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Interview,  Kenya,  Literatur/Book Review,  Swahili

The House of Rust and Swahili Culture – Interview with Mombasa writer Khadija Abdalla Bajaber -engl

Khadija Bajaber had written a successful book last year, The House of Rust, which was recognized very well in african countries and abroad (see also the review of Lorna Likiza on this site). Raised and living in Mombasa, Kenya, she is strongly influenced with Swahili Culture and its long and rich history. This year, Khadija Bajaber is an invited guest at the African Book Festival in Berlin. I took the chance to talk to her before she left for Europe. And, yes, the answers are longer than in usual interviews. But its published here in full lenght version. For the first issue, only in english this time. German translation will follow.

By Hans Hofele

HH: Is it your first visit to Germany? Have you heard about ABF before?

KB: Yes, this is my first visit to Germany. I’ve known about the ABF for a while. I’m looking forward to listening to all the writers, connecting with current and potential readers, enjoying the activities and I hope to explore Berlin a little. I was glad to be invited. Thank you for taking the time to listen to me.

HH: You had been to other literary festivals. Is it something special for a writer to attend a festival and does a writer need to get in touch with readers?

KB: Experiencing the kind of local or national talent that each country or city’s festival possesses, the challenges and the advantages each literary community has, and how each community interacts with its culture and its readers means I get to see what makes each place so rich in different ways. I don’t know about ‘need’ when it comes to a lot of things. I know that it’s wonderful when it does happen, when you interact with readers, both current and potential ones, there’s a kind of rush of honesty and connection that can be heart-warming and terrifying all at once, and because you’re sometimes talking with people who’ve read the work…it’s quite a personal thing sometimes. I know as a reader myself when I’ve met the writers whose work I’ve deeply felt, there’s a kind of crazy jitteriness to it. It’s something I’ve been grateful to experience.

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HH: Your novel „House of Rust“had excellent reviews. Do you read them by the way or is that something you can’t stand?

KB: I try to avoid them so my focus can be on current work rather than past work, but Mama keeps very up to date with the reviews. At breakfast she’ll say, ‘Did you see the new review, They said this and that ‘– or ‘You got a new review today.’ She wants to support me. I appreciate all reviews, I have a very ‘okay, I see your point. Fair enough’ reaction to ‘bad’ reviews, because they can be full of important observations – some of the reviews I like the most are reviews that didn’t like the book very much, if at all. It’s always clear when someone gave the book a fair chance or not – I care more about the fair chance than if the book is loved or hated. I have always appreciated critiques and writings on art and movies and books, I’m so used to being on the other side of it as the consumer of the work, that it’s a little odd to be on this side as a creator. The book can be a little challenging and the prose can be disorienting and dense – and people who appreciate that are great, people have been so kind to the work. And people who didn’t appreciate the dense style of the work but still stuck around and were able to see what I was trying to say, who were able to reach out to clasp the hand that I was extending this story despite it not being their cup of tea, I like that too. I also understand that my work cannot be perfect, I’m more uncomfortable when people have only good things to say about it. I am better at accepting criticism than I am at accepting praise. Even if it isn’t reviews, perception of my work, in general, did at times cause a kind of crisis of self, and you’ll see in some of my past interviews inklings of when that crisis was getting out of hand, but I like to think I’ve got a handle on it now. I appreciate that regardless of how someone ends up feeling about my work they can engage it with sincerity. Hate it, love it. I’m thankful for any fair chance someone gave my work.

HH: Your novel can be described as magical realism, you use speaking animals also. Monsters and sharks appear. Can you describe the process of creating your ideas which dissolved into that novel?

KB: I knew what I liked, and led with that. I always liked weird talking animals, but funnily enough, I’ve always hated the sea journey or the train journey…most journeys to be honest. It’s too claustrophobic. Yet when it works it works for me it really works because some of my favourite media did take place in those small and moving spaces too. As for monsters, I like how similar/adjacent ideas differ in quiet but fundamental ways. Two of those ideas have always, always been Mischief and Malice –that always fascinated me when writing about these strange creatures and in trying to explore complicated/internal characters. Malice is just mischief bent out of shape. They’re so close to each other. The crows are full of mischief but without real toothy malice. And the monsters in the sea have their menace and malice. I think people are like that too. All the monsters have their own reasons for being what they are, and all of them to some extent narrate or self-mythologize, they have a life before and after the presence of the human or the real. I have a great fondness for sharks, and I love sharks in dishes too – so being able to kind of work with that idea of being able to love a dangerous thing and also eat it, and being rather frank and having no silly delusions about how love could ever make you spare one another, I don’t know, it’s cool to me. The metaphor or symbolism of starving, eating, being eaten, cannibalism, consensual sacrifice, and the pre-emptive defanging of one’s self. Being such a good hostage you’re building the prison even more sophisticatedly than your oppressor’s initial floor plan. Ah, I don’t know how to talk about these things so I try to write them some way.

