Phyllis Katheu Muema is a graduate of Commerce accounting. She has been writing ever since she learnt how to hold a pen. She self-published her first book, a poetry anthology and has 5 other manuscripts yet to be published. She currently lives on the Kenyan coast, at Mtwapa.
LitVo: Good evening Ma’am, I’m Fatima Salihu, deputy editor in chief, literature Voices. It’s my utmost pleasure doing this interview with you.
Katheu: Good evening, Fatima. The pleasure is mine. Thank you for having me.
LitVo: You are a multidisciplinary artist, doing great in all the areas you are focused on. You just recently graduated from studying commerce accounting. Tell us how was it for you to combine poetry and studying something off poetry?
Katheu: Well, it was not hard for me. Writing comes naturally for me so I did not struggle to balance between my studies and my writing. I have done more pieces apart from poetry, actually. I have 5 more complete manuscripts comprising of 2storybooks, a play, a motivational book and a collection of short stories.
LitVo: That’s why I’m in awe of you. You hear poets say they have been writing since they were young but in your own case, you even have manuscripts to show for that. I read that you’ve been writing since you were just in form four. I can’t wait for us to talk about your recently published collection of poems. I have been restraining myself not to be rude and just start with questions on it.
Katheu: Thank you, I’m humbled. I always wanted to write while I was still in primary and secondary school but I restrained myself. I waited till I was done with high school before starting. Haha, we can talk about the poetry anthology.
LitVo: Your recently published book, “Thorns without petals” touched on very sensitive and emotional subjects. Why did you choose to publish it when you did and why did you pick it when there were other manuscripts?
Katheu: Thorns without the petals was my most recent creation and I felt that it best portrays the current Phyllis. Over the years, a lot has changed and this poetry anthology has managed to keep up with the changes in my being. The other pieces need a lot of work before publishing. Also, it is the piece that is the most emotional for me as it shows my pregnancy and grieving journey. It was healing to compose the poems and it felt only right to put it out there. Who knows it might help someone dealing with a similar loss!
LitVo: I shed tears going through some parts of the poem. I know how therapeutic writing is and I’m sure it must have helped you too during those times. Recently, there has been sensitization on social media about what women go through from pregnancy till birth and even afterwards. Many have blamed their mothers for not educating them on what to expect and the changes that come with giving birth. Would you say it was different for you or you expected the changes that came with pregnancy and even after the birth?
Katheu: Well, I have been told I’ve made people cry in between the covers. I guess it’s a good thing, right? Seems I did a good job. Well, with me, it was different in a worse way. I did not tell anyone about it: not my family, not even my best friend. They learn about all of it well after the first anniversary. This means I kept to myself and it was only worse. Writing was my only solace. It was really hard for me and a poem like 2.54 was composed on one of those nights that I had to sleep hungry while pregnant.
I went through most of the journey on my own after my partner bailed out when I did not agree to an abortion he had arranged for. Poems like Chords (19) and messed up (17) were created during that period. The assumption in them is I had gone ahead with the procedure.
I think a lot needs to be done in the education on pregnancy by our parents. Parents should be a safe haven for their kids. Early pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies and young parents do happen every time in society. Support from our parents and guardian would go a long way because I believe they are the softest of cushioning against the harsh world we live in.
LitVo: You are right. I think our generation is going to do a whole lot better at sex education. Back then, it was/still is taboo to talk to your child even about puberty and sex education. So many grew up wanting to experiment what they have either heard from friends or read somewhere or even watched without knowing the repercussions or results of their actions.
Katheu: It’s sad how talking about our bodies and how they function has been held in a bad light over the generations. I do have hopes that our generation will do better. Already I have witnessed parents/guardians who are free with the young ones regarding sex education. The future is promising
LitVo: Going forward, you have lines that capture how a depressed person thinks. In crushed, for example, you have lines like: “I am not in pain/I am a complete wretch/I am completely crushed/Pain makes it sound/Like there is healing/The voices tell me it’s gonna be okay”. As writers we battle depression because we write or do, we write because we are depressed? Why do you think depression is common among writers?
Katheu: Personally, I think anyone can be depressed. Writers do have a platform where we can pour it all out. Most artists portray their state of mind in their pieces of art may it be songs, paintings or drawings. Well, I think some writers write because they’re depressed and words are their best way to channel out their feelings. I have met some that are depressed because they’re writers, too. It sounds a bit unlikely but deadlines, writer’s block and over-ambitious targets can drive one to the edge.
