‘That great Kenyan novel will eventually come. Perhaps, it will even emerge online, like the novels of Alexander Nderitu.’ – Joyce Nyairo, cultural analyst, Daily Nation
Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan poet, novelist, and playwright and critic. He is also an arts analyst and progressive rap music promoter, and an e-book specialist.
In 2001, he published his first novel, When the Whirlwind Passes, online. It is regarded as Africa’s first purely ‘digital novel’ and garnered Nderitu the title of ‘e-book pioneer’.
He went on to publish three more digital books: The Moon is Made of Green Cheese (2008), Kiss Commander Promise (2011), and Africa on My Mind (2013). His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely across various journals, sites, and other publications, and his writings have been translated into Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Swedish, French, Dholuo, and Kiswahili. His more scholarly work is available on Academia.edu.
In 2017, Business Daily newspaper listed Nderitu among Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men‘. In 2020, he was a finalist for the Collins Elesiro Literature Prize. He is currently the Deputy Secretary-General of Kenyan PEN and a Regional Managing Editor for the global theatre news portal, TheTheatreTimes.com. His official website is www.AlexanderNderitu.com
This year, Nderitu released When the Whirlwind Passes in print form (February 2021). We caught up with him to discuss his work and this decision to transition the ‘first purely digital novel’ to print form, as well as the different ways recent times and events have affected his wide and varied literary practices, writing, thinking – critically and creatively – across the roles and institutional spaces he currently occupies in the development of literary cultures…
AiW: Could you tell us a bit more about what you do, as the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre? What kind of programmes and activities, partnerships and collaborations does PEN Kenya Centre oversee, and in what ways did the pandemic affect them?
Alexander Nderitu: My main role at Kenyan PEN is handling IT-related tasks. For example, I am the one who set up and administrates the PEN Kenya Facebook group. I also handle a lot of communications. The larger goal of PEN International, of which we are but one chapter, is to promote literature and Freedom of Speech across the world. PEN International is quite well-known for its advocacy. And, as the Kenyan PEN President, Khainga O’Okwemba, likes to say, it’s the oldest global literary movement.
Some of the ways in which PEN Centres promote literature is via workshops and seminars, literary awards, supporting book festivals and launches, and publishing articles. Writers write. The various Centres have plenty of autonomy when it comes to priorities and operations. However, they will often pull together when they are supporting a particular cause, for example calling for an unjustly jailed scribe or journo to be released by a repressive regime.
Once a year, there’s a global PEN Conference which all chapters are encouraged to attend. Some Centres, like English PEN, are very well established and financially stable. Some, especially in developing countries, are smaller and less well-funded and organized. It’s not unusual for the parent organization to financially assist struggling Centres. But the goal is for each Centre to hold its own and for literature to be borderless. For example, if two countries have political/ideological differences, they should still be free to invite others’ scribes to their festivals, book fairs and such. The art should be allowed to float above “social and political upheavals” in individual nations.
Incidentally, “PEN” used to be an acronym for “poets, essayists and novelists”. That was when it was founded over a century ago. Membership now includes other people who deal with words like journalists, academicians, publishers, translators, playwrights, and even bloggers. Journos are especially attracted to it because each chapter has a ‘Writers at Risk Committee’ that defends members who are unfairly harrassed in regions that lack freedom of speech.
As for the coronavirus pandemic, the effects are all across the board. Literary and theatrical events have been suspended, including my book launch for the paperback version of When the Whirlwind Passes. It’s a crime novel inspired by a 1990’s high society murder in Italy. We – the Kenyan literary community – previously had plenty of book forums at places such as the Goethe Institute and Alliance Française, as well as annual literary festivals and book fairs. Kenya has had two lockdowns in as many years. PEN Centre is currently only active online.
AiW: In what ways are you now writing, and/or thinking about writing, that you weren’t before? You describe yourself as a “career writer.” What informs your writing practice? What inspires you to write – when, how, where, and how often?
Alexander Nderitu: My methods of writing haven’t changed much over the years. I still burrow through tons of newspapers looking for interesting people, stories or ideas. Like everyone else, I also use online searches for research but I still do books and newspapers. I also use social media to market my work and email to contact people worldwide (media, book stores, other literati and so on). When I started out, the closest thing to social media I knew was AuthorsDen.com. Some of my earlier works are still there. And then came MySpace, Facebook, WattPad, WhatsApp, Instagram and so many technologies that have made sharing and promoting literature so much easier. Facebook is the one I use most.
By “career writer”, I mean that this is what I was born to do. No matter what else I do in life, I will always write stuff. I have also worked as a computer tutor, website designer, magazine editor, film reviewer, coffee farmer, and a few other things, but the writing is consistent.