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photo by lorna likiza

There are a lot of Islamic influences in many of the things that happen in the book as well, like Zubeir being a heart cutter, and Hamza the cat…it is implied that he existed during the time of a humble scholar who always had a hundred cats!!! And that there was a moon divided and then put together again. The idea of all the animals having their societies and structures and lives, but having a very Muslim reality…so maybe you can say that the story follows a fairy-tale structure, but the things it draws from are very much a different cultural and spiritual reality, they are a spiritual reality. And I liked there being this deeply Muslim voice to it too, without the work being dismissed as religious fiction – because it’s not. I wanted that Muslimness to be as much the blood of the work as the culture and the setting because that too is impossible to untangle from those things. And it’s so unforced, I loved just existing with the culture instead of worrying about how to explain it all the time. To just be.

HH: Also, the dialogues in the novels. I can imagine that those dialogues are very difficult to imagine and write. Can you describe that also a bit?

KB: Sweetest tongue hides sharpest tooth. The characters I was writing about are like Mombasa’s people – in that at their heart, they enjoy and respect good story and good showmanship. So it’s both a very courtly speak in a way. But also, has a rather crisp wittiness as well. It can also be rather sly. I imagined what it would be like to have characters who talk to each other in that cajoling way. I’ve always loved some good grandstanding in media, its so interesting to me. In a scene I axed (for the better) there were even specific conversation patterns emblematic of the Coastal Swahili, this sort of call-and-response conversation style, except it’s about when you interrupt yourself in the middle of a word on purpose for the conversation partner or partners to finish the word – essentially making the interaction group-involved but also speaker-led, and involving them in every step of your argument. It’s a deleted scene of the crows kind of reporting to the rest of crowdom their findings and making a case for what they think is the next best course of action, almost like a parliamentary style but everyone’s such a meanie about it. White Breast and Gololi are telling House Speaker using this conversation style. So that means the power dynamic of that influences not just the conversation style in words and tone used, but also its very structure, in how it opens and how it unfolds. Anyway, so there’s a preacher-to-congregation quality to it, but no pulpit, that’d be too grand –my ear was always catching onto it growing up, a deliciousness with words that weren’t impressed with cleverness in that selfish way, but wanted that cleverness to be spoken by them, to them, together.

Whenever I’ve talked about Swahili in interviews, I always use the same word, ‘delicious’. Utamu. If we want to cut and be cut, we want to be delighted. And there’s a delightful way of cutting, that even in its cruelty has class. And by class, I mean style. And also just trying to sketch out the conversation no-no’s, there’s a conversation earlier in the book where Hababa Hadia is being an awful cow to be quite honest, and she does it indirectly, and I mention that she cloaks her meanness in prayers – and that Hababa Swafiya can’t just enter into open conflict with her, and that despite Aisha being pissed off by all this, Aisha can’t interject and give Hababa Hadia a piece of her mind, she can’t say something to defend Hababa Swafiya as the grand daughter, because if she dared it would be shameful. Because Aisha isn’t a peer. And she can’t dominate the discussion like that by contributing something as though she imagines herself as an equal. People aren’t that emotionally direct when you don’t know each other well, and because there’s this awareness of who you can talk to and what you can say, it makes Zubeir’s confession of love specifically more powerful to me. Confessions can be cheesy and flowery, poetic to flatter – that would be the style, they don’t have the directness in their intimacy, especially when someone else is listening in on it. So when Mzee Zubeir can so candidly tell Hababa Swafiya everything he feels in front of Aisha, speaking with real memory rather than the buffering imagery and idealistic things language can create. It’s a departure from the norm. Being told I love you because you’re sweet like sugar, or that you have the eyes of a gazelle can be charming or laughed off. It’s much harder to dismiss a confession of love in the without-flourish style that Zubeir gives it when it’s raw like that. So maybe this isn’t necessarily just dialogue, but in the ways that these sorts of conversations are allowed or expected to happen. I’m also someone who doesn’t really know how to talk eloquently or has difficulty communicating my ideas in live talk so to speak, or even in written interviews, so writing fiction I got to kind of explore those ideas and those voices and the way these characters interact, using what I’ve observed and loved but what I am only capable of doing when I’m with the right people. It wasn’t hard at all, I delighted in it.

