On collective consciousness, memory and imagination: An Interview with Troy Onyango

In Peregrination, an isolated religious community defends its autonomy against government intrusions until at last the soldiers arrive with their rifles; it is in the wisdom and foresight of its narrator that this modern parable about religious devotion is neither an uncritical survey of the effects of faith on believers nor a blind endorsement of the power of standing up for one’s beliefs. Peregrination has been longlisted for The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! (2018)

What was the germination of your story?

The seed for Peregrination was planted about two years ago by a prompt posted by Short Story Day Africa on their Facebook page. It was then that I wrote the first few sentences of what would become the story in its current form.

Then on the news one day, I saw this community in Eastern Kenya who, because of their religion, do not believe in vaccination and modern healthcare in general. It was sad seeing children as young as seven or eight saying they are not supposed to be vaccinated because God would protect them. That sort of set in motion this story because I wanted to interrogate and challenge this grounded, “unquestionable” belief in a deity and how it sort of plays in our daily lives.

When I finally sat down to write it, I had been reading a lot about collective consciousness – memory and imagination included – and I wanted to see how this could be fused into my work. That informed my choice of the first person plural for conveying this story. The collective voice, I find, is very effective in conveying the sort of uniform, herd-like hope and hopelessness that characterises the community in the short story.

That, essentially, is how I set out to work on Peregrination.

Troy Onyango

In what way would you say your writing is political?

I don’t remember from whom I read this (must be George Orwell) but I share in the sentiment that all writing is political. Our politics varies and the absence of one’s politics in another’s writing does not mean the writing is apolitical. We live in an age where politics is so intricately woven with our lives and just the simplest of politics can be fundamental to one’s identity and existence. I will always have my politics in my art, whatever form it is.

What are your opinions on religion, especially regarding how it is talked about in African literature?

On a personal level, I do not subscribe to organised religion. Kenya has a very interesting relationship with religion and I am always amused by the silence of religion when its voice is needed and the contrary is true. There are various sects and growing up, we’d see how each group was sharply distinct from the other. All of that kind of goes into my story.

I like how writers like Segun Afolabi (The Folded Leaf), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus), Tope Folarin (Miracle), Linda Musita (Cinema Demons), and Noviolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names) among others have explored religion in their writing, using their stories to bring forth and challenge religious stereotypes. This is important as religion plays a key role in the lives of many people within Africa.

… to bring forth and challenge religious stereotypes …

Troy Onyango

What lesson are you hoping readers will take from your story?

One of the things I try to move away from in my writing is the moralising of text. In as much as I know what I meant to communicate in my work, I prefer that every reader to interprets the story in a way that fits their context and to get what they want from the story. Sometimes, that is enough.

What advice would you give to beginning writers?

I am a beginning writer myself, so I cannot pretend to possess any writerly wisdom, but the one advice I have constantly seen given by reputable writers who have published books is that: “Every writer needs to be a reader. Read every day and read everything.”

I completely agree. As someone who started out as a reader, I can vouch for this literary wisdom as reading does something akin to magic to anyone.

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