When I was growing up in Kenya, a normal evening meant sitting on low stools telling folktales. Everyone was expected to tell a story from the wide repertoire you had acquired over the years. If you couldn’t think of any, you were allowed to make up your own. The stories featured a motley crew of scary ogres, greedy hyenas, cunning hares, terrible stepmothers and all manner of other imaginary characters. For young, impressionable minds, the allure was the entertainment value. What we didn’t realize at the time was that there was a didactic element to folktales. It was the way the community instilled values in young children before the written word.
You started to outgrow the folktales when you got to about 7, when story books offered a new attraction. It was at about that age when I began scribbling bits of stories in a scrapbook. Some of the very first stories were inspired by the childhood folktales, but I found it difficult to fit animals into my stories in a meaningful way. So, while still in primary school, I started reading everything I could lay my hands on, including newspapers, but mostly for the crime stories. Bank robberies were common in the 1970s. The gangsters were heroes. Their daredevil escapes on fancy motorbikes were the stuff of myth and legend.
This was our answer to the odd film we saw about cowboys and car-chases. My father, who was a high school English teacher, was the biggest influence on my reading and writing career back then. One day he took me to the school library and asked what I wanted to read. Everything, I said. From the novels of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barbara Kimenye’s Moses adventure series to Christina Rosetti’s poetry and H.G Wells.
My first ‘serious’ effort as a teenager was an adventure story about science students lost in space, fleeing armed gangsters. High school opened up the world of drama in the form of a very competitive annual drama festival. The students wrote and produced their own plays, with a chance of competing at the provincial and national levels. I offered to write my house play when I was 15, as none of the older A level students who were considered more competent were interested.
Here at last, was the elusive rationale for moving to Asia: to write about this black diaspora,
My play drew from my old fascination with gangsters. The adjudicator, a university professor, said it showed there was more to life than the ‘big issues’ – colonialism and high-level corruption, the popular themes that year. My play was entertaining, but as I wasn’t sure if the professor’s comment was a backhanded compliment, I decided, to be on the safe side, to tackle some big issues henceforth, so I wrote a novel about youth homelessness on the streets of Nairobi. Every publisher I spoke to said they liked it, but how would I feel about writing an English textbook instead? That’s where the money was.
I proceeded to university to study accounting and finance, and considered my fiction career effectively over. It all changed years later when I was a graduate student at Oxford and happened to show my old manuscript to friends who urged me to keep writing. I started to write a novel about a Kenyan student in the UK, but, as I didn’t want people to think it was autobiographical, I had my main character implicated in a huge financial scam, which struck me as a really big issue.
After Oxford, I took up a lectureship at the University of Birmingham, and after five years, moved to Hong Kong. It was difficult to explain that decision to friends and family, and I didn’t quite understand it myself. But it was a pivotal move, for it was in Hong Kong that I encountered a vibrant community of writers, the Hong Kong Writers Circle, who for years met once a month to critique each other’s work and learn from each other. A magical thing was that I met Africans who told me fascinating stories about their lives in China. Here at last, was the elusive rationale for moving to Asia: to write about this black diaspora, and what’s more, it seemed like a truly ‘big issue’. That was how Black Ghosts was conceived.
Black Ghosts is available now, here.
About the author
Ken Kamoche was born and raised in Kenya. He studied accounting and finance at the University of Nairobi, and management at the University of Oxford. He is a professor of Management at the University of Nottingham.
His short stories have appeared in magazines such as Ambit, New York Stories, Kunapipi, Wasafiri, World Literature Today, and in several edited works. Some of these stories later appeared in A Fragile Hope (Salt, 2007), a collection of short stories which made the Commonwealth Best First Book Award shortlist, and one story won second prize in the Olaudah Equiano Prize for African Writing