Friday, August 30, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 7) - Myth of ‘No reading culture’

‘A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face…It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.’ – Edward P. Morgan

‘I’m mad about good books,
Can’t get my fill…’
- Frank Sinatra, ‘How About You?’ (song)

Shortly after I arrived in Nairobi in 2001, I made the mistake of letting a neighbor in South ‘C’ know that I was an aspiring author. The neighbour shook his head as if someone had died and said, ‘Kenyans don’t buy books. The only things they buy are beer and condoms.’ I, of course, ignored him and in any case, he has a history of getting things dead wrong. During, the 2003 General Elections, for example, this same genius said – through an alcoholic haze – ‘Kibaki will never be President!’ (Actually, Kibaki went on to become President for two consecutive terms).

Drunkards aside, there is a myth that has been perpetuated for as long as I can remember. It goes something like this: ‘There is no reading culture in Kenya’. It also takes other forms, during discourse, such as ‘Kenyans don’t read.’

But it’s a myth.

Actually, Kenyans are some of the best-read people anywhere. Kenyans love a book. Many
average middle- and lower middle-class homes have a home library. Some suburban homes
have collections that would rival small libraries. When I enter such a home, I usually wonder: ‘Have they read all those books?’

I have seen Kenyans reading novels in schools, recreation parks, buses, matatus, at work stations (instead of doing what they’re paid for!) and in one bizarre instance, a man was reading a Tom Clancy while walking! In high school, novels were basically contrabands but that didn’t stop us from reading them every chance we got, especially during the evening ‘prep’ time. One night, we had a power blackout when my best friend was in the middle of a James Hadley Chase. So caught up was he that he borrowed a box of matches from an (illegal) smoker and would strike a match, read a few lines, strike another match and so on!

‘A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.’ - Horace Mann

The problem is that students in Kenya (from primary school all the way to tertiary institutions) are encouraged to simply ‘cram’ for exams. They’re not taught to embrace knowledge or befriend books. The emphasis is on passing your (final) exam by hook or by crook. This culture fosters inventive cheating methods and, in tertiary institutions, sex-for-marks arrangements with lecturers.

Many high schools in Kenya have the culture of ‘academic fires’ whereby boarding students make a bonfire of their exercise books (and other unwanted books) on their last night in school. It’s a bad habit because their education is NOT over - if anything, it’s just beginning. But all that ‘cramming’ makes them long for the day they’ll be free of (text) books. Some of them end up with a genuine hatred for books (because they equate them with mental torture). Needless to say, intellectual literary commentators accentuate the problem by invoking the ghost of ‘no reading culture’ because, like the ‘literary desert’ premise, it makes good discourse for intellectuals (what else are English professors going to talk about? How to make the perfect omelette? The sex lives of Hollywood stars?) Schools, publishers and the Ministry of Education need to market books to students as reliable sources of information on any topic under the sun. One way to do this is to flood school libraries with compelling ‘supplementary reading’ materials. Let them learn about wildlife, mythology, space, machines, philosophy, famous people, religions, ancient
history, the sea (For example: Did you know that the largest forests and highest mountains are underwater?) Let them seek books after they graduate in order to learn more about topics that pique their interest. All this ‘cramming’ for exams, day and night, makes them think that intensive reading is a phase you have to go through on your way to adulthood.

To show how strong the reading culture is, the two main newspapers in the country, The Daily Nation and the East African Standard, are read by several MILLION Kenyans every single day. The Sunday Nation and Sunday Standard are read by a couple more million than the dailies. It is actually insulting to tell people, ‘You have no reading culture’, when they are reading newspapers by the million in addition to all the other reading they will do on any given day (work documents, e-mails, magazines, books, newsletters, flyers, posters, Bible/Quran, speeches etc). We also have book clubs such as the True Love Book Club,23 book festivals such as the Kwani Litfest and the Story Moja Hay Festival, numerous ‘Spoken Word Poetry’ sessions all over the country and the ever-expanding Nairobi International Book Fair. In a recent survey on Internet usage, it emerged that two of the big reasons Kenyans websurf is to read newspapers and to read books (in that order). While ‘to read books’ was #12 on the list (far behind E-mail, Social Networking, Job Search, Academic Research and others), I am surprised that it would feature at all in a nation that supposedly has ‘no reading culture.’

