Author of ‘The Case for Colonial Reparations’, Edwin Chege, believes in a ‘supranatural’ writing process, ‘that ideas should flow easily and freely.’ ‘Writing often involves an ethereal, otherworldly process of tapping into some consciousness that is greater than the self.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I grew up in a time of frequent power outages and scheduled analogue TV programming, and the next best thing after TV was books. My father was a lover of true crime and detective literature, so our house was stockpiled with books from the likes of John Grisham and Mario Puzo which I peeked into from time to time.
Some books I remember fondly from that time include Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Meja Mwangi’s The Mzungu Boy and various African folk tale compilations—The Adventures of Anansi the Spider, for instance—were a personal favourite.
Also, when my very religious mom wasn’t looking I’d try to sneak in some Goosebumps.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
As a child, I recall having a great sense of wonder, of wanting to know why things were the way they were. My mother was a victim of my many questions… ‘Mom, who is the tallest man in the world?’
One of my most treasured possessions as a child was a children’s encyclopedia that my father bought me when I was eight. It was wonderfully detailed and illustrated with pictures, from the ‘dinosauric’ origins of life to the expansive constellation of stars in the sky at night.
If there was a book that I would pass on to someone younger, it would be that encyclopedia, or whatever modern version of it there is.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
It wouldn’t really be ‘rewriting’ but I’d be inclined towards developing a modern iteration of the classic Kenyan book Not Yet Uhuru by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
I think it would be interesting to tie the chaos and dysfunction that is common in Kenyan politics today to the first post-independence government, an idea which Jaramogi hints at in his conclusions.
I’d like to know more about the ‘O.Gs’ of patronage and power in the Kenyan government and see how much their early intrigues coalesced into schools of thought that are still at play today. It would be interesting to phrase these within narratives around wealth and power distribution in the country.
I’d be inclined towards developing a modern iteration of the classic Kenyan book Not Yet Uhuru by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
What’s a common misconception people have about Kenyan politics or politics in Kenya?
That it is ‘disordered’. Politics in Kenya is often chaotic and dysfunctional and is characterized as such with the implicit understanding that this occurs outside the intent and objectives of our institutions.
However, on closer scrutiny, it becomes evident that the violence, chaos, and dysfunction are not merely aspects of a disordered system, but are the system itself. In other words, they are the vital pillars that the system requires to function as it does, and as a result, are systemically deliberate and purposed.
Order exists, but because it is organized to serve the interests of a small political/economic elite, it either manifests as disorder, or utilizes disorder effectively to achieve its ends.
What is the last book that you disagreed with, and why?
‘Disagreed’ would be a strong word to use, but I found Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago a hard read. This was especially disappointing as I had been looking forward to reading it for some time.
I find that the author’s musings interrupt rather than support his narrative process, and to the reader, this presents as a series of tiresome digressions—moreso if one was reading the book with the intent of knowing what life in a Soviet gulag was like.
On a lighter note, I also disagreed with Jim Marrs’ The Illuminati: The Secret Society That Hijacked the World, for obvious reasons.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I tend to read biographies and ‘real-life’ accounts, so I rarely come across something life-changing in the conceptual sense. However, nearly a decade ago I came across a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F Baumeister.
The book was significant in two respects—first, the author attempted to analyze acts of violence from the perspective of the aggressor and second, the book made a convincing argument for the absence of ‘pure evil’ in man. It essentially asked the question, if people have good reasons for doing bad things, then are they ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ people?
I also enjoyed Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power, a book that is credited with introducing the phrase ‘institutional racism’ into the common lexicon.
Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F Baumeister essentially asked the question: if people have good reasons for doing bad things, then are they ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ people?
What’s your writing process like? Do you edit as you write or write a draft first, then edit?
I believe in a ‘supranatural’ writing process—that ideas should flow freely and easily. Writing often involves an ethereal, otherworldly process of tapping into some consciousness that is greater than the self.
To give a more specific answer to the question, I, therefore, try as much as possible to limit a ‘stop-start’ flow to my writing, preferring instead to write superfluously as the words and stories come and then working them into a more coherent form later on.
