Wanjiku wa Ngugi’s debut novel, The Fall of Saints was released earlier this year by Atria. She is a member of the editorial board of Matatu: Journal for African Literature and Culture and Society, and was a columnist for the Finnish development magazine Maailman Kuvalehti, writing about political and cultural issues. She is also the director of the Helsinki African Film Festival (HAFF) in Finland, and been a jury member of the CinemAfrica Film Festival in Sweden in 2012 and 2013. Her columns have appeared in The Herald (Zimbabwe), The Daily Nation & Business Daily, Pambazuka News, and Chimurenga, among others. Her short stories have been published in The New Black Magazine, The East African, amongst other places. She discusses her novel, her family and her influences with Afridiaspora.com
1. Have you always wanted to become a writer?
I loved theatre, so I wanted to be a playwright. I grew up around performance and storytelling. There were for instance my elder siblings who narrated, to my brother Mukoma and I, the never-ending adventures of Mwangi Cowboy, a Kenyan cowboy whose quest was justice. We only learned later that these stories were made up on the spot, and that my father had done the same thing with them in their childhood.
2. Who are some of your literary influences?
I have a lot of influences, but Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Sembene Ousmane, Sonia Sanchez, (Sonia Sanchez twice), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison would top the list.
3. The Fall of Saints is a thriller where you focus on tough issues such as illegal international adoption and wombs for hire. What influenced you to write the novel?
I wanted to write a novel about a woman finding her agency. In the novel, Mugure, the lead character, does this by exploring some forms of exploitation affecting women, e.g. hiring of wombs—which in a sense is the transformation of a biological function of a woman ́s body into a commercial contract. Through Mugure ́s journey to self-discovery, I wanted to examine the moral and ethical questions surrounding the industry—because that’s what it really is. There is supply and demand. There are buyers. Sellers. Middlemen. Agents. Brokers. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/08/nigeria-baby-factories_n_3889300.html) To look at the players as a way of questioning how it is we have come to normalize women’s bodies as commodity, and really to examine the inequalities that make it possible for women to contract their wombs, and or sell off their children to make ends meet.
4. You come from a family of writers, your dad is the legendary Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and many of your siblings are also writers in their own right. Can you share some of the advice you’ve received over the years in relation to writing and also what is your advice for aspiring writers
Reading, reading and more reading. It is also important to understand that writing is basically hard work. So exercising patience is very important. Don’t be in a rush, get someone to read your drafts only after you have revised them a great deal. And take criticism, it only helps improve your work.
5. Five years ago you began the Helsinki African Film Festival in Helsinki, Finland. Can you tell us about the festival and the inspiration behind it?
I am interested in how stories are framed—what is included or excluded in a story or a film—as this informs how the particular subjects are imagined. So when I moved to Finland I was surprised at the way stories on and about Africa and the diaspora were framed. The representation of Africa is through a very narrow prism, which then for the large part, informs how Africans are perceived here. So out of this need to deconstruct the depiction of Africa as the dark continent that only produces dark images, I thought that it would be a great idea to have Africans telling their whole, diverse stories on screen. Images are especially powerful. So I hoped an annual festival would help reconstruct the stories about African people, to hopefully begin a different conversation about black people in Finland. Overall we have screened about 100 films since we started. Amongst some of the films we have screened are Bamako directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, Tey directed by Alan Gomis, The Wedding Song directed by Karin Albou, Half of a Yellow Sun directed by Biyi Bandele.