The winner of the inaugural Ursula K Le Guin Prize for Fiction (declared on October 21, her birth anniversary) is Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s first novel The House of Rust. The Ursula K Le Guin Prize for Fiction is an new annual $25,000 cash prize given to a writer for a single work of imaginative fiction. This award is intended to recognise those writers who can imagine real grounds for hope and see alternatives to how we live now.
Set in an alternative Mombasa where crows, cats, and jinns are as much part of the political fabric of the city as the humans, the winning novel follows the story of Aisha, a young girl, whose fisherman father goes missing in the sea. As Aisha breaks all kinds of barriers to set sail on a ship of bones to search for her father, the sea throws up challenge after challenge in the form of storms and otherworldly beings.
What is remarkable about the novel is not only its breadth of imagination but also the precise ways it works with the themes of love, hunger, and reciprocation. It is no wonder that the book, in its manuscript form, was the first winner of the Graywolf Press Africa Prize. Scroll.in spoke to Khadija Abdalla Bajaber by email in November 2022. Excerpts from the conversation:
What made you set your story around a coastal fishing community in an alternative Mombasa? And what drew you to the speculative mode of storytelling?
I’ve no fishing background, though my people are seafarers and have been connected and separated by sea. I’ve always been surrounded by sea, everyone on the Coast feels both the enchantment, the danger, the generosity, and the mystique of the sea – and yet, it is only a body of water. How can I look at the sea and not believe in God? So many people’s livelihoods come from the sea, and so many people die in the sea. I wanted to make magical and honourable occupations that have to do with the sea.
I didn’t have a choice at that time, writing as a poet and a poet who has no patience for facts or the “real” – as for how much of the speculation was speculative…I’d say perhaps it was a fantastic interpretation of what we accept as real on the coast. So jinns and monsters and talking cats might be the stuff of fancy in other cultural contexts, but in a coastal context these are plausible things, and everyone has a story touched by the “supernatural.”
But it’s not implausible, it has been exaggerated for the sake of fiction of course, but it’s still plausible in a Coastal world. I find answering genre questions difficult – you can point to some markers of this or that genre, but it’s not all that easy for me to place, which ultimately means that whatever genre this book gets placed in, will have rules or standards it fails to meet. This isn’t because I was trying to be different or unique or subversive or whatever, it just happened that way.
At the very beginning the protagonist Aisha’s fisherman father reminds her of the natural food chain by saying: “Everyone must have their share.” As I read the book, I realised how central this idea is to the world you have built in The House of Rust. What made you want to create this alternative ecology of food and feeding, of want and waste?
“Everyone must have their share” sounds so menacing, I meant it to be in that sense. And it impacted the psychology of this character so profoundly, she ignored that she was part of that “everyone” too, and blinded herself to understand that she also deserved her share. And lived in a very meek, and list, and emotionally repressed way.
I wasn’t aware I was creating an ecology. I think a spiritual understanding of things will inform every part of your conduct. So how we treat our neighbours, how we treat the land, how we treat the sea – it all comes back down to knowing you’re very briefly on this earth and you must treat people and things with care. And these days we understand that as eco-fiction, but I wasn’t writing eco-fiction, I was writing about an environment informed by the philosophy and spirituality that I had. Which without declaring itself to be ecological, is.
It’s in the conduct, because it’s so rooted in the being. We’ve got rules for land, for war, for manners – and these rules aren’t informed by a “by the way,” they’re informed by a very Muslim and very coastal and Swahili and Hadhrami understanding of what is right, and what is deserved.
So when care is given to us, we must not think of it as a burden to repay – so much as a gift, and take that into our hearts and do our best not to “repay” it, but to honour it and to absorb it. There’s a give and take in everything, and it can be punishing to be fixated on that. “Everyone must have their share,” true. But in that share is also our own share, and we must take that share too. Otherwise, we are doing a disservice to ourselves.
Talk to us about the ways you’ve combined histories and layered local fauna and flora with folkloric beings…
As for the history, at the time I had far less access to reliable sources of Mombasa’s history, and too little confidence to hunt scholars or elders, because I wasn’t really thinking of declaring this project to anyone. So everything I knew was tidbits I’d picked up or observations on current society itself or listening to adults talk and reminisce about how life was. Of course, I’d research things like boats and animals and mangroves, but in the real sense of things I couldn’t write accurately in terms of history, but I could signal to the things I had undertood and felt were plausible. And Mombasa’s history itself as understood by those who haven’t deeply studied it, is itself vague and fogged by forced forgetting, or whatever outside sources have muddied that mirror.
I knew of contracts in the old days from conversations of elders in the community, I knew of wedding singers because I was told my deceased grandmother loved to sing (though not necessarily as a wedding singer) and because I listen to the wedding singers sing at the weddings, I knew of the warships because I studied them and I knew about the slave trade, I knew of shark meat the history of it being a food of famine and food for travellers, from elders and some online sources. I heard from my old auntie British used to manage and restrict access to sugar, how she’d drop a sweet into her tea to sweeten it. Everything is from imagination, touched by the few facts I could grasp, slippery facts which could only be real to me through the stories I’d heard.
