Kabubu Mutua’s work reveals a writer who is keen on telling Kenyan stories. His work explores the nuances of life in Kenya through the lens of characters inspired by his upbringing in Machakos County. In 2022, Kabubu was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Peters Fraser and Dunlop Queer Fiction Prize for his novel manuscript When We Believed in Paradise. His short story Small Mercies, which had previously been longlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize, was later published in The Hope, The Prayer, The Anthem anthology, while An Act of Prayer appears in the A Long House: Origins issue. He was selected for the 2022 Inkubator mentorship seminar held by Short Story Day Africa. Frank Njugi spoke to the writer on the state of fiction in Kenya and the dispositions of being a young writer in Kenya.
Francis: Every writer has an origin story. What’s yours? What can you say of your love story with literature? What has your journey in the literary arts been like as a young writer in a constantly changing, ever-evolving African literary canon?
Kabubu: I remember leaving home for boarding school when I was eight and picking up simplified copies of Charles Dickens’ The Great Expectations and A Tale Of Two Cities. They had these beautiful illustrations that told what needed to be told about a world removed from me both in time and place. And then came the Pacesetters novels and Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series. During this time, my classmates and I exchanged books to cope with the fact that we were away from home, and I think that sort of created a longing in me for a world that was perfect because I was always rooting for those characters. When I joined high school, Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah had just come out, and our school library had copies, which my friend and I began reading and were amazed, and went on to read Half of a Yellow Sun. Around this time I had been scribbling things here and there. I think I have an abandoned manuscript somewhere written while I was in primary school, about a boy who befriends a monster.
Coming up as a writer in this age, it is an exciting time. There’s so much beautiful work being put out. However, personally, I’m wary of keeping up with what’s going on as it’s easy to forget that it’s the work that matters before everything.
Francis: In your literary work, like in your short story A Matter of Time, you seem to explore what the Kenyan society might view as countercultures at times, like being queer in an African setting. Do you think this is a role literary fiction plays? That of exploring topics society frowns upon but that still hold relevance and must be revealed? And if so, how do you endeavour to achieve this personally?
Kabubu: I like to think that fiction reminds us that experiences are universal. In this manner we become better humans. How can I describe the parallelism between Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji and my own childhood or the fact that I saw myself while reading Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark? The world is such a large place and yet the strange things of life are made lighter from the stories we share with each other.
I personally don’t think queerness in an African setting is a counterculture. Queer realities existed for a long time before colonial rule, and will continue to exist despite everything that’s been happening. Anyone in their right mind should know that culture is not set in stone. Did we use English names a hundred years ago, or believe that God existed in threes and that a virgin birth was the source of our redemption? Of course not. When I write though, I just want to tell a story. I don’t think much about exploring topics as much.
Francis: Speaking on the parallelism between the fiction we read and our own realities, while taking in mind the quote “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” by Albert Camus, do you see your fiction as the lens, even if subtle, through which you explore your own personal reality at times? Or that of those around you perhaps ?
Kabubu: Yes, I see fiction as a way of exploring reality. Often, I find myself writing about places I’ve been to, or people I’ve known, and although I avoid writing about myself (I tend to think I’ve not led an interesting life up to this point), certain things unconsciously come into the page. Perhaps what I know is easier for me to write about.
Francis: You are representative of the new young generation of Kenyan fiction writers. Coming from a country that has produced some of Africa’s literary giants, with your achievements, such as being in the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize longlist and having works published in prestigious literary platforms such as Adda & A Long House, it can be said that you are living up to this set trend. Would you say the Kenyan literary eco-system has been supportive or is supportive enough of young writing talents like yourself? Are there enough spaces for young literati to flourish like their predecessors within the country? And have some of these predecessors inspired you personally?
Kabubu: I think spaces are growing where people write what they want. Of course the structures that would help those starting out are especially few, but people are still writing. I’m not sure what would be defined as “flourishing”, but I think the end goal is to write beautiful sentences and to send them out into the world with the knowledge that what a writer encountered during its creation is somehow lost, and yet by sharing it, the world becomes better. Any writer who accomplishes that—finding satisfaction in the act—has “flourished”. You see, I believe whatever ends up as the work is what is significant despite the process or if one had a support system during creation or not. Of course the work still carries a sense of want, and a writer is often tempted to shape it even after it has gone out. So in the end there’s a sense of loss at never realising what you set out to do, and a sense of satisfaction in knowing that a reader out there loves this thing which you also once loved but now almost abhor. It’s still strange to look at the final work as a work that never becomes, something paling in comparison to the dream. So ultimately there’s never a final thing as the mind keeps reworking things even when the reader has loved it.
In terms of my writing, the likes of Grace Ogot, Okwiri Oduor, Margaret Ogola, Binyavanga Wainaina, Yusuf Dawood, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, and Ken Walibora have greatly inspired it.
Francis: What do you foresee as the future of Kenyan literature? And on a personal level, what can we perhaps expect from you in terms of your literary output moving forward?
Kabubu: I foresee a place filled with beautifully written books, paying journals, workshops, fellowships, and residencies. Personally, I have some short stories coming out soon with Catalyst Press and Short Story Day Africa which are the result of a series of workshops I attended last year organised by SSDA and Emma Shercliff’s Laxfield literary agency. The stories are speculative, and in that way the writing style is very different from anything I’ve written before. They’ll be out within the year as part of an anthology called Captive.