before 2014 finds me, the words will magically disappear from the page, or crudely expire. Either.

There’s a magazine called The Paris Review. The Paris Review runs a column called the Art of Fiction. Art of Fiction, its website says, is an ‘interview series that offers authors a rare opportunity to discuss the life and art at length.’

Art of Fiction makes for a captivating read, to see writers bare themselves so.

The interviews, scribed as a Q&A, are from as early as the 1950s. Any writer who is who has been featured in the pages of the Art of Fiction, including all the glitzy Nobel Literature Laureates.

Truth is, I am eons away from being interviewed in the Art of Fiction. Or being covered in the pages of the Paris Review, in whichever capacity. Even a mere mention would be begging for too much grace.

So in the spirit of this truth, in the spirit of the New Year, in the spirit of reflection, in the spirit of soliloquy, I will go ahead and do something I will regret in the few minutes after publishing this: I will interview myself.

Here’s to a Happy New Year.


Interviewer: Merry Christmas. How did it go?

BETT: Merry Christmas, to you too. The holiday season was terribly unusual, Jesus. This year, Christmas felt like a rude interruption to the momentum I have been building since October.

Picture this: just last Monday, on the 23rd, I am putting together my plan for the week. All my interviewees had cancelled on me and it wasn’t until wrote the day and date I realized why: blimey, Christmas Day.

Ordinarily, I am full of cheer during the holiday season. I would be signing and enveloping  Simon Elvin Christmas cards, the ones that come in a value-pack of twenty per box, with a Santa hat on and Bonnie M’s When a child is born’ looping in the stereo behind me. It’s such peachy season.

Not this year though. Between the mental fatigue, the tightened purse strings and the disorientation of the festive season, all I wanted was quiet and eventlessness. I got neither as I wanted.

Interviewer: When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer?

BETT: I have been always been writing for myself. But I didn’t understand why I was writing what I was, or why I was even doing it. I suppose starting a manuscript with the words ‘Dear Diary’ has a thrill and romanticism about it. So I wrote so that I could begin with those two words.

I wrote on pages ripped off from the centre of an exercise book, remember those from primary school? Other times on plain pages of A4 paper. Sometimes on scraps of paper I neatly folded in into little squares; you know, I have a handful of such stuffed in my wallet. I have been carrying them around with me since I was 19.

I got my first journal when I was 22. It was nothing fancy, just a hard-covered blue notebook I bought from some road side supermarket in Machakos. The entries moved from starting with ‘Dear Diary’ to starting with ‘Dear Jack’. I liked the name Jack. And calling my journal Jack felt like I was speaking to a real person, a manly man. A pal, a boy. My boy.
I returned to write in that journal with the regularity of a warden in a prison’s roll call.

I haven’t yet answered your question. I know.

I realized I wanted to be a writer in November 2012. The publicly-loved and lauded Bikozulu, after leaving comments on his blog, thought I had ‘literary motion’. Such colourful words, eh? I thought so too. Thus the journey – anchoring itself on these words – began.

But the affirmation I was making tangible headway was when an Editor picked up an email I had sent to one of his publications, and asked for a meet-up. That was the big break. Me and the Editor, we now have a love-hate passive-aggressive relationship. I even gave him a secret pet name, hehhhe.

What are your parents about? And what did you learn from them? Do you come from a family of creatives?

My Moms was a primary school teacher. She taught me patience, how to care for others, and how to be a lady. The lady part (ignore that pun) didn’t quite come out as she anticipated; she thinks I am too feisty. My Ol’Man was an engineer. He taught me to read books, to see things in logic, and to have a taste for finer well-built things.

I am from a large household of ten. I am smack in the middle of that melee, but I am the bossiest bully of the others.
My brother diBinghi is an Art illustrator; I have spoken about him here before. My kid sister LaMore thinks she can dance and tailor clothing. But she really can’t (I am sorry, Love). She does bake some mean ass brownies though. Everyone else in my family is not a creative, though they are creative in their own nondescript way.

Which writers influenced your work?

Writers get that question a lot. It’s a question I don’t like because my answer is embarrassing. None; I don’t have writers who wholesomely inspired me. Those critically acclaimed African authors established writers drew inspiration from, I have none of them.

What I have, instead, are stories that inspire and influence, me and my writing. Stories are about good days and not-so-good days. And every writer oscillates between the two.

So there are stories I have read and reread, and each time I come out saying that was one piece of fine writing.

I tend to remember stories, not its authors.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the importance of reading to a writer. Comment on that.

