Friday, June 5, 2015
SCRIBBLING RIVALRY: Writing Families
‘People ask me that – whether I’m competitive (against other writers). I don’t care. This is the
way I’m wired. I compete with myself. I hope (John) Grisham does well. I hope Stephanie Meyers does well, etcetera etcetera.’ – James Patterson, the world’s No.1 bestselling thriller writer
‘Live your own life, run your own race. Don't worry about what mum said or dad said. We all
have our own path and our own journey on this planet. And if you follow it, you'll be happy - it's going to lead you to joy. If you don't, you end up miserable.’ - Tyler Perry, theatre and film writer/producer
‘Why be jealous when I have the same opportunities as the person who is blessed?’ – Pastor Randy Morrison
A columnist for a small-town newspaper was interviewing me and he kept asking whether there was any writing rivalry between my and my elder sister (the recipient of a Head of State commendation). I replied in the negative but he kept pushing. It was clear the he wanted to use sibling rivalry as the angle for his article but I refused to provide any dirt and he instead focused on my e-book innovations. To his credit, the final article was quite flattering to me. About a year later, Caroline and I did a joint interview for The Star newspaper, article by Catherine Mukei, and that also went well.
It is not uncommon for writers to spring from the same family: Sam Kahiga (Paradise Farm) and Leonard Kibera (The Grapevine Stories) are brothers; Mukoma wa Ngugi (Killing Sahara) and his younger sister Wanjiku wa Ngugi (The Fall of Saints) are children of novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Petals of Blood). In an article for the Daily Nation (21/03/2014), Mukoma wa Ngugi wrote:
‘It is not surprising to me that we are a family of writers. Wanjiku’s novel, The Fall of Saints, has just been published by Simon and Schuster. Tee has a collection of short stories and Nducu a novel coming from East African Educational Publishers. By the end of this year, we shall have four published authors in our family. One more published sibling and we are entering the Guinness book of world records!’
Wahome Mutahi (The Dream Merchants) was a print journalist and now two of his three children are also journalists. Across the border, poetic Somali rapper K’naan is the grandson of a famous Horn of Africa poet and the nephew of noted singer Magool.
Further afield, we have the McDermott siblings - Cate, Alexandra, and Don – whose collaborative writings are targeted at young Americans. We also have twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes who wrote the script for the blockbuster film, The Conjuring, together. In theatre, we have historically had such relatives as Josef and Karel Capek (The Insect Play) and George and Ira Gershwin creating plays together. The world’s most famous writing siblings are probably the Brontë sisters: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. The Brontës were a 19th-century literary family from Yorkshire, England. They gained fame as poets and novelists and many of their works are now considered ‘masterpieces of literature’. Their classic works include Jane Eyre (by Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (by Emily) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (by Anne).
For me, writers being related doesn’t mean much. It’s like two siblings being farmers or doctors or lawyers. I don’t even know why anyone would want to compare ‘Alexander Nderitu’ and ‘Caroline Nderitu’ (as brands). We read different material and, as a consequence, we write in different genres. Commenting on one of my book-promotion efforts on social media, an arts critic commented: ‘You are an inspiration, Alex, just like your sweet sister!’ Now, that’s the kind of thing I like to hear: people being appreciated for what they’re doing, not being placed in negative comparison with others. For the last few years, I have being working like a dog to promote Kenyan literature. I have also been trying very hard to make writers look ‘cool’. I have supported many initiatives that promote literature and been involved in the mentoring upcoming scribes. I don’t have to do these things. But I am more interested in collaborative efforts that boost our trade than in petty jealousies/rivalries. There are times I have bought books at book launches, with no intention of actually reading them – I was just promoting local talent. For example, when Binyavanga Wainaina returned to Kenya (from the US where he was lecturing at the Chinua Achebe Centre), Kwani organised a book launch for his book One Day I Will Write About This Place, at Kenya Railways Headquarters. The day of the book launch, PEN Kenya members were paying a courtesy call on ageing Kenyan writer Marjorie Macgoye (Coming to Birth) at her home in Nairobi. I attended the Marjorie visit and made sure the others were also aware that there was going to be a book launch later that day. In the evening, I attended the book launch and purchased the book but never broke its protective covering. My initial intention was to donate the book to StoryMoja’s Start-a-Library project. At the time, I was working as the head writer of a magazine. The Monday after I bought the book, I gave it to our magazine editor to whom I had broached the idea of a Book Review section. A couple of days later, she told me that she really enjoyed reading the book as it brought back memories of her own childhood. I decided the read the book myself and found it so stylish and funny that I decided against donating it after all.
The point is that I don’t look at fellow writers as competitors. I see them as peers/friends/comrades and I would rather see them succeed than fail. We are all servants of literature. Nobody ‘owns’ literature. You make your contribution and move on (either through death or retirement).
(This article is an excerpt from 'CHANGING KENYA'S LITERARY LANDSCAPE, PART 2': http://www.alexandernderitu.com/papers)