Writers Changing Lives: An Interview With Kenyan Author Stanley Gazemba
Worldreader has partnered with many talented authors from Africa who have donated books to our growing collection. Now and again, we like to shine a spotlight on these inspiring writers and encourage our community to get to know them, too.
Meet Stanley Gazemba, a praised author and father, who lives with his family outside of Nairobi.
Stanley, a journalist, editor and former gardener, is part of Kenya’s new literary scene and draws inspiration from everyday scenes in Nairobi’s slums and from rural Kenya where he grew up. He has written two collections of short stories, five novels and seven children’s stories. Among these titles is Grandmother’s Winning Smile, a beautiful tale about courage and unsung heroes. Grandmother’s Winning Smile was long listed for the 2007 Macmillian Prize and is available in our library for our readers to delve into.
Here’s a little about Stanley, his writing and his life in Kenya. Have a look!
WR: NPR reported in 2010 that, despite having won the prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2003 for your first novel, The Stone Hills of Maragoli, you were gardening to support yourself. Is this still the case?
Stanley: It was true until end of last month. I have now quit the gardening job and I’m working as a regional editor with an NGO called Music in Africa. I also work as a content specialist for the website www.kwetuu.com. We are building a mobile app that will sell poems and short stories to people’s phones. I am coordinating the team. I also continue contributing stories for Nation Media Group. But about books, the situation is still the same. You can barely pay the rent on writing fiction in Kenya unless your book is adopted as teaching material for schools, which guarantees sales.
WR: We also heard you have trained and worked as a journalist. How do you think your background in journalism has influenced your writing?
Stanley: True, I am a trained journalist. So far, I wouldn’t say journalism has had an impact on my writing since it came later in life. It is the creative writing that came first. However, I am gaining useful skills from journalism as far as researching a story idea goes. I’m also having to constrict my writing to the tight editorial style and factual correctness that journalism demands, as opposed to creative writing where the world is practically yours to play with as you wish. Truly journalism puts the creative writer in a straightjacket–so to speak!
WR: What is the most important thing people do not know about you?
Stanley: I am the ordinary guy you’ll meet down the street who likes to hang around ordinary people. Their candour inspires most of my stories.
WR: The theme for our Worldreader Showcase is “Discover Africa (through books).” What is the one thing you think outsiders do not generally know about Kenya?
Stanley: Kenyans occasionally fight around elections time purely because of the manipulation of politicians. Otherwise if you eradicate politics from the picture, Kenyans get along with each other quite well.
WR: What are you reading right now? Are there any authors that you would name as influences?
Stanley: Mark Hudson’s The Music in my Head. On the side, I am also reading Teju Cole and a few other writers. Sometimes I read a couple of books at the same time. About influential authors I would name Chinua Achebe, John Steinbeck, Ken Follet, Ben Okri, among others.
WR: Writing is an individually unique experience. What does writing mean to you?
Stanley: It is something I love doing. It comes naturally because I am interested in stories. It is the publishing process that sours the whole thing.
WR: In Grandmother’s Winning Smile, the book donated to Worldreader, Grandmother puts together a pretty clever scheme to pay for her grandson’s studies. It seemed plausible to us–is it? Do you think a grandmother could really put her grandson through school doing what the title character did?
Stanley: This story was actually inspired by a real person. I used to take my morning tea at her kiosk and I took an interest in what she was doing. I later learnt she was taking care of her grandchildren. Sadly, she was taken ill and had to close her nylon-walled smoky shack. But all the wit and cunning of the character came from her. I am sure there are lots of other such women out there taking care of their grandchildren whose parents succumbed to AIDS. They often are featured in the news. I think they are unseen little heroes whose stories need to be told.
WR: What is the most important lesson that readers should walk away with after reading Grandmother’s Winning Smile?
Stanley: There’s always a way, even where a situation seems bleak. With a positive outlook you can achieve the seemingly impossible.
WR: As a prize-winning author with an impressive body of work (five novels, two collections of short stories, and six children’s books), what advice would you give other young authors?
Stanley: When the bug hits you just hit the computer keyboard and do not stop until the last full stop at the end of the story. Do not worry about the frustrations encountered by older writers when it comes to publishing; technology is slowly weeding out the middlemen. And as you write, reach out to experienced writers and editors for guidance.
WR: What will your next story be about?
Stanley: I think the next book to be published will be a novel for adults titled Ghettoboy, which made the short list of this year’s The Kwani? Manuscript Project. I am still working on publishing my other books for younger readers that are sitting in my computer.
WR: Grandmother’s Winning Smile is being read and enjoyed by children in Worldreader projects in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe. If you could say something to those children reading your story, what would it be?
Stanley: There’s nothing that gives joy to the writer like the knowledge that someone is reading his story and enjoying it. Not even a million shillings in the bank would bring such joy. I am very happy that they like the story, and it inspires me to write more. I hope it also inspires them to write something!