Poet, filmmaker, and performer Ngwatilo Mawiyoo is the author of two chapbooks, Blue Mothertongue and Dagoretti Corner. Twice shortlisted for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, her poems have also appeared in Transition, The Malahat Review, Johannesburg Review of Books, Obsidian, among others. Her short film, Joy’s Garden, debuted in March 2021. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya.
Why did you pursue a career in writing?
I sort of fell into it – rather than ‘pursued’ it. I have to say I wasn’t thinking too critically about whether I could make a sustainable living writing. My father was an Anglican priest and I always admired his ability to take a text and unpack it and arrive at something that felt new, fresh, grounded. There was a craft to making it work, from the research, to the selected anecdotes, the story craft. It was there in some of the liturgy. I’ve always been a person who was interested in craft, interested in how people came to believe what they believed, how writing and the performing arts could be constructed to shift that. I wanted to know how to wield that power – for discovery, wonder, truth telling, healing – for good.
There was a key moment while I was studying abroad in London in 2005. I was an undergrad, and this was very early in my life as a poet. I used to hang out a lot at The Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden. The listening was as important as it always is and should be, but I also got to be a featured poet, which earned me 50 pounds. It was the first time I got paid actual money for sharing something I had written. Some idea of poetry’s viability and value, as a thing worth getting better at was born for me then. But I can’t honestly say I had any sense of a path at that time.
“I've always been a person who was interested in craft, interested in how people came to believe what they believed, how writing and the performing arts could be constructed to shift that. I wanted to know how to wield that power – for discovery, wonder, truth telling, healing – for good.”
Can you tell us what it’s like being a professional writer?
A lot of uncertainty and a constant grappling with various symptoms of imposter syndrome. It’s also been a process of discovering the breadth of what one can turn ones writing skills to. There’s a lot, and different kinds of writing are valued differently in the market, and the market also varies based on where you are in the world. It’s also been an excellent way to meet and understand different industries, to see what the world looks like from where people following life paths different from mine, sit.
Why did you get a degree from the Creative Writing program?
I wanted to do the MFA right from my undergraduate days, but I knew it wouldn’t work for my interests or economic reality to focus solely on poetry, which has been my main genre. I was writing non-fiction, and wanted a better handle on that, and to get on the writing side of television, where I was also working at the time as an actor.
How did the Creative Writing program help your writing practice?
It gave me the permission I thought I needed to experiment, to take myself seriously and also lightly. I made friends who are playwrights, poets teaching themselves how to write a novel, songwriters, writers of historical fiction, graphic novels, children’s books. Poets using TV show characters to generate poetry. I got to try writing radio drama. It didn’t feel like there was a hierarchy, that one genre or practice was more ‘serious’ than the other. I loved that about the program. I also loved the fact that the program and its personalities weren’t detached from how writing might work inside of whatever “normal life” became, both in its most aspirational and mundane iterations. It was, for me, a largely safe space.
“As far as a writing career though, I say get up as high as you can manage – apply for the grants, submit your work for publication, for all the awards you have half a chance at. But be prepared to fall – to be rejected – because you will. I do mean prepare for rejection: for me that has meant purposefully framing what rejection means and what it doesn’t mean about me as a writer, and about my work.”
You’re a writer, filmmaker and actor best known for your work as a poet. Can you share with us how you balance multiple creative processes and how it influences your work?
Finding balance is literally the work in progress. I used to tackle just one genre or one project at a time, but I’m learning how to schedule things more deliberately so I can do multiple things at the same time. It’s actually quite helpful when I hit a block in one area: I don’t experience the sorrow as severely as I used to, because everything isn’t riding on the one project. The commercial work I do as a copywriter also helps. It teaches me to be quicker, less precious about the work when that becomes a hinderance from getting it onto the page. The turnaround is also quicker so one gets more regular endorphins! And lessons carry across genre, and projects: things move faster.
Do you have any forthcoming writing or projects that you’d like to share with us?
I’m really happy to share that a film I conceived in Sara Graefe’s summer course on short film won a small production grant from Docubox, the East African Film Fund, back in 2019. I wrote, directed and co-produced the short, and it was released in March this year. I’m hopeful that it will have a meaningful life on the festival circuit, perhaps even make it back to Canada!
I’m also doing some impact storytelling with the pharmaceutical Merck and Kenya’s Ministry of Health, as they work to eliminate Bilharzia – one of a few neglected tropical diseases. I’m part of a team designing a game that hopes to engage Kenyan children (who are more severely affected), and teach them how Bilharzia spreads and nudge them towards more positive behaviour. We actually won a 10,000 USD grant from Merck in January this year to pilot the project.
I am also super excited to be having poems coming out in Room Magazine and The Malahat Review this spring!
Do you have any suggestions for students or new graduates pursuing a writing career?
The story of Icarus inspired a lot of fear for me, this idea of flying too close to the sun, and failing because of one’s arrogance. As far as a writing career though, I say get up as high as you can manage – apply for the grants, submit your work for publication, for all the awards you have half a chance at. But be prepared to fall – to be rejected – because you will. I do mean prepare for rejection: for me that has meant purposefully framing what rejection means and what it doesn’t mean about me as a writer, and about my work. ‘Prepare’ also means switching it up, trying different feathers, wing designs, glues; paying attention to air pressure, temperature, time of day: optimizing. Learning what migratory birds know: to pace oneself, and not go it alone. Be Daedalus, the father and inventor, not Icarus.