Hey everyone that’s following this conversation. Billy is a little caught up so he wasn’t able to be online at the scheduled 12 noon. He’ll log on later in the day once he’s settled and answer the questions so you can still leave yours there. Cheers.
This week in the In Conversation series, we are engaging with Kenya’s own Billy Kahora.
Billy Kahora is a writer and his short fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale and Vanity Fair and Kwani. He has written a non-fiction novella titled The True Story Of David Munyakei and more recently a short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War, which he is currently promoting actively.
He was highly commended by the 2007 Caine Prize judges for his story Treadmill Love; his story Urban Zoning was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, The Gorilla’s Apprentice in 2014. He wrote the screenplay for Soul Boy and co-wrote Nairobi Half Life which won the Kalasha awards. He is now working on a novel titled The Applications.
He has been awarded Writers fellowships in Italy, U.K, Germany, Denmark and South Africa. He is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol. He is a founding partner of Saseni! a creative writing teaching platform.
Billy has been also Managing Editor of Kwani Trust, a Nairobi based literary network and has edited 7 issues of the Kwani journal and other Kwani publications including Nairobi 24 and Kenya Burning. He is also a Contributing Editor with the Chimurenga Chronic and sits on the board of Numbi a London based network of Somali writers. He edited the Sci-Fi anthology Imagine 500 with Malawiian writers.
He has also been Kwani Litfest Curator since 2008 – in 2015 he curated Kwani Litfest 2015 Writers In Conversation: Beyond The Map Of English.
He is a past recipient of the Chevening Scholarship, an Iowa Writer’s Fellowship and recently the President’s award at the University of Manchester to study for a PhD in Creative Writing.
Billy Kahora is evidently a highly experienced and accomplished player in the African literature scene so join us as we find out how he’s managed to do so much and what we should expect in his new short story collection.
Procedure for participation is simple:
– Scroll to the bottom of this page and use the form there to ask your question or hit reply to one of the existing responses and use the form to reply to that.
– Ask your question and wait for Billy’s reply.
He will enter the conversation Friday 21st June 2019 at 12 NOON GMT +3 and exit when we run out of questions/when he is tired, whichever comes first. But feel free to leave your question before the session starts and he will answer when it starts.
Hey Billy. Thank you for agreeing to chat with us here. To quickly start the conversation, tell us about your new short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War. How many stories are in there? How long did it take you to write them? Why did you chose Cape Cod Bicycle War for the title story?
Hi Roland, 11 stories. These stories span my writing career since 2006. Back then I only worked on short stories. And when I started getting published regularly I soon realised I had 6 stories that I thought were pretty good. I also had a few others that were pretty bad. I had been working on a novel for 2 years and I was quite frustrated with it and I thought let me take a break with the short form and when I revived 3 old ideas and finished some new stories I realised all of them had relatively youthful characters and I could put them together as a collection.
When I’m starting on a story, piece I try to clear as much time as possible – minimum 5 days and work full out. Minimum 5 hours a day till I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. I try to start as early as possible. The best writing for me happens between 2.30 and 5 a.m and then I go back to bed. When I’m editing I do 2-3 hours before 9 a.m 5 days a week all the time and then get on with the business of life i.e family, work … friends … youtube, Netflix in no particular order of importance
You are part of a panel at the upcoming Africa Writes on How to Reach the Readers: Publishing in Africa. One of the questions for you and the other panelists in the session description is, ‘Is the excitement of e-readers and digital distribution all it’s cracked up to be?’. Part of our plans as Obukiko is digital distribution of Africa literature. Are you able to share some thoughts on that here? Feel free to expand to other observations you might have on how to reach readers…
It’s only the reader who can make that judgement. I think stories and novels rather than writers. Short stories: there are many but Ha Jin’s When Chicken Cowboy Came To Town’ is up there. John Cheever’s ‘Goodbye My Brother’. Creative Non-Fiction: Jonny Steinbeck’s ‘Midlands’. Memoir: Noni Jabavu’s “Red Ochre. The novel” Patrick Chamoiseau’s ‘Texaco’. And many more.
All you stories are wonderful and I can’t wait to dig into Cape Cod Bicycle War. Where do you draw your inspiration from? And have you ever written a story about someone you met or someone in your life?
Short stories: Ha Jin’s When Chicken Cowboy Came To Town’ is up there. John Cheever’s ‘Goodbye My Brother’. Creative Non-Fiction: Jonny Steinbeck’s ‘Midlands’. Memoir: Noni Jabavu’s “Red Ochre. The novel” Patrick Chamoiseau’s ‘Texaco’. And many more.
Related, how do you feel about the current state of literature in Kenya? Any new titles/authors that are exciting for you? How about the institutions…Storymoja didn’t have a festival last year, Enkare can’t seem to escape controversy, Kwani? itself isn’t as active as it was in its initial years…I’m probably paying too much attention to the not-so-bright side but if one wanted to know which institutions are a good starting point to understand what’s happening in the industry there, who should they look out for?
Nobody likes to say it but the change in the funding landscape has changed things. That has dried up. Kwani, Storymoja, Go Down, Sarakasi all came up during a new political and economic time – Kenya is a tough place nowadays and the hustle is not as easy.
Literary beefs have always been part of the fabric of these things and they are as old as time. Plato and Aristotle beefed. What I don’t like is how they take attention away from the work. Enkare has done some great stuff and for me that’s all that matters.
I don’t follow the scene as much as I used to – family, my own writing. These are exciting times – there are just so many new great writers. Novuyo. Dwige. Abdul Adan. Jowhor Ile.
You wrote a moving eulogy about Binyavanga on Lithub (https://lithub.com/binyavanga-wainaina-billy-kahora/) when he passed on. As someone that knew him from school and then worked with him at Kwani?, what would be your 5 key lessons from him that any African writer should take to heart?
Fellowships, scholarships, prizes, curating and speaking at festivals, mentoring, features in literary magazines…you’ve pretty much participated in the ‘cycle’ of making it as an African writer. Which of these do you think are most helpful when one is building a career in the industry and which ones do you feel might not have helped you that much?
Your bio mentions Saseni!, a creative writing teaching platform which you founded and Numbi, a London based network of Somali writers of which you are on the board. What encouraged you to be a part of these two and how are they different from the other platforms and networks that have existed on the continent for some time now?
I think its important to formalize and structure stuff. For a long time we (kwani and other projects) just didn’t do that and lost a lot of material. Now I’ve realized how important proper structures are.
Numbi publishes a lot of good stuff about stuff you don’t see that much on the continent. For a long time there were no formal creative writing programs on the continent outside of South Africa. I see it as a major growth area.
Thanks Obukiko for hosting me today. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to join the conversation on time. Do look out for my short story collection at a bookshop near you and various literary events I’ll be attending to promote it.
This is a demo online book shop for testing purposes — no orders shall be fulfilled. Dismiss
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