I will tell you what has not been said about it: reading eventually stops being as chic as it used to be.

Reading becomes inevitable study, a troll for technique. It becomes a process of hunting and gathering, an exercise of collection. It’s why I read with a ball-point pen and my daybook open nearby –  to underline and enclose text in curly braces, and with smiley faces and with hash tags {like #damn, #nice, #LoL, #lame, #wah}; to collect new words, and creative phrases, and orgasmic expressions. Even entire paragraphs.

There is an innocence and enjoyment about reading I doubt I will reclaim soon.

I suppose moviemakers feel this way each time they sit down to see a movie.

Speaking of movies, which is your favourite of all time?

Catch Me If You Can.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Steven Spielberg. From 2002.

The movie is about a guy who impersonated a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and cashed over 2milli in phony cheques, all before his nineteenth birthday. Leonardo gave a stellar performance. As always.

One of my favourite quotes from the movie: “Dear Dad, you always told me that an honest man has nothing to fear, so I’m trying my best not to be afraid.”

What are you reading now?

The Harvard Business Review. Online though, I must really like it to preserve a digital read. The magazine isn’t sold off the streets of Nairobi; the only stockists I have seen are those magazine vendors who navigate Uhuru Highway in traffic. Who buys stuff in traffic anyway? Not me. I have an unwritten rule to never buy things through a car window.

I have been forbidden from reading The New Yorker and the Sunday Times magazine.

Novels? I no longer have the patience to sit through a novel. The last one I read was Binyanvanga’s memoir. And that was back in April.

You mention April. It has been nine months since you left yet you continue to speak about your previous audit career and experience. Why is that?

Guilt. First it’s the guilt. I left when a majority of my assignments were afoot. Not to come off as self-important, but it is a big blow to the team when a senior member leaves. Aside from that, I abandoned my office kids. This made me feel like a horrible mom. And it gnawed at my conscious for a long time afterwards.
Then there’s the guilt of the notion that I took from it more than I gave back. You know, they cherry-picked up straight from campus and smoothed out our rough edges: taught us the difference between woollen suits and non-woollen ones, between a red wine glass and a white one. What professionalism is and what it isn’t, what cufflinks are for and what they aren’t.

I feel that I owe them, as one does a first lover.

So I carry this burden of guilt and of indebtedness. Writing about it ad nauseum lessens this burden.

Then, there are the people I worked with: brilliant chaps, simply brilliant. Committed to the practise with their sober work ethic and their relentless pursuit for excellence. Goodness. The professional services my ex-colleagues provide keep corporate and industrial Kenya on its best behaviour. And that’s no lie.

Then, walking away from it all was the single-most bravest thing I have ever done for myself. I have immortalized everything about that day in one forum or another: this blog, my memoirs, my journal, scraps of paper, a video clip. I even wrote a song about it.

Plus I miss the tea of my old office. The milk-to-water ratio of the office tea I take these days is ridiculous. Let’s not even get into the choicelessness of the tea menu or the tightness of the tea schedule. I miss the tea and the tea area, man.

I am letting go though. If you read keenly, you will notice I stopped referring to it in the fond manner its little club of industry geeks do: it’s no longer ‘bashers and bashing’, but ‘auditors and auditing’. That’s progress, innit?

Style and voice. Where are you?

I have neither.


Despite their absence, let me underscore this: if someone reads my work and says I sound like so and so, then I will know I have not yet found my unique identity and voice. It means I am still channelling a writer I admire and bringing his energy to my work. It means I am back to square one. It means, essentially, I have to write more. It means I have to rewrite more.

It means I don’t know who the bloody hell I am.

What is the place of fiction in your work?

I consider fiction such mastery of prose. To see the world through the eyes of another and tell it as they perceive it begs for mastery.

I am not there yet.

Do you have a reader in mind when you are writing? Do you think of artfullyContrived? Or of JB Ali? Or of Aditnar? SavvyKenya? MIMI? Cawiti maybe? What about Pablo West? The Real G? Pez?

No, I don’t have a reader in mind when I’m writing.

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote to Jack. And Jack is a faceless man. What you start off with remains for a long time.

When I went public, the image I had of a reader was of a sexless silhouette. This image has been morphing since then. To what, I can’t quite tell.

Let’s continue with the readership. You seem to have plenty to say about it.

Do I now?

Yes, you do. What’s the place of readership in the grand scheme of things?

It’s a wonderful thing to have someone other than yourself read your work. Wonderful, my goodness. It gets lonely writing. Having someone on the other end, waiting, hopefully, to read your work lessens the intensity of that loneliness.

