JOHN: So, Njambi McGrath, you are very busy at the moment.
NJAMBI: Well, lockdown gave me the space to write.
Before that, I was travelling loads to do comedy gigs but all the way through lockdown I didn’t have to travel anywhere so I could literally write all day.
When my first book Through the Leopard’s Gaze was published I had done so much research I didn’t want the richness of what I discovered to be wasted.
So I decided to write my second book last year as fiction and use the research in that.
I wrote that new book last year and I’m writing another one this year.
Both novels are set in Kenya. I wanted both of them to reflect everything. The chaos and how people tried to make sense of life before independence and everything.
Last year’s novel is called The Residence of the Ministry of Works. It’s about people living in a compound in Kenya. No-one even knows how they found their way there. Is it a Ministry? No. It was something the British created and, when they left, it… it is like a slum.
When they arrived, the British found systems that were intact and it’s like Lego. If you kick it, then it goes in all directions. The British kicked the existing system and caused chaos.
JOHN: And the new book this year is…?
NJAMBI: Rinsing Mukami’s Soul – it’s more focussed. I think I’m on the final draft now. The ‘Rinsing’ is because of all the things she does and encounters; her soul needs rinsing.
JOHN: So, with the long-drawn-out lockdown, the enforced isolation and the book-writing, have you lost your urge to go on stage and do live stand-up?
NJAMBI: No. It’s like a drug. Every time I’m on stage I am: Oooh! I wanna do this again! I performed at The Comedy Store a couple of weeks ago and a couple of other venues this week. I’ve done enough gigs since lockdown finished to forget how many I’ve done.
JOHN: And you went up to the whittled-down Edinburgh Fringe in August…
NJAMBI: Yes, I was invited to Edinburgh and offered a 98-seater at the Pleasance to do a 3-day run of my show Accidental Coconut, the show I did in 2019.
JOHN: What was Edinburgh like this year?
NJAMBI: I had very good, full-house audiences. People were hungry to laugh after the lockdown.
The week before that, I had been up to Edinburgh to record my radio show over two nights. The audiences were the same then – amazing. What a way to come out of lockdown hibernation!
JOHN: Your radio show… That’s your BBC Radio 4 series of four, which starts this week?
NJAMBI: Yes, it’s based on Accidental Coconut but it’s called Njambi McGrath: Becoming Njambi. It starts this Wednesday, the 22nd of September, for four weeks at 11.00pm on Wednesdays.
JOHN: Why is it not called Accidental Coconut?
NJAMBI: Because Radio 4 said: “If you use that term on radio, referring to yourself, other people may think it’s OK to use that derogatory term.”
JOHN: Why was it called Accidental Coconut in the first place?
NJAMBI: Because when I had been doing an Edinburgh show in a previous year – African in New York – I said that, when I got to America, I hadn’t been aware of the Black issues there because I was an ‘accidental coconut’ – because, obviously, we don’t learn that history in Kenya.
And then I thought: Oh my God! That’s a really great title! – It reflects exactly what we are. We are not taught about our history.
JOHN: How did black New Yorkers react when you opened your mouth and they realised you were British?
NJAMBI: The first time I was in a lecture hall, I put my hand up and spoke and everybody went: Whooaaaa! How come you’re not speaking with the black people’s accent in America?
JOHN: Did they think either (a) she’s just a foreigner or (b) she’s English so she must be posh? She must know the Queen?
NJAMBI: Well, they were even more confused because I said: “I’m British and I’m also Kenyan”.
JOHN: And their reaction was…?
NJAMBI: Well, after my university days, when Barack Obama was still President, I was in Florida and said, “I’m British and I’m also Kenyan,” and their reaction was “Where is Kenya?”
NJAMBI: I said: “That is where your President is from. And one woman asked: “George W Bush?”
Everyone around the world was talking about this new American President and she hadn’t even noticed they had got a new president and he was black. If she hadn’t looked so confused, I would have thought it was a joke.
JOHN: You are also performing Accidental Coconut at Soho Theatre in London next month. (4th-9th October)
NJAMBI: Yes, it actually overlaps with the radio series.
JOHN: And what comes after your Soho Theatre run?
NJAMBI: I’ll be finishing my new book Rinsing Mukami’s Soul and I have a new stage show as well. I was working on a draft of it in early 2020 and was going to take it to Edinburgh that August, but then the pandemic happened and the Fringe didn’t. So it will now be my 2022 show.
NJAMBI: Black Black.
NJAMBI: Because, the night before I got married, my mother-in-law came to me and I thought she was going to say something like: “Welcome to my family”. But she whispered to me: “The day I found out that David was marrying a woman from Africa, I was horrified. But at least you’re not black black…”
JOHN: So books, live stage stuff, radio… and a TV series of your first book Through the Leopard’s Gaze…?
NJAMBI: Well, we are waiting on that. You know how long these things take. It was optioned during lockdown.
I have got to a point in my life where I’ve discovered I can do things I never thought I could do.
For a long time, I didn’t think I had the skill.
I was working in IT; I didn’t think I was good at it. I couldn’t sing. There were so many things I couldn’t do, so I thought I was useless.
Then I discovered I can make people laugh.
Then I discovered I could write.
Oh my God!
Now I’m like a ferret on a treadmill because I want to write as many shows as possible because I discovered I can actually do something when I thought I could do nothing. So I have been doing all these things as well as co-writing a TV sitcom and I’ve been writing some drama as well…