About this writer
Philo Ikonya is a Kenyan poet, novelist and journalist. She is known for speaking out against injustice and corruption and has written extensively on governance, mass poverty and post-election violence in her country. She is renowned for being vocal about citizen empowerment, women, freedom of expression and other civil rights.
In this two-part interview with AiA, she is candid about her life (‘past’ and ‘present’), career, aspirations, beliefs and everything she touches.
AiA: Give us a brief walk, if you would, of how you came to be a writer at all.
PI: In my teens I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I knew I wanted to write in Kiswahili and in English. However, as a child, what I knew at first is that I loved stories. I imagined that I understood the creation of stories. We were as a family encouraged to do this in the evenings and to re-tell the stories we read. The stories we read often showed that there was a small but clever animal, a trickster, who could overcome big animals in simple ways. An early memory is my mother telling me a story in my mother tongue. This is a strong thing in me, because I saw the story as pictures in my mind. I also remember reading in her class as she was my first formal teacher too. There I felt the process of the growth of a story. I enjoyed standing up and reading in front of the class as all the others did. One day I wanted to read longer than my allocated time. It was a bitter-sweet experience, having to learn that a story is timed. It begins and ends and all had to have a chance to share it. I had to sit down, but deep in me was the lesson learned that reading is sweet and shared; reading is great fun. It was only up to age 9 that my mother taught me. The next readings I did in a library at a school far from home at age 10. Books were my great friends. I still see the slant of the rays of the sun at around 3 pm coming into the library, and I felt a sense of deep enjoyment no matter what I read.
The question of the power of literature came into my life early. I felt great interest in South African literature. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, pointed to the raw wounds of injustice and the abuse of power. Later on, Mine Boy, by Peter Abraham and A walk in the Night by Alex La Guma showed me excesses of injustice in society. Wole Soyinka in the Lion and the Jewel, made me see how drama flies, although I have not written any published plays. The Literature teacher gave me the role of Sidi in the play, but then the syllabus was too tight and stage matters vanished. But the wind of power in Antigone in Sophocles’ The Theban Plays left in me fertile ground for the strong and the subversive. Something I could count on in me, some strength in the face of power. That was before I read and acted in Francis Imbuga in Betrayal in the City, as Jere. There were silent interludes in my soul when through Ngugi Wa Thiong’o eyes, I saw what the British Empire had done to our country in A Grain of Wheat. I was not going to be one of those who are always waiting for better times. I want to live now.
AiA: Tell us a bit about your family and how it was growing up back then, and how your environment influenced your chosen career.
PI: My father was a Mau Mau detainee, and therefore my mother became one of those heroines that was alone with a young family and afraid of the news of the death of a loved one in detention all the time. Afraid too of the death of her children and all the people she loved, as there was great despondency in the land. I was born into an anxious village, and bodies witnessing bloodletting and souls scattered between tradition and Christianity. Who am I? I heard so much about the brutality of the times. I saw men taking over the position of the oppressive British as I grew up. Violence normally breeds violence. I took the option to write the world as I saw it, peace and justice and the never ending vigilance that is required of us even when we are just staring at a deeply coloured flower, say a bird of paradise (sterlitzia regina), displaying her hard petals to the sun.
AiA: Which are some of the writers you emulate?
PI: In my late teens I enjoyed writers who wrote critically about their societies at different levels. The poetry of Dennis Brutus and others from the south left me breathless. But for all that, English Literature still spoke to most of us. I promised myself to write a famous work before I was 25, as Charles Dickens had done. I love Bleak House, Great Expectations, and Hard Times. I love his own story as a writer. Some religious people in my life at the time were often telling me to look away from what they said was ‘Dickensian pessimism’. I have never failed to see beauty in the dark side of life and I cannot resist its appeal to shoot through pessimism. The spirit of humanity that runs in his work, his eye for detail in 19th Century English Literature, I found unparalleled. I felt a duty to champion the best for all whilst reading him. I love George Elliot too, Middlemarch. How to get a pen to comb through a society and to subdue the description of nature so that I am lost in its silent ways, and yet alive enough to be Tess in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
AiA: No one could doubt you’re a poet! [lol] Tell us, what was your first book about?
