Featured Writer: Philo Ikonya

Added: September 2010 to ICORN Featured Writers

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Philo Ikonya, this fall's featured writer, is a Kenyan writer, journalist and human rights activist, and currently Oslo City of Refuge's Guest Writer. Africa and Kenya within the context of power, women, freedom of expression and other rights concern Ikonya greatly. Her forthcoming novels "Kenya, Will You Marry Me?" and "Leading the Night" express these themes, as does her anthology of poems in English and German "Out of Prison: Love Songs". Philo Ikonya recently released "This Bread of Peace", a book of poetry published by Lapwing, in Ireland, and we are happy to present our readers with this portrait interview.

Philo Ikonya: An Afrikan Love Story

By Marie Alming

Philo Ikonya came from Nairobi in Kenya to Oslo in Norway almost a year ago. Her political activeness and writing got her arrested several times in Kenya. She is now a Kenyan violet in the cold north, still writing about her greatest love in one of her upcoming novels "Kenya, will you marry me?".

If you talk to Philo Ikonya about the political situation in Kenya, you’ll be hard pressed to get her to stop. She has so many thoughts about the climate of change in Kenya, and in Africa too, it’s difficult for her to find the time to express them all. Of course she is a writer. A lot of her experiences and her hopes for change find their way into her poems and her novels.

"I found pleasure in describing things already when I was very little. But I started writing out of an experience of difficulty, out of political anger, issues of justice and freedom. Everything becomes very personal for me."

These personal issues are the subject of her newest novel, "Kenya, will you marry me?", being published some time in the future in Cameroon. Her own relationship with Kenya is connected with the change she hopes to see in Kenya from a political view.

"My writing is about Africa, but in these days it’s difficult to belong to one part of the world. But I do have a strong focus on Kenyan politics. The two novels I have written are highly political, they are not lovely stories. And even when I tell lovely stories, they always have a political tone.

The current politicians are divorcing themselves more and more from the people. My book is called "Kenya, will you marry me?" because the country has to get back to the people. Change has to be presented, not only for the good of the people now, but for the next generations. In the book I am really calling for deep change."

Ikonya came to Oslo the 1st of November in 2009, and is looking forward to celebrating her first year here. Her experiences of Norway are however not like a lovestory.

"The good thing about coming here is that I have done a lot of writing. I haven’t lost my voice. I sometimes feel like I never left Kenya, in my dreams I am still there. It’s strange, I never dream about being outside on the streets of Oslo. It can be very quiet here. It’s a good thing for me, because I need peace to write, but it’s very different. At home you get people shouting across the street, people running and hugging, music blaring out of the shops. Here it’s very silent, people are going about their own business.

I respect what I see in Norway, but I’m not close to falling in love with the country. It’s difficult to say exactly, but I experience tension in how people communicate. I have a book in mind, a book I wish to write, called “The unexpected”. I take notes of what I see here that I didn’t expect."

Ikonya has a Herero proverb that she cherishes: “The past is in front of you, the future behind.”

"I get very fascinated by time. There is a stereotype about Africans, that they don’t keep time, and that is a stereotype, because I have met many Africans that are very timely. And many Europeans that are not.

When I first heard that proverb, I thought it was so jolting, because nowadays everything is in the present. In my writing I work a lot with the past, and so I keep it in front of me. We should look at it as a personal motivation, when good things happen to you. The beautiful things of the past vanish if you are not careful and put them in front of you."

When asked what she thinks of the future, if she will ever be able to return to the Kenya she loves, she says that it is quite difficult. In her dreams she never left her country, and she takes this as a sign that she is truly at home in Africa. But there are many issues to take into consideration; the uprooting of her son, her own safety, and the fact that the country she returns to might not be the same country she left.

"But then I am also a person who wants to marry Kenya. I don’t think I can survive outside of Africa; I’m an African violet. But you understand how easily you slip out of people’s minds, and your country also moves on, you don’t have to matter. Then again, I don’t want to be left behind when Kenya marries change."


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If you want to read some of Philo Ikonya's poetry, please visit Shahrazad - stories for life.

Ikonya's latest book "This Bread of Peace" is available from lapwing.poetry (at) ntlworld.com

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