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How I Won A Book Deal

And lessons from the land of Chinua Achebe

BY Joan Thatiah

Sep 22, 2021, 11:47 AM

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Joan Thatiah

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 I won a book deal from the Quramo Writers Prize 2019. It was a wild dream come true. The day I got that call was one of my best ones but this story doesn’t start on that day.

It starts 6 years earlier on a Saturday afternoon in a quaint coffee shop on Nairobi’s Koinange Street. It was September 21st, a day before my 26th birthday. An announcement had just been made on the television that gunmen suspected to be members of Al Shabaab, an affiliate wing of Al Qaeda, had taken over West Gate Mall. I had been on a date but he'd dashed out to check on a family member. I was frantically calling my brothers hoping that all six of them were safe. Nairobi was under attack.

As I worked on features for Saturday Nation, I spent hours the following week poring through photographs of dead people and CCTV footage of the terrorists shooting at women and children. While it was all unsettling, one clip stayed with me. In it, two men dressed in black, keffiyehs draped over their heads were locked in what looked like a storeroom in one of the shops at the mall. I watched horrified, as these men, guns still slung on their backs took turns praying on a mat on the floor before they went back out to shoot more people. I didn’t understand in what world spraying bullets at innocent people was holy. I couldn’t.

A few weeks later, in my quest to explore the yearnings that draw men like them to extreme ideology, I began writing a novel. I remember talking to a friend in the media about it, asking him if he thought I was going to sell any books and he shook his head no. "Kenyans don't buy books," he told me.

I wrote anyway because I was looking for answers. I researched and wrote every morning for eighteen months straight. Then I began the long and winding process of trying to get published. Armed with just a byline in the newspaper, I approached four local publishing houses who loved my writing but who had the same problem with my manuscript – the theme. “Terrorism? That’s too obvious,” one editor told me.

Demoralized, I shelved my fiction manuscript and went out to the streets to see what Kenyan women were reading and came across titles like The Power Of The Pussy. I had been writing for Saturday Magazine a women's pull out of the Daily Nation for five years at this point. I had interviewed hundreds of women, picked up invaluable insights on womanhood. I had learned lessons I couldn't write about in the newspaper. My first book Things I Will Tell My Daughter was me exhaling.

Again, I began the process of trying to get published. The editors were more receptive of this manuscript and were willing to publish it but if only I toned it down a little. You know, removed topics about sex and the mention of the vagina. It felt as if I was writing for the newspaper all over again.

Instead of shelving the manuscript, I decided to bet on myself. I did research on self-publishing online and put together a team consisting of an editor, a graphic designer, a lawyer, a printing company, and poured most of my savings into publishing my book.

I was not ready for the response that followed. After months of worrying that no one was going to want to read my work, I had bookshops and street vendors blowing up my phone asking for copies. It was surreal. Still riding on this high, I went on to write and self-publish three more books: I’m Too Pretty To Be Broke (2017), Letters To My Son (2018), and Damn, Girl! Stop That (2019).

Turns out that the Kenyan woman buys books like she buys shoes. For four years, I was on cloud nine basking in the success and then 2019 happened. 2019 began with my father dying of kidney failure. My mother had died five years earlier. When you think about death, you don't think about it coming for your only surviving parent. Life is not that cruel, right? Well, it is. I went from feeling like I was on top of the world to feeling like a child without a home. I remember telling my friend Faye that after so much loss, I needed a win. Just one win.

That was what I was thinking when I stumbled on the call for entries for the Quramo Writers Prize on a blog. It’s what I was thinking when I dusted my long-forgotten manuscript and entered it in the competition. I was pleasantly surprised when I made it to the shortlist. I mean, this competition was in Nigeria where the greatest African writers are born.  I was even in further dismay when I got a call from Lagos announcing that Quramo Publishing, the company organizing the writing competition had decided to offer me a book deal.  I needed to get on a plane fast so that we could begin the publishing process.
Guilty, A Novel
Everything happened quickly. One minute I was a newspaper reporter sulking about having had a bad year and the next I was in an airy office in Victoria Island, Lagos signing contracts and meeting with book editors. I had moments in between the exhilaration, when I thought they might decide that they didn't want the manuscript anymore, that the theme was too  basic.

Then there was the culture shock. Lagos is like Nairobi on steroids. Everyone out in the streets is trying to sell you something, the traffic is unbelievable and everybody right from the airport staff to the hotel staff wants a kickback for doing their job. What I loved most about this trip was seeing how Nigerians appreciate their artists. Books are a big deal this side of the world. There will be a writing retreat, a book event or an author talk every other weekend, a sharp contrast to Kenya where every author is left to their devices. In Kenya, no one is keen on passing information or mentoring younger writers.

The eight months that Miss Lolade Alaka, my editor at Quramo Publishing, and I were working on my book were intense. I like to think that I picked up some of that Nigerian art of storytelling. In November 2020, I was able to bring Guilty home and Kenyans have been kind to her.

Guilty is a love story. It gives a charming portrait of Kenya's corporate life, the politics necessary to succeed in it, and the struggle to find love and meaning. Essentially, Guilty asks: What makes a terrorist? If my books were children, Guilty is the child I had when I was older, wiser, and more grounded.

Quramo Writing Prize is an annual event and it is currently open to submissions. If you are African, an unpublished writer, and have a 30,000-word manuscript lying around somewhere, give it a shot. Who knows, you could be in Lagos this time next year wondering why all the drivers on the road are hooting.

If there's a book you want to write but have no idea how to start or want tips on how to ace that writing competition, drop me an email at [email protected]

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