Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan novelist, poet and playwright. His notable works include: The Stacy Walker Interview, Yuppies!, The Patriot’s Club, What’s Wrong With This Picture? and Hannah and The Angel. Another, ‘When the whirlwind passes’ is the African continent’s most downloaded book.
Co-founder of the Artists for Contemporary Theatre (A.C.T.) stage and film production group, Mr Nderitu has several written research papers on African literature and theatre under his belt.
In 2017 he was named by Business Daily newspaper as one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, he speaks on the prospects of online publishing, intellectual theft, the interplay between Africa and Western literature and related matter.
1. Tell us a bit about your growing up years, experiences, career path…
I was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1979. I became interested in drawing and telling stories at a very early age. In my last two years of primary school, I used to make my own comic strips and distribute them in class. They were inspired by such comics as Spiderman, The Phantom, Batman, Flash Gordon and Modesty Blaise.
One of my characters was called Leopard Man because the leopard is my favourite wild animal. By the time I got to high school, I was an avid reader with a penchant for literature.
My English compositions were read out not just to the rest of our class but to students in other classes as well. One day, our English teacher gushed, ‘I wish you could all write the way Alexander does!’ On that day, I decided I was going to be a writer. I was 16 years old.
2. Some say writers are born, others say they are formed by circumstances…what is your story?
Oh, I was destined for this. I was literally born on William Shakespeare’s birthday – April 23rd. This is also UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day.
Of course, my circumstances and my environment shaped my life and ideals, just like everybody else. For example, the fact that there was a public library near my home, and my parents were teachers who kept a lot of books in the house, helped get me into reading at a very early age.
When I became an adult, I was shocked to learn that there are entire towns that don’t have a single public library. I grew up with books.
3. Your terrain seems to be more of that of an e-novelist. How would you assess the evolving of this platform for African writers, the challenges, vis a vis, prospects?
Sudanese griot Taban Lo Liyong once described East Africa as a ‘literary desert’. If it wasn’t for digital technology, especially the Internet, it would have remained so.
E-platforms have been a boon for African writers. The first local literary journals and festivals were co-ordinated by strangers via e-mail. The first poetry groups were also on Yahoo! Groups. Then came blogs, Social Media, and mobile messaging apps. So many talents have been showcased via e-platforms.
We have also seen the emergence of continental collectives like Jalada and literary magazines like AFREADA, Chimurenga and Writers Space Africa. Writing competitions are shared online and some winners have gone on to become recognised names or acquire overseas literary agents.
Some of the most influential literary commentators are independent bloggers. Podcasts and YouTube videos are also swinging into vogue. None of these things existed when I wrote When the Whirlwind Passes. There was no YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or even the Amazon Kindle.
The birth of Print-on-Demand technology, whereby you can order a paperback version of an e-book, has made the publishing dreams of many a writer come true.
4. Many African nations still battle the plague of copyright infringement, plagiarism and related intellectual theft. What’s the Kenyan experience?
Copyright infringement is rife in Kenya. University students have been known to photocopy entire books with impunity. There are people who openly sell or share pirated e-books via Facebook and WhatsApp.
However, book publishers seem to be more bothered about piracy than individual authors. What authors can’t stand is plagiarism. We’ve had a few infamous cases, including a leading legal expert and orator who admitted to having plagiarised an academic paper by one of his own students.
In terms of copyright, the Kenyan Copyright Board (KECOBO) has made a creditable effort to spread awareness of the vice and protect creators’ rights, but it’s an uphill task. One thing I would advise publishers not to do is to issue Adobe PDF versions of their books. EPUB format is safer for electronic book distribution.
5. Tell us about briefly these works of yours: ‘The Patriots Club’ and ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ What inspired them?
‘The Patriots Club’ is about urban guerrillas trying to take over Nairobi city. It’s the first book in a series starring an ageing spy master and former military man. The installment I am working on now centres on a series of biological terrorist attacks that release a deadly new virus in major African cities.
The virus then mutates and becomes a global pandemic. Initially, it was inspired by the Ebola epidemic but after COVID-19, I modified the plot. I made it a deliberate attack to depopulate Africa.
‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ is a comedic play about Hollywood movie-making. It’s a comedy of errors in the vein of ‘Noises Off’ and, more recently, ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’.
6. You are one writer who has always pushed for internet/tech options to assist writers publish their works. Why do you think this is a better option than the traditional way of publishing?
I didn’t set out to be a pioneering e-novelist, it just happened that way because Africa is usually a step behind the West in technological matters.
About eight years ago, an NGO called Worldreader was founded in the U.S. and Spain. Worldreader licenses e-books from publishers and authors and then makes their library accessible via mobile phones and apps to virtually anyone.
It’s an Information Age method of making books available to those who need them but may not be able to access or afford them. Many of my e-books are currently available via Worldreader. E-publishing is faster, more affordable and can potentially reach a wider audience.
Traditional publishing is slow and expensive and the distribution networks are very poor. It’s also very restrictive. The biggest market for books is the education system so most publishers shy away from trade books and fiction. Poetry is rarely mainstream published.
7. Tell us a bit about the literary scene in Kenya, any lessons for Nigeria?
That question is backwards. It should be what can Kenya learn from Nigeria? For example, we don’t have any association as influential as the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Our authors look up to famous Nigerian scribes and our movie industry – dubbed Riverwood – looks up to Nollywood. Same with musicians.
