Wanja Njama is the author of Bejewelled Africa, a collection of short modern folktales that not only teach and entertain but also show the beauty of Africa. Here, she speaks with us about her book, her literary journey, and her advice for aspiring authors.
This is your first book. Why did you choose to write an anthology instead of a full-length novel?
When I wrote the first version of Bejewelled Africa, then entitled Born for Greatness, I was very interested in emulating the style of the short folklore stories we would read as children. I believed that the brevity of my stories would not only have a larger impact, but also capture a wider audience as children (my target market at the time) would be interested in reading more succinct pieces.
Furthermore, having shorter stories as opposed to one full-length novel would enable to take the reader on various journeys in the different tales; and that tied well with my intention of conveying Africa’s beauty and development whilst retelling part of the continent’s history.
What was your favourite part or chapter to write, and why?
I struggled to choose between the story entitled “How the First City was Made” and “Roots of Africa” when thinking about how to answer this question. These two are my favourite stories in the book for different reasons, and when writing them, they were the two that came the most naturally. Why I chose “How the First City was Made” as one of my favourites is because there is a funny story associated with the story’s inception, and thus when writing it, it was one of the easiest ones to convey the message I was trying to get across.
Moreover, without me initially realizing, I believe the story explores aspects of faith, identity and self-confidence, which I believe are important traits of character people should find and develop themselves from early in their lives as they later help individuals have a sense of peace, and confidence within themselves.
On the other hand, why “Roots of Africa” is one of my favourite stories in the anthology is because of the historical content it relays. When kids are growing up and learning about African history, rarely do they learn about the great African civilizations (exempting the Egyptian) that existed pre-colonialism, and rarely, do they learn about the transatlantic slave trade. Thus, I felt it necessary to create a bite-sized, child-friendly comprehension of the history many books fail to omit, and it is the impact I know this story may have that it makes it stand as one of my favourites. It also ensured I dug deeper into the facets of African history I wanted to relay, and in doing so, furthered my own knowledge of the continent I am proud to call home.
How often do you read, and which author (s) would you say influenced your writing?
When I was younger, I used to read a lot. Books and I were inseparable. I was that child who would walk around school with her nose in a book, passers-by afraid I would bump into something. However, as time progressed, and I began to venture on new journeys in life, the travels I made due to the books I read, began to reduce. This got to the point where exempting poetry, I would only read for school. This year, I vowed myself to read more because I still immensely cherish the value of reading. Some of the best trips I’ve taken have been in the realms of my brain, alongside multitudes of characters.
In regard to the writers that have influenced my writing, I pay homage to those that wrote the folklore tales that were prominent as literary options for children as I grew up – as that style of writing was my initial source of inspiration. On the other hand, to date, whilst I don’t write a lot of poetry, in my personal reflections and journaling, I have found my writing to be slightly tinged with a mix of Upile Chisala’s and Rupi Kaur’s flow.
The setting in the four stories is in Africa. How would you say Africa defines and expresses beauty?
Africa defines and expresses her beauty in many ways. At first, one may consider her natural beauty, thinking of the scintillating sunsets, animals, and beaches. However, for hundreds if not thousands of years, Africa has long defined her beauty through the multiplicities of cultures, colours, and civilizations she has bred.
From the histories that detail the wealth of African civilizations such as those of the great Malian, Egyptian and Abyssinian empires, Africa has long defined herself as a self-sufficient, thriving hub of wealth, power, and immense riches – an El Dorado in the centre of the earth. Whilst this definition may have been misplaced due to the effects of European influence on the continent, African countries have still been successful in retaining their beauty -preserved through the authentic identities of the diverse people you meet.
Looking at dialects, food, and clothing; coupled with the unique infrastructure of modern cities alongside remnants of past civilizations, I believe Africa beautifully embodies the juxtaposition between the past and the present – history, and modernity – as well as nature and development.
However, despite it all, the beauty is in the people. Africans are magical, wondrous human beings, who have taken the pain the world has brought them – and turned it into gold. I see this with the increasing number of enterprising individuals, and members of the youth who want to make a difference and positive impact in their societies where life has dealt a harsh hand on them. It is the spirit of ubuntu, and doing something not for yourself, but for the greater good of the collective, that I truly find beautiful amongst Africans, and deeply appreciate as it has influenced the type of person that I am today.
