Slipping In & Out of Landscapes: An Interview with Billy Kahora

The Coil
The Coil
Aug 11, 2020 · 13 min read

Penelope Cartwright talks with author Billy Kahora about his writing methods, Kenyan culture, & his new book ‘The Cape Cod Bicycle War.’

PENELOPE CARTWRIGHT: Can you tell us a little about your writing practice, in the sense of your basic routines: Are there times and places where you have to be to work? Do you begin with a plot line or grow the story out of a dialogue exchange / character voice?

BILLY KAHORA: Early mornings are my best writing times. The earlier the better. I work in writing cycles over 10 to 14 days that start with 3- to 5-hour writing sessions and escalate to 6 to 9 hours toward the end as I try and finish a draft of a chapter, a section, a story, a piece. By the end of the 10- to 14-days’ cycle, I’m doing little else but writing. The world around me disappears into the world of the writing, and then, utterly spent, I take a few days off. Even another 10 days, if I can afford it, for family and life and then start again.

Usually, it is the image of “something” that starts me off — a scene that captures characters and the narrator’s voice mostly, and that immediately reverberates with something bigger — an anecdote, a microcosm of the fictional world, even a specific social setting. I then start testing it against technical things on the page, e.g. plot line, characterization, scenes, mostly. … I never quite know till toward a third or fourth draft whether it is a story.

How do you know when a story is emerging and when it is finished?

At times it’s hard to ever tell when it is really finished. In others, you just instinctively know. At other times, you are just sick and tired of it. At times, it’s never finished, and there’s nothing you can do, but someone likes it enough to publish it, and then they suggest some changes that work. It’s hard to pin down one or even several ways in how the process works. Some stories take a week and everything clicks and you don’t know how and why, and some stories take months and it’s like trying to sculpt something from raw stone that keeps on crumbling. The novel, however, feels like a large painting that you hope will suddenly come together, but often it is just a mishmash. …

Something I find beguiling about your writing is how difficult it is to pin down stylistically: There’s a definite muscular, “gonzo,” urban realism that comes across in the way you write about brands, institutions, and the city, for instance. But there’s also the lyricism of “We Are Here Because We Are Here” and the surreal, miniaturized fairytale quality of The Cape Cod Bicycle War’s “American Wendy House.” I can imagine a somewhat eclectic set of writers forming your “toolbox,” as it were — Are there particular writers who have influenced you?

Image: Ohio University Press. (Purchase)

I remember once during a panel a long time ago, the moderator told me and the audience that my story “Zoning” reminded him of Marechera [1]. When I told him that I started writing the story during a phase of reading Martin Amis, he wasn’t too pleased. When I started writing short fiction regularly and successfully with “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” and some of the early stories, I was playing around a lot with what has been disparaged and described by James Wood as hysterical realism [2] — and yet many of the books he mentions by Zadie Smith and Don DeLillo seemed to talk to me in how I perceived the Kenyan world that I was trying to capture.

I found that I tended to read as much as possible the form I was working on, i.e. creative nonfiction when I was working on The True Story of David Munyakei, short fiction when I was writing stories. And this was in 2- to 3-year cycles. When I started working on a novel in 2013, I found myself reading big “hyper-real” socio-political novels. I guess reading influences seep into the forms they are not meant for. Playing around with form is crucial for me. I wouldn’t write if I couldn’t test stuff. That’s maybe why the gonzo journalism I read might flavor the short stories. The hyper-real novels on my shelf influence the nonfiction. Let’s see what happens (fingers crossed) if I can get over the line with the novel-in-progress.

You worked extensively as a journalist before publishing your latest collection, covering the Goldenberg whistleblower scandal [3], and working with Kenyan magazine Kwani?, on what you’ve called creative nonfiction. Can you talk a little about if and how this career shapes your fiction writing? I’m particularly wondering if it shapes the kinds of material you’re drawn to: a lot of the stories in the latest collection feel very urgently topical, whether about the 2007–2008 Kenyan election violence (“Gorilla’s Apprentice”), Chinese economic presence in Africa (“World Pawa”), or Kenyan corporate and official corruption (“Zoning,” “Shiko,” etc.). Do you feel that your writing needs to speak to a broader social issue?

I think, when I started writing, I so badly wanted to make sense of the Kenyan world that I invariably turned to the topical. With time, when I started getting a handle of that world, I started turning away from that to stories driven by characters in themselves rather characters shaping and being shaped by social setting. I feel the more recent stories, e.g. “Shiko” and “Motherless,” are different in that way. These are more internalized … just to reflect the change in my concerns over time.

Speaking of this ‘internalization,’ is there a significant difference for you between the formal possibilities offered by creative nonfiction and the kind offered by “pure” fiction?

