Since we arrived at Tafaria, I had not seen him crack a smile. And for a while I whispered to Bev that Billy Kahora is not human. So as we sat in the keep that afternoon, I had promised Bev that I would make Billy smile. But he did not seem in the mood for laugh. Billy is a serious guy, and we were not in Tafaria on honeymoon. We were there for business. Writing business. I stared at the script he held in his hand. That was a copy of my draft titled Children of a Lesser God.
I had taken one and a half weeks writing that draft. A whole five thousand five hundred plus words. Words I banged in the office instead of copywriting. Words I wrote with earphones plugged into my ears Gangnam style, as my brother watched the World Cup. There were beautiful words there. There were deliberately ugly words- words as pretty as those Marabou Storks at Nyayo Stadium roundabout. I had written that piece to impress. Being shortlisted to take part in writing the ninth edition of Kwani? is not a mean feat.
I looked at that draft in Billy’s hand. There were pen marks all over, and I wondered what that was all about. Even in high school, my compositions only had pen marks for ticks and a score of nothing less than 14/20.
Then he began to talk. He talked to me about my story. Asked me who I was reading at the moment. I said Mario Puzo. He nodded. The kind that says ‘Oh well…that would do.” Then he went on. He said the story was well paced, had a sense of time and place, right perspective, right on the theme and other lit jargon. I sat there and nodded, looking him in the eye in order to make him believe that I actually understood what he was saying. Even if I did not get what he meant, they sounded like compliments. And I am a vain goon. I love compliments.
“But…” he began. My eyes shifted. Oh shit. There was trouble. What had I done wrong? Typos? I swear I had gone through that story with a fine comb to cure it of any embarrassing typos. That is when I noticed he was wearing shorts and a hat that odieros wear when going to watch wildlife. At Tafaria there are no elephants to coo about, or lions to make goons want to change their underwear. I chuckled.
“But, the voice in this story needs serious work. It is not believable. Your word choice does not fit the character you are trying to bring out.”
I thought I had delivered a perfect first draft. He went ahead to show me. He said my character did not sound like the person to use words like “phosphorescence, Mafioso and peccadilloes”. I remember wondering whether or not this bloke knows he is talking to a jaluo. I cannot simply say ‘sins’ or ‘transgression’. I have to say peccadilloes bwana. Why can’t jakom say peccadilloes? I guess he was saving me from myself before ujaluo uniue (hehehe).
But then he said something. “How many Somali kids in Eastleigh do you imagine use those words every day?”
“With all due respect sir, that is just racist!” I snapped.
Ok, fine. I did not snap. I am making that part up.
His point was clear though. I was writing in the first person point of view of a Somali trader aged 23 or something. And yet as I wrote, I was speaking in my own voice. Magunga’s voice. It did not sound authentic. I needed to go through the entire script to change the voice of my story to something more believable.
I was shocked at the sound of that. Mouth wide open like I was pausing a yawn. That is when I kept my promise to Bev. He smiled. Billy Kahora smiled for the first time since we got to Tafaria. I do not know what he found funny. My shock at the fact that I had to redo my story, or my broken front tooth.
Then he told me something that stuck with me for the rest of the workshop.
“Writing is not easy my friend. It takes a lot of work.” He then handed me a handshake and asked me to call the next person.
Writing is not easy. When you open a book to read, or a short story, be sure that you are not reading the initial thoughts of the author. First drafts are like raw minerals. For them to glitter, they have to be polished thoroughly. By the author and by the editor. But the most rewriting and editing is by the author.
Later on when NoViolet Bulawayo joined us at the workshop, she said “Edit your story until you can no longer recognize your first draft.” But to be quite honest, it is not the gravity of that statement that made me remember it, but her accent. I swear these southern Africans have honeyed accents. You should hear the way NoViolet could only call me Megunge Williems and I just stood there unoffended. Sometimes we excuse beautiful writers when they mispronounce our names. She was inches away from telling me that I need new names.
At the moment, she was telling me about dialogue, and how she could not believe that all that my characters spoke about, was terrorism. “These are boys, they should at least talk about something else sometime. Like beer or girls…” Her point was not about beer or women, but that my draft did not reflect reality.
“You need to take your main theme to the background. Make it subtle. Less is more, Megunge.”
So that meant writing the story again.
This was the Kwani? workshop held at Tafaria Lodge for ten days. Ford Foundation money (this is mere speculation) was spent on taking us away from the heavy breathing life of the city, and secluding us from its distractions, so that we could get time to just write. It was hectic and fun. A bitter-sweet experience. We wrote, and deleted, and wrote, and edited, and read, and read and read, and then wrote some more. After a swimming break, or a break riding the quad bikes, we went for meals before coiling back to our writing spots again.
It was intense.
The final stories were at last sent to Granta’s editor Ella Affrey to see whether they were good enough. We still do not know whether she will give them a clean bill of health or not. If she doesn’t, we will have to redo them.
And that is the fun in writing. Playing around with characters like a god. You create and kill them at will. You make them drunkards, thieves, terrorists, spoilt brats and sometimes, witches. You can change them from men of the cloth to perverted wankers who prefer the five finger salute. Whatever floats your boat. It is only at the end of such a process, that a beautiful story emerges. Yvonne Adhiambo Awuor for instance, spent two weeks nonstop editing Weight of Whispers that won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003. After that, she spent another seven years writing Dust– which also underwent serious editing for couple of years before being published.
But that is just with Yvonne. So you can imagine.
Writers do not do anything special before writing so that their work comes out beautifully. They do not do yoga, perform rituals or smoke weed so that they get in the zone, or shit like that. Make no mistakes though- that statement is without prejudice to the mystic powers of weed to enhance imagination and creativity.
Personally, I simply like to write between midnight and 4am when Potifah’s wife is wetting her pants for some weak Joseph somewhere. I like that time for its peace and quiet, and on most occasions, I play soft music (Kizomba recently) on the background for mental relaxation.
All writers do is write, and then rewrite until the story takes the perfect shape. Writing is an art. It takes practice, just like dancing, drawing or singing. It also requires patience. That is because it is like a woman. If she is not in the mood, you leave her alone for a while and then later get onto her when she invites you. You have to sculpture your story until you look at it and say it is good.
Therefore, the next time you are blown away by someone’s story, if you can, just pat them on the back for trying. Drop a comment, and if you have their number or email address, or even Facebook/Twitter handle, do not be a mean stranger. Drop a line. Not all writings may be impressive, but where sweat is shed, appreciate before you criticize.
Billy was right. Writing is not easy my friend.