Fremantle Press’s own Chemutai Glasheen on her tarried dream of becoming a debut author after 50
Chemutai Glasheen is a teacher and a sessional academic at Curtin University. She writes fiction for young people and her work is influenced by her upbringing in Africa and the duality of growing up between two different cultures. In this piece Chemutai shares the behind-the-scenes of her first book I am the Mau and Other Stories.
It took a few decades between the dream and its fruition. The seed for the dream was planted by my Year 5 teacher who gave me a copy of probably the first chapter book I ever read. I was about nine and learning English when I found myself thrust into the world of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and their adventures. I marvelled at the abundance of cold ham slices and crusty breads and salads and plums and cherry cake and lashings of ginger beer. Couldn’t they have had a cup of sweet milky tea and call it a meal as we did in in Kericho? In retrospect, I was beginning to rewrite the stories I loved into a context that made sense to me. I fell in love with books and my youth was spent reading.
I grew up in a country where getting older was celebrated and when you reach your mid-fifties, it meant it was time to retire. At a similar age, I have a debut book coming out. Debut. Beginning. Inception. Connotations of freshness and youth. I make a choice to embrace these words. It dawns on me that the years have indeed flown past. The dream of becoming a published author has been realised. It tarried, but it is here.
A year ago, I had a bit of a health scare and when I walked out of the doctor’s office, my mind was racing with a to-do list. One of the things that filled me with peace and contentment was that my book was getting published. My bucket list has been flexible over the years but becoming a published author has never wavered. Looking back, there is nothing I would change about the timing. I am glad I got to do it when I did. I am grateful for the journey that brought me here.
That journey has included several years in and out of classrooms as a full-time teacher in a high school, a relief teacher in mostly primary schools and as a sessional academic at a university. I have engaged with students of diverse ages. Every single group has informed my life and my work, from the younger ones who are curious about the way I look and why I ‘speak funny’ to older ones who wonder where I am from originally. What does it mean to be an African in Australia and a writer? These are essentially the same question that has helped me reflect on my own identity. I have been a non-black person and I have been black. It is a unique experience that allows me to see race for its absurdity. I count on my experiences to give depth and nuance to my writing. This is not to say that great writing comes later in life. I have been astounded by the writing of an eight-year-old and I can only wonder at what the future holds for them. For me as ‘an above fifty’ person, the release of I am the Mau and Other Stories means there is one more way in which my voice is heard. It is the journey I have walked that fills the pages with reflection.
There is a liberation that comes with age. I am surer about the values I write about. I can reflect upon the various stages of my life, the relationships I have had and the growth I have gone through and find inspiration. A while ago, my nieces were having robust conversation on a school rule that required them to shave their hair. I was incredulous. Were they still fighting the same battle we did almost four decades ago? My short story ‘Of Hair and Goats’ took shape then. I have also witnessed a society change and seen the promotion of human rights clash with the rights of a group to practise their culture. Grappling with this thinking led to the creation of the story ‘Beading’. Should I be writing about something that is outside my personal experience? Does it truly matter? At a certain age, I should have moved past seeking approval. After all, I am unafraid to explore my imagination – so I tell myself.
I am not completely without shackles. In today’s digital landscape, having an online presence is paramount in reaching a wide audience and in connecting with readers. It is a platform that allows all sorts of voices to be amplified, but it fills me with trepidation. I would rather labour through another heavy short story than write a single social media post. Online interactions feel like a foreign country I migrated to a long while ago but still get asked, where are you from?
Getting a debut book released at any age is fabulous but it is particularly thrilling when you are in the ‘above fifty’ group. There is an anxiety about what that portends but you have experienced enough along the long journey to know it will be okay. Success may require a few attempts, but even if that does not happen, it is still going to be okay. You have had the good and the bad and you are still standing. And reading. And writing.