Bookends: Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

The author of 'The House of Rust' tells us all the little things (from foods to films) that get her imagination going.

Image © Graywolf Press.

Interview by
Radical Books Collective

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber was only 27 years old when she won the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize for a manuscript in progress which soon became the novel The House of Rust. Bajaber’s first book has been called an “astonishing” and “glorious sea-infused” debut and is also the first work in English to depict the deeply rooted Hadhrami culture of East Africa’s coastal regions. Bajaber grew up in Mombasa, Kenya, and studied journalism while dabbling in poetry and fiction writing. The House of Rust tells the coming-of-age tale of young Aisha, who takes off on a sea voyage in search of her missing father. Borrowing from Swahili and Hadhrami folklore, contemporary speculative fiction, and magical realism, Bajaber has constructed a complex narrative with multiple stories nested within one another. For our first Bookends post, we asked the young writer to tell us all the little things (from foods to films) that get her imagination going.

Books to stare at

I have a shelf my mom, dad, and I (yes, all of us, many cooks) installed above my writing desk. Two shelves, actually. These are for books of personal importance—books gifted to me by people I love, or books I purchased for myself from when I was young. So these feel like sentimental purchases, books that are not for lending. Or, at least, not to be lent to just anyone. I don’t necessarily treasure them for what’s within so much as the deliberate intention associated with them. I can also track where I started making the deliberate move to read more Kenyan and African books. So seeing poetry collections by Michelle Angwenyi, Logan February; books like Dust by Yvonne Owuor, Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett; short story anthologies like Land Without Thunder by Grace Ogot and Equipoise by Nairobi Writing Academy writers, edited by Makena Onjerkia; and literary magazines like Down River Road—it gives me a little boost. I’m not a very organized person, but I’m very satisfied with how carefully I’ve organized them; they please my eyes. I guess you could say that inspires me? I will sit back and look at all my books and feel satisfied that they have not escaped my keeping for the most part. I have lent out Deathless and The Bell Jar to a trusted person, but they are an exceptional person! There’s also City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, which I’m in awe of simply because I hadn’t read anything like it before and I haven’t read anything like it since. Very distinctive and charismatic style.

Tunes on loop

I don’t often listen to music while I’m writing; it depends on the way I’m feeling that day. I have some playlists for certain moods, but once a story has finally gotten good momentum and feels more realized, I tend to listen to one or two songs on repeat. I don’t choose the song; song chooses me. They don’t always have anything to do with the story or even the vibe of the story, but I’ll loop the same songs. I’ve been listening to the same song by Dehd on loop for two days writing one short story. Then again, certain eras or phases in my life have certain albums that define them, or albums and artists I go back to a lot. Or people the album reminds me of. So it doesn’t always have anything to do with writing or the work.

Inspiration binges

The Fall, directed by Tarsem Singh, is a very important movie to me. As for series, I felt particularly moved by The OA and then very much soothed by Midnight Diner and Tokyo Midnight Diner.


I don’t really eat food when I’m writing—if I munch on something I get too distracted to write!—but I try to have water nearby. If I get hungry, that’s a good time to take a break from the writing desk, stretch a bit, refill, take a walk, socialize, and play.

Cannot do without

Good stationery, a very fine black marker, a very smooth blue ball pen, a very sharp pencil. I like graph paper books or math books. I got myself a clipboard, that way if I need to kick my legs up onto the table or lie back on a couch, I can comfortably sit back and still have a stable surface to write against. I benefit from having a window with a tree outside. I need a closed door and an empty room. Sometimes I’ll play a silly little game on my phone or on my Nintendo Switch if I’m in that kind of mood and need a little break.

The look

Something loose in the shoulders. Breathable. Big shirts or T-shirts. I need to be able to cross my legs and move them about, so tights. Or gym pants. Or pajamas. I need to have taken a good shower first.

Witching hours

I try to write when I can—sometimes I get a lot of work done in one sitting and then it takes a few days before I can have that time to myself. I write pretty well when I should be working on other things, and not so well when I have time to write. I’m trying to build that discipline and structure now, so I’m writing more often these past few weeks. I’m more concerned with quality than quantity.

The book club on Bajaber’s House of Rust meets virtually on July 1st.

About the Interviewee

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber is a writer and poet from Mombasa, Kenya and The House of Rust is her debut novel.

About the Interviewer

Radical Books Collective creates progressive conversations about writing and publishing through virtual book clubs, literary events and podcasts.

Further Reading