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  Imali J. Abala is a widely published author with some of her titled published by Nsemia Inc.. These include Jahenda: The Teenage Mother; Haughty Boys of NgorokeThe Dreamer (which was nominated for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2017), Unchattered Mind (a poetry collection) and most recently, The Unforgotten. She co-edited and contributed poems for In the Murk of Life: An Anthology of Poetry. Her children titles include: Moody Mood & The Red Round Ball, Moody Mood & Courage the Friend and Moody Mood & Jumba the Bully. She responded to our author interview as follows:

  1. Tell us about yourself, your background and your current ‘station’ in life.

I am an English Professor at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. Although I am originally from Kerongo in Vihiga County, I have lived in Columbus longer than I have lived anywhere else in the world. Despite my immigrant status in the US, I have always remained true to my Logooli cultural mores, which define and ground me daily.  

I was born into a large family of nine and raised under the tutelage of my father, a minister in the Anglican Church for as long as I can remember, and my mother, our family matriarch and pedestal. Both my parents instilled in me the value of education and forever encouraged me to aim for the stars. Most importantly, my mother often decried not having the same chances I had, given that she was born in an era when education for a girl was secondary to her being. I valued my parents’ encouragement and counsel. I went on to complete my primary education at Lubinu Primary School. I was admitted to Namulungu Secondary School where I completed Form 1 and Form 2 and, after passing my K.J.S.E., I transferred to Butere Girls High School for Form 3 and 4. I was admitted to Mogoiri Girls High School for two years; however, after passing my Form 6 examinations, the attempted coup d'etat in Kenya in 1982 nearly derailed my academic pursuit when the universities were closed indefinitely. Hence, I found myself in Wilmington College, Ohio to pursue my undergraduate studies. I would later be admitted to The Ohio State University for my graduate studies. In 1992, I was hired at Ohio Dominican University as a faculty member and rose to the rank of full professor years later. 

  1. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you?

I love to write, but I can’t pinpoint exactly when I attained the inspiration. First, I have to recall the first time I fell in love with reading, which then planted a seed in me to want to become a writer. There was this guy, Shadrack, a student from the University of Nairobi who had come to temporarily teach at Lubinu Secondary School. He stayed with my family because the school did not have accommodation for him. A notable trait about him was his love for reading. On most weekends, whenever he was at home, he would spend his time reading a giant book under the canopy of a tree. Because my parents never read to me as a child, I was drawn to this leisurely pastime activity.  He seemed to enjoy the experience he derived from his reading. The giant book turned out to be the complete collection of William Shakespeare's plays. When he sensed my interest, he beckoned me to his lap and began reading to me. I fell in love with it. He is the first person who sparked my interest in books. Then there was my brother, Onesimus, who was an avid reader. He had a significant number of books in his hut and this served as my first ‘library.’ Whenever my mother tasked me to smear his hut, I would snoop about to see what kind of books he had hidden in there. Often, they were by David G. Maillu.  I would ‘steal’ them, but returned them as sooner as I finished reading. These books were very tantalizing to my naïve mind. Henceforth, I developed an insatiable appetite for reading. I made a solemn promise to myself then that when I grew up, I, too, would become a writer.

  1. How did you develop an interest in writing?

Long before Shadrack introduced me to the power of the written word, my mother deserves due accolades. She introduced me to the magical realm of folktales and from whom I learned the art of storytelling. She had an incredible voice and talent for keeping us (her nine children) entertained through the power of her words. I was often amazed at how, through her tales, she would transform our mundane daily lives into magical spaces where anything and everything was possible. These were tales about the ogre or the mischievous rabbits, which were foundational for me to harness my interest in storytelling. In the absence of television, she was the best entertainer I knew and know. I developed my insatiable desire and passion for writing from my mother’s lessons in storytelling.

  1. When did you write your first book and how old were you? What was the title? Where was it published?

I was 44 years old when I published my first work, Move on, Trufosa in 2006 with Phoenix Publishers, Nairobi, Kenya.

