Kenyan publisher and co-founder of Soma Nami Books, Muthoni Muiruri, loves to read books that are intellectually stimulating and evoke an emotional reaction: ‘If a book makes me cry and teaches me empathy; if the characters stay with me long after reading, I consider that a forever book. I am also extremely grateful for books that teach me something, that challenge me and force me to reckon with my ignorance and biases and that compel me to want to research and learn.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I was a voracious reader from an early age. I remember devouring the Ladybird series from around the age of five. I read stories about Cinderella, Gingerbread Man, Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks & Three Bears, Hansel & Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and many more. I then discovered Enid Blyton as I grew older; Julian, Dick, George, Anne and their dog, Timmy, from Famous Five became my best friends. I also thoroughly enjoyed Secret Seven and their detective adventures. By the time I was twelve years old, I was reading John Grisham, Mario Puzo, Sidney Sheldon, and other authors known for their works in various genres, including romance novels. These books shaped how I saw the world as a young girl. Now, when I think about it, I am both happy and sad. I’m happy that I did get to read a lot and cultivate a reading culture that has served me well over the years. And sad that so much of how I saw the world as a child was based off foreign stories and unknown worlds and I have had to do a lot of unlearning and relearning as an adult.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Persuasion by Jane Austen. In my re-imagination, this would be a love story of Muthoni Kirima, the Mau Mau Field Marshal and the only woman to have attained this high-ranking title, and her husband, General Mutungi Gichuhi. They had barely been married a year before Muthoni joined the Mau Mau movement. Her husband joined a year later, I assume through gentle persuasion by his wife, and they both went into the forest to fight for Kenya’s independence. Against many odds and difficult circumstances, they loved each other during the pre and post war period and tried to rebuild a life in post-independence Kenya. I would flip that idea of persuasion on its head and ultimately give them a somewhat happy ending and a story that humanizes them. I’d also love to explore the femininity and gentle side of Field Marshall Muthoni who has solely been cast as a guerilla soldier. We know very little about the personal lives of historical figures and this fascinates me—how they loved, how they hurt, how they felt, and what moved them.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
It’s not exactly the last thing because I read this a few years ago, but it is one that was significant in shifting my historical perspective of Ethiopia and women’s role in conflict—The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. It’s a story that fictionalizes the second Italo-Ethiopian war that put an end to Italy’s attempted occupation of Ethiopia. Mengiste in this retelling, centers the role of women in the war—who not only provided leadership and guidance but also took up arms to defend their country, especially after the emperor, Haile Selassie, jumped ship (story for another day). This book is an ode to those women, and it made me think deeply about all the women across time and generations who have been ignored and their contribution, as Mengiste so aptly puts it, ‘relegated to the footnotes of history’. This sent me on a deep rabbit hole to uncover and find other women in history who have suffered the same fate and neglect.
We know very little about the personal lives of historical figures and this fascinates me—how they loved, how they hurt, how they felt, and what moved them.
What’s a misconception people may have about reading?
Some believe that reading always has to be serious and about serious things. And that any serious reading can only be found in non-fiction works. There is so much to learn in fiction. Personally, I think fiction brings out the humanity that is lacking in some works of non-fiction.
What’s the last book you recommended to someone outside your bookstore?
I recommend books on a daily basis, both in and out of the bookstore. A common question I get asked is what I can recommend to someone who wants to get into reading African literature. I always recommend Stay with Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. It is such a beautiful, emotive, tragic and personal love story of a marriage on the brink of collapse and the lengths a couple will go to save their marriage and have a family. If you don’t cry reading this book, you are made of stone and should be thrown in the ocean with a boulder attached to your legs so you can sink and live at the bottom of the ocean with your fellow non-living things. Period.
Who is the author you wish you discovered earlier?
Chimeka Garricks. I am glad I discovered him when I did.
What is your favorite topic to read about these days?
I have recently developed an interest in sustainability in the creative industry. I am increasingly becoming obsessed with how we can build a sustainable creative industry specifically within the publishing eco-system and cultural production that reduces and, possibly in the future, completely eliminates the need for philanthropic funding to sustain creative work. How can these ventures be sustainable? So, I am reading articles, research papers and op-eds as well as listening in on panels and professionals talking about this.
