He is young and transient, the kind that would write a letter in one continent and post it in another. I first got of wind of Abdul Adan’s writing through Philani Amadeus Nyoni, a fellow countryman whose ideas and pen are equally off the radar. I met Abdul at the 2016 Africa Writes Festival, an encounter months in the planning. He is warm, his mannerism reflects a cultured upbringing, yet his writing is unleashed. Writers are the most insecure and vulnerable creatures, he once acknowledged. I push boundaries and insist on calling him Adan which he allows. Adan embodies all that is global, an undeclared nomad he pitches his tent as he wishes and articulates the world through inquisitive anthropological lenses. He takes the reader along, and holds them in a suspense that lingers way beyond the last page.
Abdul Adan talks to Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands
Abdul you were shortlisted for the Caine Prize Award 2016, how did it feel to be nominated?
I was very excited at the news of my nomination. It meant I will get a trip to England, meet people who are passionate about what I do, and get to learn more about myself in the process. This is the first literary shortlist I have been on, and the second time the Caine Prize took me on a trip—for almost making the 2013 shortlist.
The Caine Prize 2016 ultimately went to a South African writer, should writing be competitive?
Writing, being art, shouldn’t be competitive. Prizes, though, will have to be won by one writer at a time, so that there’s a reason for curiosity, suspense, and a means to give money to a writer every year. Who is to say for sure the five of us wrote the ‘best’ stories submitted? It was a strong list but still… Any shortlist is a reflection of the collective tastes, experiences, or even politics of the judging panel.
In your short story ‘The Lifebloom Gift’ you lead the reader through comfortable and uncomfortable conversations about sexuality and mental illness … what inspired Ted’s character?
I drove a medical transportation car back in 2011. One day I took a middle aged woman from a St. Louis hospital to a small Missouri town where she lived. Her place was behind a small Episcopalian church and her overweight son of about 25 lay outside in the yard, stroking a dog. The details are now sketchy but he looked really well rested. Something about his eyes stuck with me, and he ended up becoming Ted Lifebloom three years later. His particular disorder came out of my own loneliness those first years in America. People seemed too cold and detached for me; I couldn’t see at what level I could connect. I had just come from this other part of the world where people are more demonstrative, and where even a quick chat with a stranger carries with it some genuine emotion. I was really confused by all the airy polite smiles on the faces of people who really barely acknowledged me. By the time I wrote the story my earlier confusion had long ended, but the memory of it had to be pumped into Ted for preservation but also for my own self-education.
Would a female African writer been able to write the same story with the same level of autonomy and authority?
Of course. I don’t see why not, but I am inclined to think African critics might be harsher with her.
How and why did you give yourself permission to write the narrative of character completely different from your own cultural background?
Well, by 2014, when I wrote the story, I had made so many American friends and was just about getting to feel out America’s cultural core. I had undergone my fair bit of Americanization already. I was even understanding their humour, something that eluded in the years prior. And when you feel the humour of a place, you know you are home. I should also add that we are not the only ones who are exotic. White people too can offer plenty in the same regard. They have written about us for ages, perhaps its time we returned the favour, don’t you think (smiles)
You embody many different cultural backgrounds, Somali, Kenyan, American and recently Kazakhstan, who do you pledge your heritage to?
I don’t care much for flags and borders. I only acknowledge them as far as staying out of trouble. I love all these places equally, but I can adjust faster into some than others. In the US for instance, it took me years to feel the humour alone, while in Kazakhstan, my Kazakhanization was well underway within months. Speaking of heritage my nomadic roots is probably what I hold in the best regard.
In 2015 you attended a Writing workshop in Zimbabwe, what did you make of the country?
Harare looked like a cleaner less populated version of Nairobi. People were very friendly. In fact, this is the friendliest country I have visited. Barbara Mhangami, a fellow participant at the workshop, took me to Harare’s city centre where, while she tended to her business in the shops behind me, I listened to a young, thin, street preacher most intently. I remember that we went to a tailor’s shop, too, and saw nice, hardworking godly women whose mere sight invokes their country’s innocence and the day to day mixture of optimism and just cold discipline. We have lost that innocence here in Kenya. I miss it actually.
In ‘The Somalification of James Karangi’ you tell a hilarious, and somewhat disturbing tale about a Kikuyu suitor who must go through painful experiences like chewing khat and wear ing a noose around his neck in order to be ‘Somalified’. Was this a critic of Somali conservatism and African tribalism?
I suppose so, but I can’t say criticism of Somali conservatism was on my mind as I was writing. I was just having fun, and trying get James to undergo something darkly comical. Generally though, I do keep a keen eye out for prejudices against anyone, even from my own people.
Who do you read and how do other writers inspire you?
I am a very slow reader and only pick up a book if I really believe in it, usually through a friend’s recommendation. I read a lot of short stories back when I was starting out. Among those I read extensively was Anton Chekhov, Guy De Maupassant, Chinua Achebe, H. H Munro, and Bessie Head. I am not reading anyone now in particular. I just open random excerpts, stories, and read to the end if I like them. I think am one of the least read people writing today.
Chekhov, Achebe, and Munro, pretty much taught me how to write stories. I don’t bother with their themes when reading as a writer. I only pay attention to the flow, and the transition between scenes, diction, etc. Writers are craftsmen, and all craftsmen have secrets; I try deciphering their journey in a story, undo their knots, and suddenly the whole thing isn’t that mysterious. This is when I jump up and say, ‘So that was it? I can do that.’ The only problem is that sometimes the English is just not enough. The really worthy ideas, though, compel me to find ways of skirting around the English problem.
Tell us three random things we don’t know about you?
a) I am a recovering chess addict. I can’t go cold turkey, but I am playing less than I used to.
b) I got my first ever smart phone four months ago. It’s an old Samsung, gifted to me by little brother. I still don’t know how to use it well.
c) I get lucid dreams quite often. Sometimes I would ask the people in my dreams if they know I am dreaming them up. Other times, I would run around and engage in little mischievous exploits—stuff I thought about in the real world but couldn’t do—telling everyone, ‘It’s just a dream, folks. All is legal. Chill out.’
Abdul Adan, thank you for talking to me on Tribal Sands
Director of Tribal Sands November 2016.