  1. What are the predominant subjects you focus on in your writing? Why?

My subjects are diverse and are inspired and steeped in my Logooli culture and lore. My characters are often imaginary but drawn from situations that mirror real-world experiences. My subjects range from a woman’s place in society (e.g. in Move on, Trufosa and The Dreamer); the impact of the AIDS epidemic on families and children (The Disinherited); coming of age narratives (e.g. Haughty Boys of Ngoroke and Jahenda, the Teenage Mother); the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (Drum Bits of Terror); to the quest for identity or lack of it thereof (e.g., The Dreamer and Fragmented Lives, a semi-autobiographical novel exploring the challenges of leaving home for foreign land.

The subjects in my two poetry collections, A Fallen Citadel and Unchartered Mind: Poems about Life and Living, range from Kenya’s post-election crisis of 2007-2008 and social issues (like poverty, hopelessness, the AIDs pandemic), and human emotions (like loss, love, death, passion, hope, etc.).

  1. Where do you get ideas for your books? What inspires you to write?

I derive most, if not all, of my stories from my lived experiences. From the strong women, I have known my entire life, the departed or those still alive.  It is from understanding the challenges of their living (youth and adulthood) that serve as a source of my greatest inspiration. My greatest wish is to use these stories to inspire girls and women to dream of a better future.

To this end, each of my narratives always has a backstory of a real person. There are three fundamental reasons why I wrote Move On, Trufosa, a narrative loosely based on my aunt’s life who was born in the early 1900s. I wrote about her because (a.) to appreciate my present reality, I must look to the past as represented through the prism of my Aunt’s life; (b.) to tell her story is to give her voice (as she never had the luxury of education) and for readers to gain a glimpse into her humanity; and (c.) through herstory, readers can understand her bravery as she rejected norms that objectified and disregarded her humanity. For my novella, The Dreamer, I found inspiration from my own mother’s lived experiences. Born in a transitional period in Kenyan history, she, like my aunt, did not have a formal education; however, she later attended Elimu ya Ngumbaru in the 1970s to become literate. Consequently, I wrote about her to give voice to this woman whose commonplace living was significant for me to understand the complexity of the paradox of gender in my Logooli culture. Although she valued wifehood, motherhood (and all its rewards), and was centred socially as a result of it, she lost her individuality, and identity in marriage, and compromised her very being, a truth of which she routinely spoke about.

  1. Tell us about your recently released title:The Unchartered Mind: Poems about Life and Living (2022)
  • Where and when was it published? Nsemia Inc. Publishers, Nairobi Kenya, 2022.
  • What inspired you to write this book?

Like my fictional works, most of my poems  capture current events and real-life experiences; however, on a more personal note, poetry is my art and passion. It is a medium through which I experiment with form and also comment on social issues I am passionate about. Poetry allows me to express raw emotions that readers can relate to in a way prose does not. Its brevity inspires richness in imagistic language density and allows me to probe my inner feelings and challenging subjects like death, life, or faith (or a lack of it thereof).

  • About this book: The Unchartered Mind: Poems about Life and Living is a must-read poetry collection because it explores the complexity of life and living.
  • What would be the takeaway for someone who reads the book?

Life is complicated and full of challenges; however, there is always hope for those who seek to transcend these challenges. The poems included in this collection are lyrical, imagistic and take readers on a journey of self-discovery as they probe the very essence of being human. 

  • How would that help the person in their day-to-day life?

Scanning through the Table of Contents, readers have a wide array of topics from which they can choose, ranging from faith, life, loss, and rage, to the exploitation of the innocent. These themes are universal from which anyone can draw inspiration or life lessons.

  • Any concrete examples from the content to illustrate the point?

Most people, at some point in life, have confronted matters of faith. Reading ‘Unfaith’ Living, the opening poem in this collection, many readers might easily relate to the speaker’s struggles of being maligned and ridiculed for her assumed “unfaith” living, especially as she embraces her agnostic living against the backdrop of those who optimally profess their self-righteousness. Thus, readers can cherry-pick poems of their interest that are relevant to their life and living.

  1. How relevant are some of the ideas in the book for others outside the environment in which you grew up, schooled and work in?

Poetry is about emotion, passion, sorrow and, most of all, about our human experience. For this reason, the central themes in this collection are universal, as noted above, and cannot be limited to one geographic location. They are about life and living and transcending time and space. If ever a reader has struggled with matters of faith, this book is for her or him. If ever a reader has dealt with sorrow, as a result of the loss of a loved one, this book is for her or him. Death is a guaranteed reality. There are also poems in this collection about joy and hope, which make this work have a universal appeal.

