Despite your Caine prize win last month, most South African readers are likely to be unfamiliar with you. I know you were born in Nairobi, I know you studied law, and I know you have written some exceptional short fiction. Other than that, who is Okwiri Oduor?
I don’t know if a description of myself from within myself would be a fair one. Besides being born in Nairobi, ambling through law school, and then somehow fooling everyone into thinking I can write, there really is nothing left to say about myself.
When I first read your Caine-winning story, My Father’s Head, I set out to find more of your work. I couldn’t seem to find anything. Then I came across a young Kenyan writer called Claudette Oduor, who I thought initially was your sister or something. I had visions of this amazing writing family — until I realised, obviously, that it was you all along. Why the change in pen name?
I came full circle. For a long time, I had been running away from many things, including this name that had been given to me at birth, but which I had grown up believing was rough and ugly and unacceptable. The things I believed about my name can be taken as metaphors for how I saw myself and my writing as well, and so coming to terms with the person I was meant first and foremost carrying my own name with no shame. I chose to be unapologetic about being myself.
There’s this gorgeous interview with you in the Kenyan Daily Nation published after you won the Caine in which you lightheartedly complain about how you were always being asked what you wanted to be when you grew up but, now that you’re in your mid-20s, no one is asking you that question anymore. So, what do you want to be when you’re even more grown-up than you are now?
I want to take photographs and be a dance instructor and draw and make smoothies and sit on the stoep and pat the dog and read. I want to speak multiple languages and to tear my calf muscles while sewing on the treadle and to learn how to make paneer tikka and maybe someday to be able to sniff whisky without gagging. And then I want to teach and, at night, to watch the stars and write.
Those are noble ambitions, whisky and paneer tikka most of all, of course. But, although the Caine is a huge boost, where do you go from here? Or, framing it differently, how do you get to being a stargazing polyglot? Awards only mean so much.
I might do an MFA because then I could teach. I might live the next few months as a nomad, because I have been feeling stifled these past few months. Besides that, I shall keep on writing. I have met people who felt strongly that they were much more than just a writer, that they were other things too. Me, I feel my whole identity is in the words I create. With or without the Caine, I was always going to keep writing, always going to tear my hair and weep and then find moments of clarity while jumping rope, until the words I was constipated with splattered across the page.
Are you at liberty to talk about your debut novel, which I hear you’re currently working on?
Not really, because it is a capricious thing. I could say one thing about it and then it would storm off in a huff and I would be left with nothing. Today, the novel is this and tomorrow it’s something else.
I like how you say it’s capricious, because capriciousness is the last thing I think of when I think of your writing. Throughout your stories, there is a focus on the simplest of domestic tasks, on cooking in particular. Almost every one of the stories of yours I have read uses food as a symbol or metaphor: there’s the separating of stones from pishori rice in the opening to your novella, The Dream Chasers, for example, or the part in your short story, The Red Bindi on Diwali, in which a family is complaining about the narrator’s Maasai fiancée, with one of their most passionate protestations being that “She can’t even cook an Indian meal!” My Father’s Head comes from an anthology of stories, Feast, Famine & Potluck, published by Short Story Day Africa, which focuses on the roles of food in African lives. So, this all makes me think: Is food a fertile ground for metaphor to you, or an indicator of identity — or something else entirely?
I am both impressed and embarrassed that you went tinkering about with The Dream Chasers. I would say that I am almost obsessed with the menial labours we fill the spaces of our lives with. Life itself can be a labour, and living involves this large labour broken down into smaller, more banal labours. Nourishment is one of those. It is central to our entire existence. A huge part of our lives is spent thinking of, preparing and then consuming food. Because it can be as tedious or as menial as one wants, I find that food gives me a lot of material to work with.
Characters reveal much about their emotional state through their occupations and preoccupations with food. They come together with loved ones for the consumption of food, revealing plenty about the nature of their relationships with one another. Also, the intricate descriptions of food are one way to capture the senses of the reader, to have them suspend their domicile in this world and instead inhabit the world I am creating.
It’s a particular and peculiar intimacy. And, with that said, what do you want to write about as your career progresses? I know it’s nigh on impossible to predict one’s future obsessions but maybe one can predict moods. You have written about tribe, about identity, about mourning — should we expect more introspection?
The thing I can say with all certainty is that I know very little but that I am willing to learn, that I feel things deeply, that sometimes the world feels cruel and senseless to me, and that at other times it feels just heartbreakingly beautiful. I write to translate the things that my eyes see. I write to make sense of a world that I find overwhelming. Is that introspection?
Okwiri Oduor will be on two panels: Nadine Gordimer: Why Gordimer is essential today (Saturday August 30, 9.30 to 11am) and The Short Story (Sunday August 31, 11.30 am to 1pm)
For the M&G Literary Festival programme and to book your seat visit www.redballoon.biz/mglitfest