In Conversation with Idza Luhumyo

“My locs are just shy of five years. They flow, like water. They are fluffy and black. They are dark. I forbid anyone to touch them.”

I’ve rarely read stories that celebrate dread locs in the opening sentences, so this grabbed me immediately. I myself have had my dreads (as I grew up calling them in Trinidad) for over seven years and it’s my second time growing them. I had them for 10 years the first time and it’s become part of my personal identity that I proudly embrace.

Over the years I’ve heard many stories about the fascination with dreads and of people attempting to touch another person’s hair without permission. The unwelcome touching has never happened to be personally, but I have had strangers comment on my hair, especially its length.

Kenyan writer Idza Luhumyo combines obsession, folklore and fear in her short story, Five Years Next Sunday, which won the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in July. Her main character’s beautiful dread locs has captured the fascination of a white man and his interest catapults her family’s status in their village. But beneath the surface there is something else bubbling: the five-year anniversary of her hair’s length, and a decision that can benefit the village or tumble her family’s new status from its pedestal.

I’m grateful to Idza for her time to discuss her short story. Below is our conversation.  

Tricia: Welcome Idza and thank you for joining me!

Idza: Thank you for having me.

Tricia: You tapped into a very personal part of a woman’s body and identity, her hair, and you merged it with socio-economic aspects of a village that’s struggling with a years-long drought, then you sprinkled a bit of folklore to add to the complexity of the narrative. How did you decide on the most effective way to layer all of this while you were writing?

Idza: First, I should say that it’s really difficult to talk about a story in retrospect. Many of the decisions I made during the writing process are instinctive; effectively, they happened as I went along. What I can say, however, is I was fascinated by the practice of witch-hunts along the Kenyan coast. These two elements — subject and setting — opened up paths and questions that I explored while writing. [So] it all came together during the rewriting and editing phase. When you revisit a piece after you have the first good draft, it becomes easy — or easier, I should say — to see the opportunities that present themselves to you.

Tricia: One of the first things that stood out to me was the distance and isolation Pili experiences within her family before she meets Seth. But I couldn’t decide whether the source of that was fear or indifference to what she is. So, I want to ask you why was Pili’s family like this towards her?

Idza: I think it’s easy to underestimate how much power fear can have over us. And ultimately, that’s what Pili’s family tries to come to terms with. The fear of what you don’t understand. And the question of what to do with a person whose choices you neither understand nor approve of.

Tricia: Pili’s initial assessment of Seth is that he appears physically neglected and wanting of something, and she compares his appearance to the thirst everyone in her village has been living with for 3 years. Much later in the story, we learn the reasons for Seth’s obsession with her hair and I wondered if the neglected look she saw in him was his constant longing, or even hunting, for his next subject? Can you comment on this comparison?

Idza: We can draw similarities between the community’s thirst and Seth’s longing, but I’d say Seth’s longing is more sinister. It’s borne out of a fetish that is neither healthy nor harmless. I’d imagine it’s the fascination of that which is different or exotic. And not to say that fascination is inherently harmful. But when it becomes a fetish, it is possible that there is something nefarious bubbling under. Perhaps something to do with control.

Tricia: I must admit that I found Seth’s obsession with Pili’s hair unsettling along with his veiled possessiveness of her. It reminded me of slavery narratives with white men’s sexual perversion of black women. Were you using hair as a modern-day comparison of this historical situation?

Idza: Not at the outset, no. But I know this is one of the ways that the hair — and the story, by extension — can be connected to this historical situation.

Tricia: Pili is carrying the strain of not only the weight of her hair, but the expectations of her family, and her own anxiousness of the upcoming five-year mark. She seems to me very lonely in her life. Why did you choose that she had no allies in this story?

Idza: I wanted to show the loneliness of those who choose different paths in life. Conforming is usually easier. Even within families, where one would expect to find some sort of radical acceptance, one’s life choices can turn them into a pariah. That undergirds Pili’s loneliness.

Tricia: Neema harbors a very deep resentment toward Pili for choosing to become a caller and goes so far as forbidding Pili from calling her Ma. Because I’m not familiar with what a caller is exactly, can you explain it and the reason why Neema would feel this way toward her own daughter?

Idza: In the story, a caller is simply a person who can make rain. Rainmakers could also be branded witches, depending on who you ask. So Neema’s sentiments towards Tatu are based on the fear of witches. She’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that her child is, in fact, a witch.

Tricia: Pili’s hair is serving so many other people except Pili herself, and I wondered about the ways in which women are expected serve others in their families and communities, but to neglect their own desires. Did this concept of service to others and self-sacrifice, factor into your writing of Pili?

Idza: Self-sacrifice certainly factored into Pili’s character. Her choice to become a caller is self-sacrificial. She knows what’s coming and she’s made her peace with it. That is, until Seth and Honey show up.

Tricia: By the end of the story, I felt that Pili has been exploited be everyone around her. She wanted so badly to receive attention and love from her family that she was willing to sustain the drought for their affection. When Pili realizes that Honey and Seth have manipulated her, how do you think she feels about everyone in her life?

Idza: I think she gets her first lesson in heartbreak. Which is to say: she has her first taste of disillusion. But at the same time, I imagine that she now understands what it means to move in the world, as opposed to being isolated in her house where she wouldn’t have received an education of how the world really works.

Tricia: Honey is such a complicated character! I love the mysterious air she projects, and her brand of manipulation contains misleading Pili into thinking she has an emotional interest in her. Why did you create Honey’s character and what did you want her to represent?

Idza: Honey is a foil of sorts. Not only does she reveal Pili’s naiveté, but she also shows how self-serving people generally are. She’s happy to go to extreme ends just to win Seth’s love and attention. So, in a sense, she, too, is looking out for herself. But her character was an opportunity to flip the stereotype of who typically has power within the context of the story’s setting.

Tricia: When Pili is taken to the room where she sees herself on display, it feels like such a violation, because no one is taking the time to learn about her as a person, and everyone is seeking something from her. And I feel there are so many ways to interpret Seth’s actions, but why did you choose to write about his obsession via photography, and what does Seth personify to you as the writer of this story?

Idza: Seth’s obsession is essentially pathological. So, it speaks to how interest and attention in things — or people — is not always well-intentioned. [Photography] was the best way — for the story, that is — to show how someone can own part of you without you being aware. When I was writing the story, photography made sense.

Tricia: You have achieved a major accomplishment in your writing career. What has this experience of winning the AKO Caine Prize mean to you as a writer and how do you hope to contribute to the future of African writing?

Idza: It was nice to have the story read, and discussed, by so many people, particularly on the continent. That’s why we write – to express ideas and have them engaged with seriously. I feel fortunate.

Tricia: Idza, congratulations again and thank you so much for your time and I look forward to reading more writing from you. All the best!

Idza: Thank you!

Please take the time to read Idza Luhumyo’s prize-winning short story, Five Years Next Sunday.

Photo courtesy AKO Caine Prize.

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