HH: Is writing a pleasure for you or also a struggle or fight. What’s about your discipline in writing, is there a writing schedule, every day a page or is it different?

KB: Every project has its challenges, and every one of my works in progress has its own seasons. I’ll usually work on one like I’ve got a fever, hit a wall, leave it. Then somehow something will call me back to it a year later and I’ll start where I left off. It’s a kind of start and stop. The House of Rust wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to write, but its direction was already pretty much set in stone and I could tackle it that way for most of it. My other projects aren’t as structured beforehand, I’m working them out on the paper and seeing where that takes me. Sometimes writing can be difficult because of how close I am to the matter. Not with the characters, but with the things that are torturing them. And these are the things I see around me in my society. So, that can make things a bit difficult, because it’s either that it’s tough to talk about, or I have too much to say – and both make things incoherent and narrow. I try to make light-hearted work, but even when I want to create that distance, the world that hurts is too loud and it asserts itself despite my protests. But it’s not always hurt. It is sometimes a reminder and affirmation of a hopeful and beautiful life. With House of Rust, a lot of the non-fantasy elements or imagery are real things taken from a sort of memory soup – and it was really…new to me, being able to take the real things I’d seen but maybe couldn’t quite explain or couldn’t talk about, and add that visual component. To be able to communicate Mombasa as I’d understood it without the incoherency I’d stumble into when using plain conversation. Like Aisha once seeing sharks being gutted or something at a market or wherever she was, that’s a very real memory for me. The grand roof of Marikiti. Hours and hours and hours watching crows. There are specific memories I liked using to center the story’s sense of place and vibe. Food, market, sea. So experiencing/exploring these sorts of connections and also experiencing what being on a roll is when you’re writing, can be wonderful. When the ideas are happening like that, it’s a pleasure. Also, you’ve experienced Mombasa yourself, set times are suggestions at best, so schedules rarely exist. But I’ve managed to plan some periods in the future where I can huddle down and give the work proper time.

HH: I know that you may have been asked that before, but how much of yourself is in the main figure Aisha in that novel?

KB:It’s complicated, I once said that I am not like Aisha at all, but she is a category of girl that I once knew, a category of girl I am and that I can see around me the girls who will have a hard time because something about them is fundamentally hard to understand by others. We are so unlike one another, and yet she and many of us, experience the same condition. I wanted to write about that condition. The things that haunt Aisha are the things that have haunted nearly every girl of my generation in Mombasa. None of us were the same, and yet we all knew what was. Aisha was a wish to understand. I think that whole idea of girlhood not being childhood, I always felt that. I feel we experienced different kinds of isolation in different ways, but a deep loneliness all the same. And I was trying to describe through her a kind of growing up in a society that’s not cruel necessarily but doesn’t really know how to deal with the members of it that ask why too much or the members of it that feel on the outskirts of it all. I wanted to write about the ‘mould’ – like Aisha, almost every girl must decide between the shadow or the girl. And that was just a more literal idea of what Aisha was already dealing with at the beginning of the book. I don’t think we are alike at all, but the hurdles I placed for her were familiar to me and to many.

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Mombasa, Kenya

The idea of creating a prison pre-emptively for yourself, and navigating that. And in the role of being a sort of performer, pretending, and how that can be very violent. I used her to remember the woes of what it means to be at that crisis of girlhood just being impending womanhood. She’s easier to understand, I’m hard to know. But for the most part in Aisha, I tried to capture wonder. It was important to capture wonder when all I had in my heart at the time was anger and grief. I wrote Aisha because she was a decision I made, between hatred and understanding, freedom and vengeance. We don’t have to be like her, to have been where she was. Because I too was choosing between the shadow and the girl. So many girls, all so different, and yet all having to encounter that same crisis. Aisha is a wish, because by the end of the book, the story I sketch out is one where it is not only that we as individuals must choose between the shadow and the girl, but that deep in our hearts is the unvoiced longing that the ones who love us, will be able to love us enough to spot the difference – and that they will love us enough to pick the girl every time. Aisha is a wish, she isn’t like me at all, but she’s a dream I had of every girl I knew needed holding just the same.

HH: How much of Swahili culture is in that story? Would you agree that using elements of a fairy tale is supporting a universal language? Are there influences of Arabian poetry also?

