Idza Luhumyo, winner of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, discusses short stories, agency, and power.
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Idza – thanks so much for talking to me. ‘Five Years Next Sunday’ is such a beautifully paced story – and it also has something that compelling short stories rarely have: a big canvas. A large amount of time elapses across a very few pages, and this allows us to see how characters, relationships and imperatives change. Was this big canvas something you intended to work with, or was it rather that the story you wanted to tell demanded it?
It’s something that the story demanded. Once I had the main character – knew what she wanted, and knew exactly where she was located – then the story opened up and had to speak to bigger questions, even as it remained welded and attached to these few characters.
Perhaps relatedly: you can usually sense of from what a piece of short fiction has developed (a single image, a single setting, a single character, a single quirk), but I couldn’t guess the seed from which this story had grown – maybe the rich and complex ideas of hair and water, if you made me guess!. Where did it all start?
It started with the hair. I had been thinking about the practice of witch hunts along the Kenyan coast for a little while. People – usually elderly folk – whose hair starts to grey are said to be practicing witchcraft, and are banished to these remote outposts and, technically, left to die. With Pili, I wanted to create a character who has the ability to make rain but is shunned by her community for that very ability. It was an irresistible contradiction I simply had to pursue.
What is it that draws you most to the short story form?
It’s the form I started out with – that is, without counting the awful poetry that I did in high school. I think the short story form is good practice for a writer just starting out. But even more than that: I think there’s something poetic about the form; it demands you to distil what you want to say/question/explore to the bare fundamentals; it’s a form that doesn’t reward lingering, and so you have to work hard to make it tight.
The relationship between Pili and Honey puts into conversation several intersecting issues – race, gender, sexuality – in such a short space of time, in a way that complicates them, with these intersecting lines often being where the story takes sudden, sharp turns. Could you talk about that a little?
I wanted to think a little differently about how race works, especially when we’re talking about a place such as the Kenyan coast, where there has long been a white presence because of tourism. Even though we have two women with diminished power – but who are in no way powerless – we find that the expectations are flipped: because of her hair, Pili is actually the one who has more power. I thought it’d be interesting to see how their relationship played out with this reversal as a framework.
Agency – who has it, the ways in which it is circumscribed and the ways in which it can be exercised, how duty and expectation and community affect it – feels like something else in which the story is deeply interested. Is that something you were particularly keen to explore?
I was – and, truthfully, I want to keep exploring it in my future work. What does agency mean when you have to coexist with others? And what’s the best way to move through the world with agency while also being aware of, and attendant to, other people’s needs and expectations? I don’t think these are easy – or even answerable – questions, but I believe they still need to be posed so that we can sit with them.
You’re currently doing an MFA in Texas, and I always like to ask this question: do you think MFAs are worth it?
I think it depends on what you want to get out of them. Writing has no roadmap and MFAs certainly won’t work for everyone, but they offer an unrivalled opportunity to centre writing in your life, at least for a couple of years. What’s more: if you’re lucky, you leave with a couple of lifelong readers.
You’ve been recognised by a number of awards championing African literature – the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award, the Short Story Day Africa Prize, and now the Caine Prize. What do those recognitions mean to and for you?
They motivate me to keep the faith, to keep pursuing the ideas that interest me and, more importantly, to get my work out there.
I once heard Hisham Matar describe the process of writing fiction as being like having an oscillating ball of water above your head, trying to shape it into the shape you want without its surface-tension breaking and the water coming pouring down over your head. As I read ‘Five Years Next Sunday’, this image came back to me – not just because of the reference to water, but because the story holds together so many threads and drivers and themes (characters, plots, gender, mysticism, scarcity, race, relationships, water, family, duty, hair, isolation, sexuality, capital, identity, value…). So my question is: how did you hold all these threads together without them unravelling?
A simple (and maybe a tad unromantic) answer: rewriting and rewriting. But there’s also the fact that the stories that I like reading tend also to be layered and I guess that was my model as I worked on this story. The other thing is that that’s just how life is. Things are almost never about one thing, and I guess achieving the sort of verisimilitude that works requires bringing that life-like quality to storytelling.
And finally, having said that ‘Five Years Next Sunday’ is about so many connected things, if you had to boil it down to just one, what would you say this story is about?
I would say it’s about power. Everyone has it, and some have more of it than others for sure, but everyone’s always using however much of it they have or can access to various ends.
The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is a registered charity whose aim is to bring African writing to a wider audience using our annual literary award. In addition to administering the Prize, we work to connect readers with African writers through a series of public events, as well as helping emerging writers in Africa to enter the world of mainstream publishing through the annual Caine Prize writers’ workshop which takes place in a different African country each year.
Idza Luhumyo is a Kenyan writer. Her work has been published by Popula, Jalada Africa, The Writivism Anthology, Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly, MaThoko’s Books, Gordon Square Review, Amsterdam’s ZAM Magazine, Short Story Day Africa, the New Internationalist, The Dark, and African Arguments. Her work has been shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, and the Gerald Kraak Award. She is the inaugural winner of the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award (2020) and winner of the Short Story Day Africa Prize (2021).
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.