(And Other Reflections at the NYrobi Book Fest)
by Alexander Nderitu
The inaugural NYrobi Book Fest took place at Alliance Française de Nairobi from 25th to 26th June, 2021. It was a beacon of hope for Kenyan writers and book lovers to finally be able to participate in a physical event after the COVID-19 pandemic killed off some literary events and pushed others online.
One of the stand-out events at the festival was a discussion dubbed ‘Kenyan Literature – From the Past to the Present’. I was one of the exhibitors at the fair (showcasing three of my books; When the Whirlwind Passes, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese and Kiss Commander Promise) but decided that I would go down to the auditorium for the discussion. The discussants were author/journalist Tony Mochama, author/journalist Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki, film/theatre lecturer Dr. Zippy Okoth (Kenyatta University) and literature don Dr. Godwin Siundu (University of Nairobi). The moderator was the host of the long-running KBC radio show Books Café, Khainga O’Okwemba. The talk started more than an hour late, prompting Dr. Tom Odhiambo (a lecturer and literary critic) to excuse himself to take a look at the book stands as we waited for things to kick off. I hadn’t recognized Dr. Zippy at first, and it wasn’t because of her face mask. She had changed her hairstyle, from her trademark blonde short-cropped brush, into a big, black Afro. (One the sidelines Tony remarked that it reminded him of the 1970’s disco era and did a little jig to illustrate!)
|Host Khainga O’Okwemba
If this review of the discussion seems a bit unfocused then I will have captured the nature of the discussion accurately! The conversation was all over the place - touching on national history, politics, language, academia, personal histories, and so on. And yet, the colliding ideas from different trajectories of thought and speech did produce some illuminating bursts of light. In the early going, Khainga requested Dr. Godwin to give a brief history of the growth of Kenyan literature over the years. This the university don did mentioning the usual names you’d expect – Ngugi wa Thiong’o et al – and landing on the modern era. He spoke eloquently and intellectually; he was clearly a practiced public speaker. His opening speech was exactly what one would have expected from an academic – well researched, intellectual, inter alia - but not radical or particularly exciting. Towards the end of his presentation, he mentioned the AKO Caine Prize for Literature and its impact on the local scene.
|L - R: Dr. Godwin Siundu and Dr. Zippy Okoth
Turning to Dr. Zippy Okoth, Khainga wondered if it bothered her that there were very few women in the early days of Kenyan literature? Zippy smilingly countered that she was not old enough to offer insights but she nonetheless gave her two cents:
‘I believe patriarchy a big role. Especially when you look at country where even having an ID or opening a bank account or even getting work was hard for a woman. I think it was the same for women at that time, in academia or any other field…Considering the patriarchy system at that time , a lot of women were not coming out to that level…When we had women like Marjorie Oludhe and Grace Ogot, coming out, they had powerful men behind them, who stood by them. Because if you look at the history of their husbands, they were notable men in the society...It was an issue of patriarchy and girls not being given a high level of education.’
The discussion now turned to Zippy’s own work, an autobiographical book titled Oops Zippy! The author explained how it came about:
‘When I started writing, initially I just used to do poems and short stories. But this book was inspired by my personal life. It’s not a novel, it’s a monologue. I am a theatre practitioner and generally a storyteller. So for me to do this book, it was a journey of having it on stage first, and then I decided to turn it into a book…It’s in two parts, but it’s a monologue…I recorded myself speaking to an imaginary audience, then I turned it into a script, which may not be orthodox but it’s the only way I knew then.’
Zippy had initially staged it as a one-woman show. She said that before she went on stage the first time, to perform this deeply personal show, she got some professional counseling. Her hubby, who is mentioned in the piece, was a soldier. Writing and performing play into a book was therapeutic for her, she said. Khainga asked her to read a passage from the book. ‘Do you want romance or violence?’ the author asked the audience. ‘Violent romance!’ one audience member roared. Zippy chose to read about the death of her infant son. She described in graphic detail how she had screamed when she discovered her non-responsive son, attracting nearby construction son. She tried to resuscitate him to no avail. Her then husband was difficult to reach on phone. She took the deceased infant to hospital. Unbelieving, she refused to let go of the cadaver because she was still nursing the hope that it would breathe again. The medics eventually convinced to accept the reality of her loss. Shockingly, some people accused her of carelessness instead of sympathizing with the grieving mother.
There were other readings during the session. A female audience member read a poem from Muthoni Likimani’s book, What Does a Man Want? Tony Mochama read from his book The Road to Eldoret.