To be fair, formal education came with the European missionaries and colonialists so until
recent decades, there wasn’t much of a ‘reading culture’. To illustrate, out of my four grand parents, two were illiterate and the literate ones had the equivalent of a Standard Two education of today. My parents, on the other hand, were not just literate, they were career teachers. In the last six or so decades, both the Kenyan population and the literacy level have risen dramatically. And with primary education now being free for all, the literacy level is set to rise even higher. The market for literature is bigger than ever!

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 6) - Lackluster Literary Awards

‘I can write better than anyone who can write faster and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.’ – A. J. Leibling (1904 – 1963)

On Friday November 23, 2007, an article entitled ‘Literary awards crying for fireworks’
appeared in the Business Daily newspaper. The article decried the sorry state of Kenyan book awards. Basically, all we have are the bi-annual Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature. The Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature is administered by the Kenya Publishers Association and is handed out in a low-key ceremony, denying the winners any substantial exposure. Between 1975 and 1992, the award went under due to lack of funds.

A good literary award should earn the winner some measure of publicity and a jump in sales (which varies depending on the profile of the award). The publisher or agent should be able to leverage on the award to increase the book’s success. The international Booker Prize is a good example of a high-profile literary award. Even a novel that is merely nominated might brag on the cover: ‘Booker shortlisted’. More common is the line: ‘Winner of the (year) Booker Prize’.

Among the authors who have benefited from a Booker win are Ian McEwan and India’s Arudhati Roy (The God of Small Things), both of whom were largely unknown until they bagged the Booker. An architect by training, Arudhati Roy shot to worldwide fame when her first book, The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize. It took her five years to write the book. She has previously worked as a script-writer (she is married to a filmmaker) and aerobics instructor.She has written a second book entitled The Cost of Living.

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize for his novel, Amsterdam which revolves around an editor who is sacked after publishing a politician’s steamy pictures. Another of his books, The Comfort of Strangers, was Booker shortlisted in 1981 but lost to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Incidentally, Rushdie has won the Booker Prize twice (1981 and 1995). In 1992, Ian McEwan was again shortlisted for his book Black Dogs but lost to joint winners Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. (The English Patient went on to become a multi-Academy-Award-winning film.)

The only other person to win the Booker twice was South Africa’s J. M. Coetzee (The Life and Times of Michael K., Waiting For the Barbarians, Disgrace, The Master of Petersburg). He initially won for The Life and Times of Michael K. and then, in 1999, he repeated the feat with Disgrace (the award came along with a £21,000 cash prize. Disgrace revolves around a fifty-two year old Cape Town professor who seeks refuge at his daughter’s farm after an impulsive affair with a student. Last time I heard, Disgrace was being turned into a movie starring John Malkovich (Con Air, Being John Malkovich)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

New GameChanger Store off Thika Road

Good news, gamers! The Thika Road Mall situated near the Roysambo Roundabout, off the SuperHighway, is home to the latest GameChanger video game store. It’s not very big in terms of square feet but for a gamer, it’s still like being a kid in a candy store.  They have all your favourite consoles: PS2, PS3, Xbox, PSP, Nintendo and Wii (They even have a small version – the Wii Mini).

As with most new stores, the TRM GameChanger has some opening offers, including free giveaways for big spenders and free gaming time for any customer who buys a game or accessory (ending 4th August).

Talking of games, there’s quite a range of original games for the various types of consoles. No racing games (like Need For Speed) for PS2 but there are some for Xbox. Available games include FIFA 12, High School Musical, Halo, God of War, Last of Us, Uncharted, WWE All Stars, UFC Unisputed and – wait for it! - the entire Assassin’s Creed trilogy.

WWE All Stars features the much-hyped Ultimate Warrior character.  According to wrestling guide, a tip when playing the Ultimate Warrior character is to ‘combine strong strike combos with submission moves such as bear hugs.  Warrior's leaping shoulder blocks are the perfect counter to an Acrobat's rope spring maneuvers and can be performed as a running strong strike or as a charged up signature move.’

The Assassin’s Creed series is another of GameChangers big sellers – and for good reason. This highly-rated, award-winning, platinum-selling historical fantasy missions combine great storylines with realistic heroes and awesome graphics. Geniuses must have been hired to put this thing together.

