AiW Guest: Katarzyna Kubin.
Iman Verjee is a novelist living in Nairobi, Kenya with two novels published by the award-winning independent, Oneworld Publications: Who will Catch us as we Fall (2016) and In Between Dreams (2014). Both novels were promoted at this year’s Open Book Festival, held annually in Cape Town, South Africa at the start of spring.
Iman appeared on four panel discussions during the festival – “Rape Culture,” “Surviving Youth,” “Agency,” and “The Drama of Family” – but she also found a moment in her busy schedule for a conversation with Africa in Words. Iman spoke about her background and the experiences that influenced her as a writer, and also reflected on her writing process, and the ideas that nourish and inspire her stories.
Katarzyna Kubin for Africa in Words (AiW): It’s been wonderful to hear you in conversation at the various Open Book Festival events on a range of issues related to writing and the politics of writing. Can you share a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
Iman Verjee: I was born in Kenya and lived there for eighteen years before I traveled to Canada and the UK to study. But my love for writing started a long time before that. I wrote my first short story when I was twelve, with my twin sister. It was a teen thriller, a copy-cat of R.L. Stine, who I read a lot as a child. It was during that time that I realized what power writing has, how it can take you to entirely new worlds and dimensions.
As I grew older, writing was pushed to the side, though never entirely forgotten. I chose to pursue studies in psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada. Writing creeped up on me quite unexpectedly in my last year at university during a “Psychology of Aesthetics” course. Our final assignment was a creative project and I wrote a short story. That reminded me of the peculiar and wonderful ability writing has to make you look outside, as well as inside yourself, and to foster personal growth.
My father was the one who told me about a Creative Writing Master’s Programme at City University in London and, when I decided to apply, my family was very encouraging and supportive. When I got accepted, it just felt like fate. It was during the time at City University when I began taking my writing seriously. I had to write a novel for my dissertation and I realized that it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I could see the impact writing had on people, and also the way it impacted me.
I was very fortunate in my journey to becoming a writer. I found an agent after I won the Peters, Fraser&Dunlop/City University Prize for Fiction and together, we submitted my manuscript to Oneworld Publications, and the rest is history!
AiW: What did the creative writing programme mean for you as a writer? What did it give you in practical terms of the craft of writing?
Verjee: It forced me to show my work to people. Young writers, I think, tend to hide their work away because it’s something extremely personal, but in order to grow as a writer and to develop your writing skills, the most important thing you can do is show your writing to others and so learn from them, whether it’s in a writing group or in a course of study. You can’t really see your own writing objectively because you’re so close to it, so when you show it to others, they can tell you, from a reader’s point of view and as an unbiased third party, what works and what doesn’t. This kind of feedback really helped my writing develop. It also gave me a greater sense of confidence.
AiW: The Open Book Festival programme highlighted issues of identity and identity construction – e.g. the sessions “Constructing Identities” and “Coloured identity”. Your second book explicitly addresses identity and belonging in Kenya. But I also noticed that you’ve been variously identified in reviews. Kirkus Reviews describes you as a “unique, powerful voice in African literature,” while The Economist emphasizes your international connections. How do you personally identify and how does that relate to your writing?
Verjee: I definitely identify as Kenyan, but I’m very fortunate in that I was able to go away for a little while. I think that when you go away and then come back, you can gain a fresh perspective, you’re able to look at things in a different way. I used to hold on to certain prejudices and stereotypes, and I didn’t realize it until I went away from Kenya and came back. So, my experiences in Canada and the UK enriched me in important ways, also in my identity as Kenyan.
AiW: Can you say more about what traveling and your experiences abroad have given you in terms of perspective as a writer and in terms of your creative process?
Verjee: As a writer, I think it’s important to explore as much as possible of the spectrum of human behavior and emotion, and to try to see the world in many different ways. Traveling is one of the best ways to do this. If I had stayed in Kenya, I would have understood the world in more limited terms.
My novel, Who will Catch us as we Fall, is largely a product of the changes I went through while I was away. Seeing how multicultural cities can be in the West made me more aware of how the different communities in Kenya isolate themselves. There is this sense of boundaries between people, which I don’t think I would have noticed if I hadn’t gone away. So traveling made me question things that I had previously taken for granted, it made me think and hope that we can do things differently in Kenya. It also gave me the courage to speak up about it.
AiW: Your second novel, Who will Catch us as we Fall (2016), presents a Kenyan-Indian family and addresses issues of stereotypes and prejudices. How was the book received in Kenya?
Verjee: Oh, a lot better than I had thought, actually! A lot of people have told me how well they can relate to it and how much it’s made them rethink how they act and the way that they are. I think the best thing is that the book seems to force people to recognize those things they have inside them, it forces people to question their stereotypes and prejudices, and hopefully to work through them. The reception was amazing, but I do think that Nairobi is already moving in that direction anyway. A lot of people, artists and writers, started talking about how different communities are separate, so my book was an addition to the on-going discussion.
AiW: Can you talk more about the debate that’s going on in Kenya about these issues and how your work fits into it?
Verjee: One of the most exciting and uplifting things about Kenya today is how vocal the younger generation is becoming, how they are fighting for a better society, and this is being done largely through creative processes such as film-making, writing and art. We’re talking about contemporary issues that are relevant to our generation such as identity, inter-racial relationships, unemployment, for example.
There’s a local Kenyan TV show I recently watched, called Prem, and it deals with similar issues to those I wanted to talk about in my novel. The show is about a young Kenyan man called Eddie, who has been in a five year relationship with Leila. Leila comes from a strict Muslim family and has kept her relationship with Eddie a secret from her parents and brother because she knows they’ll disapprove of it.
