Juliet Maruru is a writer living in Kenya. She manages the web presence of Story Moja Africa, a new publisher, and is an advocate for women’s rights, as well as building her writing career. And she does all this while battling the debilitating chronic disease Lupus.
Kenya, for the geographically challenged, is a country on the east coast of Africa, right on the equator, in the same region as Somalia and Ethiopia. As late as 1957, Kenya was still a British colony, and it has had a turbulent political history both pre- and post-colonialism.
I’m delighted to welcome Juliet to the blog. Readers, grab a cup of tea and pull up a chair, and get to know Juliet Maruru.
MF: Hi Juliet, and welcome to the blog! First off, can you tell us when and why you decided to write?
JM: I started writing when I was about 10, with a bit of encouragement from my stepfather. I did not really take much interest in it, except for the occasional stories I wrote and then hid. When I was 13/14, I was going through a difficult emotional period after being sexually assaulted by a family friend. I went into psychological therapy, and my therapist encouraged me to write, more for myself than for anyone else.
About a year after this, my high school principal, Ms. Lavingia noticed my talent at writing and encouraged me to enter writing contests. In 1999, I received a commendation after writing an essay for the Commonwealth Write Around the World 1999. After this, Ms. Lavingia who was aware of my emotional problems encouraged me two write more and become a voice for young women and women in general.
And that is how my faith in the power of the written word was born.
MF: You’ve written on subjects such as tampons and sexuality that are, apparently, a taboo subject in a lot of Kenyan families. What are the challenges facing a young woman growing up in Kenya at this time? Are they different to the issues that you faced growing up?
JM: Young women growing up in Kenya have to face a world that on one hand understands that women can achieve anything they want to, but one the other hand places the same obstacles that girls 15/20 years ago had to face.
The society remains largely patriarchal and though more and more women are taking charge of their lives, getting an education and pursuing a career, women still find themselves being paid less than their male counterparts, and having to juggle both career and family. It can be overwhelming for the older women and intimidating for the younger women who have grown up watching their moms juggle family life and a career.
Poverty is also a major issue. Although living standards in the cities and suburbs are higher than in rural areas, many young women are growing up in very poor households either in rural areas or in slums close to cities.
For the last eight years, primary education has been free, provided by the government. But high school education costs are quite high so quite a few girls stop at primary education which condemns them to the continued cycle of poverty. Even when a girl gets through into high school, education beyond this is usually unlikely because of the costs. This is pretty much my situation.
I completed high school but was unable to take up full college education. So far my education has been a mixture of online education, in-job training and short college courses when I can afford it. But then I also have very supportive parents which is not true for most young women in Kenya.
MF: You started the Princess Project which chronicles the journey of one young woman towards her own personal identity. What are your aims for the project, and how can other people help?
JM: I am a firm believer than one should use whatever skill or talent that they have to make the world a better place. A bit idealistic of me, but I believe it anyway.
Since I am a writer, I decided to use my writing to stimulate dialogue and a solution finding process not just from the bystanders but also from the young women who need those solutions.
I had planned to write a story about my development as a person, but in a conversation with my mother one late night, she suggested that I find a way to tell my story as well as that of other young women. I realised then that I could not possibly do it by myself. So I approached other young writers, mainly young women but also few young men who I believed could lend a male perspective as well as offer practical skills such as in business planning because we would like the project to attain self-sufficiency, media technicians who would be able to guide the presentation of our goals in online and other media.
At the moment our biggest hold-up is finances. So we are making do with what we have. We would greatly appreciate it if we can find someone who is able and willing to develop and host a more interactive website that would accommodate our main feature, as well as dialogue and a community of young women.
Although much of what we are doing now is based on the Story – The Creekside Princess, we would also like to highlight books, events and people who can underline the strength of and possibilities available for young women and women in general. In time, it would be our hope to host personal examination, enlightenment and development seminars. We would love to partner with other people/organisations who are willing and able to support and arrange such events.
MF: You’re a busy woman! As well as the Princess Project and running your own blog She Blossoms you also manage the web presence of Kenyan publisher Story Moja. How did you get involved in that project?
JM: Storymoja is a publishing firm, a relatively new one because it was set up in mid 2007. I first joined them for a short internship after I completed my creative writing course in December 2007.
I was invited back to work with the Editorial Team in June 2008. I was also on the team that organised and ran the Storymoja Literary Festival in July 2008. After that I was employed full time in the editorial department. In time, I was assigned to the Children’s Publishing section, as well as all website, social media and any other online media content.
Sadly, in March 2009, pre-existing Lupus with Fibromyalgia flared up, so I was forced to stop working for a while. In May 2009, Storymoja offered me the opportunity to handle all online media for them on a telecommute basis. This I have been doing even though I am housebound because of illness.
I love to write, and I love to encourage other writers to keep working at their talent and gaining skills in writing. For this reason, my work at Storymoja is something I absolutely love because it offers me both opportunities.
MF: It sounds like a wonderful job for a writer. And having wandered around Story Moja Africa and read some of the stories, I can see it must be an incredibly inspiring place to work. I recently read an amazing story on the site, Spilt Milk by Steve Mwangi Ichungwa which one story of the week last week. Tell me about the Story of the Week feature. Has it generated much interest from writers?
