The Proust Questionnaire: Africa Writes

Alongside his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mukoma wa Ngugi was the main speaker at the Royal African Society’s, 2013 Africa Writes Festival. Mukoma is an author, poet and academic. His latest novel is Nairobi Heat, a crime thriller. We caught up with him for his thoughts on writing, dinner party guests and moments of the sublime. 

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Why do you write?   
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have had an answer for you.  Now sadly, I no longer remember the answer – I just sit at my desk and write.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals?
No rituals for writing.  Its simple for me, I am either writing or I am not.

Where do you write and why there? 
I cannot write in one place for long – so I have to keep migrating from office, to bedroom, to outside to coffee shops and bars.  But after writing this and thinking about it some more, it occurred to me that most of my writing takes place as I do other things – like washing dishes, cooking, walking and that hour between waking up and getting out of bed.  But on cool summer evenings, when mosquitoes allow, I like to sit on the rock that passes for my backyard.

What advice do you have for other writers who are just starting out?   
Read like your life depends on it.  Reading is the theory, writing the practice.

Who are your favourite writers?
The one writer that I have absolutely and consistently loved is Octavia Butler.  But generally speaking I think I fall in and out love with authors in which case I would rather not talk about my exes.

 What’s on your secret reading list?
I don’t have a secret reading list, just a master list.  We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo; Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage – William Loren Katz; The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” – Isabel Hofmeyr; Hollywood’s Africa after 1994 – MaryEllen Higgins

What books have you left unfinished? [Reading or Writing]  Would having a beginning and end but no middle be considered an unfinished piece of writing?
There is one novel about a dictator who builds riot proof cities and villages that I was not able to finish.  Certain books by my ex-favourite authors.  Yes, a book with a beginning and end can be complete provided the readers take the leap between.

What’s the most confusing book you’ve ever read?  
Divina Trace: Robert Antoni

What’s your favourite opening line or quote in African Literature?
‘You must be harder than life, Firdaus. Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.’  Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Sadaawi

Have you ever lied?
Oh, God. No.  Not ever.  Not even once!  Why do you ask?

What personal trait do you most deplore in others?
Self righteousness – I reserve it for myself, Okay?

What’s your greatest fear?
That in my political analysis, I am wrong, and even worse, than I am right.

What’s the most sublime experience you’ve ever had?
Cutting my daughter’s umbilical cord.  And then being asked by the mid-wife whether I would like to take it home.

What’s your greatest regret?
Never telling a lie.

Which living person do you most despise?   
This is too easy.

Which living person do you most admire?
There was this old guy I met once at a train station – I was with my guitar. He asked me if he could play a song or two.  It was only when I gave it to him that I realized he had arthritis so he could not play.  But he held it and played a song only he could hear.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever got?
Read like your life depends on it.

Where/When have you been happiest?
Those perfect mornings when my daughter saunters into our bedroom at 5:00 am and says something weird that makes us laugh our own sleep away.

If you were president of the ‘United States of Africa’ for a day – what would you do?
I would consolidate democracy and appoint myself president for a second day, and then a third…

Which (6) or more people would be on your fantasy dinner party list – [Dead or Alive]?
I think 6 would be too many for my dinner crew – how about Ruth First, Thomas Sankara, Frantz Fanon and Rosa Luxemburg talking globalization today?

I have been listening to various versions of the Tizita song like my life depended on it as I work on a novel about duelling musicians.  So here are my favourite four.

1.      Tizita – Ketema Mekonnen and Bezawork Asfaw

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2.      Tizita – bt Michael Belayneh

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3.      New Tizita by Aster Aweke

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4.      Tizita – Madingo

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5.      Heathen (live version) – Bob Marley

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6.      Mali Blues – Joep Pelt & Baba Salah

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7.      Vieux Farka Toure “Bamako jam”

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