What I love about this show is that it gives a unique perspective on Kenyan culture and the diversity of Kenyan society. I was also striving to deal with these issues in my novel, especially by spotlighting the Indian community in Kenya, which remains largely invisible. The wonderful thing is that Prem is not an anomaly – there are more TV shows, books, blogs, that focus on themes of identity, belonging and integration in Kenya and so I like to think of my novel as part of that broader discussion.
AiW: Your two published novels are quite different in terms of setting and main themes, but you have such a distinct prose style and voice. Who or what has influenced your writing?
Verjee: I don’t know that I have specific authors who I read and who influence my writing. But there are certain, specific books that I have read that particularly inspired me. I enjoy reading and writing in a voice that is poetic and lyrical. It can soften the blow for readers, especially when you’re talking about difficult topics. One of the novels that really helped me go in that direction is called Fall On Your Knees (1996) by the Canadian writer, Anne-Marie MacDonald. She writes in a lovely, soothing language that, at the same time, is also quite dark and serious. But it’s her own – there isn’t anyone I have come across who writes quite like her. And that’s what I was trying to channel in my own writing.
AiW: As the author of two published novels, the first of which, In Between Dreams (2014), was distinguished by the Peters, Fraser&Dunlop/City University Prize for Fiction (2012), you are in a good position to offer advice to writers who hope, one day, to publish. What would you say to unpublished writers as encouragement?
Verjee: I think my top piece of advice would be to just relax and enjoy the process. Don’t worry so much about if it’s going to get published and when am I going to find a publisher or agent. I don’t think that should be the goal of any writer. Just write what feels true to you. Writing is a long and difficult process and the only way you are going to make it enjoyable is by writing what you love. I remember for my first novel, I was so fixated on getting it published, and of course that’s important, and it will come in time, but worrying about it diminishes the meaning and value of the process.
The second piece of advice would be to join a writing group. If you can’t do a Masters programme like I did, then join a writing group. That’s what really brought me out of my shell and helped me to enhance my writing skills. You know, we think that writing is a talent, and it is a talent, but that talent can be shaped and improved through education and practice.
AiW: There was a session in the festival titled “Breathing Room” in which Nadia Davids, Damon Galgut and Yewande Omotoso discussed finding and securing the spaces in which to write. What is your writing routine and writing space?
Verjee: I have to be very isolated when I write. I can’t write with noise or with people around me, it distracts me, so I’ve made an office out of my attic and I lock the door and I go up there to write, so that’s my space.
In terms of my process, I learned very early on in my masters that you don’t write when you’re inspired because that would mean you’d write a book maybe once every ten years. You have to write every single day, so that’s what I do. I try to write at least 500-1000 words. I don’t edit myself during the process, I just write and even if it’s something that won’t show up in my book, even if it’s something that’s so terrible that I can’t ever read it again, it always brings me closer to that goal and I think that’s what I’d really say to, especially new writers: don’t wait until inspiration hits you because then you’ll never do it.
AiW: You spoke in the session titled “Rape Culture” with Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola and Helen Moffett, a particularly sensitive and challenging session. The topic of rape is significant in your first book, In Between Dreams (2014). What was your take-away from that session?
Verjee: It was so uplifting. It was so nice to see that we could talk about this issue in a manner that’s hopeful. And that’s what I love: in that discussion we learned again the power of words, the power of fiction, and how through fiction we can bring up topics that we’re so afraid to address in real life. Of course we talked about the responsibilities of a writer, how as writers we must approach these kinds of subjects with as much compassion and as much sensitivity as we can, but it never means that we shouldn’t touch such topics. That’s what I took away from the session, that no matter how difficult the subject, we have a responsibility as writers, as humans, to talk about them because that’s the only way we’ll see change.
AiW: We spoke earlier about this being your first time at this exceptional event in South Africa. How do you find the Open Book Festival?
Verjee: Wow, I love it. The whole atmosphere of it, you can just sense how much people love books here, how interested they are in learning and experiencing things, everybody is so nice. You feel like it’s a conversation, less about talking about yourself, and more about learning from other people. That’s what you really want as a writer: to share your experiences, but also to enrich yourself by listening and learning.
AiW: A final question for you: can you tell us, are you working on something new now?
Verjee: [laughs] Slowly, yes. My first book was set in Canada and my second in Kenya, and after that, I realized how passionately I feel about being a Kenyan writer. How I have slowly come to identify myself – proudly so – as such. Maybe it’s because I’ve now settled back in Kenya permanently.
So the third novel is once again going to be set in Kenya, and again it’s going to focus on the Kenyan-Indian community because I don’t think we tell our stories enough. But I’m going deeper into our past this time, to the time we came as “Coolies,” or indentured laborours during colonialism, to build the railway, and how we established ourselves in Kenyan society over the years, the socio-economic contributions we’ve made and the struggles we went (and are still going) through.
So that’s in the works right now. It’s still very fresh to me. When I write, I like to keep the process as open as possible. I know what topic I want to explore, what issues, but not more than that so I’m very excited about where this story might take me. It also gives me an opportunity to re-learn my history and it’s very eye-opening. I hope for my readers it will be as well!
Iman Verjee won the 2012 Peters, Fraser&Dunlop/City University Prize for Fiction for her debut novel In Between Dreams, which she wrote whilst completing an MA in Creative Writing at City University. Prior to studying in London she studied psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada, where she lived for six years. She now lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Who will Catch us as we Fall is her latest novel.
Katarzyna Kubin has been writing for and curating Africa in Words series since 2016. She is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). She is also co-founder and current Executive Board member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organisation based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity.
For more AiW coverage of the Open Book Festival this year, see Katarzyna’s post, ‘Voices from the seventh edition of the Open Book Festival, Cape Town’, link below or click here.