Writer's Notes: Stanley Gazemba on 'Forbidden Fruit'

The idea for Forbidden Fruit came to me in the expansive garden of an old colonial bungalow in Nairobi’s Lavington Estate, where I was then working as a gardener. Although the book was first published in Kenya in 2002 as The Stone Hills of Maragoli, it reverted to its working title when it was reissued by my American publisher, The Mantle, in 2017. We were in the middle of our Nairobi “winter,” around June or July. Back then the seasons were fairly regular and predictable, before the Global Warming monster came upon us. During our winter then, the temperatures dropped to levels where you could hardly hear the birds chirping up in the trees, the mist driving in steadily from the coffee estates to the northwest of the city: Limuru and Kabeteshire.

If there happened to be a heavy downpour before the chill set in, working in the garden became a nightmare. The vegetables grew monstrous. The kales and Swiss chard sprang out of the dark earth and tottered on their thin legs, their oversize leaves fanning out in the chill like elephant ears. The carrots and radishes pushed deeper into the sodden soil, the tubers splitting into finger-like stubs that were difficult to pull out. The fennel bulbs fattened into elephantine proportions, the tomatoes rotting on the vines in the damp. Nothing was sweet in the garden. The only thing that didn’t seem to mind the weather was the little banana grove at the corner of the garden, which thrived.

As I worked in this garden, turning the sodden manure or raking the leaves off the lawns, I would be thinking about my story. A reader once asked me how I compose my stories and I told her that it is a huge mystery that mostly happens in the subconscious when I am doing other things; the nether realms of our brain where formless things reside. It is exactly what was happening to Forbidden Fruit. I would be pulling up weeds in the lettuce row but at the back of my mind a character in my book or a scene would be taking shape, the plot, which I already roughly knew where it was headed, unfolding.

Forbidden Fruit by Stanley Gazemba

How the Characters Took Shape

At some point in my teens when I was starting to write I used to keep a small notebook, what you might call a scrapbook of my ideas. It was small enough to slip into a back pocket or a shoulder bag, and hard-covered, the sort small corner store owners keep by the till to record the details of their creditors in. I kept it for quite a while, but, gradually, as I grew older, I realized it was going to make me crazy. Otherwise how do you explain someone springing up in the deep of night, turning on the light, and proceeding to scribble down an idea furiously in compact coded script that is legible only to him for a straight and intense fifteen minutes or so, before calmly putting out the light and going back to sleep? Sometimes the urge would happen in the middle of a busy street. I realized that it was sheer madness, and so I stopped. Painfully so, more like a cigarette smoker trying to quit overnight; or a limbless man forcing himself not to scratch the stub.

And it is not that the gremlins went away; just that they stopped to dictate what I did with them when they came. Gradually I trained myself to file away the idea in my mind and mull over it, kind of give it time to simmer, reminding myself that if it was good enough then it wouldn’t disappear, but come back in a more coherent and ripened form with the dawn. If it wasn’t worth the effort then it would, well, disappear.

It is in this mysterious way that the story and characters of Forbidden Fruit took shape, without a note being written anywhere. I knew exactly where I was placing this story: in the Christmas-time of my childhood, in the village in which I used to spend three months of the year as a boy when I was not away at boarding school. The characters were coming from this childhood village, what they would do were the things I used to observe in this childhood village. The only thing I would do was dictate the way in which those things would be done in the story, which was a figment of my own imagination. I would also tweak their personalities such that they became my own creations, and not real people that I knew. Further still, I would create my own village out of that childhood village.

August was my leave, so I collected my pay and decided to travel upcountry briefly to visit my family in the village. By this time the story was clearly abuzz in my head. I guess what I was doing, as I walked the paths of that village in the evenings, was to put the final touches to the village I had created in my mind, position a thatched hut here, move a fork in the path there, and so on. After a few days I came back to Nairobi and lodged with my elder brother in Nairobi’s Eastlands. I bought a couple of school-type notebooks and Bic pens and sat down to write in the old-fashioned way. For the next three weeks or so the story took complete control of me, the story-genie possessing me body and soul. The blue Bic scrawl danced on the white sheets, filling the ruled pages like a paintbrush working its way down a blank canvas. It was so effortless, so joyous, so challenging, so fulfilling… and so mentally exhausting. All I did in the evenings was walk to the pub at the corner, order a beer, and sit there staring at the TV screen behind the bar blankly like a zombie, talking to no one, recharging my batteries for the next phase.

