Okwiri Oduor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her novella, The Dream Chasers was highly commended in the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012. She is a 2014 MacDowell Colony fellow and is currently at work on her debut novel. She discusses her influences and her advice for aspiring writers.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Caine Prize. What was your reaction when you found out you were on the list?
Thank you. The news stunned me. My reaction was to shut off the internet and crawl beneath my bed, where I have been hugging my knees and rocking back and forth ever since.
My Father’s Head is a story about coping with loss, memories, and finding meaning with the ones we love. What inspired you to write the story?
I was estranged from my loved ones for a while. I thought of it as being in exile—from home, from them, from myself. During this time, I thought a lot about mortality, about the meaning of home and the spaces that one inhabits while there. What happens to home when you leave? Do these spaces lay fallow, waiting for your return? What if you never find your way home again? And what if you do, and you find that it has changed, and that your people are no longer yours? Are your people really, infinitely, your people?
Who are some of your literary influences?
That is a difficult question. Different people see different influences in my work. I would say my first influences were the housemaids of my childhood. Through the oral tradition—those stories they told on the veranda while they shelled peas, about djinnis swirling in cooking pots—they influenced a lot of my writing.
I grew up acutely aware of the existence of several, concomitant realities. It was not that I believed in them, nor that this was necessary, but that the people around me did, and so, invariably, I had to acknowledge that the world is a mysterious place that I will never fully comprehend.
I do not know if I would call it influence, but female Black writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Dantecat stirred something deep inside me.
You recently directed the Inaugural Writivism Festival in Kampala, Uganda, can you tell us a bit about that experience?
I did that in August 2013. It was very small then and still floundering, with little by way of financial support but much by way of energy and enthusiasm. I am happy to see that it has improved tremendously since then. Bwesigye [bwa Mwesigire] and his team have done a good job this year, and I look forward to watching it grow even bigger.
You teach creative writing, what is your advice for aspiring writers?
Last year, I taught creative writing to young girls. I think there is plenty of technical advice given by writers far more experienced than myself. To that, I really can add nothing. I would, however, like to advice young writers –and artists—to embrace themselves. You are incredible, and your work is beautiful, and you must honor yourself and it. There is no shame in you or in what you do.
I know that it is easy to dismiss this as overly sentimental, but in my opinion, not enough words of this nature are being said to young people. They certainly were not being said to me. As a result, I was torn between forces within me and those without, each pulling hard in opposing directions. I wish to tell aspiring writers to brace themselves, that the road ahead is long and torturous, but that it is also unbelievably fulfilling.