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Interview: March 29, 2013

Deborah Cloyed’s second novel, WHAT TEARS US APART, is the story of Leda and Ita’s blooming love for each other in the aftermath of the riots that ensued following Kenya’s 2007 presidential election and the secrets that threaten to tear them apart.’s Norah Piehl talked with Cloyed about her experiences in Kenya, her inspiration for the book, and how the process of writing this story deeply affected her. She also explains her intentions behind some of the characters and offers additional titles for those looking to better understand Kenya and its people. In WHAT TEARS US APART, you write about a place and a situation --- the riots following Kenya's 2007 presidential election --- that are unfamiliar to many Americans. Why did you choose to write about this time and place?

Deborah Cloyed: The riots were an affecting, personal experience for me, having so recently resided in Kenya in 2007. I left before the violence broke out, but it erupted in many places I had just been. It haunted me for years --- how a society can unravel in an instant. As I considered a book that explored the mystery of how those specific neighbors and loved ones turned on each other out of rage and frustration, I realized I was writing about something everyone could relate to --- the fears and demons that we all battle, no matter where we come from. 

BRC: Tell us about your own experiences in Kenya. What drew you to travel there? What did you learn about its people and culture? What do you hope readers will take away from your novel as they themselves become more familiar with this part of the world?

DC: Before traveling to Kenya, I lived in Honduras for six months, working for a local photographer. My friends there blessed me with much kindness and generosity, but by the end of my stay, I’d become troubled by the extreme disparity of wealth I observed. I’d always wanted to visit East Africa, go on safari, experience the beauty of the land and wildlife. This time, however, I wanted to plan a trip more geared toward service, and grounded in a way that I could get to know a wider array of people and areas. I found a Kenyan organization that supported micro-finance, booked a flight and jumped on the plane. What I learned about Kenya’s people and culture could fill a whole other book, but I tried to capture the environment, the spirit and the rollercoaster of emotions and culture shock I experienced in relating Leda’s experience. 

BRC: Was the character of Ita or the orphanage he founded based on a real person or place?

DC: I visited a number of orphanages in Kenya, but the orphanage in WHAT TEARS US APART was most closely based on an orphanage I visited in Kibera that knocked the wind out of me in two ways. First, I was taken aback by the conditions and the overcrowding. But then, upon closer inspection, I saw the extreme sacrifice and love that the caregivers shelled out against all odds.

The character sketch for Ita came from my own safari adventure. I chose a safari company run by a man who advertised the profits going to an orphanage. My safari was magical but also wrought with technical and safety problems. Afterward, ashamedly skeptical, I asked to visit the orphanage toward which the profits were going --- in Moshi, Tanzania. The children and caregivers welcomed me for an afternoon of games and shared meals. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways. The heartwarming idea of a man using safaris to fund an orphanage has stuck with me ever since. 

The man I met still runs an orphanage and charity, but not the safaris, as far as I know. For more information, take a look at his site:

BRC: How about the orphans themselves? They all have such distinct personalities. Are they based on children you met or worked with in Africa?

DC: The boys at the orphanage are based loosely on a handful of children I met living with a host family’s two small children and a neighborhood of kids. I experienced many of the things Leda does --- the language barrier, the crashing of cultural norms, the little jokes and surprises that happen when curious children meet adults from the other side of the world (pale, sweaty ones, shiny from sunscreen). A lot of the details in the book concerning the misunderstandings on both sides come from my own experiences. But specifically, Michael and Ntimi popped into my head mostly formed, ready to guide and judge Leda in her experience. Jomo was more of a surprise. Conjuring his story, I came to see how he mirrored Leda’s journey and struggle. And when they met each other in the story, they both blossomed as a result, lives forever changed. It was touching to watch.

BRC: Your novel portrays a stark contrast in privilege between Ita, who could have been a brilliant doctor if only he had had the opportunity, and Leda, who has spent her whole life using her fortune to idly pursue a "calling." What do you think draws Leda to Kenya in the first place? Is it a romantic relationship with Ita? Why is Ita equally drawn to this privileged American woman?

DC: Though Leda is drawn to Ita’s picture online, I don’t think she hopped a plane hoping for romance. She was after meaning in her life, a certain richness of experience. She wanted to believe in something, be depended on, be important to someone. But not specifically to Ita, not at first. Rather, she wanted to feel the aliveness, kindness and purpose she glimpsed in his face. Being of her age and era, Leda wouldn’t classify that as wanting a boyfriend. She wouldn’t dare. For many women of my generation, we hesitate to admit that relationships carry too much meaning, purpose or identity. To admit this feels like denying our hard-fought-for independence and self-sufficiency. But a person --- or our own personal growth as a result of a relationship with that person --- can be what we were searching for all along, even if we didn’t know it.

Ita, for his part, also experiences a turn. He is drawn to Leda for her uniqueness in his world, for the things she represents that he lacks. But when he finds her to be as layered and damaged as himself, he is drawn to the potential they have to heal each other, become whole.   

BRC: You write scenes from both Ita's and Leda's points of view. What, if anything, was particularly challenging about capturing the voice and thoughts of a young Kenyan man in your fiction?