As for the non-human characters, they all have their histories and their own mythologies. In a way, that’s Mombasa to me too, there’s more experience and more myth, since facts had been so hard to get at. Each of the monsters signal to a lost, or fogged history, they are of a time that is lost to the greater world, but that is very much a part of them. Mombasa is a tourist destination, but it cannot be erased that it was an island of war, “the place of hiding” – so I wanted to signal to these things as much as I possibly could. It makes sense for me for the crows to be custodians of a certain history, to be truth-talkers and menaces both, and to embody that kind of idea of knowing a Mombasa that’s not accessible to us. We’ve forgotten a lot as a people, so I needed to highlight these gaps and kind of say that there’s something missing here, and it is impossible to go on pretending that there isn’t.
There is distinct music to the way the story unfolds, the intonations, the speech patterns, I was reading out bits to savour the sounds you’ve really honed into your prose. Did you draw from the various non-English languages you are surrounded by in Kenya? And, you must also be a poet?
Well, I devoted myself to poetry after losing my battle with writing long-form fiction – and had abandoned fiction entirely, thinking to do the level-headed thing and pursue being an editor. But during that time before I wrote The House of Rust, I thought I owed it to myself to try writing fiction again and be very serious and methodical about it. What I’d learned in poetry ended up becoming the lens through which I could now unravel the story. So, the flowery prose, the run-on sentences, they come from that poetic penchants to see things as more than their ordinary shapes.
Kiswahili is very musical, and I can’t write in it because I’ve not got the right schooling for it – but I enjoy the grandstanding that Kiswahili is capable of, the boldness and deliciousness of it. I gave into writing poetically, and musically, asking less “does this make sense” and leading with my heart more. And I didn’t reread myself or edit myself because I didn’t want to interrupt that flow. You’re a poet too, so I wonder if you do the same in fiction or longer prose work – but I think perhaps you’ll know what I mean when I say that for me it was a helpless giving in to the grand moment and quiet ones too, I didn’t resist too much is what I’m saying. Restraint is vital to work, but in order for me to complete work I had to get rid of restraint.
You spoke about love in the acceptance speech at the UKLG Prize for Fiction ceremony. And you write about love in such tangible, palpable, imaginative, and even humorous ways…which I found very, very refreshing. Could you tell us a bit more about approaching it from such a variety of angles?
That’s kind of you to say, thank you. I try to understand things by writing about them, so for myself, I try to form what I think love ought to be, in order to accept love. So, the book was a way of forming an understanding or at least interrogating it. I write the things I’ve understood, and then write more about them and uncover more. I knew I was in a kind of war at the time and Mombasa was a part of it, so I had to figure out what to do with that, and I think at the end of it I’ve understood a lot more than I did when I started.
You pay tribute to that way of understanding the many faces of the city in your Acknowledgements too (which is so beautiful, by the way), where you write how you began the book as a “way to write what I know and to know how little I know it.” And you’ve dedicated the book to Mombasa (“For Mombasa, I thought you were trying to kill me. It has been a privilege”). So, in creating this slightly magical, if I may, mirror city, would you say you have come to know Mombasa in different ways now? Has writing the city changed the way you inhabit it now?
You never stop learning about your city: even as I wrote the book, I was aware I could only know so much. Writing about the city allowed me to make my peace with it. It’s so much more dynamic than I estimated. Regardless of geography, I understand the philosophy of the place a lot more, and I think that that’s going to inform my writing going forward, whether or not the fiction I write is set in an alternate Mombasa or Coast, the philosophies I have will inform the characters and the worlds I write – just as much as a Christian spirituality or western philosophies and theories are present in traditional fantasy, and are the framework through which these things are understood and absorbed, I want my work to be understood as inhabiting a different mental space – regardless of what the cast looks like, or what the lay of the land is.
I was able to finally verbalise this idea to myself while in conversation with other writers. Whether or not Mombasa is present in the work with its obvious markers, a Pwani understanding (or my personal understanding of what that is) will be present in my work. It has made me understand place beyond the physical; if I write a story set on the moon, I don’t need minarets or to signal very obviously to Pwani, but it will be there in the worldview or the “world sense” of that moon, at the core of how things are understood and interpreted. This way, the Coast isn’t just some setting, it’s the soul…which goes beyond swapping out ghosts for jinns but looking at what fear and love and structure are, as influenced by the society and culture they’re formed by.
Any books that you’d recommend that you’ve read and enjoyed lately?
The Beautiful Side of the Moon by Leye Adenle. I had the honour of sharing space with him at Ake festival – and began reading him before I could do that, so I could know what he was about and ended up really, really engrossed by it. He said he was a crime fiction writer before this book, and it’s been interesting to see the things learnt in that genre being applied to something more fantastical. Fascinating stuff.
Sohini Basak is an independent editor and the author of the poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences. She was recently the Vijay Nambisan Fellow at Sangam House.