Writing in the Rain

The following month is when I sat down to type. I was back at my workplace in Lavington, and although the winter months had passed, the winter itself hadn’t lifted. Instead it had transmogrified into another monster. The grey skies had decided to open up and the rains had decided to pound Nairobi. It was a crazy kind of rain, a demon rain. It would start at around 3:00 pm, just when people were preparing to leave the office. In just half an hour of steady sheeting the city’s streets would be flooded, the traffic as the office workers tried to escape in a panic completely gridlocked. Within an hour the streets would resemble Noah’s town, the wheels of the vehicles completely submerged, the motorists working their cellphones idly behind their misted-over windows that only rolled down briefly for an insult to fly out at the idiot trying to nose their way into the lane up ahead.

The steady downpour tested tempers to the limit, grated on already frayed nerves till everyone thought it could never get worse. And it didn’t abate, going on steadily the whole night, only pausing briefly once in a while before resuming with a vengeance. It would carry on until the following morning at around 9:00 after everyone had dragged themselves back to work. It was a demon rain.

It was during these chilly nights that I would be laboring away at the classic Olivetti manual typewriter that I had been gifted by my boss when she learned I was a writer, and on which I had taught myself to type in a crude fashion that is not taught in any typing class, with my two middle fingers mostly laboring away on the smooth rounded keys, the left hand releasing and banging back the carriage return and right thumb and forefinger twirling the platen knob to the next line.

As the sleet pattered on the misted glass of the window, I would be swaddled in sweaters, my feet encased in two pairs of socks, the ashes in the charcoal brazier in the corner that I had earlier lit to warm the room long gone cold. In the stillness of the night the hammering of the metal keys on the drum was sweet music that kept me company. The rhythm would only be interrupted when the lights suddenly went out without warning—another Kenya Power substation nearby that had gotten marooned in the floods and had to be shut down—and in the interval I would turn up the wick of my kerosene lantern that was on standby, take a sip of the by-then lukewarm coffee from the Chinese Thermos at my elbow, and then resume my love affair with my demanding mistress.

I had expected that the day I typed the final full stop in the document I would experience an outpouring of something, a kind of catharsis. I didn’t. Instead I slumped back in my chair, linked my hands over my eyes and let my breath out very slowly. For the few weeks that I had banged away at that Olivetti I had strained to remember my grammar. It irritated me a lot when I had to white-out a word toward the bottom of an otherwise beautifully constructed page simply because I had gotten the spelling wrong. Back then the craft was demanding, and we simply didn’t have the luxury of a second take that computers brought.

The first publisher I showed the book to promptly killed the euphoria and momentum that had built up toward the last weeks of completing the project. While East African Educational Publishers had promised that they would get back to me with a publishing decision in two weeks, the weeks slowly dragged into months, and it slowly started to dawn on me that perhaps I hadn’t written a masterpiece, after all. After half a dozen or so follow-up phone calls to the publisher I gradually pushed the manuscript to the back of my mind and started working on another project. It is this agonizing silence in which the writer has no idea what is going on with the gate-keepers in the publishing industry that I was quickly going to learn to live with. It is frustrating; maddeningly so. And it is also private—you cannot even share it with your girlfriend. But there’s nothing a writer can do about it.

It must have been a year later that I got the rejection slip. By that point in my writing I had grown a thick enough skin. I had received my first rejection slip for a hand-written manuscript I sent off to Oxford University Press while in high school, aged 12, and so by this time I had become veteran enough to roll with the punches. I was familiar with the lingo the editors used, which, however flowery, still didn’t camouflage the fact that they were coating a bitter pill with sugar. Again, keeping my inner turmoil to myself, I went to the publisher to collect my rejected baby and stored her on my bookshelf as I thought about my next move, reminding myself that she was still beautiful in my eyes, regardless what those suited fellows in swiveling chairs said.

