Writer and editor Billy Kahora’s highly anticipated story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War: and Other Stories – originally published by Huza Press (Kigali) in 2019 and available in Africa – made its US debut with Ohio University Press this year in March. With the book tour and US launch cancelled in the onward tread of the pandemic measures, we are delighted to see that Kahora will be in conversation about his book with editor and researcher Michael Busch (@michaelkbusch), in a Polis Project Virtual Book Salon, part of a series of discussions and online events running during the lockdown from this vibrant, energetically critical forum.
This free event is happening tonight, Thursday 16th April, at 1:00 EST / 6:00 BST. You can stream the conversation on www.patreon.com/polisproject
“[T]his collection of eleven short stories brings together stories that have already received critical acclaim with previously unpublished stories set across Kenya, South Africa and the US. It explores tensions and transitions of lives in-between youthful folly and precarious adulthoods.
In the title story, immigrant workers with varying ambitions work at a Wendy’s in wintry Cape Cod. Sharing one house, they must also share, or rather compete for, bicycles—crucial transportation—which are in short supply.
In other stories, a young man caught between a broken family and political violence befriends an aged gorilla in a Nairobi zoo; a pastor struggles to come to terms with the arrest of his brother, who is suspected of terrorism; and a dissolute bank employee on a serious bender returns to work to face a review board.
The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories is Billy Kahora’s long-awaited debut collection.”
Like us all, the global pandemic has impacted artists, writers, thinkers and educators who we love to follow and read. Ahead of the Polis Project virtual salon’s livestream, we caught up with Kahora to ask him for some of his Words on the times, part of a new AiW Q&A series, initially inspired by Clémence Michallon’s set of interviews in the Independent with authors whose book launches have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic (31 March – here). In the spirit of community and connection around our common interests, we use this space to share our experiences of the amplified times of now…
AiW: Can you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your plans?
Billy Kahora: On the short story collection [The Cape Cod Bicycle War], I had lined up to do some promotional events in the States but we had to cancel that. Under the circumstances, one can’t really be too upset in the momentous context of what’s happening. It just helps one reflect on what is important but also to think up new ways in which to do readings and promote the book.
I also teach at the University of Bristol and it’s been quite challenging but fascinating moving that online. During this time I find that I’m unable to work steadily and go through ‘ups’ for a few days and then struggle to get anything going. It’s also been hard thinking long-term around my work when something so momentous is happening, that’s changing our lives every day.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
As a writer I already live quite a solitary existence and at first I thought that this would be a window I could really catch up with writing-in-progress. But I’m finding it is not that easy. It’s still early days and like everyone I’m trying to figure it out.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
I think the additional time with family has been quite incredible. I am also quite amazed at how people have adapted and just seemed to get on with it.
How can our communities support you?
You are already doing it by keeping a conversation going. Thank you.
Tune in to the virtual Book Salon tonight, Thursday 16th April, at 1:00 EST / 6:00 BST, at www.patreon.com/polisproject. And send your questions for Kahora ahead of time to @project_polis or @michaelkbusch.
For a taster, read an excerpt from the collection – a millennial Kenya we’ve never seen in fiction before (Namwali Serpell) – from the story ‘The Red Door’ in the Johannesburg Review of Books.
“Billy Kahora’s ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ is an evocative story that centres on an unlikely friendship between soon-to-be eighteen year-old Jimmy Gikonyo and Sebastian, an ancient mountain gorilla from Nairobi’s Animal Orphanage. Set amidst the turbulence of the violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 election, this is a story that speaks to the traumas of that moment.”
~ Rachel Knighton’s AiW review, part of the 2014 ’Blogging the Caine Prize’ series.
Billy Kahora is a Kenyan writer, and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol. He is the former Managing Editor of Kwani Trust. His writing has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale, Vanity Fair and Kwani?. He is the author of the non-fiction novella The True Story Of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower (2008). His short story ‘Treadmill Love’ was highly commended by the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing judges; ‘Urban Zoning’ was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, and ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ in 2014.
‘Billy Kahora is a painter with words. He makes the reader see and touch and smell and feel characters and their inner turmoil as they try to survive, against the challenges of nature and nurture.’
— Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o