The Road to #Twentyin2020: The journey of writing my fiction novel, The Street Hawker’s Apprentice, has been an interesting one to say the least. I went through several life changing experiences during the course of writing the book, the most significant being the birth of my first born which is the inspiration of this particular piece. This will be the first in a series of articles that I will be writing in the lead up to the release of my fiction novel. Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Kabir Kareem-Bello (KKB) and I am a Jacaranda Twenty in 2020 author.
1. Life, Writing and Fatherhood
"The moment I saw my daughter for the first time was the single greatest event in my whole life and I thank God for the experience."
As a child, I remember daydreaming for hours, lost in a world full of stories and characters I had created in my mind. I loved reading books and was awed by the abilities of writers to create pictures in my mind with words. It was my dream to join the pantheon of great writers in my teenage years, but the lack of self-belief meant this was a dream deferred. For most of my life, I always felt a part of me was missing but I didn’t know what exactly it was. This sense of loss increased as I got older and my desire to be a father also became part of my life journey.
I achieved my dream of becoming a writer when I self-published my first non-fiction book Memoirs of Young African in 2012. I was later blessed by becoming a father for the first time on Father’s Day in 2017. The moment I saw my daughter for the first time was the single greatest event in my whole life up to that point and I thank God for the experience.
I began writing my first fiction novel, The Street Hawker’s Apprentice, in early 2013. Pre-fatherhood, I had the time and energy to work on multiple creative projects while working a full-time job. I attended literary events across the country, such as the Africa Writes Festival and Black Book Swap. I took several writing courses and travelled to Nigeria twice a year as part of the research for my book. I was a member of the fantastic Brixton Fix Writing Collective who met up fortnightly and enabled me to grow as a writer. I loved this period of my life; I did not have any obligations and I had the ‘freedom’ to write when, where and with whom I wanted. I had the ‘time’ to work on and muse over my manuscript for hours in coffee shops across central London, and attend creative events at a moments notice. I loved the life I was living, but something was missing.
My life changed forever the moment I held my first born on a beautiful Sunday morning in June 2017. I was overcome with a feeling of unadulterated joy, but also some trepidation. I was to be fully responsible for the life of another human being; I was petrified, but for the first time in many years I felt whole. My outlook of the world changed as this little human being instantly became the focal point of my life. I knew my life as a writer would change forever and sacrifices would be made. The day I dismantled my beloved oak writing desk, where I had spent countless hours creating and shaping the lives of the characters in The Street Hawkers Apprentice, to create space for the cot that I had assembled was bittersweet.
The realities of the life of a father and a writer hit me hard; my daughter and manuscript both required my undivided time, and my unbridled focus to develop. I struggled to adjust, and the development of my manuscript ultimately stagnated as I lacked the luxury of time to write. I feared that I had lost my desire to become a published writer and became worried about being able to provide for my family financially. Reluctantly, I decided to focus on my long-term career and began seeking jobs with higher salaries.
My hiatus from writing was unsuccessful. I was unfocused and lacked direction; again something was missing. I jumped from one online course to another hoping to stumble on a job that would enable me to increase my financial earning. I was miserable; there was not a day that went by when I did not think about my characters, who I felt guilty for abandoning. My wife sensed the change in me and said to me one evening “just focus on what you are good at; do what you love, and we will be fine”. That was the moment I realised I had forgotten why I began writing in the in the first place: I loved to tell stories and I wrote for the love of writing.
The most poignant realisation I had during this period was that I loved the characters I had created (most of them anyway); I had birthed and nurtured them, and watched them grow. My fictional characters had unwittingly given me the tools I needed to be a father before I became a father in real life. This released a sense of euphoria in me and I once again felt whole. I knew I had to return to my manuscript because, like the feelings I have for my daughter, my love of writing is unconditional.
I began making plans to find a literary agent and make submissions to publishing houses at the start of 2018. Again, a major event in my life forced me to pause working on my manuscript: my father in law passed away suddenly in Zambia in February 2018 without ever meeting his first grandchild. I was absolutely devastated. It was during the grieving period after the burial that I found out about Jacaranda's #Twentyin2020 initiative for Black British writers. Authors were invited to send their completed manuscripts for consideration but mine was still only about 60% completed. I had four months to complete a novel I had been working on for five years. This challenge was further compounded by the fact that my family left the city that had been my home since I was 11 years old when we moved from London to Oxford. The time to work on my manuscript was further restricted as I had to look for a new house and research nurseries for my daughter.
In addition to adjusting to being in a new city, I had to commute to London four days a week by coach for work. This was a five-hour (on a good day) daily round trip, which meant I had to leave home by 6am and would not return until around 8pm. I had less time with my daughter because she would be asleep when I left home at the crack of dawn and again when I returned home in the evening. I was also forced to adapt my approach to writing my novel due to a rapidly shrinking timeframe, lack of energy and bouts of self-doubt.
There were days when I thought about giving up on the manuscript because of the physical and emotional exhaustion from travelling five hours a day, having a full-time job, looking after my daughter on the weekend while my wife worked on completing her PhD, and finishing a novel that may not be good enough to be accepted for publishing. On those days, what kept me going were the characters from my novel. They had been inspired by the street children of Lagos I had seen and met; the thought of the hardship and pain they experienced everyday gave me the strength to persevere until I completed and submitted my manuscript for publication. I knew the pain and sacrifices were worth it when I received the letter informing me that The Street Hawker’s Apprentice had been selected for publishing as part of the Jacaranda #Twentyin2020 programme.
"What I have come to realise is that writing and fatherhood, like life, are a journey."
I believe that these life-changing events made me stronger a father and improved me as writer. What I have come to realise is that writing and fatherhood, like life, are a journey. The beauty of this triumvirate are the surprises that arise along the way are what shapes our destinies. The joys and challenges of being a father has influenced my writing and given me the belief that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. A father does not only love his child, he falls in love with them. I believe that everybody has a story tell, but only a special few can paint pictures with words and transcend reality with imagination. I am extremely privileged to have achieved my lifelong dream of joining a pantheon of great writers - the Jacaranda Twenty in 2020.
My dual roles as a father and a writer will forever be intertwined, it both a joy and privilege for which I will be eternally grateful.
I dedicate this article to my beautiful daughters Funmilayo and Ntanda, thank you for making whole, and all the fathers across the globe. Happy Father’s Day!