Interview with Timothy Kiprop Kimutai

Where and when did the idea for The Water Spirits come from?

When I was a small child, a farm help told me that there was a huge snake that lived in the river nearby that carried the purest diamond in its mouth, and it would place it down before it drank the water. I immediately became fascinated with the river and imagined all these spectral beings inhabiting it. Later, he told me that he was a wizard and he could fulfill any wish I had, and I told him I wanted an extra room next to mine filled with digestive biscuits and chocolate. I grew out of that wishful thinking as I got older, but still maintained an avid interest in folklore and would delve not only to Kalenjin folklore (told to me by my parents) but to South African, West African, Germanic and Celtic folklore as well. Then one day I was visiting a neighbour who was struggling to keep chickens (they kept dying from disease) and opened the door to her chicken house, and something about its desolate emptiness made me think of a small girl languishing inside, and as the idea played itself in my mind, I thought of a water spirit (in almost all world cultures there are spectral/ humanoid creatures living around rivers), and the story just gave birth to itself.

Can you tell us a bit about place or places you wrote The Water Spirits from?

Mostly in my house, in the dead of the night, the lights switched off, with only the one-off sounds of people closing doors and windows. I love writing at night because there is no sensory stimulation. I get easily distracted. In addition, I wanted to extrapolate myself to another world - the spectral dimension of it, as well as the rustic background of my story. None of this was available in my immediate surrounding -I live in one of Nairobi's many suburbs. At times, the writing came out so forcefully that I felt I was possessed as I typed maniacally on the keyboard. At times I just did not know where to begin, and I would find myself making random trips to the kitchen instead or youtubing strange stuff, like Native American war chants.

What inspires you to write?

I write because I believe I have a story to tell. I am an avid reader, and I just feel there are some stories that are never told or told in a manner I would love to read, and I look at the people lining up to write those stories and I find it is only me who has shown up for the task. In addition, some characters in my stories, just wish to live beyond the confines of my faculties and intend to become a shared reality with other people. They keep pestering my mind and giving me sleepless nights, and increasing my trips to the kitchen (I always keep bottles of strawberry yoghurt, pink guava juice, Red Bull and Coca Cola - and drink it in that order) and at times these suffice to drown the deafening calls from the people living in my mind, but not always.

Tell us about 3 writers you admire and why?

This is a hard question because am quite promiscuous when it comes to reading, and it seems cruel to rank my favourites. So let me list my three favourite books (this is not set in stone however) and thank their authors for writing them. I honour Lloyd Jones for writing Mr. Pip, for him to be able to get into the psyche of a young girl living in Bouganville Island during the civil war, and tie the fate of her community to a character in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, was just genius. I also am grateful to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni for her books The Vine of Desire and Sister of My Heart highlighting the experiences of South Asian women immigrating to the United States. Then there is Abdulrazak Gurnah. I struggled to find his books for a while but finally I got myself a copy of By the Sea -and I had to take many minutes of deep silence after reading it. He is incisive and lyrical without being ornamental or showy. He is my personal legend.

How did you hear about the Kwani? Manuscript Project?

I have bookmarked Kwani's website - so I would always pass by it as I surfed, looking for free events I could attend and enliven a boring evening or weekend. Previously, I had tried out Kwani’s Kenya I Live In competition, as well as the To Be A Man poetry contest, but I was unsuccessful. Then a friend called me one day and told me about the Manuscript Project. I was a bit hesitant and full of self-doubt at first, but later I decided why not and so far so good.

If you had to describe ‘The Water Spirits’ as a cross between two other novels, what would they be?

I would say Them by Joyce Carol Oates, thrown into the magically intoxicating landscape of The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka and tightened by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's Weep, Not Child.

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