What I think shapes style is the writer’s larger attitude to the world he / she depicts. That attitude provides a lens to the world that tinges what he / she creates. The elements are, in a way, just tools: They give shape to the attitude — but this, of course, also informs which tools one prefers. The tools of nonfiction lend themselves to aspects of reality that come “whole,” in terms of narrative. When these are not whole, the imagination takes over, but the endgame is the same. That is why they seem to seep into each other.

Beneath the short stories, but also with a lot of my nonfiction, is a stance — a questioning attitude beneath — How can this happen? Why are things that are messy ALSO balanced by an amazement with people’s capacity for survival, joy, laughter, going on about their business in spite of things? Parallel to this is the need to play with elements. To challenge myself aesthetically.

Your writing is striking for how it plays with voice: both the range of narrative voices — third and first person, anonymous collective first person of the title story — and also the handling of dialogue, spoken vernacular, phonetic sound. Can you say a bit more about how you settle on a story’s voice?

The voice comes to me immediately. I am convinced there is a story somewhere in the disparate elements that it is made of. Almost immediately, I can always hear that. If I don’t, even if I can somehow picture all the other elements, there is no story. I’m very big on Gérard Genette’s ideas of voice as a complex element built from what, who, and how (or in other words how content fits narrator and how that influences style). When all these three come together, a good story is in the offing. I can instinctively “feel” the voice, but I also try to test it carefully in the technical ways , à la Genette, that I’ve mentioned.

I think the story “We Are Here Because We Are Here” was very tough to get right in terms of voice. And I played with different perspectives before settling on a removed voice — something between omniscient and close third person. There are other stories that were almost done (two, actually) — one based in London that was quite developed, but the voice wasn’t quite right. I had another story that featured one of the characters in “The Unconverted,” and the narrative voice wasn’t quite right, so I jettisoned both.

Have any of the stories been redrafted in terms of voice? Does the amount of Sheng [4] change across the writing / editing process, for instance?

Yes, the Sheng is toned down in some of the stories. I think Sheng really captures the wonderful mix of babel and poetry that is Nairobi. Because English comes to most Kenyans as structured and official through school, unlike, say, their mother tongues, it doesn’t quite capture the fine balance between the entropy and violent ordering of living in Nairobi. In many ways that’s the narrative voice I am trying to catch in these stories — and that’s what most of the characters are: they are trying to be free but are finding themselves being forcefully “formatted” in different ways, whether by the “nation” to be Kenyan, by the church to be Christian, or by their peers to fit into a global cool. Sheng captures this struggle better. … Interestingly, one younger reviewer of the stories said he liked them but found some of the Sheng archaic. That’s the other thing with Sheng — it has serious velocity. In the two years between when the collection was done and when it was published, the Sheng in it had already changed. …

What was it like to bring the stories together in a final collection? A number of them have been published before in venues like Kwani?, as well as in Chimurenga, Granta, and elsewhere. Were there any major changes in putting them together, and was there a particular logic to how they’re ordered?

It was tougher than I expected. I first decided on a collection because I realized I not only had all these published stories, but also all these ideas that had been in my head for a while, and I didn’t want to try and get them published as standalone. I also thought the new stories would work better in a collection side by side with the older ones. At first I thought oh, it looks like all the stories have young characters at the cusp of something major in their lives, so I thought the idea of youthful failure that either builds or destroys was something each was going through. But then as I started writing the newer ones, what had seemed more straightforward became more and more daunting. The editor of the collection, Ellah Allfrey, was really helpful in making me see the stories as a collection. But this might also explain why two of the stories didn’t quite work for the collection — I was trying too hard to make them fit, without getting them to work independently as stories.

With order, the rough idea was to move from peri-urban (there are truly no rural places in Kenya anymore, which is really sad) to urban to diaspora — that was the broad logic. But then, in terms of aesthetic, it was important to grab the reader, so we put “Zoning” first in the American edition. …

One of the things I enjoyed most about the collection was its subtle intertextuality: The stories stand alone, but the reader has a sense of this large cast of characters existing within an ongoing fictional world. Did you always imagine the stories as connected, or did this come about as you produced the collection?

As I wrote the newer stories with the idea of a collection in mind, I started realizing how many of the characters somehow fit into the same universe. Not only the Kenya I describe above, of entropy versus formatting by the usual things (e.g. a job, getting married, becoming serious, getting a degree, not drinking so much) — but also that moment everyone in youth goes through, especially in urban Africa. A moment where they might fuck up badly, where they can never get anything right — but also a moment when they finally do … the crucial years that decide what one’s life will be like thereafter. …

You’ve mentioned youth and those ‘cusp’ moments a few times now: can you say a bit about the sense of generation in this collection?

