It’s important to know when to take advice and when to heed criticism. Just ask writer Shingai Njeri Kagunda; had she ignored the feedback she received for her short story “And This Is How To Stay Alive,” she never would’ve expanded it into the Afrofuturist time travel sci-fi novella & This Is How To Stay Alive (paperback). In the following email interview, Kagunda discusses what else helped shaped this story.
Photo Credit: Thea Boodhoo
To start, what is & This Is How To Stay Alive about, and when and where does it take place?
So I have had to answer this question a lot recently, and have finally come up with a succinct one line answer which tends to be my go to: & This is How to Stay Alive is a queer Kenyan time travel novella that deals with mental health and grief.
I’m not sure how to give a longer answer because there are so many elements to & This is How to Stay Alive, but if I had to give multiple words / concepts, right now I would say, communal memory, under-told history, dancing, living, surviving, losing, kooky aunties with magic potions, alternative ways of thinking about death, faith, sadness, alternative ways of believing what we don’t understand, the ocean, and Swahili food.
My understanding is that & This Is How To Stay Alive is an expanded version of a short story you wrote…
It’s an expanded version of the short story “And This Is How To Stay Alive,” first published by Fantasy magazine in 2020. It’s funny because I finished writing the short story in essence for one of my MFA workshops, and one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I received was that it felt like it was meant to be a longer story than it was.
And they weren’t wrong.
The “how” of the expansion was kind of an unravelling of time, because I had already set a precedence for time travel. I kind of gave myself a cheat sheet to be able to move back and forth in time without it breaking apart the structure of the short story that I had, so I just used my characters relationships to each other to build more around the core story. I picture this kind of like a spider webbing round and up and down and intersecting.
So then where did you get the original idea for the short story?
Ooofff, so many things. I’m not sure I have the capacity to tell all of them fully at this point in my life, and so many people made this story what it is. Channeling my grandmother’s spirit, Njeri, which in one version means storyteller. But also calling forth my loves and friends who were fighting in so many ways to stay alive. I was looking at those who I had lost and those who were still living around me, I was thinking about the worlds of the living and the dead, and critiquing my culture that is filled with contradictions. Attempting to reflect how harmful our perceptions can be to ourselves. I was also celebrating what it is like to be in relationship with those you love but do not always understand.
And is there a reason you had Nyokabi’s brother Baraka take his own life as opposed to being murdered or killed by a disease or by accident?
This is a hard and necessary question. I think it comes down to the fact that I was reconciling with the choice to die and how it presented in my own life. This novella was written over the period of a year where life was happening in the intimate spaces around me and so was death. Nyokabi never understood Baraka’s choice to physically die, but it was important for me to tell how as much as there never was one specific reason given Baraka always had autonomy. He chose to live just as much as he chose to die, which is why the scenes of him swimming in the Bahari and dancing under the clouds are so important to not reduce him to just one thing.
It was also important to me that he gets to narrate his own life beyond the grave. Time comes into play here, the past and the present both carrying all of his life. I know suicide is jarring, so is misunderstood mental health, so is the fact that fifty plus years after we gained our independence the state influenced by archaic colonial “morality” rules still sees queerness as unnatural and unhuman. One of the things that I emphasize in the story is that there are always multiple versions of any given story, and this is the version that I felt was necessary to tell. I don’t think it would have been as honest for me if Baraka had been directly murdered though in some ways even the choice to die comes back to haunt a society that wasn’t sustainable for choosing to be alive. So isn’t that a version of murder as well? I think it forces the question, what are we doing wrong when it comes to creating structural systems that support being fully human? Why is it so hard to stay on this side of life? There’s no one correct answer for any of these questions. I don’t think this novella provides more answers than questions but if it is part of a conversation of hard questions about being alive in this world then it is doing at least part of the work it was intended for.
As you said, & This Is How To Stay Alive is a time travel sci-fi story. But it sounds more emotional than adventurous. Is that how you see it?
That’s so interesting because even the idea sci-fi more often than not infers “futuristic” while time travel almost always deals with the past. I think that description could definitely apply to the story, but so could an afro-futurist label or afro-surrealist (my current personal fave) or slipstream depending on how specific or how broad you want to go. I think it fits multiple genres, which I’m cool with. I like having the freedom to use whatever tools are at my disposal to tell the story as well as I can.
& This Is How To Stay Alive is your first novella, though you’ve obviously written some short stories and flash fiction. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on & This Is How To Stay Alive but not on anything else you’ve written?
I love answering this question, and my go to answer is always Kei Miller [Augustown] and Rivers Solomon [The Deep]. Ohh, and everything Kamau Brathwaite wrote. But there are so many indirect influences that gave me permission in my writing. A lot of Carmen Maria Machado’s work and Marlon James, Ntozake Shange and Jennifer Makumbi and Lesley Nneka Arimah amongst a myriad of other names.
How about non-literary influences; was & This Is How To Stay Alive influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I watched shows that made me think about time travel and mental health from multiple different lenses such as Dark on Netflix and Undone, which does a similar “don’t call indigenous spiritual beliefs crazy” thing.
And this is my last question for you about influences, please don’t ask for more. You are currently pursuing a Literary Arts MFA at Brown University. What influenced & This Is How To Stay Alive more: being in an academic program with other writers, or the dirty looks those other writers gave you when you told them & This Is How To Stay Alive was going to be published?
I wish my program had more time in person to get to this level of petty. I actually just finished this program — and didn’t have a graduation because of the pandemic. [sighs] I honestly don’t think my time at the MFA was traditional because three quarters of it was during a worldwide pandemic.
I will say that I did workshop the short story version, and as much as a lot of my classmates were incredibly supportive and interesting, it was helpful to have people back in Kenya to send the story to look at as well because some of the things I was trying to do could only be understood from that context.
Moving on, it sounds like & This Is How To Stay Alive is a stand-alone story…
I think right now it’s stand alone, but that’s because Baraka hasn’t told me to share anything else. But maybe someday another version will appear, we’ll see.
We talked earlier about the connection between the short story and & This Is How To Stay Alive. Do any versions of & This Is How To Stay Alive include the story?
No, the paperback only has the novella.
Earlier I asked if & This Is How To Stay Alive had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as you kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think & This Is How To Stay Alive could work as a movie, show, or game?
OMG yeeeeeeeessssssss! It would be my dream to see & This Is How To Stay Alive on stage and on screen!
I was even having this conversation with a friend of mine back home who is an actor and they said they could picture so much of the story being dramatized and that made my heart so happy. Though if it did get to a point where the novella was turned into a script, I would need it to be produced in Kenya with Kenyan actors.
Anyone in particular?
I’m so bad at casting but if Lupita Nyong’o [Us] was in it my soul would leave for a minute and then come back down She could be Mama Nyokabi. There is actually an actress in Nairobi named Miriam Nyokabi, she would be wonderful as the character Nyokabi. I love playing around with names and coincidences.
But all of this is dreaming out loud. Honestly, I would just be so in awe to see the story come to life that whoever embodies it will have my sword and shield.
Finally, if someone enjoys & This Is How To Stay Alive, what time travel novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I think I would suggest a short story which isn’t time travel but a time loop: “Now, Wait For This Week” by Alice Sola Kim [which was published by The Cut and can be read online here].
I’d also suggest reading my short story “A Little History Of Things Lost & Found,” which was published earlier this year by Khoreo Magazine [and can be read online here].