Working with Wanjiku wa Ngugi on her debut novel is exciting for me, but I long for an opportunity for us to meet and talk face-to-face. In the meantime, she generously agreed to an email interview, allowing me to learn more about her fascinating life and family.
Your father and brother are creative writers, what inspired you to join their ranks?
I grew up with storytelling around me. I remember how exciting it was to listen to my elder siblings who kept Mukoma and I in suspense over the never-ending adventures of one Mwangi cowboy, a Kenyan cowboy whose quest was justice. We only learned later that these stories about Mwangi were made up on the spot. In hindsight perhaps this is what contributed to the character, Mugure´s sense of adventure and quest for justice in my novel The Fall of Saints.
In my younger years, I read a lot, partly I think because that’s what everyone in my household did. I told stories because everyone told stories–even now there is a flurry of stories, real or imagined, being exchanged on a daily basis within the family. I also wrote. From an early age, I wanted to be a Playwright. Even though I have sometimes brought some of my scripts to life on Stage, most of my scripts are collecting dust in a cabinet somewhere in my home. When I finally decided to try my hand at writing a novel, I was surprised at how much more pleasurable it was to create a world in which I could explore the human experiences in a much more profound way than I had in my scripts, it was exhilarating.
Your father is well known around the world for his art and his activism how have his accomplishments affected you?
In profound and challenging ways. When I was six he was thrown in detention without trial and then went into exile when I was ten. I remember times when his effigies were set alight around the country, and when people, relatives included, were afraid of even mentioning his name. Those were difficult times. But even then, we were always aware, perhaps we were politically conscious at an early age, that we lived under a dictatorship, and that there were other families affected too, even if we did not fully understand it all. By my teenage years, I was reading the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, Sembene´s novels, which in a way got me to contextualize the political problems in Kenya, and what people like my father were articulating.
<strong>How did you come to work in film and with filmmakers?
Growing up in Kenya, we had little opportunities to see black people on screen. We were mostly fed Hollywood films which did little justice to black people. It was not until my first year at New York University (NYU) that I actually discovered African films. I was working part-time at African film critic, and chair of the Africana Studies Department, Dr. Manthia Diawara´s office. It is such a powerful thing to see oneself represented on film—and regardless of how one is showcased, the image is bound to have an effect. When I moved to Helsinki I was surprised at the level of misinformation about African people, both in the continent and the diaspora. The representation of Africa in the News was through a very narrow prism, which then for the large part, informs how Africans are perceived here. So out of this need to deconstruct the depiction of Africa as the Dark Continent that only produces dark images, I thought that one way was to show Africans on screen telling their stories. Images like I said are powerful and eventually help to contextualize people´s reality and in the case of Finland I hoped it would help begin a different conversation about black people.
What connection is there between your work in film and your work in literature?
I suppose in both the intention is to entertain, question, and explore. In the sense that when I am selecting films for the festival, or writing, all these are at play, but of course how I arrive at either or is different. The films are deliberately and meticulously chosen. I am looking for great cinematography, storyline and films that have succeeded in capturing the fullness of the subjects’ experience. I have the audience in mind. However in my novels and short stories, it’s not so methodological, although the aim may perhaps be the same, but the way I go about it is completely different. I sit at the computer and let the story develop which way it may without an audience in mind.
How did you decide to make Finland home? What kind of time do you spend in Kenya and other parts of Africa these days?
My Finnish partner, Sami, a photographer and I decided to make Finland home for a few years. Before then I lived and worked in Eritrea and Zimbabwe, during which I travelled to different African countries, e.g. South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. Since my daughter, Nyambura, was born, I haven´t done much traveling outside Europe, but do visit Kenya every so often. But while I may not get to travel to these countries, I do so through my writing, as Mugure does, and also in my short stories. Also really through the film selection I have to do every year. I like to joke that every 3-4 months out of a year I take journeys to vast corners of the African continent and its diaspora, from my home. So in a way I still get to experience the continent, only through the eyes of my fellow artists.