When I was in college, I had a copy of James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. A blurb on the cover described him as “the greatest Negro writer” and I thought, “That’s so cool”! It’s like being a king without a crown. Your kingdom is your readership. I’ve always admired famous writers. If you gave me the option to meet Joe Biden, Kim Kardashian, Boris Johnson, or James Patterson, I’d take Patterson. I just know we’d get along and have lots of topics to talk about. I am a huge fan of his marketing techniques. He worked for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency for many years and later used the marketing methods they used to promote products to push his own books. Harvard Business School has a paper on Patterson’s marketing techniques (‘Marketing James Patterson’ by John A. Deighton). I downloaded and read it some years ago.
As for what inspires me, that’s actually a harder question to answer than it may seem. I am inspired or motivated to write by so many things in my environment. And yet even if I lived on an island like Robinson Crusoe, I know I would still write because that’s my favourite way of expressing myself. Certainly, I am inspired by interesting things that I read. For example, I wrote my debut novel, When the Whirlwind Passes, after reading about the gangland-style killing of Italian fashion heir Maurizio Gucci.
My poetry collection, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese (2008), is patterned after a delightful little book I had in school titled Adventures into Poetry for East African Schools. It contained simple, enjoyable, rhyming verses. I wanted to produce something similar. My book contains such simple poems as ‘The Clouds’, which appears in the World Poetry Yearbook, and ‘The Nile’, which was broadcast by the Vancouver-based World Poetry Café. Simple, straightforward poems.
I also write plenty of short stories. I wrote ‘Harvest of Blood’ (2011) because I wanted to say something about the horrific Rwandan genocide of 1994. It was published in the Israeli-based IFLAC: Peace and Anti Terror Anthology. I sympathized with the innocent victims of a terrorist attack in Garissa University College in 2015, so I wrote a short story titled ‘Live From Garissa’. It was published in the UK by the One Million Project (Thriller Anthology) (2018). ‘Westgate’, another short story, was about the infamous terrorist attack on Westgate Shopping Mall in uptown Nairobi. It appears in the Nigerian-based Ebedi Review 2020 Magazine. I wanted to share my research on Human Genetic Cloning, so I wrote a short story titled ‘The Tomorrow Soldiers’, which appears in my self-published sophomore book, Kiss, Commander, Promise (2011).
But not all my works are inspired by big things like explosions and mega trends. I also like to write about relationships. My romantic stage play, the Stacy Walker Interview (2008), was inspired by a writer colleague of mine who went to interview a married public figure and the whole thing turned into a kind of date. The script is freely available via the Worldreader app. Now that I’m older – I’ve crested 40 – I am very much interested in reading and writing second chance romance stories, especially when the characters have children.
Even though my initial dream was to be a novelist, I now tend to focus more on writing short stories and short plays because I feel there’s very little free time, and too many distractions, in the world today.
AiW: What’s the eBook market like in Kenya presently?
Alexander Nderitu: E-books have made their mark in the Kenyan literary landscape. I authored the first e-novel, about 20 years ago, but many other players have since arrived. Companies like eKitabu distribute e-books to schools and also do other things like digital essay competitions. Worldreader, an NGO registered in the USA and Spain, has partnered with many publishers and libraries to distribute digital books to schools, libraries and the general public, in a variety of languages.
Kenyan publishers were initially reluctant to wade into the digital world, mostly due to fear of piracy, but they have since embraced it. All the major publishers I can think of have an e-book division. Some have also added sales pages on their websites in order to sell directly to customers as opposed to leaving distribution to bookshops and online stores.
At a Worldreader summit, I learnt that some publishers have even banded together in order to reduce the cost of acquiring Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems which prevent e-book piracy. One major advantage of e-book platforms is that they can deliver statistics to publishers that brick-and-mortar stores can only dream of. For example, I enjoy discovering the places where my e-books are read most. Nigeria and South Africa usually top the list.
AiW: In which formats are your eBooks published?—PDF, ePub, Mobi?—and why those formats?
Alexander Nderitu: My more scholarly writings are available on Academia.edu as PDF downloads because they’re free and non-commercial. The actual e-books, however, are distributed in other formats, depending on the reader’s device. For example, the Amazon Kindle uses a proprietary format called AZW, which they own. You never sell a book in Adobe PDF format. That could result in serious piracy, especially in countries where citizens don’t have much disposable income.
If you order my books via Lulu.com, they can be delivered in a range of formats, again depending on your reading device. E-PUB, and especially E-PUB3, is a highly popular e-book format that can be parsed by a wide range of devices, including mobile phones.