What’s a book you enjoyed that remains largely unknown to others?
Daughters Who Walk this Path by Yejide Kilanko. I read this book in 2017 and whilst the finer details of the book are somewhat lost to me now, I cannot forget how it made me feel and how for months I couldn’t read anything else. I experienced a serious book hangover. I also remember being very surprised that very few people knew about this book.
Some believe that reading always has to be serious and about serious things. And that any serious reading can only be found in non-fiction works.
What’s a book on your bookshelf that might catch people by surprise?
Gideon’s Spies by Gordon Thomas. It is a book about the inside story of the Israeli secret service, Mossad.
What is something simple from books and reading that still manages to surprise you?
I am constantly amazed by how authors and stories can aptly capture the human condition and encapsulate human emotion.
You can only read one book for the rest of your life. It’s:
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell. This is a book that is so expansive in scope and time, it is genre-bending so in it you find history, fantasy, sci-fi, romance and everything in between. It’s definitely one I feel gives so much and satiates different reading tastes. So, if I had to read just one book, this would be it.
A common question I get asked is what I can recommend to someone who wants to get into reading African literature. I always recommend Stay with Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀.
Do you lean towards books that evoke an emotional feeling or those that stimulate you intellectually?
If I can find one that does both, then I have surely hit the jackpot!! I love books that evoke an emotional reaction in me. If a book makes me cry and teaches me empathy; if the characters stay with me long after reading, I consider that a forever book. I am also extremely grateful for books that teach me something, that challenge me and force me to reckon with my ignorance and biases and that compel me to want to research and learn. So, if I can find the perfect blend of both, that is my idea of book heaven!
Which Kenyan writers working today do you admire most?
I have a deep admiration for a lot of Kenyan authors, but I must say that I particularly admire Troy Onyango and Joan Thatiah.
Troy is such a holistic creative. He not only writes the most beautiful stories but is also invested in molding and supporting new writers and making their work visible through his platform, Lolwe. He is committed to paying his writers and building a platform that allows for more stories from the continent to be published and find audiences, which is so admirable because this is a painful undertaking, especially when funds are limited. We also have the best conversations so I must admit this is a biased (but very justified) pick.
Joan Thatiah on the other hand is a force to reckon with. With eight books under her belt and a new book coming out soon, Thatiah is a prolific writer. What I admire about her the most is how she has found ways to advocate for herself and her writing and connect with readers directly, making her, in my opinion and based off book sales, one of the most successful self-published writers in the country. As a bookseller, the persistent requests for her books forced us to find them and have them in stock. This kind of inverse marketing strategy she adopted—where demand is driven from the readers who put pressure on bookstores—is something to be studied. I think a lot of new, especially self-publishing authors, can learn so much from her model.
What’s one book you would recommend gifting a loved one this holiday season and why?
Finding Me by Viola Davis would make a lovely gift for the holiday season. It is a beautiful memoir rendered in a raw and heartfelt way. It is also a very inspiring story of the journey of one of the most powerful and successful Black women in film today. Davis does not share her journey through the lens of filters and political correctness, and I think it is a beautiful read to end the year and start a new one with; to inspire and give you that chutzpah you need to make those bold and audacious new year resolutions.
What’s on your Christmas/end of the year wish list?
After an extremely busy year, for Christmas, I just want to wind down, rest, rejuv, regroup and spend as much time as I can with my family and my daughter.
What’s one word, line or quote that captures how this year has gone for you?
Dare to dream and manifest. Be bold. It will all come together in its time.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
This is always such a tough question because picking 1 out of 50 great books is so hard. So, I’ll answer my own question here and mention three I have absolutely loved this year. My picks are A Broken People’s Playlist by Chimeka Garricks, Finding Me by Viola Davis and The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa by Stephen Buoro.
I am increasingly becoming obsessed with how we can build a sustainable creative industry specifically within the publishing eco-system and cultural production.
Question from Michael Afenfia: If you could travel anywhere to write for six months, what destination would you pick?
It has to be somewhere by a water body because the sea recenters, aligns and calms me. I’d have to say either Zanzibar or Cape town.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What is your favourite love story and why?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].