The Emerging Writer Award is open to anyone published in a given year in Room, who has not already had a book published. The award comes with a cash prize of $500.
After being shortlisted for Room's Annual CNF Contest (as judged by Ayelet Tsabari) in 2015, Sarah Kabamba won the Fiction Contest (as judged by Shani Mootoo) in the same year with “They Come Crying.” Subsequently, the writer was published again in Room—this time with her poetry, “Dust”, in the Women of Colour issue. When the poll to vote for Room's second Emerging Writer Award closed, it was no surprise to any member of the editorial board that Sarah was the recipient of the award.
Room's Kayi Wong talked to Sarah again a year after the writer and artist received first prize for the Fiction Contest, about her motivation and diligence when it comes to multiple genres of writing.
What have you been up to since we last spoke after you won the fiction contest in 2015?
I’ve been good! I completed my undergraduate degree and graduated, which was exciting. Now I’m just taking my time to figure out what I want to do next. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to write, and work on my art as much as I can. I had the chance to contribute to Room’s Woman of Colour issue, which was something I was very excited and proud to be a part of. I recently contributed poetry to In/Words Magazine’s special Refuge(e) themed issue, and will be reading at the magazine launch in a couple weeks. I was also interviewed on CBC Radio One, where I had the opportunity to speak a little about my work and read some poems. It’s been really good, and I’m just happy that I’ve had the chance to do what I love, and share my work with others.
What motivates you to write poetry, short stories, and non-fiction? Is it different for each genre?
I started out writing poetry, and decided that I wanted to improve my skills in fiction as well. I like poetry because I’m able to express ideas, emotions, etc., in a more open free form. I like that you can convey significant meaning without having to over explain or go into too many details. However, I would argue that poetry is actually more difficult to write because of that as well. With fiction/short stories, you have more space to develop themes, ideas, and characters, which I enjoy doing. One of the things that motivates me about fiction/short stories is that I am able to take an idea that may be grounded in reality, and do whatever I want with it. Non-fiction would have to the genre I write the least of. I’ve only really ever written a few non-fiction pieces, and have only really shared one. To be honest, I would have to say this is probably because there are still parts of myself or personal stories that I’m not ready to share yet. I think in order for me to truly explore the non-fiction genre, I need to be ready to be completely honest and open with myself, and that’s something that I’m personally still working on. Each genre has its differences, but I think what lies at the heart of all of them is storytelling and this is what draws me.
What authors have inspired you the most in each genre?
That’s hard, there’s so many amazing authors that I look up to! In poetry, some of my favourites would have to be Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Lang Leav, Key Ballah, and Ocean Vuong. In fiction, it would be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, Junot Diaz, and Michael Ondaatje. I actually don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but a lot of the fiction authors I like have wrote non-fiction books which I’ve read.
What urges you to explore gender, family, womanhood, and self-love frequently in your writing?
These are issues that I feel strongly about, and think should be discussed. Writing, and other art forms provide the opportunity to speak on issues in an alternative manner, and I think as artists, it's something that we need to take advantage of. In exploring these issues, I learn not only about myself, but about history and other artists. In the past, I wasn’t as conscious about what I read, wrote, watched, listened to etc., but then I slowly started to be aware of what I was ingesting, and made an effort to seek out diversity in the arts. This made me more aware of issues of representation, gender, etc which I think eventually began to reflect in my work.
When it comes to writing, what has been the biggest challenge for you so far?
I’m actually really bad at finishing projects, in that I can start multiple poems or stories, and then leave them to start on something else before I’m finished. Also, sometimes when I should be writing or brainstorming, I can get easily distracted and procrastinate on social media, my phone, etc. One thing that I’ve realized is that it’s not enough for me just to be passionate about my craft, but I have to seriously commit to setting goals, and setting time aside to work on and improve my work.
How did you find time to write while studying law and literature, and working a part-time job?
It’s funny but I actually found that I wrote more when I was still in school, and working. (This might be because sometimes I’d procrastinate on assignments to write instead.) I think it might have helped that for my English minor, I took a lot of writing workshops, which essentially made it so I had to write. I’d write here and there throughout the week, but I would always make sure to set out some time just to write, read, and brainstorm on the weekends, usually on Sundays. I do have more time now, so I am trying hard to not procrastinate and have more of a structure and consistency to when I write.
Could you tell me more about the spoken word videos you've been working on for your poetry?
I love the idea of incorporating different art forms and media into my work, so it’s something that I want to work on. At the moment, I’m still in the early planning stages, I’ve brainstorming pieces that I think would work well with visuals, and looking for locations, equipment, etc. This aspect is something that I’m still quite new at, so I want to take my time, do my research, and do it right. There was a video I put together with a poem I wrote about my grandfather, but after I finished it, I found it didn’t really meet what I wanted to do so I scrapped it. It’s hard, when you have a vision of how you want something to be, and it doesn’t end up the way you thought. However, I’ve realized that it’s something I may have to work a little harder on since I haven’t really done it before, but I’m prepared to do that!
In our last interview, you talked about making the effort to not “write in a vacuum.” How has that been going?
So far, I think it’s going well. I’ve been making an effort to share my work through various mediums, sending out my work to magazines/contests, updating my website as often as I can, and even just sharing my work or ideas with my friends and family. This has actually motivated me to write more, and create a sense of accountability to myself. I’ve also had some people and websites reach out to me about my work, so it also allows me to connect and engage with different people.
Is sharing your poetry on social media a part of that effort?
Sharing my poetry on social media is definitely part of that effort, and it’s something that I’ve come to enjoy doing. One of the things that I like about sharing my work on platforms like Instagram is that I am able to post shorter pieces, or even just one line that I’ve been working on and feel good about. It also allows me to connect with other artists across the world, and even get feedback, which is great.
What advice can you give to other writers who cannot afford to write full-time?
Set time aside to write, even if it’s just a couple of minutes a day, or even once a week. Find what works for you and stick to it. You won’t like everything you write, there’ll be times where nothing you write seems good, and times where you don’t even feel like writing but do it because you love it, do it because you have stories in you that can’t be contained, and write with joy. Writing is not always going to be easy, but I think it’s so important that you find joy and love in what you do, because ultimately that reflects in your work, and will effect the quality of what you’re producing.