AiW: The print version of When the Whirlwind Passes, originally published digitally in 2001, was self-published in print in February 2021. Is the print version the same as the digital version, or does the latter offer more flexibility and/or interactivity?
Alexander Nderitu: There have been some improvements over the years. The paperback version notably has a different cover design, various edits, and a new ISBN number. The paperback version is important because it can be sold via traditional bookstores and street vendors.
Over the years, I have missed a lot of sales opportunities because I didn’t have physical books. People would ask where they can purchase my works and, as I described various online stores, I could see from their body language that they really preferred a traditional book. So I decided to have paperback versions of all my e-books. I’ve already started talking to bookstores around the country.
AiW: In addition to When the Whirlwind Passes, you write poetry, as collected in The Moon is Made of Green Cheese mentioned above, short stories – also mentioned above, collected in Kiss, Commander, Promise; you have written a novel for young adults, Africa On My Mind, and work for theatre, including your award-winning play, Hannah And The Angel. If you had to choose a metaphor for writing across genres, what would that be?
Alexander Nderitu: What an intelligent question! The answer is: water, as described by Bruce Lee. He said, “When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.” Writing in the Nairobi Business Monthly, poet Jacob Oketch described The Moon is Made of Green Cheese as “an amalgamation of narration and versification”. I agree. You see, I am primarily a storyteller. Even my most successful poem, ‘Someone in Africa Loves You’, is a narrative. A story.
I start with a certain story in mind – it may contain ideas, philosophies, humour, personal opinions, research material or feelings – and I decide which form would be the best for me to tell that story. Novels are stories. Plays are stories. Narrative poems are stories. I have even started posting pieces from my forthcoming autobiography online, and it’s packed with anecdotes.
Like Bruce Lee’s water, a story can be poured into different vessels and it will become those vessels. I choose which vessels to use based on the scope of the story, the amount of research I’ve done, and the number of characters. In The Moon is Made of Green Cheese, there’s a poem, titled ‘Love on a Small Island’, in which a young Caribbean man who’s courting a girl suddenly falls sick. The girl nurses him for a long time not knowing that he has secretly recovered and is just enjoying the attention! A narrative like that lacks enough material to be a novel or even a short story. If I wrote it in prose, it would have been flash fiction…
I hope my response to this question was equally intelligent.
AiW: We have noted that you’ve written reviews and other critical pieces in the course of your career. How significant are reviews for your own work and how important do you think having a robust reviews culture is for literary development and growth?
Alexander Nderitu: I take reviews very seriously. And they do affect my writing because oftentimes the creator is too close to his work to have an objective view. I especially like it when a critic brings out something in my work that I hadn’t noticed. My first book review was in the Daily Nation’s Saturday Magazine back in 2002. I still have the physical cutting I took of the piece.
I would definitely like to see more newspapers and blogs doing reviews of artistic productions, be they books, music, fashion, or theatre. Every book or music album that comes out should be professionally reviewed by someone. You’ve probably heard the controversial saying that ‘If it wasn’t reviewed it didn’t happen.’ Africa could also use a localized version of the New York-based Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus reviews books before they are officially released and that would be excellent information for the publisher, books sellers, and author.
Personally, I mostly do theatre reviews but I occasionally analyze books. I am currently reading two books, with a view of reviewing them on my blog: Shahidi Asiyekusudiwa (Involuntary Witness), by Italian novelist Gianrico Carofiglio, and My Name is Toni by French-based Kenyan novelist Waithira Francis. Shahidi Asiyekusudiwa is a Kiswahili translation, by the way.
AiW: Amidst the development of several exciting digital initiatives on the continent, over the years, the debate about the influence of NGOs on literary production in Africa continues. What kind of effect do you suppose the increased digitization of African writing is likely to have on the “NGOization” of African literature?
Alexander Nderitu: The “NGOization” of African literature was going to happen with or without the e-book revolution. It’s an open secret that some of the most “African” literary organizations and initiatives, such as Kwani?, are/were donor funded. My favourite e-book partner, Worldreader, is an NGO co-founded by a former Amazon executive.
The innovation Worldreader has brought to the table has enabled many e-book authors and publishers – especially in Africa and India – to reach a global audience. The fact that digital literature, including the writings posted on blogs, gives the authors more autonomy than they had pre-Internet might weaken the grip of (foreign) NGOs on African literature, but not by much, in my opinion. Most of our major conferences and prizes are still administrated from abroad. For example, the main sponsor of the Caine Prize for African Writing is currently the European-based AKO Foundation, an NGO.
AiW: Toni Kan described literary prizes as “strange animals”; “As subjective as they often are, they usually confer immediate entrée into the rarefied heights of the literary canon.” Kan argues that “…the fact remains that African writers need recognition and nothing confers that faster than a literary prize.”
