Her Sister’s Keeper, Jennie Marima’s submission to Sisters Born, Sisters Found: A Diversity of Voices on Sisterhood, zipped all the way from Kenya to California in an instant—one of the blessings of today’s connected world. Jennie has been writing for a long time but has been a bit shy about creating a presence on the Web. I’m delighted this interview will now be available for folks who want to know more about her.
Let’s see what Jennie Marima has to say:
1. Though we haven’t met yet in person, I feel we are becoming acquainted through “Her Sister’s Keeper,” the story you contributed to Sisters Born, Sisters Found: A Diversity of Voices on Sisterhood, as well as through our email correspondence. Based on what I’ve read about your prior publications and awards for children’s literature, it seems the story you submitted to the anthology, which tells a darker tale about sisters and family life, is a departure for you. Is that an accurate perception? Can you talk a little bit about that? What inspired you to write Her Sister’s Keeper? How is it similar to and different from other fiction you have written?
It’s been a pleasure to work with you, Laura. It feels like we’ve met in person.
This story is not too different from other short stories I have written in the past. My stories are often sad. I usually write when I observe or experience something upsetting or unfair. I am often restless until I let it out in either a story or poem.
I also enjoy writing for children. This calls on me to grow younger, remember my own childhood, makes me want to listen to children and play with them (which I enjoy!) so that my stories can accurately portray their experiences, aspirations and wildest fantasies.
I have wanted to write this particular story for a long time. I just wasn’t sure what form it should take. I toyed with the idea of a play, a novel even. But then it kept screaming to be let out, and now! A short story seemed the ideal and quickest way. I can now breathe.
I am fascinated by stories about impossible love. I have always wanted to write an Indian-African love story, as they are so uncommon, at least in Kenya. Because I haven’t had a chance to really interact with Indians, get into their homes, see how they live, what they eat, how they talk, etc. it was easier to write about an American and an African.
2. You’ve received awards for your first picture book as well as for stories, both published and in manuscript form. Have you been writing for a long time? What motivated you to start writing, and what keeps you going day after day? Do you have advice for writers who are either just getting started or who have been writing for a while and feel they aren’t getting anywhere?
I have only won one short story competition for my story Almost Family, published on the Storymoja Africa blog. My poem She Could Hear God was recently longlisted for the BN Poetry Award for African poetry. My unpublished children’s story The Runways made it to the top 20 of the stories submitted for the Golden Baobab Prize (Africa’s highest prize for children’s literature) in 2012.
I have been writing ever since I can remember. Writing has always been my outlet for pent up frustration and for expressing joy.
I feel motivated to write when I encounter good writing—writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself. I aspire to write like that. I want my readers to be lost in the plot and not even realize they are reading. But what really gets me writing is when I observe life and the cards it deals and how characters cope with the same.
My advice for writers is to keep writing, no matter what, for that’s what we know to do best. And someday, if you wait long enough, you may have your breakthrough.
3. Since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of my friends and associates are people in the United States, primarily in California. What would you like people in the United States to know about the writing life in Kenya? Are there things you think we’d be surprised to learn? Do writers in Kenya share any common strengths? How about shared obstacles?
I imagine, the world over, every writer’s highest goal is to be published. This is no easy road here in Kenya, where reading for leisure is a luxury only VERY few can afford. Publishers can only accommodate so much fiction and still make a profit. It is also next to impossible to support yourself purely from writing fiction. We keep our day jobs to pay the bills.
Many of us grew up reading books from the West and imagined that that is how we should write, too. The settings were unfamiliar (it doesn’t snow here, for example) the expressions, foreign—but we learned to love the stories anyway because we loved reading and they were good stories in all fairness. It’s refreshing to now see more and more Kenyan stories coming up, told though our lenses. It is also wonderful when our authors get international opportunities and recognition.
I had just finished writing the story when I saw the call for submissions. Since I hadn’t any immediate plans for it, besides getting it out of my system, I was excited that it seemed a perfect fit for the anthology and was thrilled that it was accepted.
I believe this anthology will bring to light the universality of our experiences. That we all laugh and cry. We hope, we love. We hurt and heal. From all corners of the globe, we feel these things. Black, white, rich, poor. That we are human first, before we are anything else.
5. What are you working on right now, and how can people learn more about your work?
I am currently trying to finish a novella that seems to have stalled.
I have been surprisingly shy about my writing. (Lord knows why!) I use my little-known first name, Jennie, on all of my writing. I am like two people in one. There’s the mysterious, faceless writer and then there’s the other me, the one people know—your everyday girl, daughter, sister, friend and colleague.
But this question makes me think maybe I should create a blog or some other platform to showcase my work. I guess it’s no fun if I kept it all to myself.
Jennie Marima (a.k.a Shi) is a Kenyan author. Her first picture book Rundo the Elephant was published in 2008 by East African Educational Publishers. Her story The Runaways made it to the top 20 in the 2012 Golden Baobab Prize for the most captivating unpublished manuscript for children. Her short story Almost Family won the Storymoja May 2013 Photo Contest. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novella for teens.