Movement Behind the Scenes

Stanley GazembaStanley GazembaIt was in the second year after the rejection that I received a call from a smooth-sounding gentleman. He told me that he had read my manuscript while still working as an editor at EAEP and that he had since left the company to start his own publishing business. That he was interested in publishing the book, if at all it hadn’t yet found a publisher. There was something about the caller’s manner that sliced through my by-then thickened cynicism. I decided to go and see him.

Acacia Publishers not only set to work on the manuscript with zeal, but they invited me to participate in the progress every step of the way. Granted, they were a small firm, and my book was, I think, the third release they were putting out, but the whole experience was simply amazing. They personalized it for me, and walking with them through editing, design, layout, and typesetting right up to printing reaffirmed the belief in me that I was indeed a writer. I am certain I would never have been inducted in the same way at any of the bigger publishers, who tend to plod their way along like the spoiled fat boy in the schoolyard.

The following month was going to be an intriguing one. I would later learn that publishers usually spy on each other. It was around July, and we were set to go to print with Acacia, when I received a call from EAEP. It turned out that EAEP, by then one of the biggest firms, had suddenly become interested in the book, and wanted to publish it. I was baffled. Apparently, the editor who had read it the first time had not assessed it properly, as was usually the case when the publisher was swamped with manuscripts, otherwise it was a very publishable book. I asked for time to consider.

By my nature I treat friendships very seriously, and although I was dealing with Acacia professionally, my experience there had made them my friends. There was no way I was going to turn my back on a “friend” for an offer that led to I didn’t know where. I therefore got back to EAEP and told them that it was too late to reverse my decision to publish with Acacia. However, if they were interested, there were other manuscripts that I could show them. They were not interested.

What was intriguing was that all this while I still hadn’t signed a contract with Acacia, meaning I could walk away, and all that they could do was rant and curse me for leading them up the garden path and wish that snakes would crawl out of my belly and that it would become bloated with razors, nails, and other rusty things, as we curse here. The other intriguing thing was that the Nairobi International Book Fair was coming up the following month, and that publishers were frantically searching for strong scripts to enter for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize awarded at the end of the fair, given at the previous one, the judges had declared no winner since they had found the submitted entries mediocre. All these behind-the-scenes workings were unknown to me at the time, and so I signed my contract with Acacia and went back to my gardening and evening classes.

Thrust Into the Limelight

The Stone Hills of Maragoli not only went on to be published, but shortly after scooped the Jomo Kenyatta Prize, beating a close competitor from EAEP. After all the months of toil and uncertainty I suddenly found myself overwhelmed. And scared. It takes a while for something you have been chasing half your life, and which suddenly falls smack in your lap, to sink in. I don’t even remember what I mumbled at the awarding ceremony in this swanky hotel that I had only espied from the outside all this while. All I wanted was to get away from the glare of the cameras and slink away to be by myself. For the truth is that, although they crave fame and fortune like other celebrities, writers were never really created for the cameras. Those are better suited to pop and movie stars. Writers are thinkers, and thinking is a private business.

Nonetheless, by the hotel’s poolside, I rather enjoyed being fussed over by waiters bearing trays of cocktails and meatballs. The Tusker also tasted way smoother here than it did in my neighborhood haunt. Only problem was that the English had deserted me in my hour of stardom, and all that I could do was grin until my cheeks ached. So this is what it felt like to be a star? I bet I only needed to put out my elbow and any of those pretty ladies that I desired would follow me home.

It would seem like the immediate success of the book would set me off on a roll. Actually I thought it would, and set about dusting off my old ideas that I had noted in the scrapbook in preparation for a marathon run, flexing my shoulders and wrists in anticipation of endless late nights at the desk getting cozy with the mistress. I was wrong. Regardless the rave reviews it received in the local press, not to mention the natural curiosity that the voyeuristic media developed in this “gardener who had written a book,” in one short year and a half the book was not only going to go out of print, but I was going to struggle to get paid the little money it had made. Acacia had gone bankrupt. The anticipated marathon I had mentally prepared myself for had aborted.

