The author of ‘Mti wa Milele’, ‘The Colour Magician’, ‘The Forever Tree’, among several others, talks about how reading has had an impact in her career as a performance storyteller, seeing her tour different parts of the country and the world, sharing stories. Wangari Grace is also a literary advocate and a co-founder of All for Books, a collective of passionate readers and literati promoting reading for pleasure.
What are you currently reading?
Wangari I’m reading ‘Once there was a Star’ by Kenyan writer Meshack Yobby. It explores the history and power struggle in Somalia through the loves, the laughs, the tears and lives of a family living there.
What other books are on the top of your to-read list?
Wangari The past two years have been hectic for me hence I have quite a number of pending books on my bookshelf that I’m planning to read hopefully sooner than later. They include ‘The First Woman’ and ‘Manchester Happened’ by Jennifer Makumbi, three titles from the ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ series and a half read of ‘Pachamama Tales’ by Argentinian storyteller Paula Martin.
How do you select the books you read?
Wangari I’m very random about the books to read. It can be a cover or synopsis that catches my eye, a suggestion from friends, or an interesting review. The first chapters then inform on whether I’ll read it to the end.
What are some of the titles that you have recommended?
Wangari I only recommend books that I have read and genuinely enjoyed. Mostly titles by Kenyan authors- Kinyanjui Kombani, Muthoni Muchemi, Shaleen Keshavjee, Karimi Gatimi, Zoya, Hillary Namunyu and so many more. I especially love suggesting titles people can buy especially for their children. There is a lot of beautiful Kenyan writing and writers to explore.
Can you remember the first book you have ever read?
Wangari I grew up around books because my mother was very keen on reading. Therefore I had numerous books including those in my mother tongue, that’s how I learnt to read and write in the language. However, my very first chapter book that I vividly relished was ‘The Adventures of Thiga’ by C M Mureithi when I was seven years old. Man, the adventures of the character, Thiga, had me hanging on a cliff throughout. Of course, the Pacesetter series was a favorite as I grew up.
How has early reading played a role in your performance storytelling?
Wangari I was an extremely introverted child. Reading gave me the chance to interact with the characters in my mind since I couldn’t do so freely with other children. My mother would buy me storybooks written in Kikuyu language. We would read and learn how to sing the songs. Reading has impacted me so much that when I became a professional, I knew I wanted to tell interesting stories and a story that I read when I was young, ‘The Noisy Hornbill’ was the first I have ever performed. Looking back, I could now see the benefit of havign a parent as a reader. I passed that onto my daughter who has been reading, attending my performance events and speaks fluently for her age.
Do you look to yourself when reading a book?
Wangari When reading, I prefer to let the story draw me into its world. Of course, sometimes I identify or get attached to some characters and therefore get very invested in what is going on in their lives. When I’m writing, I love to draw inspiration from different lived experiences, could be mine, of people that I know or even random strangers I meet as I go about my day. Sometimes I also do actual research especially when I am working on situations that I’m not familiar with.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Wangari Writing both energizes and exhausts me. When the ideas are flowing, the characters and plot is just falling in place I’m usually on a writing high and can be obsessed for hours. Of course this is mentally taxing and I always look forward to my downtime. Also, I don’t have a writing schedule, say a certain number words per day. I prefer rolling over ideas in my mind and create scenarios then getting down to the writing when the bug strikes.
What is one of your most memorable quotes from a book ?
Wangari “The mind was a curse: its ability to go back in time to regret and hop into the future to hope and worry was not a blessing” – ‘Kintu’, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
What are your go-to genres?
Wangari I’m big on folktales and traditional stories from around the world. Being a performance storyteller, this is no surprise. I also read a lot of children’s books. I love investigative stories so this is another genre that reels me in.