  1. We live in a global village and competition remains stiff in all aspects of life. Concerning the production of knowledge (writing/authorship and publishing):
  • How can Kenya leverage this to assert itself in the global village? Through the education system? Professional training? Or what?

True! We live in a global village and competition for budding writers is stiff, but that, in itself, should not impede knowledge creation and production. If anything, the internet/or technology has revolutionized the way people share content worldwide. It has blurred the boundaries that once, and for a very long time, limited the writers’ work(s) from being accessed by a wider audience. For this reason, writers and publishers alike should use this resource to market their work as it is the most efficient and effective tool to disseminate knowledge beyond the writer’s country of origin or creative space.

Knowledge is power and given the complexity of the publishing industry in Kenya, authors and publishers should work towards a common goal and purpose: To produce and promote works that can leave a lasting legacy or mark in the world. All the while, the Kenyan government should aim to promote a reading culture nationwide to encourage would-be future writers. Unfortunately, because of poverty, many parents opt to put food on the table than buy a book for a child for the joy of reading. This, in itself, binds publishers from publishing works that are not required in the school curriculum.   

As for professional training, this could be a two-pronged affair spearheaded by stakeholders: (a.) to organize creative writing conferences or workshops where seasoned writers can be invited to provide guidance to budding authors with a passion and drive for knowledge creation. (b.) that publishers should participate in these conferences or workshops where they can share with attendees their best practices and the challenges they encounter in their profession. Thus, writers can understand their expectations of their publishers and vice versa.

  • How competitive is Kenya compared to other countries you have experience with?

Competition is not bad if used for the common good of all. Many writers outside Kenya have made a living solely from their writing. I couldn’t say the same about Kenyan writers without name recognition. I would love to see a healthy and robust Kenyan literary scene where authors can make a living from their writing and are celebrated for it. Their writing was made accessible to a wider audience (in urban, rural communities, and abroad). As noted above, the reading culture in Kenya is dismal. As long as there is no strong demand for and promotion of reading and writing, Kenyan writers will continue to lag on this front. Publishers should invest their resources in publishing not just textbooks, but also other forms of writing. Fiction writers, playwrights, and poets, all alike, are left in a precarious position with their unpublished manuscripts languishing in the press without any hope of seeing the light of day, making them less competitive. This doesn’t board well with writers like me whose works have largely been put on the backburner by some presses because they are not textbooks, or dismissed with a simple notation: “Your manuscript is not a perfect fit for us,” or that “your manuscript does not fit in any of our publishing programmes.”

  • And what would be the most strategic level where such investment be made to optimize outcomes?

The government and policymakers, at local and national levels, should invest in libraries nationwide. If this resource were available to most, if not all, Kenyans (be they young or old), it might transform citizens into becoming lifelong learners. Additionally, it will not only inspire more children to read but also improve their critical reading and thinking skills. The added value to this strategy is that both the young and old will grow to appreciate and value the power of the written word and broaden their knowledge base.  

  1. Reading culture, knowledge capture and retention are seen as attributes of global competition in modern times
  • What role does a reading culture play in the attainment of a knowledge society?

Growing up in a rural setting in Vihiga, I have seen, firsthand, the youth’s lack of interest in reading. Though, I have to emphasize that the youth don’t read because they do not have access to books. There is no library in my village, which could serve as a reservoir of information as may be the case in urban cities. Therefore, the challenge is often financial as most families struggle with making ends meet. Between buying a gorogoro of flour and a reading book, most parents opt for the former.

Reading should be a fundamental right for anyone who desires it. With the advent of the internet, the world has become a global village, therefore, no community or society is insular. Those with access to technology have a wealth of reading content online, but this does not account for those without. This reality, however, implies that those with access to knowledge and who read attain a broadened worldview (locally and globally) and this promotes their critical reading and thinking skills. The world needs more knowledgeable critical thinkers who are open to different perspectives other than their own for the betterment of society in general. To achieve this end, access to books of all genres should also be a right for anyone and everyone yearning for knowledge. 