The couple or so years that followed were what students hoping to write a best-seller are never taught in a Creative Writing class. They just have to be lived, just like the pitfalls of a marriage after the glamour of the wedding has faded and the snoring and farting in bed kicks in. They were dour, grim, and depressing. I suddenly understood why pop stars take to strange habits like burning guitars, shooting speed, and generally wrecking their seemingly bright careers. Fortunately, I had a strong constitution, for I hadn’t started this thing the other day. I drew from my innermost reserves and hang in there. Once in a while I drowned my sorrows in the bottle; and then I got back my senses and went back to the Olivetti … no, by then she had been replaced by an old HP cathode-ray tube PC that took ages to load a page …  to bang some more.

The Book and the Writer Find Another Home

It was around 2005 that Kwani?, a sensational literary magazine that eyeballed the grey-heads of the establishment, was started in Nairobi by award-winning writer Binyavanga Wainaina. Revolutionary, unapologetic, and hip, Kwani? had done the unthinkable, roping in the ghetto outfit of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, Nairobi’s answer to the Wu-Tang Clan, forcing the haughty literati to accommodate their raw, uncensored delivery into mainstream discourse. It was a natural home for my out-of-print book. When they approached me to reissue The Stone Hills I didn’t think twice. Mostly because, by my nature, I have never been patient with the accepted norm. I will blindly follow anyone who is setting off on a road un-trodden, if not for the challenge then for the adventure. Fortune never favored the meek lamb, so I believe.

For a few years we had a ball with Kwani?, holding writers’ events in ungodly places under the stars, drinking and smoking God’s herbs with the hyenas cackling at our heels, and generally growing our hair long like hippies from the last millennium. Then, like the roll of the dice that must come to a stop, the reality started to dawn. Kwani?, for all her hype and gaudiness, were not really astute businesspeople. Made up mostly of young urbanites who had either gone to college abroad or lived quite a bit of their life there, they didn’t seem to have their feet firmly on the ground either.

The bourgeois languor that characterizes many donor-funded organizations in Nairobi wasn’t helping to move my book on the market at all. The hard truth is that I was dealing mostly with middle-class kids who had never had to hustle to put a meal on the table, and who were on a salary. The aggression and chutzpah I needed to push the book on the market was found further down on River Road where the naked midday sun blazed on the backs of cash-cash wheeler-dealers. Those folks down there who peddled mostly bootleg CDs and books for a commission had the street smarts needed to push a product in a fast city like Nairobi; if only their energies could be harnessed into legit business.

As far as publishing went, Kwani? were not helping me advance my career either. I had previously participated in a competition they ran, the Kwani? Manuscript Project, of which my entered manuscript, Ghettoboy, made the shortlist of seven out of almost 300 submissions from around Africa. The impression we got before we sent in our manuscripts was that the project was an attempt to do what Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series, arguably the most successful series on the continent, had achieved in the Nineteen Sixties. I thought that since it was a manuscript project, Kwani? were going to publish the shortlisted entries. They never did. After all the publicity the project had elicited I, and a few other writers I knew, felt short-changed.

Sex also played a role in my gradual divorce with the Kwani? idea. It is around this time that the LGBT movement was gaining ground in Kenya, and for some reason, the community congregated at some of the high-end events favored by Kwani?, and which I found increasingly unsettling. Most of my childhood was spent in an African village, and so, when I first saw a man holding hands with a man in New York’s Central Park and a girl kissing a girl in a downtown New York pub I became thoroughly disoriented. I would later experience it in a downtown Nairobi pub that I used to frequent, and which I later learned was a favorite pick-up point for transsexuals. For the record, I have absolutely no interest in anybody’s sexuality; it is everyone’s own business whom they choose to sleep with. But the thing is, it was something new in Nairobi at the time; if not, then it was coming out in the open for the first time. I must be honest, though, it was extremely uncomfortable for me.

All the same, the straw that really broke the camel’s back as far as publishing The Stone Hills of Maragoli with Kwani? went was not sex but money. Prior to my terminating my contract with Kwani?, which had expired anyway, we had done a series of school and college tours at which I had signed a number of copies of my book. At some of the events I signed up to a hundred copies per sitting. It is when these copies didn’t reflect in my royalty statement that I finally decided I’d had enough. If I was not going to get paid fairly for the books that had been sold then I might as well quit writing, buy a cow, and settle into farming. And so ended my business relationship with Kwani?, even though we remained friends. And for the second time my book found itself in the garbage bin.

