By Shikanda E. Hellen
I selectively pick which WhatsApp groups to follow chats on and which ones to ignore. The Writers Guild’s affiliate WhatsApp group is one of those that I religiously follow. Regularly, Writers Guild Kenya organizes for veterans in the writing field to be e-interviewed by the members which serves as an inspirational online session.
When I saw the notification “Joe Khamisi will be home,” my zealousness, like other active members of the group, was painted by ‘we-can’t-waits,’ and ‘finallys’. I set the alarm for his arrival. I didn’t want to miss, who would want to?
Joe Khamisi is a veteran writer; journalist and ex-politician currently based in the U.S. At 74, he boasts of writing four excellent books that serious readers, and lovers of the country, Kenya, drool over. They are available at Amazon. I learned of Khamisi when a friend to my dad’s gifted him one of his books; The Wretched Africans. Promptly, I looked him up on the internet. I was awed, I must say. It is then that I sent him a friend request on Facebook and silently trailed behind his steps each time he made a post.
One time, he posted about the launch of his new book; Looters and Grabbers which exposes untold corruption and history of the country in the hands of the four presidents Kenya has had. One writer asked him how he manages to write such a risky book and still sell them. Of course, who would put so much effort in research then let it be swept away? He advises that in everything that writers put down, especially those that specialize in non-fiction, they have to be factual. Defamation laws are still in place so how one puts down their work shouldn’t defame a person, especially one who is still alive.
Khamisi has his books self-published save for one. He points out that any writer who wishes to self-publish should have an imprint name (his is Jodey Publisher) and obtain an ISBN so that they can be linked to a specific name which is their creation. An excellent editor is not debatable.
Having written very resourceful books, he points out that writers who would wish to write books of his kind should keep in mind that their readers are more intelligent than they are. That he said to reiterate the fact that research when writing non-fiction books is inevitable. He asks writers to satisfy their talent in writing, but also fill their stomachs. Though clichéd; don’t give up on your craft is his advice to an aspiring writer.
Joe Khamisi is currently a full time writer and working on the next writing project. He says he will keep writing as long as he lives. He describes his schedule as: wakes up, prays, reads Kenyan papers and writes, spending most time in the library.
Here is a snippet of our interview:
What inspired you to write?
My father. He was a journalist in the 60’s so when I was very young and growing up in Mombasa, I took time to read the papers he read. I’d read and try to recreate the articles. I showed the write – ups to some relatives and they realized that I liked to write so they encouraged me to do so.
Would you do it any differently from your father?
I did exactly what I wanted to do. I admired diplomacy. I remember walking to the ministry of foreign affairs and just looking at the letterhead on top of the building, Mercedes Benzes, and diplomats leaving the building and I was very impressed.
Which of your books is your favourite?
My books are all valuable. Looters and Grabbers was the most challenging to write. It required a lot of research and checking. The Wretched Africans was a very emotional one – it touched on my ancestry. I’m a descendant of slavery. My great grandparents were brought in as slaves from Tanzania and Malawi on their way to the Arab world. They were rescued and transferred to Mombasa by missionaries.
What is the risk in writing controversial books?
Sometimes, as a writer, you have to sacrifice for the truth. It is very risky and a matter of great concern but if it is the truth, that takes care of anything else that may prevent you from saying it.
I knew Looters and Grabbers was going to touch a lot of nerves but since it is a record of truth, nobody has challenged me about it. I’m proud that I was able to do that book. Whatever comes later, we’ll see what happens.
How was the research for Looters and Grabbers like? How long did it take you? In the process, were you a victim of the system?
I spent a lot of time in the archives in Nairobi, the National Library Museum of Kenya, and the Mombasa centre near Fort Jesus on books on the coast. I also researched through libraries in the US. Some of the universities here have rich African material. It took a long time – about one year for the research and one year of writing, editing, formatting, cover etc.
On being a victim of the system, I tested the waters by writing that book. Somehow, it has been very quiet on the side of the government though I know they have read it. Recently, the national assembly bought some books from me and that was one of them. I came home (Kenya) in February but decided not to release it when I was in Nairobi. There were indications that some people were not very happy about it. Whether I become a victim that remains to be seen.
What do you think is the future of Kenyan writers?
Don’t give up. Writing is a lonely business. You cannot ask for help for someone to think on your behalf as you’re the creator. I’ve spent more than an hour polishing a paragraph, trying to see if the two brothers; one at the top and one at the bottom are compatible. It’s difficult particularly when you self-publish. If you want to self-publish, make sure you have the so called imprint. I chose the name Jodey Publishers, registered the company and use it as an imprint for my books. Make sure the book is edited by an editor who knows about things. Make sure you have some money.
In as much as he fancies non-fiction, he reads a bit of fiction too. Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie and Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani are his favorites. His wish list is to read more Kenyan books of the present day writers like Kinyanjui Kombani, an award-winning writer.
“Let’s keep at our talents, it is our reservoir of wealth,” were Joe’s last words.
Shikanda E. Hellen is a 4th year BSc. Communication and Journalism student at Moi University and an affiliate of Writers Guild Kenya.