News and Interviews

D. Nandi Odhiambo on Writing Violence, Authentic Choices, & Radical Doubt in His New Novel

Nandi Odhiambo_Author Photo_Credit Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo

In D. Nandi Odhiambo's Smells Like Stars (Book*hug), a diverse and vibrant cast of characters struggles with change, each in their own way. Journalist Kerstin Ostheim and freelance photographer P.J. Banner plan a whirlwind wedding, while trying to puzzle through the strange horse killings taking place in their community. Kerstin's daughter Schuld prepares for an art show while recovering from a brutal attack, while her boyfriend Woloff deals with the possibility of his Olympic running career coming to an end due to injury. 

Each character struggles with violence or pain in his or her own way, searching to come through suffering, - whether physical, emotional, or both - to find meaning. Taut, gripping, and wise, the novel will be snapped up by fans of Odhiambo's previous three books, and is a great entry point for readers new to his work. 

We're happy to welcome D. Nandi to Open Book today as part of our Lucky Seven series. He tells us about drawing on his own experiences to shape an open and empathetic mode of thinking while writing, discusses how the novel explores the struggle to relate and communicate despite our differences, and shares about writing at 30,000 feet. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

D. Nandi Odhiambo:

In 1963, the period of British rule in Kenya ended. Hundreds of thousands of people braved a heavy downpour to stand in puddles of muck at Jamhuri Stadium to witness the transfer of power. At midnight the Union Jack was lowered. Wanainchi wept, hugged and danced till all hours. Independence had arrived. An era of freedom had begun. I was born two years later in a time of new possibilities, something I thought a lot about while researching my fourth novel, Smells Like Stars. As part of the creative process I re-read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Decolonizing the Mind, so one of the things I considered was what it meant for me as a writer from a former colony to be free and to create a book in English that departed from the impact of this past. Therefore, an important part of writing my novel was coming up with a series of questions that moved me beyond colonial modes of thinking that emphasized domination over others instead of ideas about walking alongside those who are different. Consequently, I focused on how my concerns played themselves out in a tension between opinions and thought experienced by four very different characters living on a US territory in the middle of the Pacific. Could they be free despite the obstacles they faced with both overt and covert forms of violence? In the novel Kerstin Ostheim, a middle-aged German American journalist, is two weeks away from marrying photographer P. J. Banner, the son of an Indigenous woman and a wealthy white plantation owner. Meanwhile, Schuld Ostheim, Kerstin's transgender daughter, is an artist recovering from a brutal beating she received at a nightclub. She's in a relationship with Woloff Nampazo, a Maasai running prodigy from East Africa attempting to come back from a knee injury. The book grapples with how these couples, with complicated histories, attempt to make authentic choices centred around family within a confusing raft of external as well as internal forces. As the novel progresses all of them experience a period of radical doubt that leaves them feeling ungrounded while coping with their everyday concerns. Do they either find a shared meaning that still allows them to keep their difference intact, or do they learn new ways to co-exist?


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


A starting point for me whenever I write a novel is the unanswered questions that rattle around in my mind. As I thought about what it meant to decolonize, I worked with a set of questions that focused on encounters with others who are different, inside or outside the communities we identify with. A major theme, explored by Emmanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity, was about the limits of conventional thought and the anxiety difference caused in part due to a lack of shared meaning. Therefore, central questions that emerged for me were about what we make of that which isn't the same as us in the language we use in our encounters with others, and how do we think, communicate and behave ethically or responsibly in our relationships with those who are different from us? The characters in the novel grapple with this puzzle in a variety of ways. They struggle with the tension over whether to reduce others to their own commonsensical ideas that make them objects of their own stable categories or else to embrace ways of thinking that are fluid.


Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


Initially, I envisioned the book as a work of magic realism that addressed a confrontation between the superficial insistence on the appearance of thought and substantive thinking that attempted to seek understanding. As the project evolved, the original idea to write magic realism shifted. Ultimately, I found myself working out theories about what a poststructuralist work might look like, one that merged the past with the present and the public with the private, moved towards polyvalence in its telling, and collapsed binaries rather than reproduced them. It took about four years to get it all done.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I seem to be able to write anywhere at any time, but I've actually found I do some of my best work when I'm flying on an airplane at night. I don't know if this is a common thing for other writers, but being at altitudes over 30,000 feet is a huge plus for me, particularly when other passengers on the flight are asleep. To be honest, I feel guilty about it because at 3:00am I tend to be the only one with their light on, something that makes me nervous when the person next to me has a blanket pulled over their head. Since I'm a major scribbler who will write with a pen on anything from napkins to margins in books, at least I don’t tend to disrupt other travellers’ sleep by loudly clicking away on laptop keys.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Oddly enough, I don't get discouraged about the writing all that much since I spend a great deal of time doing the emotional and intellectual work to prepare to write. I just kind of sit down and get going. However, I do sometimes need to force myself to take a break which can be frustrating when my fatigue exceeds my capacity to focus.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I love sensual and smart writing. Two of my favourite novels are James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Virginia Woolf's The Waves. They combine gut busting and achingly sublime language with stories chock full of thought-provoking insights.


What are you working on now?


I write constantly, but I'm a bit weird about talking about what I'm writing until I'm clearer as to what I'm fully committed to finishing. For now, I'm reading some philosophy and non-committedly assembling a mix of scholarly and personal essays. The scholarly writing is a series of close readings of select fictional works, building on my own ideas about the novel using philosophy and literary theory. The personal essays look at my move from Africa to North America as a child and how these multiple influences have shaped what I'm becoming as an adult. My next novel is still percolating, but I've got bits and pieces of it written up in a variety of book margins and notebooks.


D. Nandi Odhiambo is the author of three novels: diss/ed banded nations (1998), Kipligat’s Chance (2003), and The Reverend’s Apprentice (2008). Originally from Nairobi Kenya, Nandi moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1970s. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a PhD in English from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. Currently Nandi lives in O’ahu, Hawai’i, with his wife Carmen and two dogs, where he works as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu.

Buy the Book

Smells Like Stars

Kerstin Ostheim, a journalist, and P. J. Banner, a freelance photographer, have been together six months after meeting on a dating website. They are getting married in two weeks and as the wedding fast approaches, they question their compatibility while investigating mysterious horse killings that are taking place in Ogweyo’s Cove, the Pacific tourist haven where they live.

In the meantime, Schuld Ostheim, Kerstin’s transgender daughter from her first marriage, is preparing for an art exhibit after being hospitalized for a physical assault while her boyfriend, Woloff, an Olympic medalist in the 1500m, comes to terms with a career ending knee injury. As Kerstin and P.J. get closer to the truth about the dead horses, they also begin to more clearly see each other. Simultaneously, Schuld and Woloff encounter obstacles caused by how their relationships with the past effect their sense of a possible future.

Ultimately, Smells Like Stars draws attention to what is hidden in plain sight, that life can be cruel, ambiguous and without meaning.