Kinyanjui Kombani On Winning The Prestigious 2018 Burt Award For African Young Adult Literature, Building A Career In Banking & Finding Time To Write

Photocredit: Kinyanjui Kombani

Congratulations on winning the 2018 Burt Award for outstanding African Young Adult Literature. How does it feel having won such a prestigious African Literary Award and where can we read your winning story, Finding Colombia?

Thanks! Of course, I am very excited. While I have won several awards (e.g. Top 40 Under 40, Kenyatta University Outstanding Young Alumni), I have never won one directly for writing. So this is a special one for me. The Burt Award is one of the most prestigious in Africa. The book ‘Finding Columbia’ will be ready for the market in the next few weeks.

Your career in Banking is quite impressive and it spans almost 12 years, yet you studied Education in English and English Literature at University. What made you shift and pursue a career in Banking?

It was a twist of fate that made me join banking. I was sitting at the Kenyatta University Creative Arts Centre with the chairman of the department, Prof. Emmanuel Mbogo, and my late friend Shibi. We were working on the KU Culture Week and were waiting for budget approvals from the university administration. Without the approvals, our hands were tied, so I borrowed the day’s newspaper. There was an advert for Graduate Clerk jobs. Prof. Mbogo urged both of us to apply. He reasoned that since banks (then) normally closed at 3 pm, it would be possible for us to go to the bank job, close at 4 pm and be back in KU for rehearsals by 5 pm. That is how I got the bank job! Neither of us knew then that when the bank doors close at 3 pm, is when the work starts!

Banking is said to be an extremely demanding field and you’ve worked at a Tier 1 Bank throughout your career, yet you’ve managed to publish 13 books. How do you find the time to write?

Yes, it is a demanding field. The truth is that you can never find time to do anything you are passionate about. You have to create that time. Of course, it also comes with a lot of sacrifices. I am not proud of some of the sacrifices I made.

Photo credit: Kinyanjui Kombani

You’ve written on a wide array of topics and genres. From children’s books like The Bike Thief to murder mysteries like Den of Inequities. How do you select your topics and what is your writing process?

Most of the time, the stories come to me. ‘Hawkers Pokers’, my upcoming book, was conceptualised one afternoon when I was in traffic and right in front of me there was a fight between city council police (Kanjo) and hawkers.

I recently interviewed Columnist Oyunga Pala and veteran Journalist Joe Khamisi and they both described writing as a labor of love. What’s your take on that? Do you think that writing is a financially lucrative profession?

I agree with them. I came into the industry with hopes of becoming a multi millionaire, and it took many years of frustration to realise that if you write for money you will end up being broke and frustrated. So in that case writing is a labour of love. If you keep writing to perfect your art, money will come.There are now more opportunities for writers to make money from their work. These avenues include blogging, ghost writing, coaching and advisory editing and proof reading work, teaching among others.

You’ve published your books through mainstream publishers; Acacia Stantex and Longhorn. How did you come about the decision to publish your books through major Publishers instead of say self-publish?

Correction: I have published through Longhorn, Phoenix, Queenex and now Oxford – Acacia and I parted ways in 2012. Because of my full time job, I do not have the capacity to self publish. It is too much work – especially for the onerous work of distribution which is a full time job by itself. In addition, working with traditional publishers means that I lose some control over editorial content, which helps me because there is an independent person who looks at my work and perfects it. In some instances, I write very badly because I think in mother-tongue and it reflects in my writing.

You’ve also said in interviews that you didn’t make any money from that book for 10 years and you only began to receive royalties for it in 2012 when it was reprinted by Longhorn Publishers. What was the reason behind that and what was it that turned things around?

There were simply no royalties paid. Acacia and I split ways and I went to Longhorn. Out of the respect I have for the publisher, who made ‘Villains’ what it is by meticulous editing, I will leave the discussion here.

That very book, The Last Villains of Molo is now a set book and is studied at Universities in Kenya, Rwanda, Europe and USA at Undergrad and Post-grad levels. How did that come about and what advise would you give to writers trying to break into the academic market?

Honestly, I don’t know how it happened. I only remember that The Standard had a centre spread featuring the book. Before I knew it it had gone further than I expected. It all seems like a dream because mine was sheer luck, I am not sure what advice I would give other writers!

You’ve been extremely vocal about copyright infringement and you’ve even criticized your Alma Mater’s Literature department for photocopying your book widely. Do you feel that Kenyans are knowledgeable about copyright law and in your opinion, what can writers do to protect their copyright?

I have had a lot of engagements with people about this issue. I think it is more of a societal problem – because we are used to getting things cheaper or free (e.g. getting downloaded movies from the movie guy nearby), we don’t see piracy as a big thing. In fact, when I complained about my books being photocopied, most people came to me with “At least your books are being read”. The Kenya Copyright Board, luckily, is engaged in a number of awareness initiatives both offline and online.

Photo credit: Kinyanjui Kombani

The publishing process can be a long one and I’ve read that it took 2 years between the time you completed the manuscript for your first book, The Last Villains of Molo and it’s publication. Why did it take that long to see your book in print?

Correction: it took 6 years and there were a number of reasons: One, financial reasons – Acacia was not a large publisher and they had to manage their financials carefully. Two, the publisher did not feel that Kenya was ready to have the conversation about tribe. When the post election violence happened in 2008, he was convinced that the time was ripe.

In 2004, you wrote a critically acclaimed stage play known as Carcasses and later it’s screen adaptation known as Mizoga. Will you ever venture into screenwriting again or have you found your niche in prose fiction writing?

I am not sure if I will go into screen writing again. It has been ages since I was on stage so I am rather rusty. Indeed, I have found my niche in prose fiction, at least for the near future – I have publisher commitments until mid-2019

As successful as your writing career has been, a few years ago you announced that you had quit writing and expressed your frustration with Publishers trying to dictate what authors should write about. What had led you to make that decision and what led you back to the craft?

It was actually an April Fools joke 😊.

Very funny! You experienced a lot of financial hardship and tragedy as a child and young adult, with the absence of your father and the passing of your mother. What would you say has been the key to overcoming all those things to become who you are today?

Most of the time, what drives me is the fact that I don’t want my kids to ever lack. It is very humiliating to not know where your next meal would come from. Knowing where you have come from has a way of keeping you focused and also grounded. I also saw my mom trying her hand at anything that would bring income. She started off as a teacher, started a bar, supplied food to hospitals, sold second hand clothes and a million other things. Perhaps it is from her that I learnt never to depend on only one activity.

You work in Management at a Tier 1 Bank, you’re books are studied around the world and you’ve received quite a few honors for your work including the Kenyatta University Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2014 and the Standard Chartered Bank ‘Top 5 Under 35’ Gen Y Award in 2015. What has been you’re proudest career achievement thus far?

I am not sure about this. Remember how I joined banking – by fluke? Everything that happened after that was something I never dreamt about. When I became a manager two years later- it was not even a dream come true. It was nothing I planned. Perhaps the biggest achievement is where I am right now. From that graduate clerk of 2005 in a local branch, I am now with the Group Retail Learning team, helping to shape the learning programs for thousands of colleagues globally. It is all a happy dream!

I always ask this question. Knowing what you know now what advise would you give to your younger self about establishing yourself and succeeding as a writer?

As a writer? Keep Writing – if I listened to my own advise I would be far ahead of where I am right now. Also – I spent so many years waiting for my first book to succeed, instead of writing my next one. Nowadays I submit one book to the publisher and start the next one! This way, I have about 6 books with three publishers in different stages of publication.

You can read more of Kinyanjui’s work and purchase his books on his website:

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