KB: How much? My mind isn’t made for those sophisticated ideas – I see, I ask. Does my heart respond, does my mind rattle and sting? and then I move from there. I like to listen to ideas being discussed but I’m not very interested in or capable of n contributing my own in that way, in the language of eloquent ideas. I did so much research, but it doesn’t stick in a clear way after. If you ask me if there’s a lot of Swahili culture in it or a lot of this or that culture in it, I think yes. That Mombasa is the blood of the work. I’m always a little surprised when it’s mentioned what a deep sense of place the book has because I thought I’d fail, and someone would notice how deliberate I was about not describing some things…I’m not very good at describing faces or buildings. If there’s that sense of place, it’s people not because of how super talented I am in describing a mosque’s interiors (I’m not. I avoided writing buildings like the plague) but because I was able to figure out how to re-create or capture certain emotional echoes. And maybe cultural echoes along with that. So there’s Swahili culture all up in there – but it’s hard to untangle it all, and I don’t think it needs untangling.

As for universal language with the fairy tale… fairy tales usually have a moral kind of thing to it, right? It communicates the values of a society and what values create admirable character. There’s always going to be stories like that, wherever people are. So I suppose in that way they’re universal. I always liked seeing how different cultures kind of had different story beats or how there’s always a specific recurring character or specific things that happen that’s characteristic of that culture. Like for Swahili fairytales in the way that I’ve understood them, there’s sometimes a lot of detail that would be considered unnecessary in different story cultures, there’d be like…why do we need to know that the prince stopped on his hunt to eat this and that and honey and such and that his servants had a party and then they planted a tree or this and that, when it doesn’t contribute to the plot… at all. The detail isn’t introduced as Schoedinger’s gun, or in anyway that pretends itself vital to the plot or even to the movement of the story. But you’ll see that in these cultures like Swahili stories because…we like that stuff. And because no one’s writing down stories and worrying about using too much ink or wasting paper, these are stories someone is sitting and telling people- and that kind of long maybe ‘unnecessary’ drawing out of ‘useless’ information are a way of lulling the reader or drawing out the story they’re kind of pauses and in themselves relaxed and personable and in that way real. They can also build suspense because they make you wait for it, but not in the way mainstream cuture is used to. This excess detail, irrelevant even, detail, can be mundane or disorienting to anyone who understands how ‘good story’ is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be tight. It’s supposed to be purposeful. And this mundane disorienting style kind of harmlessly flies in the face of that. So I like noticing things in storytelling like that, not on purpose, but through exposure to it. It’s like when someone has gossip you’d think I’d just say ‘so and so left his wife’ and then we all gasp – no…we have to tell you the person was driving in their car, that they were calling the butchers and this and that.

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Rod Waddington
Fishing Boat, Swahili Coast

So called completely irrelevant information. And I have to pause for you to say ‘eh heh’ and ‘wah wah, alafu?’ and we’re communicating like that. Sometimes a story isn’t information that you think you need, sometimes it’s being able to sit with someone and listen to the music of it, not because they’re trying to make the story beautiful or important, but because you want to sit with that person longer, in that storytelling space longer. The stories sound that way because no one’s holding their breath and just listening, you’re very much able to receive interjections from the crowd and see how that lifts or gives the story a different body and telling – I like the connectedness of that, I like how it’s not just dead silence. It’s in company. And with Swahili and Arab culture, they’re both poet cultures, and they’re both very much interacting with each other, historically and right now. I don’t have that language connection to Arabic because I didn’t really learn it the way I was supposed to, though it’s still a part of me nonetheless.

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heroe book fair. photo: cultureafrica/hh

HH: I was surprised about the details you had in seaman’s craft ships. What is your connection to the sea and how did you learn about that knowledge?

KB: Really? I used the internet a lot to be honest. I also just observed. I loved and hated shark week growing up we’d watch all this NatGeo with Baba, I cherish that time. I have an emotional connection to mchuzi wa papa, which I guess translates to shark curry or stew. And felt that crossing the sea is kind of a leap of faith. My grandfathers made that journey from Yemen to here, not even knowing how to swim. And I always think of that – kind of risking your life like that and yet not sitting down to absorb how huge that risk was. They were always just doing things that needed doing, danger and sacrifice, as though in stride. As though to even sit with it would be self-important grandeur, so they never did give that important thing they did its due and true grace in how they recalled it. There’s almost an idea that one’s history should be important, but that being overly invested in finding it or creating it, essentially in forming a narrative in the now that lets your future people remember you, as kind of an insufferable and unnecessary, or unhumble thing. It’s strange seeing the ways in which humility can be beautiful and the ways it can be destructive.

