Literary

Peter Ngila Njeri: Prize Money Buys You Time to Do the Right Things

Peter Ngila Njeri

This winner doesn’t take it all- he gives credit to every moment or person who has contributed to his success story as a writer. The Kenyan journalist, editor and writer, Peter Ngila Njeri is the 2013 Winner of the James Currey Prize for African Literature. His novel manuscript, ‘The Legend of Beach House’ was approved by the jury chaired by Henry Akubuiro as the winning entry this year. Administered by the James Currey Society founded by Onyeka Nwelue in honour of South African Publisher, James Currey, the award is given to “the best unpublished work of fiction written in English by any writer, set in Africa or Africans in Africa or Diaspora.” Njeri was declared the winner at the African Literature Festival in Oxford, UK on September 3 by prize jury member Nneoma Otuegbe. Njeri smiles home with £1000 prize and a publishing deal with Abibiman Publishing UK. In an exclusive chat with Yinka Olatunbosun, the award-winning writer recounts his tale of perseverance that propelled his career.

 

The conversation began with a friendly banter.

I have been to Lagos twice. I love it despite all the ‘wahala.’

(Laughs) What did you come to do?

What I do best.

And that is…

The first time I came to Nigeria, I came in 2017. I went to Oyo state in Iseyin for Ebedi Residency. But the second time, I was in Lagos for a project. But I was mostly in Lagos and then a very beautiful city, Benin City.

Congratulations on winning the James Currey Prize for African Literature. Someone said it is long overdue and that you have paid your dues. How does it feel getting this prize?

It feels exciting and unbelievable at the same time. For years, I have been doing this and it hasn’t paid off- I mean in terms of getting a publishing deal and good money out of it. It seems like the first time that the universe is acknowledging what I do and giving me some flowers.

I am also aware that it is not a published book but a manuscript. How long did it take for you to complete the manuscript? When did you start and how long did it take to finish?

I am not sure when I finished but what I can tell you is that the whole process started with the thinking part. That was the hardest for me. I started writing in 2021, I think in August. I wrote the first parts in a few weeks. But then I got broke and then you know, I had look for money to survive. So, I broke away from writing and went to work. I later advanced to the second part. I finished the first draft and the rest is history.

Njeri

It is incredible that a work that you started without the mindset of winning an award has become something that is garnering global attention. How has having the tradition of attending residencies and writers retreat shaped your writing?

Thank you for asking that question. The residency and the retreat that I had attended thus far had been so helpful. First, Ebedi International Writers Residency is run by Dr. Wole Okediran. You have all the time in the world to do what you have to do. How it has helped me is that I was able to sit down and concentrate on the writing. I have proposed to finish editing in the previous year because I went to the residency in early 2017.

When I got to Iseyin, I felt I needed to challenge myself because this manuscript needs editing. I challenged myself and wrote a new one. I started writing some crazy amount of words every day. After a few days, I lifted my wrist to keep typing but it became stiff. It was so painful. It was the first time that I was encountering that sort of pain. When you sit down to write, you simply forget yourself. So many times, I forgot myself and when I come back to my senses, I realise my body is in pain. My body and back – my wrist and my leg. I just took a break and go for a walk. One weekend, we went to Abeokuta. But when I finished that draft of the new writing, I put it aside and faced what I had really come to do in Ebedi. I think that sort of sums up what the experience is like. I came to realise that I am a human being. I am not a machine that can sit down for hours.

That writers’ retreat in Iceland was life-changing for me because it was the first time that I was travelling outside Africa. It happened in April, 2017.  I returned from Nigeria in March that year to prepare for Iceland Writers Retreat in April. I found the workshops very resourceful and helpful. Iceland is like a paradise.

Was it a funded retreat or did you have to fund yourself?

I couldn’t fund myself even if I wanted to. There is what is called the Iceland Writers’ Retreat Alumni Award. It is funded by the alumni and friends of the retreat to help writers who cannot support themselves financially. When you win it, they finance you to go to their retreat. They do partial scholarships for two writers. It was a very inspiring moment for me and my writing. It also made me realise that this thing that I have been doing for some time could mean something big.

Were you born in Kenya? Did you grow up in Kenya?

I was born in Kenya, Eastern Kenya. I want to believe that I am a very lucky person. I don’t have biological parents. My mom died when I was young and according to word-of-mouth, she wasn’t married. My people took me up and enrolled me at school.

Njeri

Who were the people that took you up after your mother died?

People like my mother’s siblings: my aunties and my uncles. My mother was born a twin and her brother is still alive. My aunt took me in and my grandmother was a great storyteller. She would gather the children together, telling stories. I grew up with two older cousins. I consider their mother as mine. I went to high school which I didn’t think I could because there was no money. One of my aunts took me to high school.

Later, I came to Nairobi where I learnt the basics of computer. I was very interested in the MS-word. I wanted to learn how to type because in the village, I was always writing longhand overnight and then take to my friends to type or take it to the stationery shops at the market. My uncle, who has passed away now, used to own a fantastic bookshelf in the village. His books became my first introduction to reading. The shelf had books from the African Writers’ Series like Chinua Achebe’s.

At school, I didn’t tell my friends my story because I didn’t want to be asked questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer. When I moved to Nairobi, I was living with my grandma. I met another cousin of mine whose mother sponsored me to high school. I told him I didn’t have enough money to finish the computer training and he gave me all the money. I finished and around that time, he took me to the university and gave me a good life.

Since my childhood, I have never been a sociable person. I went to Mount Kenyan University and studied Journalism. Most of the writers I had read had something to do with journalism. I knew from high school that I could write fiction. I wanted to see the relationship between fiction and journalism.

 

What are some of the challenges that confront an aspiring writer in Africa and how can someone navigate these challenges to become a writer?

I think as a writer who grew up in the village, the challenge is lack of access to a personal computer. And also, there is no one to look up to and your family may not understand your choice. They want you to do something more acceptable. They want you to prosper so they may push you to go into teaching or some other lucrative career.

I used to write overnight with candlelight. The room I used to sleep in had low walls and on the other side of it was where my grandmother slept. There were nights she would see light reflection from my room and shout, “Why are you still up?’’

I didn’t know how to type for a long time.

Let’s get the timeline straight. What year did you get a computer that you could use to write?

I am not sure but it should be around 2010 or 2011 but it wasn’t mine. I got into College in 2013. I finished secondary school in 2010.

When did you get your personal computer?

I think now you want me to skip.

(Laughs)

I am sorry for talking too much. I got my laptop in 2016. I got a job in journalism and the first job I got, I saved money to buy the computer. Before then, I used to borrow a friend’s laptop or get one from my cousins.

Now that you have won the James Currey Prize for African Literature, what are you planning to do?

I want to keep on writing but I also want to soak in this glory because I think it is something that is really fantastic.

The winning entry is classified under the magical realism genre. Is it a fiction?

Yes, it is a fiction- a novel. Magical realism is about fantasies.

And that would resonate more with an African, wouldn’t it?

I hope so. Here’s the thing: when I was writing “The Legend of Beach House,” I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just writing for the fun of it.

What will you do with the prize money?

I will use it to write more books. I am considering sharing a part of it with some of the writers on the shortlist. Money buys you time to do the right things.

 

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