A Story in Motion: Author Haroun Risa talks to African Street Literature

By Rodney Likaku

Haroun Risa believes in “using what you have” in the moment “to get what you want done”. One is inclined to believe him: he has recently written, packaged, published, and marketed his debut novel Mombasa Raha, My Foot almost single-handedly. The novel, like the author is a narrative in literal motion. Haroun is a writer, and aspiring actor; he has attended media studies by sitting in on classes at one of the universities in Nairobi; and correspondingly, his novel was initially crafted on his android hand-held device, published on Watpadd, and then formatted as an Amazon paperback. The ultimate goal for Risa, is that Mombasa Raha, My Foot will be made into a movie.  It is this story in process that I find particularly interesting.


Haroun Risa (Photo Credits–Ashleigh Harris)

The digital age took a little longer than the rest of the world to show itself in African publishing. It is a brilliant side-step to long publishing processes that privilege MFA graduates in creative writing, usually in institutions located in the Global West; or the alternative African set up for recognition in writing, which are writing competitions that validate the aspiring African writer.

Given that the internet is the infrastructure that made Risa’s novel what it is, a novel, it comes as no surprise that I met him on Facebook. He was prompt to respond to my initial message, and a few weeks later we were speaking to him in the City Center of Nairobi. He had his phone in hand, naturally, during the entire conversation; and referenced the cover design process for novel, the initial text of the that make up Mombasa Raha, and his Wattpad digital audience, all by taking glances to the thing in his right hand.

A cellphone: this means no publisher, no MFA, no labyrinthine editorial process, and yet a story (raw as it maybe) that had moved from a few sentences on a small keyboard to what Risa refers to as “an actual book”.

            It is rather impressive, if only for it being a study in patience. Risa crafted twenty-six chapters spanning across three-hundred-and-two A4 pages. When he conceptualised the plot for the novel (which I will cover in a different post) he had no computer, and yet still he had a story to tell. So, he used what he had, an android device. He later edited the novel on a computer of course, and then downloaded an equivalent of photoshop for the cover design. From this point he started the process of becoming a writer who would be taken seriously. That is, “one with a real book”and this is how he ended up on Amazon.


The Novel’s Cover Design

In a presentation that I made at Kenyatta University on Risa’s work, with the writer in the room, I made an academic joke that for that particular instance “the writer was dead”. Quoting Barthes did not quite go as planned, besides I realized that in a narrative such as this one the writer’s story, of writing, is perhaps more interesting the writing itself.

The tenacity to sit behind, well not a desk, and craft a story about sex tourism, prostitution, and poverty needs some form of attention. This mobility is seen in the form: the chapters are short, lots of white spaces (makes for good reading as Stephen King suggests in On Writing), and there is a lot of dialogue. This is a sign post to the desired form that Risa wants to take for the novel, the big screen; and when I do the next post on the series I will reference the sort of cinematic milieu that the story aspires towards.

“I was in an episode of Netflix’s Sense8” (Season 2 Episode 5) Risa says with the confidence of one who invented fire, “. . .and film is where I would like to end up”. While for many traditional African writers, the novel, its actual book form and materiality is the end, for Risa it is just the beginning.

However, if one really traces the contours of new-age African writing, they would be inclined to suggest that there is really nothing that new with writing on mobile devices. I mean, if one scrolls Teju Cole’s earlier tweets before Random House published three of his books (Known and Strange Things, Every day is for the Thief, Open City), it is easy to tell how he was using the 140 characters format to tell his stories, before they were what we refer to now as Teju Cole’s novels. Globally, other authors such as David Mitchell have done the same on twitter, that is write entire narratives: one tweet after the next. But this is not a competition of who has done it first.

Rather, an indication of publishing privilege. While for writers like Mitchell who have the luxury to be published by Hodder and Stoughton (Cloud Atlas) or Random House (Cole); there is a generation of African writers whose voice can only be heard digitally, and will force us to consider the extent to which the novel in the traditional sense of the word cannot be the end-all-and-be-all of African fiction, if we mean what we say that our interest is in getting diverse stories from the continent.

For me, Risa is a testament in tenacity. No different from his novel characters who must make home of their unstable situation. And if it means shifting what home means, or represents then so be it: things change, and the process is can be exciting as the end game.


Risa on set

The process a novel takes before it becomes the object we all refer to as a novel is different for many writers, in different contexts. What is particularly exciting about Risa’s way of thinking of the form is that only when he published the paperback version on Amazon, did he feel “like a real author”. There is something about having a novel that warrants writerly respect in ways that a chapbook, short story, or even a poem cannot merit especially in African literature. Even when Risa had completed the novel and it was circulating digitally on Wattpad, he did not feel like a writer.

And yet, fascinatingly, Risa’s story, or that of his novel is not yet finished until it hits the big screen. A narrative on the move, or a story set in an African city designed for Western tourists as is the case with Mombasa Raha, My Foot; by  an author who capitulates to the traditional notion that a writer is made only be the publication of a real book; and yet the satisfaction of being one is to be attained only when that story is on the big screen. This is a fun way to read new literature on the continent.

While this seems like an isolated case, the shifting narrative in African literature even for big publishers (if not only for their sales concern) is how writers can gain recognition: Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun the novel did not excite as much as the more controversial release of the movie, and its censorship.  Soon, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is to adapted by HBO for the big screen, after being given the nod of approval from A Game of Thrones author George R. Martin. what this means is that a few people will be talking of this new African author, Okorafor, who has made it big, but the novel from which the series is to be adapted in question was published in 2010.

We still think of the novel object as an end itself in terms of publishing, whereas for writers like Risa, it is only the beginning of the story and the possible fame of the story migrating to the screen. I suppose new readings in this field will have to take into consideration the evolving ways to story through the present times. Besides, if this is good enough for Adichie, and Okorafor; then maybe Risa is onto something. The writer cannot be dead.



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