A Trip to Uganda

In August 2016 my London e-book publishers, Bahati Books, arranged for me to travel to Kampala, Uganda to promote my short-story collection, Nairobi Echoes, at the Writivism Festival. I was excited to visit Uganda chiefly because my father had once gone there to study as a young man and refused to come back home. I was curious to find out what so enchanted the old man.

As far as festivals go, Kampala was no different; rounds of readings and workshops and book-signings in the day and then, later in the evening, the exhausted writers would meet for the “real” writers’ festival at whatever pub they congregated at, usually lasting into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes the exchanges grew heated and almost came to blows, and sometimes they were somber and contemplative, reflective of the sad state in which the business had placed everyone. Once in a while they ended with someone seeking solace in someone else’s bed, especially after the barman had adamantly refused to bring out one last bottle. It was the nature of festivals. I hadn’t carried any books to sell because I didn’t have any, and so I was generally having a good time. It was on the last day of the festival that I met The Mantle’s Shaun Randol. It was rather impromptu, with no appointments or nothing.

Earlier that evening I was feeling a little flustered. About a day or so back I had gotten pissed off by a radical feminist writer who happened to think that just because she spewed radical nonsensical theories in a foreign accent she had picked up wherever it was she had spent her childhood she was elevated on a kind of pedestal, and that the rest of us mortals who had grown up with the continent’s mud between our toes were obliged to stoop low and accept to be harangued … As if she could tell me the name of her mother’s clan in Botswana … or tell me what a toad was called in Setswana … nkt!

I was thinking about this incident that had spoiled an otherwise pleasant stay in the beautiful city as I perched up on the boundary wall of the Uganda Museum, swinging my legs as I sipped a chilled Nile Special, watching the elegant Ugandan ladies file past into the building. It was the last day, and the festival was practically over. A good day to pay a visit to the seedy Wandegeya Market, a walking distance from the museum, where the pork was carved from the carcass and fried as you watched. I was contemplating that pork … I was also trying to wheedle a dinner date out of one of those elegant ladies whose company and accent I rather enjoyed …

On instinct I jumped off the wall and went into the hall. Shaun was doing a reading from a Mantle anthology on behalf of the author, who had failed to come to the festival because of visa problems. As he took questions after the reading he looked rather serious and deadpan to me, hardly smiling. Perhaps it was his broad-rimmed law professor’s spectacles…

All the same, after the session I decided to hang around and talk to him, waiting a tad impatiently as a prospective writer asked the usual questions about the process of getting published. At last I cornered him, and he willingly gave me an audience. Apparently his flight was for early the following morning, and if I could get a copy of my book to him – which I didn’t have with me at the time – he would gladly read it on the plane and let me know what he thought by email.

Third Time’s a Charm?

Even in my drunken fuzz, I somehow remembered to jump out of bed early the following morning and dash to Shaun’s hotel. Then I wound up the festival with my rowdy Kenyan band and we boarded our buses for Nairobi. It turned out that Shaun not only liked the book, but he wanted to publish it as well! The only thing he didn’t like was the title, which was Greek to an American. We would also need to give the lady a make-over. Shaun suggested a Kenyan cover artist, and it happened that I had one just next door to the studio where I worked, and who Shaun happened to know: Michael Soi. Soi, who was known to me, was only too glad to have his signature art feature on Forbidden Fruit’s cover! All we needed to do was let him know what we were looking for. And so, just like in the case of Acacia, the process set off almost immediately, and went along steadily, step by step. It is in this impromptu, unscripted way that Karma finally delivered Forbidden Fruit to America’s shores.

 

Born in 1974 in Vihiga, Kenya, Stanley Gazemba has published three novels: The Stone Hills of Maragoli (Kwani?, winner of the 2003 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for fiction, published in the U.S. as Forbidden Fruit), Khama (DigitalBackBooks), and Callused Hands (Nsemia). He has also published eight children’s books, of which A Scare in the Village (Oxford Univ. Press) won the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for children’s fiction.