For the uninitiated, Assassin’s Creed is a historical action-adventure game developed by Ubisoft for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Microsoft Windows. Part 1 of the game pits two ancient factions - the Knights Templar and a Secret Order of Assassins - over an artefact known as a ‘Piece of Eden’. In the UK, Assassin's Creed debuted at No. 1, knocking Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (by Infinity Ward) off its pedestal. (Not to lose sight of facts, Call of Duty 4 had the biggest release in entertainment history - $400 million on the first day of sales, and I’m not talking Monopoly money!)

Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood was released in November 2009, starring a new assassin, and was also a mega seller.

Given the success of the first two releases, there was a lot of anxiety amongst both developers and players as to whether the third instalment, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, would be a hit or a miss. All doubts were ‘assassinated’ when Revelations became by far Ubisoft’s biggest release of 2013, moving 12.5 million units (both retail and digitally). Two other Ubisoft titles also flew off the shelves: Just Dance 4 (8.5 million units sold) and Far Cry 3 (6 million units sold). 

Stay tuned for Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 5) - Censorship

‘I write what I like.’ – Steve Biko

‘Could I, like Malcolm X, use my pen to stab at social injustice?
They kill outspoken writers, don’t they?
Look at what happened to Stokeley Carmichael, Ken Saro-Wiwa…’
- Alexander Nderitu, ‘The Golden Man’ (poem), The Moon is Made of Green Cheese

Author harassment and censorship have been monsters, especially in the past, precipitating the self-exile of such literary luminaries as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo (The Trial of Dedan Kimathi). No stranger to controversy, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was once arrested and detained without trial for his perceived criticism of the then government. He wrote the book, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary on toilet paper while in a maximum security prison. Humourist Wahome Mutahi, a novelist and long-time columnist, was also summarily arrested during the Moi regime and taken to the infamous torture chambers. In one of his ‘Whispers’ columns, he amusingly recounts an incident (fictional?) in a bar in which he splashes alcohol onto a portrait of then president Daniel Moi and then wipes it off but is later accosted by government agents. Upon his release from detention, Wahome Mutahi wrote Three Days on the Cross describing a man being
hellishly tortured. According to a book review in Newsweek magazine, Mutahi’s mother became ill after learning of the novel’s contents.

Incidents such as these served to discourage aspiring writers, including journalists. When I was a teenager and already on my way to being an author, my motherly next-door neighbour warned me: ‘Don’t write politics – you’ll be arrested.’ Political publications, especially books and magazines, have always been the target of censorship in this country. In 1986, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s political novel, Matigari ma Njirungi, published by Heinemann, reportedly sold 1,000 copies in less than a week but was banned by the government.

In 1998, the Kenyan government banned 30 books and publications for ‘sedition and immorality’, including The Quotations of Chairman Mao and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

In the mid-2000’s, a lobby group called Parents Caucus (operating under the Catholic Church in Kenya) pushed for the withdrawal of three novels from the school syllabus. The offensive books were A Man of the People (a political satire by Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe) and Kiu and Kitumbua Kimeingia Mchanga (Kiswahili books by Zanzibar’s S. A Mohammed). The lobby group called for the banning of the three books on the grounds that they were ‘morally objectionable’ and ‘pornographic’. It is important to note that A Man of the People is one of Africa’s best-read novels and had never stirred such controversy before. As a matter of fact, both A Man of the People and Kiu had been set-books for Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education Examinations (KCSE), in the 1970’s and 1980’s respectively, without any uproar. Writers, literary critics, thespians and a large section of the populace immediately railed against the impending ban, saying it was reminiscent of KANU-era censorship when Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s books were banned. Seeing as how the Catholic Church was at the forefront of the censorship crusade, people writing in to newspaper editors and on the Internet wondered aloud if the concerned clergymen had ever read The Bible and if they had, why they hadn’t recommended the censorship of its numerous sexual references and descriptions. The Bible, after all, not only contains sexual encounters (including sodomy, incest, adultery and rape) but also incidents of fratricide, homicide, genocide, infanticide, human sacrifice, slavery, famine, plagues, a global flood and a climax (The Book of Revelation) that reads like the script of a Star Wars movie. Not to be distracted by petty things like facts, the lobby group made it clear that they did not think that Achebe was ‘a man of the people’ and they were ‘no longer at ease’ with his works. To prove that there were more moralists in Nairobi than the ‘anthills of the savannah’, they got two thousand parents to sign a protest note titled ‘Help Kick Pornography Out of the Classroom.’ Their mission, apparently, was to make sure ‘things fall apart’ for would-be pornographers.

