Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California.
In this interview, Kiarie discusses her approach to intensely emotional moments in a story.
(To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.)
This story is about a mother and her two children who flee their village after it’s violently attacked by armed men. Though the story describes the attack, it only focuses on certain parts. So, for instance, the mother’s torn dress and bloody lip are clearly and specifically described, but the body of the murdered father is described less directly as “painting the ground a lush red.” Did you make a conscious decision to show certain people and things in greater detail than others? In other words, how did you know what to describe clearly and what to suggest more indirectly?
When writing this, I knew the story was going to be focused more on the mother and that the father would sort of fade into the background. However, it was important to show that his was still an important role in the story. The way he died to me showed in a restrained way, how that community was decimated. I also wanted to make sure that his death was also lovingly portrayed, while still showing that it was a violent death. The mother’s details, the dress, the bloody lip I almost felt were even more subtle than the father’s because she underwent what was possibly an even more violent experience that I didn’t necessarily talk about but give my reader a strong sense of what may have happened.
The story begins with a list of the items abandoned in the desert, and great care is taken to distinguish between the different types of baskets and different sizes of sandals. The list is powerful–and the power doesn’t abate even after several reads. The items that are shown reveal so much about the characters’ live, and the fact that we see these items and not the people who left them is chilling. It reminds me of one exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a room filled with children’s shoes—for some reason, when I visited the museum, those shoes affected me more than any of the horrifying photographs that I saw. Why do you think personal items like shoes or baskets or sandals have this effect on us?
I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence. Like your example of seeing the children’s shoes in the Holocaust Museum, you attached a certain child and their life to those items. This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds. But then, what do you take with you when you have three seconds to get out of the house? Your child or your shoes? That’s kind of an obvious question, but you get what I mean. I imagine that at each step when my characters or others who’ve been faced with a similar journey, have to chose what to leave behind. And those decisions must be excruciating.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.