Shingai Njeri Kagunda is an Afrosurreal/futurist storyteller from Nairobi, Kenya with a Literary Arts MFA from Brown University. Shingai’s work has been featured in the Best American Sci-fi and Fantasy 2020, Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction 2021, and Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2020. Her debut novella & This is How to Stay Alive from Neon Hemlock Press was the Ignyte Award winner in 2022. She is the co-editor of Podcastle Magazine (a Hugo Award finalist for Best Semiprozine) and the co-founder of Voodoonauts.
GE: Could you tell us about your background and path to becoming a speculative fiction writer? What is the story of how you became a storyteller?
SK: I have always been very deeply fascinated with other worlds and stories. Since I was old enough to read by myself, I was always in a book and living in the world of its characters. When I wrote my own stories, it was not only a way to live other lives, but also to take my life into other worlds. For me it was about empathy and curiosity. Literature is a tool for building empathy. It allowed me to experience lived histories outside of my own, which gave me more understanding for those experiences when I encountered them in this lifetime.
I did English literature in college, and I was immediately obsessed. In my undergrad literature classroom, there was a professor who said, “We’re not going to learn about dead white men. We’re going to learn about African thinkers, philosophers, poets, writers, and storytellers.” That opened up a whole world of possibilities when it came to who the storytellers who looked like me were before me, and how their stories gave me permission to live. I wanted to be able to do that for other people.
GE: There’s a lot of high quality work being created by African speculative fiction writers right now. Would you like to talk about this moment in African speculative fiction?
SK: Black people have always been telling speculative stories. One of the most interesting things for me was realizing that we didn’t need to separate our stories between literary and fantasy. It’s inherently part of the storytelling culture to combine the spiritual and the physical, or the tangible and metaphysical aspects of lived experience. Black and African people have always been telling these stories for and to each other. Now the only difference, in this moment, is that the rest of the world is paying attention.
It’s really cool because there’s a lot more room for diasporic connection. We’re not only telling the stories in the small communities we’re in; we have access to each others’ stories across the globe. We can find the similarities, the differences, and the nuanced ways our roots have expanded into different things.
There’s a wider range of intersectional issues being talked about in the stories that are being authored right now, and I think that makes sense. When Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe and other writers during the anti-colonial revolutions were coming up, they were writing about the most urgent and pressing issues of their time. Now African and Black speculative fiction writers are writing about the most pressing issues of our time, which are still very close to that history. The history of colonization is still in the conversation around intersectional identities. The stories that are coming out are challenging the bigger societal narratives that decide that we are only one thing, or that we can only write about one thing.
GE: How do you feel your own travels have influenced your storytelling and how you understand yourself as a storyteller?
SK: Living in different parts of the world has messed with my identity as a storyteller! That’s the honest answer. I have always seen myself as a Kenyan storyteller. But being away from home, I lose access to the immediate perspective of the here and now of the people that I’m telling the stories about. That’s been a “con” of the movement. A “pro” has been coming back to empathy and learning from other lived experiences outside of my own. This has made my characters more well-rounded, has given me different types of stories to tell, and has allowed me to think on a bigger scale about the types of stories that I want to tell. It has become a lot more important for my stories to encourage Black diasporic conversation.
I try to go home at least once a year. It is definitely part of the work of grounding and fruiting in that part of my identity. I also think about carrying home with me wherever I go. I’m bringing Kenya with me into this experience. I’m bringing Kenya into this space, some part of it. That offers a lot more perspective when it comes to what home means for me, and how home comes across in my writing.
GE: Our theme for this issue is “resilience.” How does resilience plays out in your work and life?
SK: I think resilience is a byproduct of survival. In a lot of my work, the conversation is around dehumanization in a society that doesn’t see you as valid or as a full person because of the structures that be—be they from capitalism, or the history of colonization, or whatever else it is. I’m thinking of my novella & This is How to Stay Alive which explores queerness and not seeing queerness as part of humanity or the full human experience. What happens in that situation is that you are just trying to survive. You are doing everything that you can to prove that you are a full human being and that you are valid in the fullness of your humanity. It forces you to be resilient because there’s not really an alternative.
The history of oppressed groups of people rings so loud and so clear with resilience, because they’re still here today. They’re still shouting and crying and doing whatever needs to be done to say, “I am human. I am here. I will be seen—if not by you, then by myself and my community.” That definitely shows up both in my written work and in my life.
This year has been especially difficult for me as an immigrant in America. As someone who works in a predominantly white space as a Black person, I have constantly and consistently had to push back and say, “I am human.” What has sustained me is having people and community who say, “I see you even if they don’t. And you have it in you to see yourself.” Those are some of the things that come up for me when I think about resilience.
GE: You mentioned your novella & This is How to Stay Alive. You’ve written two versions of that story, first a short story and then the novella, and these versions have different endings. Does the novella supersede the short story, or do they represent alternate possibilities?
SK: I would definitely go with the second. One of the things that I was trying to get across with this story is that there are multiple versions of the story—there always have been and always will be. I didn’t actually think about the differences when I was writing them. With the short story version, there was so much pain, so much Black, queer pain; and there wasn’t enough time to sit with both the joy and the pain for me to be okay leaving it ambiguous. Showing the fullness of that lived experience means showing that there is hope and joy existing side-by-side with the pain and hurt. Hence the happier ending.\
Within the novella, I had a longer amount of time to delve into the history, into the generational trauma, into the processing and the actual grieving itself. I could show how long that took and sit with the characters as they were going through it. This made it more okay for the ending to be ambiguous because we had processed a lot of the pain throughout the story together. I definitely think that they exist side-by-side as different possibilities, and I’d love for readers to imagine alternative possibilities to the ones that I’ve presented.