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Caine Prize Winner Okwiri Oduor: “My Writing Never Obeys Me, It Has a Mind of its Own”

Diane Awerbuck, Okwiri Oduor, Efemia Chela and Henrietta Rose-Innes

Okwiri Oduor sat down with Books LIVE’s Jennifer Malec recently to talk about winning the Caine Prize this year, the problem with the label “African woman writer”, her favourite authors (who all happen to be black women writers), and how her writing does not obey her.

The Gonjon Pin and Other StoriesFeast, Famine and PotluckBooks LIVE: In the context of all the media attention on women writers and African writers and African women writers, how would you describe yourself?

Okwiri Oduor: Well, obviously, being a woman colours a lot of my experiences, right from being born female; has affected a lot of how I experience the world. A lot of things, right from how I could play, whom I could play with, my sense of how I interact with the world around me and how the world interacts with me, so a huge part of how I see the world is through female eyes. How I walk down the street and my own feeling of safety and vulnerability. It’s huge. So it’s definitely a huge part of my identity. I was female first before I was ever a writer, so definitely I’m a female writer. I’m African as well, so. I could say I’m young, but that’s not for very long and it’s very subjective. When I speak to my sister she thinks I’m old, when I speak to my mother I’m young. But I’ll always be a woman and I’ll always be African.

Do you think African is a valuable way of classifying literature? I’m sure it’s a question you get asked all the time.

This question is not just asked of me but everyone, and we should just get over it. If it’s called African writing then it’s by virtue of myself being of the continent. But beyond that I’m really not interested in policing or creating boundaries and saying “this is this, and this is not”. I just want to write, you know? I don’t want to take on academic discussions of what is and isn’t, that doesn’t really interest me. I just want to write whatever I want to write.

Yesterday I was asked what is it that makes my story [“My Father’s Head”] African, is it because I use proverbs, or is it the foods that are African or distinctly Kenyan. But I don’t think it’s that. I used whatever works for my story. So whatever stylistic device I employ, I employ it as a literary device, I don’t have a checklist of African things and African devices that I need to include in my story to make it more suitable to someone who’s looking for … you know, really, I’m not interested in navel-gazing.

I have many identities. It isn’t one thing. In this place, I’m a woman, in another place I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a black person, I’m a writer. But I don’t necessarily pair them up. I don’t think of myself as a female writer, I just think of myself as a writer, and as a woman. Maybe in that way I see the world through my own eyes, and as a writer I see the world through a writer’s eyes, which are also a woman’s eyes because I’m also a woman. So maybe there are lots of … leaks, and the identities colour each other. It’s not like I’m meeting the world, going forth to battle, as a female writer.

So, who are your favourite authors?

Black female writers [laughs, sighs]. Maybe I shouldn’t deny that. Maybe I really am a female writer. Of course I am. But I have many different identities and they colour each other.

I like writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid. Their writing just speaks to me, and they write their female characters so beautifully. I feel at home. I feel like there’s lots of pain and beauty.

Do you have writers you read for enjoyment and then writers you aspire to write like, who are more influential on your work?

I like reading and I like reading a lot of writers. The writers that I enjoy reading and the writers that I go home to, the women I’ve just talked about, I just feel at home in their embrace. That feels like home, you know? If I had to move to a new place and I had a choice of five books or 10 books, they would be writers like that. And then other writers would obviously populate my space; there are other writers I enjoy reading. So there’s reading and then there’s … home.

In “My Father’s Head”, the father figure is a pretty unlikeable character in many ways, snippy, with smelly feet and a grotesque skull. He learns of the death of a friend who was supposedly “like a brother” on the radio. And yet the ending of the story implies that his daughter Simbi loves him, even if she doesn’t like him.

I think I’m very, very interested and I think a lot about investigating parents and children. And siblings. There’s lot that colours these kinds of relationships. Even best friends. In my work in progress, there’s two female best friends, and I’m looking at how a relationship like that can be very uplifting and very abusive at the same time. And I think this is true about family. You can’t live with them but you can’t live without them.

Your story reads like it wrote itself, and yet it is also minutely observed. So, who was in charge, you or the story?

Wow. I like to think I’m in charge but it’s not true. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. The story is very whimsical, it does whatever it wants. God, it just jerks you around, it’s horrible. I really enjoyed that. [Books LIVE laughs] No, I mean the process of writing it. And you as a writer, just being thrown here and there. It’s amazing at the same time because no two days are the same. It’s about process. You get down to write and you think you’re writing about one thing but it ends up becoming another. That’s just my experience of writing, I don’t know how other people feel. My mind never obeys me. My writing never obeys me, it has a mind of its own. I want to write this, but it says “no”.

And you’ve always had the confidence to go with it, you’ve never tried to tame it?

Well to me it’s just horrible. In school, I liked to write then, but the kind of writing I did was very tame. In subject matter and technique. But it’s not the kind of writing that interests me. I don’t like tamed writing. Maybe I can read it but it just doesn’t interest me. I think I’d have to quit writing, because it’s just, I don’t feel like there’s much art to it. I like to paint and to draw with words. Sometimes I feel like that’s what I’m doing, but instead of images what’s coming out is words. That’s why I like to write in longhand; I feel like I’m more involved in the process.

And does your handwriting change from section to section?

Oh yes! It does.

So as you became more confident your writing became more … wild?

I don’t think of my writing as wild, it’s just not obeying anyone. I write to escape and there’s not much escape staying in certain lanes. I don’t like lanes. Even when it comes to language, in my work in progress, I’m playing with language. I’m writing in English, but not in English; I’m writing in many Englishes. And that’s the kind of writing I want to do. I don’t want to write in the Queen’s language like I was doing in school. This is what writing is. That kind of writing really doesn’t interest me.

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