PI: My first novel is Leading the Night. It has been described as a web with several red lines going through but they are all linked. It is set in Nairobi, but corruption crosses borders. It is about wealthy people and those who have no chances or opportunities, but who desperately search for them both in the rural and urban areas. “Deprived of being heard, people still have a voice.” It is about the need to be heard and about freedom of expression. And how the ordinary people (militia men, taxi drivers, matatu) also say, like Nelson Mandela, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” And what is this night? It is the capacity to unravel the darkness of what is very well-lit ways of sucking dry the wealth of a country by people who are very well connected and who live in well-lit places. But the darkness they bring to the country is exceedingly dangerous. Everyone is threatened and involved in the big mesh of corruption in one way or the other. The people in the end find solidarity, but it evades them for a long time because they cannot see the great power in a tiny woman who stands up against greed.
AiA: What inspires your poetry?
PI: Before I wrote poetry I had the pleasure of hearing the poem The Snake by D.H. Lawrence as recited by a nun, and many other such poems. With poetry you can enter and leave different universes in a few lines. When you read many poems they come back and sing to you in different ways and places; if you choose to write, they flow. My own early poetry is inspired by a deep longing to ask questions in a more complete sense. Bishop Alexander Muge was assassinated in Kenya. Robert Ouko too… harsh circumstances drop their weight on one. I loved Adventures into Poetry, a book we read at school in the long and sunny afternoons. When you read many poems, they become us. I was inspired to reflect what I felt and to express the moment of meeting with contradiction. My poems in Out of Prison – Love Songs are inspired too by the harsh conditions I see around me, as well as those others of love and wonder. The knowledge I think I have and the entire universe as I know it does not daunt me, but inspires me to say something. Each poem I read by other poets creates an entire little universe for itself. There is a song in all of us. Some people sing it out loud now and again. Some hum it and others cry in it, love in it and live again in it after so many ‘small deaths’… This song is also in many things. Inspiration… the spirit of that song or its breath comes into us and we let it out again. There might be something we can call sacred about that but mundane poems are also inspired.
AiA: Kenya, will you Marry Me? is a very unique book title. What’s the idea behind such a title?
PI: I loved writing this book, although I did it in pain. When you must have your way in power and people must die so that you are announced as a president, all your love is dead. We must insist on love that gives something and does not always take in greed. We must push ourselves to the limit to include all people beyond family and marriage. It is an effort to understand love for my country deeply and to share that understanding. If people must be divided by the opposite of love so that you can be in power, then you are a great danger to the world. You are not just naked, you are a dead soul. You cannot love. You should not court anybody. Marriage is an interesting image for all, but it is the kind of marriage that gives in order to gain that lasts and gives again, and lets other generations move on. Marriage of life, not death. We must learn to give something and to love people who do not vote for us or who do not speak our tongue by being just. There is no romance here.
I will always be proud of this title because it just poured into my mind and when I pronounced it as a working title; the people who were listening gasped. No editor wanted to change it. It has been described as a literary coup. It is a book about the roots of change. The book is political but argues that it is important to find the roots of the love for one’s land and these roots are not very far from what we love the most. It is at the same time a book about the irresistible beauty of a country that is at the same time so abused by political power. I wrote it after I saw Kenya shift to a nation that could treat the possibility of genocide due to an election gone awry as an invitation to a cup of tea with biscuits. The violence that befell Kenya in 2007/2008 changed Kenya for good, no matter what else we say. It shocked me as one who believed that blood had already been shed by our parents, people we know and admire for the liberation of our country. It shook me to the roots. I cut my hair and dressed in sacks. I had to creatively examine carefully, through storytelling and strong reactions to power, who are those in whose hands we put our lives and call them politicians. I felt I was in exile in my own country. I repeat this is a book I had to write to remain sane in these circumstances and it poured out of me in weeks. It is an outpouring and what surprises me is that those who read it, and it is a story told in a very different form, tell me they gasp at the deep grasp of beauty and hope in the work. Kenya, will you marry me? Change. Geography includes everyone. No one should be rejected. Nor ignored. It is a dream of both the possible and the impossible which we must always stretch out to reach for, aspire for:-
You are so beautiful my beloved
The sun rises and sets in you gently,
over rivers and valleys and deserts,
sea and mountains.
