A word with Okwiri Oduor

Fiction
Kenya
Okwiri Oduor

When we last talked, just before the Prize was awarded in July, Kenyan journalists were accusing you of lacking in confidence when you downplayed your chances. Are they happier now?

What I was describing to you then was something I found very unfair – that some journalists were pushing me into corners, trying to provoke a certain kind of reaction. I think acknowledging what a strong shortlist this year’s was and determining that the Prize could have gone any way was not the sort of response they anticipated. I felt that they were not always looking for truth. They were more interested in controversial comments, things they could give sensational bylines to and outrage readers by quoting out of context. I wonder if any of the other shortlistees experienced this.

In the week leading up to the award ceremony, the five shortlisted writers travel to England for a whirlwind of public engagements. Did you enjoy the attention or did it make you want to hide?

I experienced both feelings in extremes. Perhaps it was the fact that everything happened so fast, and with such intensity. Even though sometimes I was overwhelmed and wanted to step out of it all, catch my breath and hold my spinning head, I was still deeply grateful for the entire experience. I think I shall always associate London with that – breathlessness.

Is this going to silence the people who were always telling you to stop messing around with writing and to knuckle down to becoming a lawyer?

These sorts of directions always come from a good place, and I am lucky that there are people in this world who care enough to worry about me. I am not interested in silencing anyone. I think that we all benefit from dialogue. Let us talk to each other about happiness and fulfilment. Let us talk about the multiple ways of being, and the ways in which words and other things break us.

There is an element of magical realism in your winning story, ‘My Father’s Head’ – is that a regular feature of your writing or was that a one-off?

One person’s magical realism is another’s realism. I grew up in a colourful world, one in which mysterious things happened. People talked of spirits visiting and of lightning balls rolling down hillsides and seeking out people with whom one had a score to settle. I write things that may be fantastical to one audience and uncannily real to another.

Do you think winning the Prize is going to help or hinder you in finishing your first novel?

Winning has opened more doors for me than I imagined. It has been one month, and I feel I must indulge some of the attention even though I might despise it. Soon enough, things will calm down somewhat and I will barricade myself and finish it.

‘My Father’s Head’ appears with the other four shortlisted stories – as well as twelve others written specially for this year’s anthology – in The Gonjon Pin and other stories: the Caine Prize for African Writing 2014, published by New Internationalist. Available here.

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