“I had been writing a lot over the years with nothing much happening. Winning the James Currey Prize might represent my coming of age as a writer” – Peter Ngila Njeri.
By Frank Njugi
After Australian author, Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize (now Booker Prize) in 2014 for his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he is known to have said about literary prizes being as significant, not just for the winner, but for the discussions and recognition created around the book. In Nairobi, Kenya, a forthcoming title, The Legend of Beach House, by Peter Ngila Njeri, has been dominating discussions and forums held in literary gatherings by literary aficionados.
The Legend of Beach House is the winning manuscript for the 2023 James Currey Prize for African Literature, making Njeri the first Kenyan and East African to win the prize. This win has resulted in unadulterated paeans on the superlatively talented writer, as his countrymen view the prize as an indication that the Kenyan and East African literary space is in a good and thriving place.
In an exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Njeri speaks about the forthcoming book and the significance of the James Currey Prize win.
Congratulations on winning the 2023 James Currey Prize for African Literature. It is a significantly huge accomplishment as an African writer. What was your reaction when you learnt you had won the prize?
Winning a literary prize is one of those happenings that is sort of life-changing for a writer. A literary prize makes one’s writing look attractive, even when you are entirely not sure of your own work. Making the longlist first of all surprised me a lot. I remember logging on to my Facebook and seeing the list in a post made by Henry Akubuiro, the 2023 Jury Chair of the prize, and then receiving an email shortly after. The shortlist was announced days later and [it] was equally surprising as well. On the day the winner was to be announced, I was out for a walk when I started receiving congratulatory messages. That’s how I found out that Henry Akubuiro had announced me as the winner. After achieving such, as a writer you are prompted to remember the days you almost gave up. I had been writing a lot over the years with nothing much happening. Winning the James Currey Prize might represent my coming of age as a writer. Fiction rarely pays, and although I tend to think that when you’re a writer you just sort of don’t care a lot about the cash aspect, when you win a prize for it you kind of see the worthiness of the challenges you have encountered in your journey.
What are your general thoughts on the role of prizes in the literary world?
The glory that prizes give you is good, as it acts as evidence that your writing is getting somewhere. But personally, as much as I have won one, what really matters to me is to keep up the writing. I try to centre the writing in everything. The prerogative with prizes should be that even when winning them, you continue putting in the work where it matters, which is in the writing.
Can you tell us a little bit about your winning manuscript, The Legend of Beach House?
The Legend of Beach House is set in the year 2040, and it is about an ageless gender non-binary being called The Angel of Dreams who wants to change human thoughts and philosophy. To do so, this being finds some triplets to look into the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which in real life disappeared on March 8, 2014. The theme of the manuscript is magical realism and fantasy. The idea to write it first came to me during my flight to Nigeria where I was travelling to attend the Ebedi International Writers Residency. Three weeks after the residency I traveled again to Iceland and while flying there also, I thought about the idea of exploring the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 some more. Afterwards, I decided to write a short story about the airplane. The research for the short story soon proved too extensive and I decided to turn it into a novel instead.
As the first East African to win the prize, do you think the win is representative of a region’s literary scenery which is flourishing? What are your thoughts on the current state of East African literature?
I didn’t actually expect the reaction the win elicited from fellow Kenyans and East Africans. From how people responded to my win I can say the literary scene here is doing great. People are getting stoked up when they see writers doing well. This is an indication of guys around having a keen interest in the happenings within the lit world, which only means the literature here is thriving. And we have some amazing writers producing brilliant works which makes it an exciting time being a Kenyan writer in this age.
As you mentioned, you have attended numerous residencies and workshops across the continent and beyond, such as the Ebedi International Writers Residency and the Iceland Writers Retreat. Has the experience and exposure you got from these played a part in your developing into a writer prolific enough to win a prize?
I don’t think I have enough words to describe the sort of impact the workshops have had on my writing journey. I remember first moving to Nairobi and getting introduced to the AMKA forum, a monthly workshop organised by the Goethe Institute Nairobi, where I got my first taste of constructive critique of a fiction story I had written. Then later on I attended the Writivism workshops, the Ebedi residency, a Short Story Day Africa workshop, and the writers’ retreat in Iceland. I would say each workshop has served as a stepping stone to the different stages in my journey as a writer.
What advice would you give to early career writers who are now looking up to you due to this achievement?
Read as much as you can. That’s the optimal advice for any writer out there.
What more can we perhaps expect from you in terms of your literary output and also your engagements with matters of literature moving forward?
I am currently editing a new manuscript actually, so that is another novel in the works as we await the release of The Legend of Beach House by Abibiman Publishing UK. I also aim to attend more residencies, so of course I keep applying for them. I would also love to do an MFA if possible. I think that as writers we should be more ambitious, and by ambitious I mean the kind that ties up with your career. I want my career to go to the next stage. And an MFA would enable that.
Frank Njugi is a Kenyan Writer, Culture journalist and Critic who has written on the Kenyan and East African culture scene for platforms such as Debunk Media, Sinema Focus, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and many others. He tweets as @franknjugi.