Celebrating East African Writing!
“Richer than I, you can never be; I have a mother who read to me.” ~ Strickland Gilliland
Give me books. Big ones, small ones. Books with pictures, books without pictures. Happy books and sad books. Fiction and non-fiction. Give me heavy, hard-bound classics and give me sleek paperback bestsellers. Just give me more.
For as long as I can remember, my definition of joy was “the feeling you get when you curl up with a good book.” Then again, my earliest memories are of my mother reading to me. I was born in May 1994, in Bangalore, India and moved to Kenya when I was a toddler. An only child, always two years younger than my classmates, books were my constant companions and firm friends.
What does this have to do with a life in writing? In my opinion, everything.
I hold an unshakeable conviction that writing begins with reading. Without a doubt, that is how my journey began. From the Ladybird books to the weekly short stories in the Young Nation, words made my world come alive. And by the time I was six, I was some kind of “lit monster” devouring every single bit of fiction that came my way. With hindsight, perhaps it was only natural that I would start writing.
I started criticising one of the stories I had read in the Young Nation one Sunday, when my parents overheard me. With her characteristic gentle firmness, my mother told me that rather than criticise someone else’s work, I should try to write my own story to see if I could do better. And so my first story was born. Written in pencil, on one side of a piece of scrap paper “How Kimbu Almost Lost His Wife” was my first ever labour of love. In a fit of enthusiasm only a six-year old can have, I rushed off to the post-office (remember those?) to send my story to the Nation.
Six months passed and I heard nothing, so I gave up. Until one Sunday morning in July of 2001, I saw my story in the paper, with my name under it! The sheer thrill of seeing my name in print was enough motivation for me to keep writing. So I continued to write short stories and send them to the Young Nation. As they kept getting published, my hunger to read and write only grew. This hunger was fuelled, in no small part, by some of my other life experiences. Travel was a luxury I enjoyed, every time I got a chance to represent Kenya in international chess competitions (let’s not go into how well I performed!). Visiting far-away countries like Serbia, Georgia, Turkey and Vietnam opened my eyes to the world, to diversity and culture and competition, and fed my imagination.
But it was not until 2007 when I took my first steps towards becoming a “writer.” By this time, I had over 30 published short stories and travelogues, and my parents suggested that we compile all the stories together and bring them out as a book. So we went to India, where an art-house publisher in New Delhi, Harman Publishing, took me on. In April 2008, my first book “Tales from Africa” was published. The book did not sell thousands of copies, nor did it win any awards. But it did something exponentially more significant for me. It confirmed to me that this was what I wanted to do. This was what I wanted to be known for someday. In more ways than one, Tales from Africa was the launchpad for my dreams.
In 2009, two more life-changing experiences took place. One of them was joining university at the age of 15, to study psychology. The other was a meeting with Storymoja Publishers in April. I sat there, chewing my pencil as we discussed the possibility of them publishing my work. From that pencil-chewing moment, my second book was born. “The Incredible Adventures of Pisho Pencil” is a chapter book for young readers which tells the story of a runaway pencil and the crazy adventures he (yes, he) has. In 2010, “Pisho” was released, marking the start of an association with Storymoja that continues to this very day.
Upon graduating from USIU in 2012, I joined the editorial department of Storymoja. I was assigned to co-editing Drumbeats, the romance imprint of Storymoja, which was nothing if not momentous for my life in writing. Having sworn never to write a romance novel, I went ahead to write two romance novels “Best Laid Plans” and “Stuck Together” which were published in 2013, under the Drumbeats imprint. Editing has exposed me to the other side of writing and given me a true understanding of the dynamics of publishing. It has also made me much more aware as a writer, not to mention much less narcissistic (I hope)!
Since 2010, I have discovered another side to my personality. That of someone who is passionate about spreading the love of books and literature amongst children. This is something I feel very strongly about, because I have encountered first-hand the joys of reading, and truly believe that it is a pleasure every child should experience. Each school visit, each mentorship talk, each charitable cause is a reminder to me that I have a responsibility, to myself and to society at large. And now, I can say how I define satisfaction: the feeling you get when you see a child smile, their eyes lighting up as you hand them a book. So now, even as I dream of being a good (and famous) writer when I grow up, I dream that more and more children will have the pleasure of reading, and may be as influenced by books as I have been.
I am currently based in London (it feels so cool and important to say that!) pursuing my Masters. I am studying Organisational Social Psychology at the London School of Economics. I’m an official student blogger for the LSE. This is where I share my experiences of studying at one the biggest institutions and living in one of the world’s biggest and most magical cities. In my blog, I hope to bring to life the magic, the wonder and the excitement I feel everyday as I journey on the shoulders of giants, chasing dreams and experiencing the new (and feeling like a fool at times!).
I’ve often been asked why I am studying psychology when I harbour dreams of being a well-known author in the (not-so-distant) future. Because I want to understand the world, and the people in it, and I think psychology helps me do this. More importantly, writing is my hobby-turned-passion, and I want the surprises and thrills that come with learning as I go.
What does the future hold for me? I don’t know. I hope it holds lots of happiness and more than a bit of fame and hopefully some fortune! I have a fifth book in the pipeline, an activity book for children, which is due for release in 2014. I am also working on a new project, bigger than anything I have done yet. But that is not what I think of when I think of the future, and therein lies my biggest challenge as a young author. Will I be able to keep growing as a writer? Will I ever “make it” in the world of literature? Will my name be remembered and my books line shelves? These questions linger every time my fingers touch the keyboard, and every time I work up the nerve to call myself an author. I know I have a long, long way to go, and that the path will wind in ways I never expected it to. But I know this much. A life in writing gives me new definitions: of frustration at times, but with every script I write and every page I read, new definitions of joy of pride, of satisfaction. Of bliss.
– Vaishnavi Ram Mohan