My personal reaction to this controversy was to roll with laughter at the thought of Chinua
Achebe as a pornographer. I wonder what those lobbyists would think of David Maillu’s After 4.30 or, better still, Xaviera’s sex novels. The literary equivalent of hardcore porn films, Xaviera’s internationally bestselling books (The Happy Hooker, The Best Part of a Man, The Golden Phallus of Osiris etc) are filled with minute descriptions of sexual escapades. Xaviera’s sexual tales were drawn from her own experiences and The Happy Hooker (which was turned into a film) is her autobiography. Her books are published by Grafton Books and have sold from London to New Zealand. Compared to Xaviera, Hollywood chronicler Jackie Collins looks like Mother Teresa.

Moving on swiftly, the issue of censorship is a universal, not a Kenyan, one. Since historical times, many popular books have been censored for touching on the taboo subjects of the day (sex, politics, religion etc). Classics that were censored include Mark Twains’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Orwell’s 12.8 million-copy bestseller 1984, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Anne Franks’ now-legendary The Diary of Anne Frank, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.D. Salinger’s ultra-famous The Catcher in the Rye.

Some books like The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence by Victor Marchetti, a former CIA official, were censored even before they were written! In 1980, the US Supreme Court upheld an injunction against another former CIA officer, Frank Snepp, concerning a book Snepp had written criticizing the spy agency’s handling of Vietnamese intelligence aides. The Supreme Court ordered the author to turn over his profits from the book, Decent Interval, to the government.

Certain books were threatened with lawsuits even before publication. These include Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers and biographies of J. F. Kennedy, Earnest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Katherine Graham and Claus von B├╝low. According to Suing the Press by Rodney Smolla, more and more books are being censored because of the threat of a libel suit. It will be recalled that, in 2000, then-powerful Kenyan Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott won a ten million-shilling libel suit against sellers of a book on the Robert Ouko murder mystery (Dr. Ian’s Casebook) that negatively mentioned his name. Bookpoint and Bookshop agreed to pay Biwott five million Kenya shillings apiece and apologize through the print media. The same year, Biwott successfully sued The People Daily newspaper (over an unflattering article) and then Githunguri Member of Parliament, Njehu Gatabaki, for publishing an article (on the multi-billion Turkwell Hydro-Electric Power project) that adversely mentioned his name.

Abroad, some popular books were banned and then un-banned.These include Wilbur Smith’s The Golden Fox (banned on grounds of racism) and Ian Fleming’s State of Excitement. It took court action before certain books, like Erskine Calwell’s God’s Little Acre and Irish poet/novelist James Joyce’s Ulysses, could be sold in the US (both due to sexually explicit language). Interestingly, when, at the end of the last millennium  a group of American publishers got together to decide which was the greatest novel of the 20th century, James Joyce’s Ulysses was #1!

When I wrote When the Whirlwind Passes,it originally had four brief sex scenes (It is, after all, about a beautiful girl who sleeps her wicked way to wealth and glamour). When a brick-and-mortar publisher asked to see the manuscript, I deleted the sex scenes. I wasn't ashamed of them. Far from it – I think writers should have a lot more latitude in what they write. Topics like sex, religion and politics should not be ‘off limits’, because they are an important part of life. The father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud (Totem & Taboo), theorized that ancient man came up with taboos in order to control others (especially women). Some taboos made no sense eg. In some communities, there were parts of a slaughtered animal that were reserved for men and others for women. Curiously, the men got the best parts! The reason I self-censored When the When the Whirlwind Passes was because the interested publisher deals mainly in textbooks and I didn’t want them to think that I write ‘sex novels’.

Hopefully, one day all writers will be like Steve Biko and just write what they like. Until then, the best option might be the Danielle Steel approach. Despite being a romance novelist, Danielle Steel’s books have no sex scenes. Her argument: ‘I think it’s sexier to shut the door in people’s faces.’

As of now, there are many holier-than-thou critics just waiting to nit-pick on your sensational novel. It makes them feel less guilty about their own lifelong transgressions – ask Sigmund Freud.