Readership, however, needn’t be the reason to write. Unless yours is a commercial inclination, then growing readership isn’t the reason to write.

The journey to write is one taken alone. You struggle alone with your insecurities, with your fears, with your demons, with your creativity, with your stories. You muscle your way through it until you get it right.

Growing readership is the successful consequence of this struggle, this journey. But it is never the aim of it. Ultimately, the true writer plays to an audience of one.

What is your definition of sexiness?

What has that to do with this interview?

Nothing. That’s why I ask.

In a guy, sexiness is in the Intellect. Nothing beats a stimulating conversation. I mean, the biggest sexual organ is the brain.

Then there’s the nape of the neck. Right between where his shaven hair ends and the collar of his tee/shirt begins. When he bends his neck, and the nape stretches, and his shoulder blades push against his top, the entirety of that reflex is a moment of raw sexiness.
Or, when he has tucked his shirt into his pants and the belt is settled right above his bottom. And when he walks, it sways ever so slightly. That’s sexy. The sway especially is sexy.
I am also drawn to clipped fingernails and a firm grip.

In a gal, sexiness is when she can hold her own. Forget the boisterous laugh, or the twinkle that comes from a real smile, or when she struts around balancing her hips in her pumps. Put that aside.
Sexiness is a woman who can hold her own.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

Right now, I fear that the logical left side of my brain will overpower the creative right side of my brain.

Listen, writers in their early years struggle. Like most artists anyway do. Writing is a difficult way to earn a living. It’s like earning a living from hawking your unfertilized eggs. Or renting out your uterus for 300grand per trimester. Or selling off a portion of your liver in the black market. You get the picture – writing is like earning a living from flogging pieces of you.

Like most people, I had life goals and life ambitions tethered to my (previous) career. Stuff I had lined up for the year, projects that were midway. Choosing to write fulltime interfered with those projects; it halted some, slowed down others and postponed several more.
For the past few, there have been weeks where I split my energies between survival and the focus to put sentences together. Not an enviable place to be when there are liabilities hot on my pretty ass, and creditors knocking on my door threatening to repossess my assets. It isn’t humorous but it is sure darn funny.

Then there are the voices of others, telling me things like, ‘Bett, when are you resuming jobo?’ Or ‘fra, when is the sabbatical coming to an end?’ Or, ‘It’s a hobby, c’mon, leave it alone already.’ Detractors these are.

So yeah, right now, I fear that logic will overpower creativity.

But fear only exists for as long as I let it be a fear. Perceive it differently and it stops being fear; it becomes resolve. Fuel. Spark. Ignition maybe. Or all of those things, if you want.

Fuck fear. I made a decision. I stick with it because I made a commitment to myself to.

You cuss a lot in your work.

I cuss a lot in my ordinary conversations.

But pardon me. I once received an email from a reader telling me to stop using the Lord’s name in vain. That it was offensive. Too low a blow. And that if my sentences/choice of words could not cuss on its own, then I shouldn’t festoon it with the Lord’s name with a hope that it would. I tipped my hat touché.

No more cussing in the New Year. I swear.

2014 is here now. What’s the plan for you and your writing?

There is no plan for my writing. None whatsoever. I am making stuff up for it as I go along. Not to dismiss me as myopic. Or to say that I don’t have an agenda or an end in mind; it’s the means to that agenda and to that end I lack.

I act on impulses these days. I make momentary decisions. I developed regrouping and spontaneity as personal skills.

Nonetheless, the basics remain: to keep writing. To keep returning to the blank page, here on this blog and wherever else. To persist.

His memoir
One for the road

Comments (14)

  1. MIMI

    I think you should start an interview show, I’m not quite sure whether it was the questions or the answers, but whether you are the interviewer or the interviewee, I’d still watch the show

  2. JB Ali

    Quite an engrossing and engaging read! A very fascinating peek into your writing calling. Honored to get a mention :-) Happy new writing year.

    • fra

      Because I am still in search of style and voice, I shouldn’t rest (on these magazines) until I find ’em.
      Plus, I was getting lazy with my reading.

  3. EDDIE.

    Eloquently done FC Bett.

    • fra

      Thanks Eddie.
      Stick around some more.

  4. Mystery

    Intriguing soliloquy indeed.

  5. Torrie K.

    I love this piece, quite entertaining!

    • fra

      Thanks Torrie K.
      And Happy New Year.

  6. Mwende

    Love it…The tea was great, I agree. Can’t get over these words….’Perceive it differently and it stops being fear…”

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