Oduor Jagero is a Kenyan journalist, documentary script writer, poet and novelist. Jagero is in Kampala to launch his first novel, True Citizen. The self-published author will be launching his novel at the Goethe Institute on Thursday December 4 at 6pm. I thought we could learn a thing or two on self-publishing and Jagero was happy to share his experience.
How long have you been writing?
It would be an exaggeration to say that I started long, long time ago. I started writing in high school. I loved reading and so at some point, I decided to experiment and tell stories. I wrote lots of poetry and later, short stories. After studying Journalism and Mass Communication, I decided to write seriously and professionally. I wrote musicals, plays and poetry. As a lover of novels, it was obvious that I would have a go at it. I went to Rwanda to research on my first and yet-to-be published novel. After that, I decided to pen the story of a matatu driver and his tribulations in the hands of the corrupt traffic police, which is True Citizen.
You have written the award-winning musicals: Colour of God, Confessions Of a Harlot, Eyes on the Rock, and Makmende Vies for President. Writing a novel vs. writing a musical?
My forte is writing dialogue, which is what makes plays and musicals. Writing novels is different because of the relative complexity in plot and structure. Character development is easier in plays, I would say. Novels are also obviously longer in word count in most cases and that makes them harder. The other thing is my plays have been for performance so performers can rearrange sentences to suit their performance. In novels on the other hand, you must be extremely worried of easy reading.
A journalist, a photographer, a businessman. How do these inform your writing and how do you manage to squeeze in time to write?
Journalism is about writing and photography is an art just like writing. In a sense, they’re two friends who listen and appreciate each other. My business, which is organising events and production, is also a creative job that has many gaps I can easily utilise to satisfy my roving writing appetite.
Tell us about your self-publishing journey. Why did you choose to go down that route?
I don’t think it’s a secret anymore that publishers in East Africa are astute businessmen who believe more in the text books trade and not fiction. They believe, and they’re right to some extent, that pleasure reading is not doing very well in this part of the world. So they develop cold feet towards creative writing. We also have NGO-ish publishers who have a very peculiar way of choosing who to publish. They tend to be wooed more by the prize winners rather than obscure talents and these publishers tend to be elitist and go with their friends, which I think is human. One of those publishers told me that they would read my book in a year’s time. Then after reading, which might take another six months, they would say yes or no. If it’s a no, I am back to square one. If it’s a yes, it would take another year or two to start the process. It’s understandable but heart-wrenching.
So what do people like us do? We fight. We look for finances to offset editing, proofreading, design, print and marketing. This can deplete your resources. All of them. But I am a businessman and risk is part of my trade.
If I am a budding writer, with what I think is a great manuscript but no money to cover the costs that come with self-publishing, how do I get my book published?
You have two choices. Both are difficult by the way: one is to send your work to a publisher that you know might be interested in your type of work. This is painstakingly a long process and as I have said, you risk getting frustrated by the number of “we’re not receiving unsolicited at the moment” or “not for us”. You could also be lucky and get a very quick yes.
The other alternative is to brave it and lunge into the cold field of self-publishing. But again you have no money. You’re doomed? Not really. You can speak to relatives and friends to help you gather resources for your book. Those that have read your awesome short stories, poetry and all the flash fiction you have been throwing around will help you. Your rich mother or father can boost your kitty. If you know a book editor, go to him/her and convince him/her that your book is gonna be a bestseller and she/he cannot afford not to have his/her name on it. Then there are NGOs with too much money. Write them a proposal. Overall, don’t listen to people who say that humans have become too selfish. Those are alarmists. Man is innately good.
How do you ensure quality as a self-published author?
If a self-publisher has to get a good quality book, they have to look at what they do in traditional publishing, which is giving the manuscript to authoritative readers and critics who will tell them whether the book is publishable. They will then hire an editor, a proof-reader and all the rest. A professional designer would then come into play to ensure that good printing is then done. I did all that.
How has marketing your book been like? What have you learnt?
Marketing is tough and it’s all unto you. You have to talk to people, create networks, and make friends. I extensively used Social Media and the press.
What made you want to take your book beyond Kenya and come to Kampala?
My book is a story set in Kenya but with a story line that a Russian will relate to. The pain of a mother losing a child to a deadly disease is one that will resonate with a woman in Budapest, or Istanbul, or Manchester City. I view my art as something that would interest any human.
What do you think we should do to improve these cross-border literary relationships?
Networking and pulling as a team. Spreading the word by ourselves and loving what we have here. It’s a cliché but I will say it: let’s build our own prizes and market them properly. Let us not worship the Caine Prize and Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Let us treat them as prizes among many. But if we worship the Caine Prize and Commonwealth, we will only know the winners and subsequently praise their works even if some of them are badly written.
In terms of traffic woes and corruption, True Citizen is a story of everybody that has lived in a big city. What made you think: I absolutely have to tell this story?
I am a son of the big city Nairobi. It’s a city with a chaotic transport system just like Kampala. When you stay in those long and winding traffic jams for a long time, you want to write about it.
You have lived in Kigali, Kampala and Nairobi. How do these three cities compare?
Kampala and Nairobi are big cities. Both are overwhelmed by huge populations while Kigali is smaller, cleaner and saner. The traffic in Kampala compares very closely with the Nairobi one. Kampala is relatively safer than the thuggish Nairobi but Nairobi is more developed and has better amenities than Kampala. But Kigali will surpass both in the future because of working laws and tight control by the government.
What fascinates you about Kampala?
I love the sight of boda bodas. Each and every day, it looks like there is a festival only for boda bodas. And when traffic opens, it looks like the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been flagged off. It’s as scary as it is a beautiful site. I have taken taxis only twice because staying in the traffic in the high temperatures is hard. I love the food culture here; although the Lords of Junk have landed here, traditional foods still hold sway. At least you’ll hold this cancerous lifestyle at bay a little longer.
Who is your favourite Ugandan author?
I like Ugandan poetry and short story writers. I have been reading a lot of Beverley Nambozo’s poems and Harriet Anena’s short stories. To be very honest with you, I have not been exposed to African literature except the old ones such as poems by Okot p’Bitek. But now I am reading compilations of short stories by Writivism, Poetry by Beverley Nambozo, and now that Makumbi’s book (Kintu) is back to the stands, I’m gonna have to get it.
Jagero has given #SmsUg a copy of his book, True Citizen for one lucky reader. In the comments below, tell us: What is your most memorable experience as a road user (as a driver, a passenger in a taxi, a boda boda user) in Kampala?
1. The winner receives an autographed copy of the book.
2. The winner will be chosen by a random selection widget.
3. Giveaway is open to Ugandan residents only.
4. Giveaway closes on Monday December 8 at Midnight Uganda time.