“What I want to do is to tell

“What I want to do is to tell a good story, that is all”: In conversation with Caine Prize winner Okwiri Oduor

Kenya’s Okwiri Oduor has won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for her short story entitled ‘’My Father’s Head’’. Oduor visited the Book Lounge in Cape Town last week to launch ‘The Gonjon Pin and other Stories’, an anthology of the 2014 Caine Prize. Daluxolo Moloantoa attended the event and had the importunity to speak with Odour about what it means to her to win the prize, the inspiration for “My Father’s Head”, her favourite authors and the best part about being a writer.

“What I want to do is to tell

Joining Oduor on the shortlist for the Caine Prize were Billy Kahora (Kenya), Efemia Chela (Ghana, Zambia), Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe) and the South African author Diane Awerbuck. All five were published in “The Gonjon Pin and other Stories”.

Oduor directed the inaugural Writivism Literary Festival in Kampala, Uganda in August 2013. Her novella, The Dream Chasers was highly commended in the Commonwealth Book Prize, 2012. She is a 2014 MacDowell Colony fellow and is currently at work on her debut novel.

‘’My Father’s Head’’ explores the narrator’s difficulty in dealing with the loss of her father and looks at the themes of memory, loss and loneliness. The narrator works in an old people’s home and comes into contact with a priest, giving her the courage to recall her buried memories of her father. “My Father’s Head” originally appeared in Short Story Day Africa‘s collection, Feast, Famine and Potluck, as did Chela’s shortlisted story “Chicken”.

Oduor, the third Kenyan to take the prize, after Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor in 2003 and Binyavanga Wainaina in 2002, receives £10 000 prize money, as well as the opportunity to take up a month’s residency at Georgetown University in the US, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.

Congratulations on winning the Caine Prize! How does it feel to join that illustrious list?

Thank you. It is such an honour to have been recognised in this manner, to be given this incredible gift.

Are you going to take up the residency at Georgetown University?

Yes. I look forward to the experience.

The Caine Prize is affectionately known as “the African Booker”. What aspects of your writing – if any – do you see as specifically African?

There is no checklist. I am not too keen to take part in the clamour for categorisation. What I want to do is to tell a good story, that is all.

How did the idea for “My Father’s Head” hit you?

I left home and felt deeply sad and lonely when I realised I was an adult. I was grieving my childhood.

How long did it take you to write the story? Did you feel unusually inspired, or was it more challenging than usual to complete?

I cannot remember how long it took. My average is usually a couple of weeks. Each story is unique and has its own peculiar set of challenges. In that way, I cannot compare it to anything.

What’s your favourite part of writing?

Getting lost in another world. Embodying my characters. Forgetting myself, feeling, seeing, tasting things as my characters do.

“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 directed the Inaugural Writivism Festival in Kampala, Uganda, can you tell us a bit about that experience?

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 funny.

What else will you be doing while in South Africa?

I will attend the 2014 Mail & Guardian Literary Festival in Johannesburg, which is dedicated to the memory of the most important African woman writer of our times, the late Nadine Gordimer, and I’ll also be teaching a  short story writing workshop in Soweto.

Can you divulge anything about your upcoming debut novel?

There is not much I can say at this stage except that everyone must just sit and wait.