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“All Art Helps Us to See the Humanity of Another”: Kenya Writer, Dennis Mugaa, Speaks About His Forthcoming Debut, “Half Portraits Under Water”

“All Art Helps Us to See the Humanity of Another”: Kenya Writer, Dennis Mugaa, Speaks About His Forthcoming Debut, “Half Portraits Under Water”

Dennis Mugaa - Half Portraits Underwater - Afrocritik

“It’s important for a writer to remain true to their work and believe that it matters” — Dennis Mugaa 

By Frank Njugi

The 2003 Caine Prize winner, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, while speaking about Dennis Mugaa, described him as a representation of how the next generation of Afro-literati was showing prowess. They do this by quietly winning prizes and getting on with the sacred task of inscribing African stories in refreshing ways. This was prompted when Mugaa was named the winner of the 2022 Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest.

Mugaa, who hails from Meru, Kenya, has in recent times, established himself within the East African literary stratosphere, through fiction that weaves Kenyan and African stories with a profound depth and interiority. His debut short story collection, Half Portraits Under Water, is set to be released by the independent Nigerian publishing company Masobe Books on 8th August 2024.

In this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Mugaa speaks about this forthcoming book, his curation process, the art of fiction, and the state of African writing.   

Congratulations on your debut book, Half Portraits Under Water, which is set to be released on the 8th of August this year. The press release from your publisher states that the short story collection explores love, loss, and the interconnected nature of human experiences. What other subject matter does the book explore? And why did you choose to explore these particular themes?

My book also explores subject matters such as the discovery of self, exile, memory, and friendships. However, I wouldn’t say that I chose those particular themes specifically to write about. My writing process often begins through understanding a character in a deep way, and when one understands their characters, it is easier to see the challenges they face and how they try to overcome them or how they collapse under them. This way, the themes emerge naturally in ways that do not feel forced.

You have previously spoken about how your writing mostly stems from observation – from things you can see, hear, touch and smell. Is this still your prerogative? If so, what particularly about your surroundings inspired the stories in Half Portraits Under Water?

During the time that I was writing Half Portraits Under Water, I was able to travel a little. Some of the stories take place in different cities like New York, Lagos, London, Cairo, and the city I live in, Nairobi. One thing about travel is that it makes you more aware of your surroundings simply because you do not want to get lost and the newness of things makes you take them in with a greater appreciation. Therefore, whenever I saw things in those cities, I would imagine what stories would take place there, what my characters would experience and how they would see certain things based on who they are. Five of the stories do occur in Nairobi however, and for this, I had to understand what to show on the page. Surprisingly, I found it easier to describe places outside of Nairobi. Perhaps it’s because I know the city too well and this meant that maybe I didn’t see a need to expound on things because I assumed people would know exactly what I am talking about with the same certainty that I knew them. 

Dennis Mugaa - Half Portraits Underwater - Afrocritik
Dennis Mugaa

Your short stories have been widely published in various renowned literary journals and magazines. Are some of these already published short stories included in Half Portraits Under Water?

Yes, some of them are. Although in the book, they are included in a better way, so that they interact seamlessly with each other because they are all connected.

African writers face an immense challenge due to the lack of enough publishers within the continent. Your short story collection is being published by Masobe Books, an African-based independent publishing company. Do you think such private enterprise publishing houses play a role in surmounting the typical challenges present within African literature?

I think it’s important for African writers to have African publishers within the continent. It helps when writers from the continent have publishers closer to them. I also like the professionalism that Masobe Books brings to the market and in how they communicate with the writers. In the international market, however, particularly the United States and the UK, an African writer does need a publisher based in those places and  I’ve realised that is much much harder to get. 

Half Portraits Under Water - Afrocritik

Fiction is said to be essential to the survival of the human race because it helps us to slip into “the other’s” skin. As a writer who primarily writes fiction, do you agree with this assertion? What is the role and purpose of fiction in human interaction?

It’s true that fiction helps us to do this. But I do not think that this is only reserved for fiction, I think all art helps us to see the humanity of another. In an interview somewhere, James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” When we see our emotions, thoughts and experiences in people on the page, we recognise that familiarity and in many ways we are uplifted and we learn that we are less alone in the world. On a more existential level, each person carries within themselves questions, for instance, the ontological question about where life comes from. By consuming art we find other people who have posed such questions and answered them in varying ways which have made the world richer. 

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You have received numerous accolades in the past such as winning the 2022 Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest, being shortlisted for Isele Magazine’s inaugural short story prize and being longlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story PrizeHow have these accolades impacted your career as a writer?

Prizes help so that a writer has greater recognition and readership, but it’s important not to write for prizes as they may never come. It’s important for a writer to remain true to their work and believe that it matters. 

Author photo 3 scaled

You are an alumnus of the University of East Anglia (UEA) Creative Writing programme. Going through an MA programme has been said to be the established route to definable success, especially for African writers. As someone who has gone through one, what are your thoughts on the notion that “workshopping” creative writing is the optimal route to success as an African writer? How has going through an MA program been relevant to your development as a writer?

I don’t think nowadays that going through an MA or MFA program is the optimal route for success as recently we have seen African writers based in the continent succeeding internationally without having an MA or MFA. Speaking from a personal level on my experience at UEA, I had a wonderful time there. I enjoyed all my classes, the teachers were wonderful and some of my classmates were so talented. I learnt so much, the program taught me how to think deeply about literary texts, something I felt I needed to learn, and it definitely helped me in terms of being a good editor of my work. Therefore, I have nothing but praise for the program. 

It is said that the heartbreak of having written and published a first book is that the world then expects you to write a second. What should we expect from Dennis Mugaa in future with regard to his literary output?

At the moment, I am working on a novel, so far the process has been one of perseverance, but I do hope that I write something remarkably good. But there is no way to know that unless I finish it and read it for the first time. 

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

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