How would you compare the Africa described in the four stories to the present Africa?
I would think the Africa described in my anthology is more optimistic and contains characteristics that should be emulated within our modern-day societies. I say this because referring to the first story, The Princess of Mageso, the communities were more fair and gender-neutral, with women doing the same as men, even though the present ‘heads of state’ mentioned were male.
Moreover, regarding my point on optimism, the stories do not mention the issues that affect Africa to date – thus painting an almost utopian perspective of African societies in general, whilst this is not necessarily the case. I am not saying that African countries are ridden with conflict and strife either, but my book does fail to mention the areas in which our societies can improve – such as eliminating the effects of colonialism (i.e. racism, classism and colourism), eradicating the poverty that affects some areas and poor healthcare systems, as well as the negative impact the patriarchy has.
Nonetheless, despite my choice to omit these problems from the book, the Africa described is truthful in conveying that Africans are enterprising, problem-solving individuals that care about one another, and desire to instil better, sustainable systems in our societies which can enable us to grow further and faster together, at our own standards.
Is there any character in Bejewelled Africa you wish you were more like?
This was a hard question to answer. However, putting some thought to it, I’ve come to realize that I admire Monkey’s resilience, and continued persistence and dedication to his dream. Despite being in an environment that constantly disapproved his idea, and big dream, he did not let his passion waver, and ultimately sought to find an alternative solution through God. I also admire how His staunch faith wove its way into the story, and displayed that if you only believe, and keep persisting, your dreams can come true. Nonetheless, I do wish I had a little more of the confidence Monkey has and so exuberantly shares.
What steps did you take to get your first book published?
When describing this process to other people, I initially state that I also don’t know how I got published. I would like to say it’s God, but honestly speaking, it was all due to the connections I had. When my book was first written, I was lucky enough that my illustrator worked at Storymoja Africa – and liked my book enough to connect me with the one of the editors-in-chief at the firm. Surprisingly enough, she too liked the book, and the process of getting published began. These included me writing another story to give the book substantial length, changing the title, having various meetings with editors and my illustrators, and finally, signing a contract.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with individuals at Storymoja who also fervently desired to see my book become something; and it is through these team efforts and the unparalleled support my dear, amazing mother offered whilst I’ve been abroad that as of November 2017, resulted in the release of my first publication, Bejewelled Africa. It truly took a village, hard work, and connections, but we are finally here, and for that, I am ever thankful.
What are the challenges you faced when writing, and what advice would you give to aspiring authors?
The major challenges I faced whilst writing included writer’s block, and ensuring I was not changing the history I was alluding to in some of the stories. I also wanted to ensure that the theme of Africa’s beauty and development remained prevalent and so, it was imperative that my book reflected the optimistic attitude I have for the continent.
Some advice I would give to aspiring authors, is to just start. If you have an idea, write it down, do your research and then, once you are ready, take a couple of hours and let it come naturally. Some stories may need more coaxing than others to come to the surface, but once they do, they pour out like a torrent. Don’t judge yourself when you are writing. It is so easy to be your worst critic, and throw away great ideas or great writing because you don’t believe in it. Stick with it. See your story through, and even though it may not be the perfect story yet, it may be eventually. Trust yourself, trust the process, and trust your art. No one ever got anywhere by doubting themselves. Start, and speak your truth into the universe. Authenticity is key.
9. What do you hope readers take away from Bejewelled Africa?
Bejewelled Africa has different audiences. Initially, it was created with a Western audience in mind, in order to combat or play a role in redefining the image of Africa portrayed to the world. However, as revisions kept happening and I added “Roots of Africa”, I began to realize that these stories would be important for African kids to read as well – because rarely will you find a child who knows much of the continent’s history.
So, despite geographical location and origin of my readers, I hope that those read my book are inspired to learn more about the African continent and reconsider the perception they have of the continent – be it from an outside point of view, or as an African themselves. I hope it is successful in detailing part of the continent’s history, as well as its beauty and continued development.
Hopefully, Bejewelled Africa will motivate people to take a deeper interest in African history, and work created and curated by African artists/creatives. I hope my readers feel proud of their ancestry, and excited to see another African princess grace a children’s book. Dear readers, I hope you enjoy my book, and feel compelled to take a few minutes and read more about where humanity comes from – as Africa is after all, the cradle of humankind.