LitVo: Also, probably because writers think way too hard and their minds are always busy thinking and rethinking lines. I feel like they tend to be extra sensitive with their thoughts. I forgot to ask what inspired the name, “Thorns without petals”
Katheu: Well, the anthology has had two other titles before I settled on this shortly before publishing. The title is extracted from the introductory stanza. I felt like this beautifully green rose bush with huge hooked thorns but not bearing the rose flowers captured well the theme, mood and the whole being of the anthology. It symbolizes the futile experiences I went through and also generally the hardships we humans are going through.
LitVo: You talked about women empowerment and equality in some poems, what is your view of feminism and how can you relate western feminism to the one practised here in Africa? Do you think some people are misinterpreting what feminism stands for?
Katheu: Feminism has been one of the areas facing the most chaos and conflict at the present. Two of the pieces I wrote on women empowerment were some of my earliest and I hadn’t even heard of the word ‘feminism’ yet. I wouldn’t call myself one but I’ll jump at any opportunity to empower a fellow woman. I have distanced myself from feminists’ conflicts on social media platforms. I just don’t like labels but if the label works on some people, then I’d say, to each their own. Bottom line, we all should strive towards women empowerment
LitVo: You are just amazing! How will you compare your writing before the lockdown, during the lockdown and afterwards?
Katheu: The occurrence has really brought with it lots of changes. Views have been challenged and opinions have shifted. This surely will have a great impact on my writing. I have not done much during the period since I was mostly editing and publishing the anthology. I have learnt to move out of my comfort place and I’m ready to take up the challenge in my upcoming works.
LitVo: Can you take us through the new reality of being an author, book marketing and trying to stay relevant amidst the new talents sprouting out on a daily.
Katheu: It is not a straight line. Mostly because I am self-published so I do my marketing and distribution/delivery. I’m elated to be an author, at last, I’ve wanted to publish since 2015! Now that this is a reality, it has psyched me up to keep on.
In this age of technological advancement, it’s easier to market one work, especially on social media platforms. I have my works on four continents already! Without technology that would be almost impossible. Also, there’s a rise in self-publishing lately. This forms a solid rock for new authors as we get really helpful advice from old authors.
LitVo: You talk with passion and I can feel it from here. I noticed you had poems of different themes in your collection, do you have a specific tune or theme you explore in writing or do you just write as the muse comes?
Katheu: I don’t have a specific tune actually. I only write when the muse kicks in. This collection has been written in over 3years.
LitVo: Okay, so which other writer do you like reading? Any favourites?
Katheu: I don’t have a favourite writer. I don’t even have a favourite poet/poetess. The world is full of talented writers and I look forward to sampling as many as I can in this lifetime.
LitVo: Oh wow. But do you think a writer can succeed alone without mentors to look up to and follow their steps till one carves a niche for his/herself
Katheu: In my opinion, a writer cannot stand on their own. I believe a good writer should be a great reader, for a start. I’m on my 12th book since the year started! This means that the writer will have to interact more with works from others and it helps in shaping one’s style
LitVo: Very good. Is there any mistake you’ve made while writing this collection that you’d like to share for others to also learn and correct from? Was there any regret from you concerning the publication of this collection? Some writers like to wait for the “right” before they become published, was it the same for you?
Katheu: I believe I did a really great job with this anthology given that I composed, edited and proofread my own work. As a first-time author, I believe I’ve tried. I had some hint of self-doubt shortly after the book was out. I was afraid of the critics, low sales and everything. The book has scooped some great reviews which erased all the doubt. For me, the right time was dependent on funds. I went on to publish the moment I could afford it.
LitVo: I love your enthusiasm. I wish more writers had this level of self-esteem too. Once again congratulations on a very beautiful publication. Finally, what should we expect from Katheu next?
Katheu: Thank you so much, I’m humbled. I’m looking forward to having three books published before 2021 ends. Now that the candle is lit, I’m working on keeping it that way.
LitVo: Amen. I wish you well in your endeavours. Thank you for disclosing all these on Literature Voices.
Katheu: Thank you. I’m really grateful to Literature Voices for having me.
Fatima Salihu ( is a writer, spoken word artist and an activist who has been described as a hurricane in her passion and dedication to literature and arts. A graduate of Mathematics from Bayero University Kano, she has her writings published both locally and internationally, in prints and online. She has performed on stages including at TEDx. Her debut collection of poems is titled Sketches. She’s presently a pioneer student of the School of Politics, Policy and Governance (SPPG). The Deputy Editor, Literature Voices (LitVo) and Moderator, Hill-Top Book Chat Review. She can be contacted via: Email- firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook/ Instagram – Phateema Salihu, LinkedIn- Fatima Salihu