Makena Onjerika Caine Prize Winner Talks to Alt A

“……Nairobi is in my DNA”.

“I wrote my first novel in six months. It occupied every waking moment, including time when I should have been paying attention to my teachers in class”.

Alt A caught up with the Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.

What was you first reaction when you realised you had won the coveted prize and what does winning mean to you?

“I just froze,  T’Challa style. Dinaw Mengestu had to beckon me to the front.  And good thing he did because I was just about to start crying. I was very happy to be on the shortlist, because hoping is fantabulous in London,  you know. I was not counting on winning. Winning means I get to write full-time, for a while, and it’s also given me new confidence in my writing”.

What was the first novel you read?

I can’t remember.  I have always read. And when I was younger, I didn’t really look at book covers for book titles or author names. I just dived into the book, some of them 100 pages in because the first 100 pages were nowhere to be found. Now,  if you asked about my favourite novel,  I would have to say I have a few favourites but Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” haunts me most.

When did you first decide to become a writer?

When the dashing Rudolf Rassendyll died in Antony Hope’s “Rupert of Henztau”. Being 15 years old,  I was quite pissed off at Hope and so decided to write a book in which handsome princes did not die. I wrote my first novel in six months. It occupied every waking moment, including time when I should have been paying attention to my teachers in class. Those were the happiest days of my life. I wrote with such abandon, such flare,  such exuberance,  I would often lift my head from the page not knowing which planet I was on.

Tell us what inspired Fanta Blackcurrant?

Although this story has been compared to NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest”, it began as a response to another Caine Prize story,  Olufemi Terry’s “Stickfighting Days”. I felt the need to write a story about street girls in Nairobi, in a realist manner,  where Terry had tackled the lives of Nairobi’s street boys using elements of fantasy.

How did the plight of the street children come to your attention?

Street children are a part of the Nairobi landscape. They have always been there.  I simply came to the realization that I and many other Nairobians did not see them at all and if we did, only as others and definitely not as children. This is why my story is so intent of the childishness of the characters and their complicated innocence.

Where do you call home? Nairobi. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. Well, perhaps in Nyali at the Coast of Kenya.  But Nairobi is in my DNA. I have not been able to write stories set elsewhere,  despite living abroad some seven year.  This chaotic city just makes sense to me.


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