This is the first in our 2016 Caine Prize interview series. Here, Joseph Omotayo interviewed Abdul Adan, one of the 2016 Caine Prize shortlisted writers. Abdul Adan is a Kenyan writer. His shortlisted story is The Lifebloom Gift. His work has appeared in African magazines like Kwani, Jungle Jim, Gambit, Okike, Storytime, SCARF and elsewhere. Abdul Adan was a participant in the 2014 Caine Prize workshop in Zimbabwe, and is a founding member of the Jalada collective.
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Joseph Omotayo: Congratulations on being shortlisted. At what point in your writing career did this news meet you?
Abdul Adan: Thank you. I got this news around the time when, having published a bunch of short stories over the years, I was now trying my hand at the novel form. I had done some travelling over the past two years and learnt about some foreign cultures and their languages. I was just trying to figure out whether or not I am ready to take on these newly learnt things as a writer. It is for the good that I got shortlisted right now. I am very encouraged.
JO: How long does it take you to complete a short story?
AA: It takes me about three to four days to complete the first draft of most stories. Sometimes, if the story is under 2000 words, I would finish the first draft in under 3 hours.
JO: Do you think fiction writers often use the short story form as a test to writing a full novel? I’m talking from the knowledge that some of the past Caine Prize winners went on to write novels afterwards.
AA: Yes, I think a lot of them do. Some start off with the novel form. It must take a lot of courage for a new writer to complete an entire novel, without any guarantees that it would make it to a publisher. Time is really precious. This must take a lot of optimism. I am trying to develop this sort of courageous optimism myself.
JO: Would you consider the short story form as a weaker version of the novel?
AA: Not really. The short story is a different form. It is neither less nor weaker. A good short story can accomplish a lot more than some novels would. I have read some really memorable short stories that are just as powerful, if not more, than some novels. ‘Boule De Suif’ by Guy De
Maupassant and ‘The Vane Sisters’ by Vladimir Nabokov are examples of short stories that accomplish a lot more than many novels.
JO: What matters most about a writing Prize: the money, the visibility or the validation? Or all of them? And why?
AA: It is hardly ever the money. I think many serious writers will agree. It is the validation that could make writers feel like they weren’t just fooling around after all. Artists are a nervous, sensitive, insecure bunch. And a lot of us know a lot less than people think we do. Often we just want to hear something nice said about us or our work.
JO: Has there been a time in your life when writing was difficult for you?
AA: I don’t remember a time that it wasn’t. Writing is difficult work. Even more so when you are younger and unestablished. You need to create excuses to tell your family and friends while you try to get the next story going without any real hopes on the horizon.
JO: In an interview of yours in the Gambit, you said you didn’t think you’ve gotten to the point where you could accurately refer to yourself as a writer. That was 2012. Now in 2016, and with the fame of being shortlisted for the Caine Prize, do you consider yourself as a writer? What does it mean to be a writer?
AA: I am only a writer when I am writing, when I am actually in the middle of story, and thinking about the same even during breaks. That is when I am a writer. As soon as the story is done, I will wait again until I conceive the next story and start writing it before I can think of myself as a writer. When there isn’t a piece of fiction I am working on I am like everyone else who isn’t a writer, because I don’t know a thing and I sit scared that another idea may never come. The idea controls the language. If the initial idea for a story is weak the language, too, will be terrible. The Caine Prize shortlist won’t change that. I am still not a writer unless I am at the writing table.
JO: A dominant theme your shortlisted story, The Lifebloom Gift, touches is sexuality. What is sexuality to you?
AA: Sexuality did not cross my mind during the writing. I probably know just as much as everyone else, if not less, about sexuality. I do know something about Ted’s sexual life, and mine. Sex has the power to give one the illusion that they own another person. Good people do get very honest during sex too. Ted is one. There’s probably something about really intense sexual experiences that invokes previous lives. I don’t believe in reincarnation.
JO: The Lifebloom Gift seems to give redemption to Ted, who almost everyone does not understand in the story, as you familiarise the reader to his specialness. Do you think writing should make the strange familiar and the familiar strange?
AA: Yes it does. I actually had no clue Ted got redeemed in the story. Looking back now, I think he found redemption. I can’t elaborate further, sadly. The question is a tough one.
JO: Thank you for your time.