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Literature

Kenyan Okwiri Oduor: Not your traditional African writer

At 29 years old, she has already achieved what many writers could only dream of. Okwiri Oduor won the African Caine Prize in 2014 for her short story called "My Fathers Head" and has not stopped writing since.

Many readers agree that  "My fathers head" cannot be summed up as just another African story. Simbi, the narrator, tries to remember and draw what her father looked like but cannot remember his features. In the end, she summons her father back so she can remember but then he does not leave and she is forced to face all the memories she has of him and her childhood.

Though her story transits through the various themes of religion, death, memory and heritage in Kenya, Okwiri refuses to be defined by just one identity as an African writer. She said she is many different things and her target audience is any interested reader around the world. 

 "I am an African writer and so what next? I am interested in fullness of the human experience like creating characters that are dynamic, that are real people, that have weakness and that have strengths," she said.

Okwiri said that the question of defining African writers has limited them to the themes they write about.

"I think this is a lazy ways of looking at writing and literature. I am creating characters that everyone, no matter where they come from, can see themselves," she said. "These characters are human person and it's not that they are African or not that they are poor. But they have other different characteristics."

A winning story

Winning the African Caine Prize was a significant accomplishment and an eye-opener for Okwiri on the realities of being a full-time writer. It also came with prize money of 10,000 euros ($10,700). Founded in the United Kingdom, the Caine Prize for African writing is an annual award for the best original short story by an African Writer whether in Africa or elsewhere and is published in the English language.

Aside from all the acclaim, winning gave Okwiri some time to reflect and focus on just writing since she did not have to worry about fending for herself. 

2014 African Caine Prize Winner Okwiri Oduor (Zipporah Nyambura)

Okwiri is now a full-time writer

But she advised aspiring writers not to just focus on prizes and residencies. "These things are necessary and good but they do not make you. You have to be a writer before that. Read a lot and write. Then you will absorb it almost like osmosis," she said.

Writing since childhood

Okwiri started writing when she was seven years old. At 24, her novella "The Dream Chasers" was highly commended by the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. She has also been named one of Africa's best writers writers under 40 with the potential to define trends in African literature with her story "Rag Doll."

"I can't call myself a writer if am not writing. I also try to remember the impulse that brought me to writing way before the MFA or the Caine Prize, way before any story was published, I was writing," she said.

She gave up her law studies at the Catholic university in Nairobi after winning the Caine Prize to concentrate on writing. She said it was a decision she does not regret because her main passion has been writing.

Okwiri refuted the notion that Kenyans don’t read books as excuses by people who have lost their creativity.

"My first readers were people in Kenya; people who read my work and told me to keep going. They gave me the confidence I needed. We just need to be more creative," she said.

First novel

At the moment, her focus is on her master’s studies in the US and her first novel, which like her past works, promises to touch on the volatile topics of love, loss and belonging. She thinks her move to the US is likely to influence her writing she said.

"This growth and passage of time is reflected in the stories am writing and telling," she said.

Her work has just been published for the first time in German.

 

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