JM: When I helped to set up the website, we wanted firstly to asses what kind of talent and demand is out there. By publishing new writers and occasionally some older ones, we are able to do this. We have been able to pull writers of new content for print publishing through this.
But we also wanted our readers and writers to feel that they are part of a community. We did not think the social networking sites would fully accomplish this, although we do use Facebook and Twitter to get word out.
The Story of the week is pretty much a contest, with readers and writing peers voting for and critiquing writers. So as well as helping writers feel that they are part of the Storymoja Community, the Story of the Week feature facilitates growth and development for writers.
Generally, writers send in work to me, usually not more than 1200 words. Once I publish it, the peer review and voting is open for 5 days. Every Friday, I tally the votes and announce the winning story. Once in a while we ask readers to vote for their all time favourite story in the past 3 months, and that person gets a cash and book prize.
We have acquired quite a following for this feature, such that I get disgruntled readers writing to me if I so much as delay the publishing of the new weekly reading by just a few hours.
MF: That’s a wonderful response, and lovely to see a growing publishing community in Kenya. If I walked into a bookstore in Kenya, what would I see?
JM: Kenyans love to read inspirational and motivational books, so before you see anything else you will probably run into Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and the like.
Then you will run into fiction books – both new and classic from English or American Writers.
Recently there has been a revolution that has seen more and more traditional and new publishing houses begin to publish books by local writers; books that are not meant for academic pursuits, that is. Before you could only publish a book with no hassle if it was meant to be published under the government sanctioned education programs.
Storymoja has been a leading part of the revolution, because they have taken to promoting reading as a fun activity, through events from the Storymoja Hay Festival, to the Storymania afternoons for high school kids, and spelling bees for younger kids. Storymoja also runs book clubs, women’s seminars and writing workshops.
MF: Writers in Kenya today are at the forefront of change, and it’s a very exciting time. What was storytelling like in your mother’s time? Your grandmother’s? Have you noticed a change since you were a child?
JM: My mother was about 8 years old when Kenya attained Independence from British Colonialism. According to her, families were still quite close knit back them. So there were storytelling sessions in the evening around the fire. But that time was sort of modern. They had TV and Radio, and my mum loved to read novels a lot. I guess part of me is very much like her.
Things would have been a lot different in my grandmother’s time. She was a Kikuyu, and in the 1920’s and 1930’s old Kikuyu tradition was very much alive. Christianity came later and did not have much power until after Independence. In the old culture, traditions, taboos, lessons, entertainment was pretty much transmitted through storytelling and dance.
There would be plenty of opportunity for this at initiation rites ceremonies, at home around the fire, at marriage ceremonies and so on. Anything major happening, would be accompanied by song, dance and storytelling.
Now, my mum and I talk about my projects, her projects (she is a volunteer literacy teacher), new movies, politics, current events, people (family gossip :) ) but we don’t have the old tradition of storytelling to pass a message or a lesson.
MF: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing an emerging writer in Kenya today? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JM: The biggest challenge: At one time, writing was lumped in with other arts which were generally not considered legitimate and honourable professions. Now writing is respected, alongside fine arts and music, but the fact that young writers hardly ever earn much money means that writers have to train and work at a ‘real’ job, and look at writing as just a hobby or side interest. More often that not, the ‘real’ job takes up so much time, a writer is left with hardly any time to work at their writing.
My advice to all aspiring writers is to invest in their writing if they really value it. treat it just like any other profession, get training, attend workshops, submit your work to publishing houses. True your work maybe rejected time and again, but no successful writer out there has never faced rejection. Those rejection notes only mean that you have one more chance to refine your writing skills, to learn something about the publishing world.
MF: And the final question, tell us about your writing process. Do you have a special space where you go to write? What inspires you?
JM: I work from home, and do not have a special place as such. I usually write at night when everyone else is asleep, which affords me the silence and calm to think over my work.
My writing process depends on what I am writing. If it is a short article on a specific topic, I spend sometime reading up on the topic, usually I sleep on it, and then when I have had some time for the ideas to simmer in my head, the slant and perspective comes to me.
My blog pieces are usually triggered by conversations with friends, or things that happen to me. I hardly ever have to think about what I am writing on my blog because it has a theme (She blossoms(link) – born from the blooming cactus which survives harsh desert climates), so all I have to do is demonstrate the aspect of survival in spite of troubles.
My approach to novels is much more precise. Usually the character invades my mind during conversation, or something like that. Simple things give me an idea. I start with just one character in a unique set of circumstances, and the rest follows. I have a habit that I am not so sure I can break. I always carve out my main character long before I start writing. I know how old he/she is, how tall, skin colour, education, eccentricities, mannerisms, even phobias… :) I research a lot, and although I usually write from my own experiences, I have been known to call people to ask them exactly what a fisherman looks out for before they go into the deep sea, or how to bake a black forest cake.
Thank you very much, Juliet, for taking the time to talk to us today.
Juliet will be around for the next few days to answer questions from readers. So if you’d like to talk to Juliet about writing, publishing, women’s advocacy or any other subject, please drop a note in the comment line, or just say hello! You can also find Juliet on Twitter @sheblossoms.