Global Flash Series: An Interview with John Obwavo, Guest Editor for Kiswahili

by Christopher Allen See all Guest Readers
story art

First of all, John, thank you for guest editing/translating for SmokeLong. What kind of story have you been looking for? 

I am looking for a story that addresses the human condition in a subtle way. The story should also make an interesting read with interesting turns of phrase.

What writers in Swahili should we be reading (if only in translation)?

If you are interested in Swahili fiction, you can read Ken Walibora. Although his writing has only gained prominence in recent years, he is a widely read writer in Kenya. Walibora shot to national fame with the publication of the Swahili novel, Siku Njema. Idrissa Haji Abdalla is also a fascinating Swahili writer. He won the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili prize for African literature 2016 with his story Kilio cha Mwanamke.

What’s the writing community like there where you are?

The creative space in Kenya has really expanded after the country became a pluralistic state in the early 1990s. However, peer support for creative writers in Kenya is just emerging. Currently there are many platforms which support creative writers by offering space for dialogue, writing, and critique. Some of these platforms are Kikwetu Writers’ Circle, Amka space for women creativity, Storymoja, Kwani among others. We also have numerous Facebook and Whatsapp groups formed by writers themselves. I would say social media is helping writers in Kenya to come together to explore opportunities in creative writing.

What in your opinion are the challenges of translating Kiswahili to English?

Kiswahili is a very rich language with a lot of idiomatic expressions, proverbs and sayings. It is easy to lose this beauty and rhythm when translating. In addition, some words in Kiswahili have no English equivalent. A translator therefore would have to use many English words to communicate effectively. This poses a big challenge in translating short fiction where brevity is key.

What are you working on these days?

I have been commissioned to write a series of children stories. I am currently developing story ideas and doing a lot of research on the areas I hope to write on.

About the Reader:

John O. Ndavula, guest editor for Kiswahili, is the author of Social Media & Political Campaigns in Kenya. His prose has appeared in Kikwetu. He is co-founding editor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature and has published literary criticism books on East African and European fiction. He teaches creative writing at St. Paul’s University in Kenya. He earned his PhD in Mass Communication from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

About the Interviewer:

Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019[PANK], Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.