I think about all the evil that’s been done at sea, all the people in those ships – and I think, how could people do that to people and not fear God? When they are surrounded by one of the hugest natural phenomena most symbolic of his might. I think of wars on the sea, and people being lost at sea. And how many people drown right in front of us on the Coast. There’s that death and that faith in it, I guess. That love and fear of the sea, echoes the love and fear of an All Powerful God – things beyond our full or complete understanding, that don’t need a full and complete knowledge to feel. I’ve been to the sea a few times but have never manned the vessel. I love the sea, I watch it for hours and hours. I don’t desire to be in it. I have an emotional connection because the sea is why I’m here, it reminds me of my family, it reminds me of beauty and danger too. Of the unfathomable things that we somehow live beside. I’ve always been fascinated with sea superstitions. The idea that there are such ferocious and dark things in there that have never seen us and we will never see, but that they are so deeply aware of God in this very full way, that they have a very profound and deeply felt life of their own.

I don’t need to make minarets and coconut trees on the moon, that sense of self and understanding, will be present in all my stories whether they have anything or nothing to do with the Coast.

HH: You live in Mombasa. Do you feel some sort of power or prides to evolve Mombasa and Swahili culture/heritage to your stories?

KB: Okay, I didn’t have a language for it all then, perhaps now that I’m older I can kind of try to understand it and put in words but…

I felt that a lot of mainstream or accessible stories with people who may have ‘looked like us’ while beautiful and important to me, were still were at almost every step of the way, in conversation with a Western reality. Which is great and real and worth exploring and understanding, and it’d be stupid to expect or want them to not to be in conversation with their specific realities. But it isn’t my reality, or the reality of many, many people. I want to frame what I was and what I am in the context within which I exist. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right, but I wouldn’t be able to understand the same ideas. It will never matter to me that I’m a Kenyan the way it must matter to an American that they’re American, because it’s not the same thing. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just different. And it’s not different in a visual way. Apart from the impact of you know the hegemony, most of the life I was living existed outside of this heavily Western context. Its context was Muslim, African – and I felt that ideas of race and culture as I’d learned them in studying them, also had more of a Western understanding and though they made a lot of sense and taught me a lot and I wouldn’t be the same without having learned of them, they didn’t always quite fit perfectly in my living world. I had to make an adjustment, naturally. I wanted to understand myself within my actual context. I had to learn about Mombasa to come into myself. So, being able to learn more about Mombasa and see all cultures less through the idea of there being a separateness, but there being a kind of living, breathing, not even exchange…but a wholeness of parts that though they have their differences and challenges, aren’t at war.

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Ethnically I’m not Swahili, and I’ve learned a lot from Swahili curators of Swahili culture, and the way they’re forming and categorizing the Swahili identity. The idea that Swahili identity is not just ethnic but also cultural…I appreciate that a lot, and I know that my culture is very much a Swahili reality. So it’s a part of me, in my heart, it is a part of my people’s heritage and memory, if not in the way we’d typically understand it. It’s not pride I have exactly so much as a new at-homeness and belonging that had eluded me for a long time. There’s power in finding a way to realize that belonging to one’s people and belonging to one’s self, expressing your individuality and yet being able to be held by and to hold your people, that it’s not some impossible trial or overly huge and complex thing…but these ideas existing together, strengthening each other, as one, that is powerful in how it lets me understand my world. And I believe that even if I don’t write about Mombasa geographically, those Mombasa-built ideas formed my understanding of things like religion, spirit, morality and so on and so forth – so I don’t need to make minarets and coconut trees on the moon, that sense of self and understanding, will be present in all my stories whether they have anything or nothing to do with the Coast.

And I kind of want my work to be looked at in that way, that it cannot be completely understood using the same ‘center’, and that this is less about obvious difference or otherness being conveyed in the work using racial or ethnic or cultural or visual markers, but in the work’s very sense of self. For my work to truly be understood would not simply require an adjustment of racial or cultural bias so that people can warm to the idea of protagonists who do not look like them – it requires a complete shift, a new center, that understands the very essence of these works have a different center, a completely different consciousness than what is usually behind the works they’ve understood created in the contexts they’re familiar with. And that centre is Swahili, is Coastal, is Kenyan, is Muslim, is Hadhrami. It’s not a reinterpretation of current or old mainstream story, it is in and of itself something that requires a different centre, that deserves to be realised as having its own sensibilities. And that centre will always be in my work, even if I chose to write about people who didn’t look like me. I don’t know if I’ve explained very well exactly what I mean to say, but I think we both might have just enough of an idea – and I think I’m looking forward to continuing to use fiction to express those ideas, and using, simple as breathing, and never losing, that hard-won center.

HH: Thank you for your time.

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