Personally, I like Falz, Simi and Burna Boy. And I have a crush on Tiwa Savage. Kenya is like a smaller version of Nigeria and is also a former British colony. We have the same things – the good and the bad – but on a smaller scale. Incidentally, more Nigerians read my books on Worldreader than Kenyans. I often joke on Facebook that I am technically a ‘Nigerian writer’. Last year, I was a panelist at the 2nd annual African Writer’s Conference which was founded by Nigerian, Anthony Onugba. I was published in the ‘My Africa, My City’ Anthology a couple of years ago and I have a short story forthcoming in this year’s ‘Ebedi Review’.
I would, however, like to see more cohesiveness amongst writers on the continent. More collaborations, events, reviews, associations, translations and so forth. Always remember that our national borders were imposed on us by foreigners. We can be more united.
8. Your thriller, ‘When the Whirlwind Passes’ is listed as the continent’s most downloaded novel. Readers would love to know the thought processes behind this well lauded book.
In 1998, I read about the gangland-style murder of an Italian fashion baron. His glamorous ex-wife and three others were later put on trial for the crime. The story intrigued me so much that I decided to write a fictional account of the saga, set in Africa. My manuscript was titled, ‘When the Whirlwind Passes’. I completed it in 2001.
There were very few publishers in Kenya then, and they were – and still are – mostly interested in school text books. Meanwhile, I had been reading about the rise of e-book technology in foreign magazines like The Writer. I decided to try it. I converted my manuscript into e-book format and placed it on an American website called eBookMall.com. The book was retailing at $3.00, and the royalty rate was 50%. The first time a copy was sold, I received a physical cheque for $1.50! I still have that cheque. The book is now available in paperback format as well.
9. What philosophy propels your style of writing and on whose intellectual shoulders (mentors) do you stand?
My personal philosophies don’t always influence my style or even content. Few of my writings have anything to do with Humanism, Pan-Africanism and African Socialism, which I am interested in. My writing style was most influenced by the many great authors and poets I read as a child and wanted to emulate.
As for intellectuals who have influenced me, they are legion. The African ones include Prof. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, recently deceased Swahili novelist Prof. Ken Walibora, Nigerian Chris Abani, Wole Soyinka whose plays I read in school, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop and Prof. Ali Mazrui. If it were not for Ngugi, for example, it’s unlikely that I would be vernacular literature.
I am working on a poetry collection in my mother tongue, Gikuyu. I am also working on a Swahili-language Hip-Hop novel, which would have been unlikely without the influence of my late friend Prof. Ken Walibora and Kiswahili expert Prof. Wallah bin Wallah.
10. Few know you outside Kenya as a vibrant movie reviewer, scriptwriter, music and fashion buff. Tell us some of the highlights of these aspects of your life and how you juggle them.
Artistic pursuits are very time-consuming and it’s not easy to juggle them. It involves a lot of sacrifice. You give up a lot of things in order to pursue your dream. I have severally quit full-time jobs, dropped unsupportive girlfriends, avoided drinking buddies, pestered family members for support and so on. I don’t regret being an artist.
Even when I was a child, I never wanted to be ordinary. I want to be inspirational and I want to help people. I mentioned William Shakespeare earlier. He died over 400 years ago and we’re still reading his works and talking about him! Same with all the great, late musicians. My art will be my legacy. As a character said in the movie days of danger, ‘I’m more scared of being nothing than of dying.’
11. How do you see the African literary scene playing out in relation to Western models in the next few years?
I think it will continue to grow at a rapid clip for the next few years. Every few months, a new literary journal or award scheme pops up somewhere on the continent. Western models may not really work.
For example, we don’t have a major book-chain like Waterstones. We also have very few indigenous literary agents. Communal literary events like festivals, salons, book launches, residencies and spoken word events seem to excite
Africans (take) more than solitary trips to the bookstore or even libraries, of which there is a very low density in most parts of the continent. I would like to see more locally-sponsored literary awards.
I hate it when our local heroes are crowned by foreigners. I especially detest the Nobel Prize for Literature. Every year, African punters hold their breath hoping that a writer like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o or Assia Djebar will be crowned the new Nobel Literature Laureate and they’re usually disappointed.
In a continent of 1.3 billion people, only four Africans have ever scooped the Nobel Prize for Literature and that’s absurd. Let me say this once more, in case some of your readers think you misquoted me: in my opinion, the Nobel Prize for Literature is irrelevant to Africans.
What we need to do is create our own super award. Sudanese-born philanthropist Mo Ibrahim has a foundation that sponsors a $5 million award for good governance. All we need is single billionaire or company to make a long-term commitment to sponsor a major award and we the literati will create an institution of our own.
We have enough literature teachers, professors, university departments, libraries, associations, bloggers and critics to vote in their preferred candidates. African scribes often talk about ‘the danger of a single story’. Well, there’s also ‘the danger of a single award scheme’, especially when it’s foreign-based and shrouded in mystery.
12. What’s next for Alexander Nderitu?
I am working on an exciting literary project with a wonderful writer and literature teacher called Joanna Cockerline. It covers the whole of East Africa.
We’ve had to postpone the launch due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. A theatrical project I was working on has been postponed for the same reason. It involved a new award scheme for theatre, including vernacular shows.
I am working on several writing projects simultaneously, including a Kiswahili novel, Gikuyu poems, and a political novel. The novel will initially exist only in e-book format because it’s bound to be controversial. It revolves around a powerful politician who becomes a violent warlord after losing a presidential election.