DC: In an earlier draft of the novel, only Leda’s point of view was written in first person. I was daunted, admittedly, by the task of writing from the perspective of a male from a different culture and world. I’d done months of research, scoured accounts and blogs, and interviewed male Kenyan friends, but I was plagued by an awareness of how I might be judged for such an attempt. Or how I might fail. But as the book progressed, Ita did what I yearn for characters to do --- he came to life, whispering his story, quietly. Then louder. It suddenly became more unjust not to give Ita his own equal point of view. Once I made the decision, I found Ita more than ready to tell things as he saw it. It’s one of those magical writing phenomena, but it was also a good reminder for me. The context may be infinitely different, but all human beings experience the same emotions of abandonment, hope, despair, humiliation, indignation and the bittersweet ache of love. That is how we really connect.

BRC: Your depictions of the slum itself are difficult to read and the descriptions of the political uprising and riots are even more harrowing. What was the most difficult part of this novel to write?

DC: The most difficult part to write was certainly Leda’s attack, and the way it plays out in the end. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that writing those scenes were gut-wrenching, for the shocking violence, but also for the twisted motivations and emotions. At times, I would back away from my computer; go make myself some tea and just sit --- staring at the steam, waiting for the tea and my storm of thoughts and emotions to cool. 

The parts that saw tears drip onto my keyboard, however, were Mercy’s scene and the unveiling of Kioni’s backstory. 

BRC: All your characters are complex and imperfect, but Chege is a particularly tortured and complicated character. Tell us what it was like to try to portray this person without turning him into a simplistically evil character.

DC: I wish I believed in simplistically evil characters in real life, a way to dismiss criminals as bad guys and be done with it. Complicated was the way I approached Chege from the beginning, because he epitomizes the question that keeps me up at night after the evening news. The same question I’ve heard so many others ask in the wake of the movie theater massacre or Sandy Hook shootings: How could one do such a thing?

But…read the book. Because you’ll see that I started out asking that question and ended up asking questions that scare me even more, about the dark side all of us harbor. 

BRC: Chege and Ita's friendship is also both long and fraught with complications. What do you think binds these two men together? Were you trying to draw parallels between their relationship and Leda's equally problematic one with her mother?

DC: Ita and Chege are bound by memories, by poverty, by habit and by love. Whether it is mostly by rote, that is the question. Have you ever found yourself friends with someone you no longer like? Dating someone you no longer love? It is confusing and heartbreaking to navigate those boundaries, the painful decisions that arise. Life, in its simplest definition, is the experience of change. We change at the same time everyone and everything around us is changing. That makes us want to grasp tight to something stable, familiar. But then upon closer inspection, even the familiar has changed under our grip. 

I was drawing parallels, in the sense of how we as human beings approach and deal with obligation. Loyalty. Time shared. Does a child owe an absent parent any more than a stranger? What do we owe the friends that we outgrow? 

BRC: Your novel moves forward and backward chronologically, an effect that really helps build suspense in the narrative. Did you write the book in a more linear fashion and then reorder the sections later, or did you write it as it appears in the final book?

DC: Write linearly and reorder --- why didn’t I think of that? Ha.

I had a linear outline on hand, but I wrote the novel more or less how it appears, discovering the connections and reflections across time, building and experiencing the suspense and drum roll as I imagine/hope the reader feels. 

The tricky part, however, was in the revision. An alteration of plot or character doesn’t merely affect the chapters and words that follow, but instead causes a ripple effect through the entire draft. In other words, hard work and a lot of head banging on walls.

BRC: Even as we do this interview, there's still fallout in Kenya from the 2007 uprising, as the recently elected president is under investigation for war crimes perpetrated during this period. What is your hope for the future of Kenya?

DC: I didn’t plan the timing of the book’s release, but I have been watching the election coverage with great trepidation and mixed emotions. The roots of violence and poverty are as complicated as they are deep. Without pretending to have the answers, my hope for Kenya’s future is the same as for everyone everywhere. Kenya, like every country in the world, has a resourceful, striving majority who hopes for not much more than a fair shot at earning a living and thereby a life of love, laughter and good health as long as it lasts. That feels like a fair future to hope for.

BRC: What other books --- either fiction or nonfiction --- would you recommend people read if they want to understand Kenya and its people after finishing your novel?

DC: The most well-known Kenyan author is probably Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (who publishes also under the name James Ngugi). His novels mostly cover Kenya’s struggle for independence, like A GRAIN OF WHEAT, and give insight to the roots of many of Kenya’s modern issues.

To read more about modern-day Kibera, try IT HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO WAR, Rye Barcott’s memoir about how he founded Carolina for Kibera, an organization that started the movement called Participator Development and has garnered accolades from everyone from Melinda Gates to President Obama.

Speaking of Obama, DREAMS FROM MY FATHER takes another view of Kenya.

More contemporary Kenyan authors include Binyavanga Wainaina, Margaret Ogola and Wangari Maathai.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

DC: What I’m working on now is a bit of a departure from my last two books (THE SUMMER WE CAME TO LIFE and WHAT TEARS US APART) and is still, at least for a little while longer, top secret.