AiA: Your books are steadily gaining international acclaim. Have you considered turning any of your works into movies or screen plays or theater?
PI: It is wonderful to hear that my work is steadily appreciated! One day I heard in the news that all stars in the universe sing and each one sings its own song or sound …tune. Whether it is true or not I felt such joy I had difficulties sitting down that day. Later Saul Williams, author of Chorus and other books, in a conversation at Poetry Africa 2012, told me that scientists have also found the sound which the earth makes out there in the universe and it has been called ‘Chorus’. Again whether or not it is true, I’m totally fascinated by the idea. Appreciation of one does not kill the other in art. Uniqueness and singularity that plays into a symphony is part of a killer idea for me. So, I leave my works as all books, to make their journey as far as they can and to be part of choruses or plays or theater but remain themselves.
A lonely life as a writer is complimented by a lasting readership! There can be no greater joy! If my books turned out to be like me… challenged by wanting to be and being so many different things in one, I would be happy. I would then say they ‘feel’ me. What do I mean? Just that. I was once awarded for best actor in school, yet there is the ‘me’ who would rather be silent and far off in the wild. There is the one with an eye for good things in shops and the one who is delighted in managing life in practical and simple wear, sometimes even in lack. There is the silent writer in me, the reader or performer and the journey of the singular. Yet I really love being with others. But as I see it, my real work stops after writing and talking here about the works I write.
And ha! ha! ha! I thought after reading your question that a film would come as a result of a phone call, you know, those amazing calls or messages that one rarely receives and which can send you off in a spin? I think I read about one such call in Chicken Soup for the Soul by Canfield and Hansen, years ago. If I’m not wrong it was in an anecdote and it was Harry Belafonte who got that phone call for a project at a bad time… I would be extremely happy to hear news of a movie inspired by any of my works. Just in these days the translator of my work into German told me he saw the’ movie’ in Leading the Night and even seriously thought of contacting someone, but did not.
AiA: You are one of the most famous non-violent activists in Kenya. What is precisely your objective? What change do you want to see in Kenya?
PI: First, that change is urgent. We cannot sit there quoting the need for a long time when facts are on the table from history, when time has changed and the speed of things being modified by technology. Yes, it takes cultures long to change but surely we cannot compare how easy it is to manifest the need for change today as with the past. Things are urgent especially in Afrika. We cannot allow the misuse of power for greed to silence us, or other people either by killing them, and we remain silent. That is to be defeated twice and over. We can lose lives, and often do so, but this should not include our capacity to voice these losses because then history both ‘unknown’ or known, will condemn us. You cannot know things so beautiful and precious such as justice and freedom and not have them in life. Our fight is non-violent. But what is freedom if people have no bread? What is peace? You cannot be free if there is no justice: Justice in the right to life and living, in equal access to basic rights and opportunities in education, for participation in these shows that we are truly all born free and equal with inalienable rights.
I want a Kenya that gives all a chance to move ahead. The powerful people in politics in Kenya have given a terrible example of greed and more greed. As a result, we have a huge difference between people who have and have not. This is violent in itself. And that is not enough. I would love to see a Kenya where we care for our dignity -what we call in Kiswahili, utu, being humane- and hold our values as important enough to keep us united in our diversity. It is a pity that we have allowed violence to be part of our daily lives since it robs us of the time and energy we need to bond and to grow as a nation. We all need to let ourselves see that there are no more eyes of hungry children staring at us. That if we see such eyes, we are not able to forget and sleep without at least asking why and moving towards a solution. We must not trade our voices of truth for material gain. This would be too big a loss!
Continued in second part interview