The Kenya Writes guest for today is Mombasa-based writer and festival organiser Lorna Likiza whose debut literary offering is the children’s book Oi Gets Lost. She tells us their journey to her first book, working with her Ukrainian illustrator, about her festival the Heroe Book Fair and about the writing scene in her adopted town of Mombasa. Get the podcast by clicking here.
Here are headlights from the podcast interview;
How did you start your writing journey?
I’ve written all my life. It’s something I discovered when I was really young, I was seven years old. Most of my childhood was spent writing. I was a child who would stay home and write in exercise books wherever there was space annoying my teachers in the process. I wrote for a very long time as a closeted writer as a hobby and hide my stuff. I was never confident in giving people my stuff. When I turned 23 and started a personal blog I got the confidence to put my writing out there. When I realized that there were literary journals, I started sending in my nonfiction essays and trying fiction here and there.
I found myself writing for children when someone told me about the Golden Baobab Prize was looking for children’s book writers to send in their drafts. Because I had spent so much time writing as a child, it was not so difficult for me to think of a story to write for children. I submitted a story to the prize not even thinking that I was going to get longlisted or anything is going to come out of it. I was longlisted for the prize with 12 other people from 300 hundred entries and it was a beautiful surprise for me because I discovered that, “oh really, clearly I write well then if this is happening.”
They held the rights to it for 24 months and on the last month, I came across a publisher for children’s books online. I was crawling through Instagram and I saw a publisher for children’s books online, Bright Light Books, who were looking for drafts and I remembered this draft and I didn’t want to give up on it. I sent it to them and within a couple of weeks I got an OK from them; they were interested in working with me and publishing it.
Please give us a brief synopsis of the book
Oi Gets Lost is a story about a very curious kitten that like wandering. Despite its mother’s warning it always wants to wander about and one time It gets lost. When it gets lost, it’s a whole adventure as it’s trying to find its way back home where there are lessons learnt and skills acquired. I think it’s a very interesting book for ages eight to twelve; it is child friendly and an easy read.
I’ve read the book and loved it. It’s a simple concept yet so epic. How are you able to do this?
Thank you so much for the compliment. At the time I was writing Oi Gets Lost I was living with my cousins and I have these nieces that I would watch who formed the motivation for this book. When I started writing the first draft, you won’t believe it, I wrote it by hand on a notebook. It was so fast because it took me a month because that story was sitting in my mind just waiting to be told. I remember I got the idea of a cat; we used to have a cat when I was younger and I get the idea from the way they like to claw on the seats. It’s one of the easiest drafts that I have ever written because it just took a month, finished up with the notebook, typed it out, and threw away the notebook.
When I signed the contract with my publisher they asked if I had extra books I wanted to write and I said of course and I wanted to continue this as a series. So there are two extra books in the Oi series and I am already done with the second book which should come out after some time.
I noticed from the bio that the illustrator Yevheniia Melnyk comes from Ukraine. How did that come about?
When you work with Bright Lights Books they give you an option to either pick an illustrator or they will pick one for you. I decided that since they were the experts they would pick an illustrator and coincidentally I got a Ukrainian illustrator. She is really good because this is a girl who has never lived in Kenya and it was not so hard to explain to her because she could get the concept of what exactly I wanted. She was able to capture what I wanted to be captured in the book.
What do you anticipate will happen with this book when it comes out?
I’m anticipating a readership among Kenyan children. I would like to conduct book readings in schools because a lot of time in our Kenyan education system we focus so much on the academic aspect of reading and so we have all these set books and all that. I’m trying to see if it’s possible to encourage more leisurely reading in schools. I’m not saying academic reading is wrong but I’m saying that when we encourage more leisurely reading it generates more interest. When you are dealing with young minds it’s easier to introduce something to them.
Would you like to tell us about your other writing?
My other strongest genre is nonfiction; I’m an essayist and like writing opinion pieces and stuff like that. I never expected that my first book to be published would be a children’s book; I always thought it would be adult fiction or maybe nonfiction. But you never know what life has for you. I am comfortable writing for children but at the same time I am comfortable writing essays that are adult-focused and oriented.
Tell us about your publisher
Bright Lights Books which is my publisher are on Instagram and as I was scrolling I came across them one day and I checked their website. They were making a callout for African writers who were dealing in children’s books. I submitted my draft to the email address they had and they are quite efficient in getting back if they are interested in your work. They are Nigerian but based in London, UK.
How would we in Kenya access the book when it comes out?
We had to think of distribution in the major African markets like Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya. I am hoping that when the book is available there will be a way they can be gotten. Currently, they can be ordered on Amazon (Click here)
You aren’t a writer but also the curator of the Heroe Book Fair which will be running in Mombasa in May. Could you tell us a little about this festival?
Heroe Book Fair is a Pan African literary event bringing together Anglophone, Francophone, and German-speaking writers, publishers, and literary enthusiasts from Kenya, the rest of Africa, and the Black diaspora. When I conceived that idea for the Heroe Book Fair I was living in Nakuru and was trying to create a scenario where people instead of going to Nairobi could go to a different Kenyan town and experience a literary landscape. I started planning for the first event in November 2019 and by March 2020 we got our first Covid case in Kenya and of course that halted all the plans. For a while, I was lost and didn’t know if I would do this.
I teach French and was in communication with the French embassy and asked them for their opinion in September 2020. I was thinking of doing the event at the Alliance Française in Nairobi and they offered me their Mombasa option and I jumped at the offer.
How was the first edition of the festival?
The first edition happened in March last year and it was tricky as that was the time we were getting a number of restrictions on who were to attend. 90% of participants were online. We had Scholastique Mukasonga and Salma Abdulatif Salumi who gave the keynote addresses as well Hassan Ghedi Santur, TJ Benson, Max Lobe among many others.
The keynote speaker for 2022 which will be happening at the Close the Gap Hub is a Zimbabwean lawyer and author Petina Gappah. It shall also be live-streamed on Instagram for those who cannot make it physically.
Please tell us a bit about Mombasa writing
Mombasa is quite diverse when it comes to writers. You have the writers who are doing self-help and motivational books, you have others who are doing poetry in Swahili, you have others writing strictly in Swahili, and others in English. The most interesting thing about Mombasa is that they are resilient; if they can’t be published traditionally, they take the step and self-publish.
Every time I am planning Heroe Book Fair and I am dealing with the Mombasa literary scene I discover new writers all the time. Someone will come and say they have a self-published book and I think this is very resilient on their part.
Some of the writers to look out for are Khadija Abdalla Bajaber with The House of Rust, Lubnah Abdulhalim, Hassan Kassim, Omar Kipulanga, Mohammed Otieno, Fatma Shafii, and so many other writers.
Listen to the podcast interview by clicking here or here;