What are your thoughts on prize cultures on the continent?
Alexander Nderitu: “Strange animals” indeed! My thoughts have always been that we should focus more on our own indigenous awards than foreign ones, regardless of how “prestigious” the latter might be. Cultures differ, and one culture does not need validation from any other. In the Jurassic Park of literary prize “strange animals”, the most preposterous specimen is the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Nobel Prize in Literature is irrelevant to Africans. It’s clearly not inclusive. Individual countries like France, USA, Germany, the UK and Sweden have more Nobel Prize in Literature laureates than the entire African continent! We have only had five winners: Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Nadine Gordimer (1991), J. M. Coetzee (2003) and Doris Lessing (2007). Of the five, only Wole Soyinka is black. And J. M. Coetzee has since changed his nationality to Australian.
Off the top of my head, I can think of several African scribes that have deserved the Nobel over the decades – Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nurrudin Farah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Assia Djebar, Mariama Bâ and others. We also have a strong oral literature – or “orature” – tradition in Africa, which should not be overlooked. To be fair, I watched a YouTube video where an administrator of the secrecy-shrouded Nobel Prize spoke of the award taking a more international approach in future. But Africans don’t need the Nobel. What does it have to do with the price of fufu?
In a research paper titled, ‘African Literary Awards and the Case for an ‘African Nobel Prize’‘, which is freely available on Academia.edu, I talk about the need for Africa to create its own super award and I quote many literati who feel the same way. Some might ask where the money will come from. Well, let’s take the example of the Mo Ibrahim Prize in African Governance, named after its Sudanese billionaire founder. The prize is worth a whopping USD$ 5 million, which is more than the Nobel Prize in Literature’s purse of about USD$ 1 million.
By the same token, there’s an East African beer company that used to sponsor a televised music talent search reportedly to the tune of over USD$ 2 million per year. For a third of that amount, we can fund our own literary super prize, and it will excite and inspire more Africans than a TV talent search. All we need is one major philanthropist or company to make a multi-year commitment to back the initiative. The nominators, judges, and nominees will all be from Africa or its Diaspora. I offer to be the administrator and I’ll accept whatever salary is suggested. It’s not about money; it’s about making an impact.
AiW: How can our blog communities support you?
Alexander Nderitu: Well, you can spread the word about my literary initiatives. Capacity-building is very important for not-for-profit projects. My current initiatives are (1) creating more indigenous literary prizes, including for vernacular literature, (2) publishing a short story anthology of new African voices, and (3) sponsoring thespians to stage live online plays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If any individuals or organizations would like to partner with me in any of these programmes, I can be reached at www.AlexanderNderitu.com.
You can also spread the word that, despite the tough talk in some of my writings, I am actually a nice guy, and I have the scars to prove it.
In 2001, When the Whirlwind Passes by Alexander Nderitu become Africa’s first purely ‘digital novel’. Inspired by a true story, the crime/suspense novel follows the life of a ghetto princess who marries a wealthy fashion baron, and the circumstances that turn their whirlwind romance into the murder case of the decade. In 2002, a review in the Daily Nation’s Saturday magazine said, ‘The story is fast-paced and the characters are built well. This is a book that is guaranteed to keep you seated…If you can access the book, please do. It will be worth the energy.’
The print version of When the Whirlwind Passes is out now (February 2021). It is available at Comrades Book House in Wanjige, and via www.AlexanderNderitu.com. Price: Ksh 1,000/= (USD$ 10.00/=)
While e-books, and especially the Amazon Kindle, have revolutionized the book business, many readers still cherish physical books that they can hold and display. This is the first time When the Whirlwind Passes has had a print run. It was previously available on Amazon, Lulu.com, and Worldreader app and devices. The Worldreader version has so far been opened by 27,622 readers around the world and garnered almost 1,000 likes.
With thanks to Alexander Nderitu for his time and the photos included in this Q&A.
As well as his books, you can find Nderitu’s short stories, articles and poems in The East African Standard, Publishing Perspectives, Hjänstorm, Ars Artium, IFLAC Peace and Anti-Terror Anthology, Commonwealth Poetry Postcards, My Africa, My City: An Afridiaspora Anthology, AwaaZ, World Poetry Almanac, One Million Project: Thriller Anthology, AfricanWriter.com, Agbowó, SETU and IHRAF Publishes, among other journals and publications.
See Academia.edu for his more scholarly work; the global theatre news portal, TheTheatreTimes.com, where he is Regional Managing Editor; and catch the latest in his output at his official website www.AlexanderNderitu.com.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A