  • On a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best) how do you rate Kenya’s reading culture? 3 (three)
  • Explain

As long as only a few people have access to books, this problem is bound to last. We need to break this vicious circle by creating ample access opportunities to resources that promote reading.

  • What can be done to improve the country’s reading culture? What is the role of the education system in this? What is the role of leadership, corporate, political, community and otherwise, in this?

Erecting libraries (in both urban and rural areas) should be considered a priority and solution to reducing the chronic poor reading culture in Kenya. While students in schools are and should be exposed to all forms of age-appropriate reading materials, having easy access to such resources would serve them best. Because most poverty-stricken parents struggle to feed their children and buying books is a luxury they cannot afford, in places where a physical library does not exist, the government, policymakers, and community leaders should consider investing in a travelling or mobile library as an option to incentivize families to give their children the joy and gift of reading. Additionally, this recommended solution would go beyond young readers. Adults, too, should have access to this resource to expand their knowledge base. I firmly believe that if children can witness their parents reading and finding joy in it, they, too, would be inspired and encouraged to read. I found joy in reading books with my son and later discussing their contents, which then encouraged him to become an avid reader.

  1. Any future writing plans for you? Are any projects in the works that you would like the audience to know? When can we expect another book from you?

Wow! I never lack writing projects. I have a couple of completed manuscripts (a dystopian novel and a long narrative poem), which I hope to get out into print soon. On my horizon, I just completed a long narrative poem (Rosie, the Village Pariah). I am very excited about this narrative as it is thought-provoking. 

  1. On the subject of writing, reading and knowledge preservation, what message do you have for:
  • Writers?

Writers shape the world through the magic of their words. As E. B. White once noted, “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” It is from this premise I envision a writer’s fundamental social responsibility: to serve as a reservoir of knowledge and must objectively inscribe and disseminate this information with candour for the benefit of our human race. Therefore, my suggestion to them would be: Write, write, and write!     

  • Readers?

Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Reading should be a lifelong endeavour and a key to one’s unfettered lifelong learning. To function as a literate populace, readers should be open to reading diverse works (from a variety of genres and disciplines)! Whatever their motives (e.g., to escape the challenges of living, to add meaning to their mundane life or to pass time), reading will lead them to discover new realities about life and the world around them.

  • The publishing industry?

Publishers play a big role in an author’s life, especially in getting one’s works into print and disseminating it to the public. One might say, publishers are the gatekeepers of an author’s magical world without whom s/he would miss out on essential resources. However, in a landscape where textbooks sell, but not fiction, poetry, plays, etc., publishers should do more to promote all literary writers and their works, locally and internationally. For a writer’s triumph is equally a publisher’s success. Organizing launching events to highlight the writers’ works and press, using various avenues (like word of mouth, in person, radio, TV, and social media), is a sure way to promote the press and also provide writers much desired visibility. Furthermore, budding writers might be encouraged to join their predecessors in the venture of creating new content or ideas aware that they have support from their publishers. Writers chronicle history, therefore, working in tandem with publishers (for this common purpose) will lead to greater success for the industry and the enrichment of society in general.

  • Policymakers? Policymakers should implement policies that inculcate literacy as a fundamental right to all readers at all levels (the young and the old) as a means to promote reading nationwide. A literate populace can participate in nation-building from an informed position.

Policymakers, school headmasters/headmistresses should partner in ensuring that Kenya has a literate populace.  That the most expedient way would be, to begin with schools. Policymakers and school leaders should institute a mandatory daily leisure reading program within the school curriculum (about 35-45 minutes for the lower grades and up to an hour for the upper grades) to promote the reading culture nationwide. To ensure the success of this program, the Ministry of Education, and/or schools should consider hiring a reading teacher to oversee this curriculum to guarantee that students make optimum use of the allotted time.   

Finally, the Ministry of Education, which is charged with the implementation of education and training policies, standards, and curricula matters, should create incentives for teachers to participate in professional development training programs, specifically in reading and writing during the holiday, to learn new modes of teaching reading and writing.

  1. Do you have any final closing thoughts?

Reading matters, therefore, policymakers and schools should work together towards its advancement at all levels. This will improve the reading culture nationwide as it promotes critical reading and thinking skills essential in one’s everyday living.



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