What was your process for writing ‘The Case for Colonial Reparations’?
A number of things had been going on internationally at the time that I wrote the piece. The Namibian government had announced that it was rejecting compensation from Germany for ‘colonial violence’ on account of the amount offered being too small.
At about the same time, Zimbabwe’s government announced that it would be paying white colonial farmers compensation for lost lands following the country’s fight for majority rule, a move which was readily accepted and applauded by the farmers.
The differences in the amounts offered were striking, and it was interesting to me that the international community seemed more invested in Zimbabwe’s compensation efforts.
Naturally, these stories invoked an interest in finding similar examples in the past, and finding several instances of blatant injustice I found myself asking ‘who speaks for the aggrieved?’
I also began to reflect on my own personal experiences with inequality and recalled how my grandfather, a man ordinarily stoic and reserved, became animated when discussing his life under colonialism in Kenya.
His acute sense of loss was particularly soul-wrenching for me, and from there I began to tie his individual experiences with those more broadly felt by colonized and oppressed people.
The resulting piece was my attempt to bind past colonial grievances and injustice to present-day inequalities and the inadequate attempts to resolve them.
What’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
Definitely how it is written. We tend to remember how the food tasted, not that it was made.
I believe in a ‘supranatural’ writing process—that ideas should flow freely and easily.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Just write, dammit! People will either like your work, or they won’t.
The important thing is to be true to yourself and your sense of perspective. Writing should feel natural, let it flow from within.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Diana Athill. Her writing is so clear and simple! I first came across her work after reading Hakim Jamal’s From the Dead Level: Malcolm X and Me, a book I had been searching for some time.
So, I opened this ancient-looking book which smelled of antiquity and began to read… and I was struck by its raw narration and gripping ‘streetwise’ narrative which somehow frustrated, repulsed, and compelled one in equal measure.
The gripping story led me to research more about the author, an African–American revolutionary who had worked with the Black Panthers, and this, in turn, led me to Diana Athill, who had edited the book.
Her writing was not too dissimilar from that of Jamal’s in that it was striking in its simplicity and honest in its explorations of the motivations for the most basic human actions. Her writings, mostly memoirs of her life and interactions with interesting people, lack the self-aggrandizement and ‘fulfillment of destiny’ narratives common in autobiographical works.
I would have loved to employ some of her honesty in my earlier works.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Given how charged the American political scene has become in recent times, I have taken to Barrack Obama’s A Promised Land, which I am currently reading having recently finished Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
The global reach of American life and politics intrigues me. It is remarkable how widely received, discussed, and analyzed American issues are even in the more remote parts of the world and how issues such as racism and inequality occurring there can have an international resonance. I’m looking to read more about how this influence was built and spread over time, so further reading on American history is on my to-do list.
People will either like your work, or they won’t. The important thing is to be true to yourself and your sense of perspective.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I’m currently gravitating towards the impacts of generational violence and injustice on the psyche. I’m particularly interested in the psychological impacts of the colonial experience in Africa and its manifestations across generations.
I wonder how much of the dysfunction we see in several African societies today can be linked to a shared colonial past.
Another critical question for me manifests in a mini-thought experiment—minus the Westphalian treaty of 1648, the 1888 Berlin Conference, and the post–World War II formation of the United Nations, where would Africa be?
Could it be that the concepts of statehood, leadership, and justice arising predominantly from Western thought and interpretation are simply inapplicable in the African context?
Question from Tunrie Bisi-Afolabi: What genre of writing do you believe is most effective as a form of resistance, and why?
I’d say any literature written in allegorical form. Allegories have a resonance that is often missed by more direct writing, and are more likely to appeal to a wider audience.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind. There’s also a beauty in ‘hidden’ meanings and inflections that allow for various interpretations of a message, enriching the discussions around a body of work.
A revolutionary’s greatest weapon is their ideas, and the more widely disseminated these are, the better.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Which two authors, past or present, would you have over for dinner and why?⎈
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