The stories specifically straddle the late 90s to the first decade of the millennium in Nairobi. This is during the last years of Moi and the first years after him — I won’t describe them as Kibaki (the next President) but as Post-Moi. But this is also the coming of age of a generation that is truly urban and not the minority in Kenya — that was born when a traditional sense of Kenya was disappearing for a time when the post-colonial is transitioning to the post-nation. The generation of the Internet. CNN. Global influence. Diaspora and travel, without the baggage of an earlier sense of ethnicity and nationality, as was had in the 70s. The sense of a fuller transition between traditional past and global present — but also a victim of its confusions, its inequalities and its illusions. Muthoni Garland’s blurb on the jacket cover captures quite well the mixed effects of this transition [5].

I want to ask a bit more about a couple of themes / images that resonated a lot for me across the collection: Institutions? A lot of the stories are preoccupied with the intense and claustrophobic “mini universes” that spring up around particular institutions — whether boarding schools or corporate entities. And laughter? There’s a lot of reference to laughing in this book — not all of it joyful!

I think the way these institutions are rendered comes from my own sense of the violence that permeated the Kenyan institutions I went through or know. This is partly because they are adapted without a careful think about their meaning, which results in a (mostly masculine) helplessness and posturing in a new world that its players do not completely understand. I think this is also what happens when a society adopts some other culture’s institutions without fully realizing why they worked elsewhere, and then finds themselves too far along in the game to discard them — and this exemplifies itself in claustrophobic violence and frustration.

One major response to that claustrophobia is laughter. A laughter that can be a simple and joyous form of escape, but also mean and bitter, out of frustration. I am big on the idea of homo ludens: the person who laughs because he cannot do anything else.

Recent years have seen a growing global audience for African fiction, much of which is deeply concerned with ideas about the continent’s place and identity within global systems. Your writing strikes me as more specifically nationally-orientated — even when you are addressing very transnational or cosmopolitan themes. Are either “African literature” or “Kenyan literature” meaningful landscapes for how you think about your work and yourself as a writer?

While ‘Kenyan’ and ‘African’ literary landscapes are not things one can avoid, I feel that they tend to delimit individual imagination and local experience but also how both connect beyond the nation. My writing impulse comes from a basic place — I grew up as the “nation” was shrinking and as the sense of the “global” grew. One day President Moi was everywhere and everything, and then CNN came into our living rooms and changed everything. So while the nation was always present in the 80s Kenya I grew up in, I found that it was almost imaginatively absent in post-millennial Kenya, till its reemergence in an ugly post-elections conflict in 2008. So I try and write what it means for the individual to live, slipping in and out of these landscapes. I am particularly interested in how the Kenyan individual manages these landscapes: the paradoxes, the small frictions and schizophrenia of attempting to be Kenyan, to be African — but also to come from a specific urban neighborhood, to come from an ethnic place because of one’s parents, and what it means trying to negotiate all these things. And also to exist in a global moment. The Cape Cod Bicycle War is my way of trying to explore how individuals who have lived in the local all their lives enter the global.

I am not sure I think any one way as a writer, but for any particular project, I might try to take those kinds of parameters (‘Kenya,’ ‘Africa’) on. For example, I’ve been particularly interested in the violent collapse and intersection of cultures and temporalities: Maasai herdsmen routes through Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah during periods of drought for example; Bukusu circumcision rites in downtown Nairobi.

And yet, in the novel I’m currently working on, I move away from the confusions of nation, the enticements of the global, and the utopias of Pan Africanism to the Kenyan “middle-class” family as my main focus — here, while the nation isn’t completely absent, I want it to be more about what it means in this context. I want it to be more about what it means to belong to a certain kind of family in Kenya and what these other contexts also mean or do not mean.

Do you know yet where your next writing project will take you?

A lot of scribblings that I hope will become a novel.

BILLY KAHORA is the author of The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories (Ohio University Press, 2020). Twice shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Literature, his work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta Online, and Vanity Fair. He teaches creative writing at the University of Bristol.
PENNY CARTWRIGHT is a researcher and teacher at the University of Bristol. She is completing her PhD on post-1990s globalization and global space in contemporary Kenyan and Nigerian writing. She holds degrees from Oxford University and Cambridge University and has previously written for the Africa in Words blog.


[1] The Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, best known for the 1978 novella / short-story collection House of Hunger.

[2] In his essay “Human, All Too Inhuman” in The New Republic, Wood argues that “conventions of realism are not being abolished but on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.”

[3] The Goldenberg scandal was a major political corruption case in the early 1990s, involving the Moi government’s subsidizing of false gold exports out of Kenya on behalf of Goldenberg International. The whistleblower, David Munyakei, was fired from the Central Bank of Kenya as a result of releasing important documentation proving the scam to opposition members of Parliament and the media. Billy Kahora covered the case in The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower (2008).

[4] Vernacular derived from Swahili and English, strongly associated with Nairobi urban culture.

[5] “The loss of its certainties and pretensions leaves Billy Kahora’s young men and women adrift. Their fathers who once commanded and never explained, either desert home or become powerless shadows. Mothers become mentally ill or take comfort in religion or drink but they hang on to maintain the semblance of home.”

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