Khainga later brought up veteran actor/playwright John Sibi-Okumu’s book, Collected Plays 2004 – 2014, which had been launched in that very auditorium the previous night. ‘Will Kenyatta University theatre teachers now buy and teach John Sibi-Okumu’s book of plays?’ he inquired. ‘We have been teaching the works of Kenyan playwrights like John Sibi-Okumu and Francis Imbuga and we’ll continue to do so,’ Zippy replied.
If the people on stage were Idols judges, Zippy would have been ‘the good one’, Tony Mochama ‘the harsh Simon Cowell-type’ and Ciku would have been somewhere between the two. Ciku is outspoken but not radical – except to conservatives. For example, she said that some people considered it edgy for the word ‘penis’ to appear on the first page of her new novel, Cocktail From the Savannah. Tony on the other hand, eats controversy for breakfast. For example, while challenging linear thinking amongst aspiring writers, he used a very earthy metaphor: ‘We can’t continue thinking in the missionary style! Not that I have anything against the missionary position but there are other ways to do things.’ Something else had also caught his attention:
‘Somebody mentioned the Caine Prize. The Caine Prize is overrated! And I’m not speaking from a place of bitterness – we have won many prizes…The Caine Prize is for a short story…Somebody wins and they become happy because they’re being praised by wazungus (Whites). And they go to London and sit with important people. It’s for a short story! There are people who have come through (a local writing program) and won the Caine Prize, and now hawashikiki! (they’re untouchable)…
There was a Sudanese person who won it (Caine) in 2000…And then Binyavanga (Wainaina) came along. And Binyavanga was a force of nature. So Caine Prize does owe Binyavanga a lot. Because he said, “With this money (Caine Prize winnings), I am going to create some literary movement… Binyavanga was big man, with a big mind, a big stomach, a big heart; but mostly, he was a guy with a big voice...” ’
Tony’s rant encapsulated an important thought: Does the Caine Prize make the writers or do the writers make the Caine Prize? Binyavanga himself later became a harsh critic of the Caine Prize. At one time he shockingly Tweeted:
‘It (Caine Prize) just isn’t our institution… what is happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London.’
Binyavanga’s criticism of the top writing prize in Sub-Saharan Africa itself drew harsh criticism. After all, he had accepted the award, prize money, travel, and prestige that came with the UK-based prize. Perhaps it’s safer to conclude that Caine Prize and Binyavanga made (or ‘used’) other? Binyavanga aka Binya aka The Binj founded Kwani?, a literary journal that evolved into a publishing house, in the early-2000s. He passed away on 21st May 2019. As for Kwani?, once the hottest address for aspiring East African scribes, it still exists but its star has dimmed considerably over the past few years.
Tony Mochama, a Miles Morland Fellow and three-time winner of the Burt Awards for African Young Adult Literature, had launched a new book just days before NYrobi Fest. Titled Political Parties After Political Parties, the non-fiction work was described by writer/activist Kingwa Kamencu as ‘chronicling the dalliance between political parties, the Executive and Kenyans over time, it offers a lot of food for thought.’
Regarding the current political situation in the country, as parties scramble to gain popularity ahead of next year’s polls, Tony had another earthy metaphor for the ruling party, Jubilee: it’s like a badly driven matatu (public bus) where the conductors are throwing out passengers as the vehicle moves! This was a reference to Jubilee’s controversial expulsion of numerous high-profile members, many of whom have now coalesced around a relatively new party, the UDA.
Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki, who apart from being a columnist for The Nairobian has now authored three novels, talked about her latest work, themed on love and marriage in the Maasai community. She wondered how it came to be that society accepted polygamy amongst the Maa people but wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to other communities:
‘They’re proud of it. Nobody judges them… When you see a Maasai man with only one wife, you’re like, “Why?” But when you meet a Kikuyu man with two wives, you think, “How dare you!” ’
Ciku said she had no favourite writer (and no particular literary role model) but was an avid reader who read anything ‘except motivational books!’ At some point, an audience member brought in the question of a writer’s ‘style’. His argument was that the Kenyan school system teaches people to right in a certain flat, unoriginal manner and there was a dearth of writers with their own unique styles of writing. Ciku said she had no conscious ‘style’ of her own. Whatever ‘style’ readers recognized in her writing came to her, not the other way round. Academia took a lot of flak during the discussion. One audience member asked Dr. Godwin Siundu point blank whether his literature students are now writers. The literature don he had encountered many of his former students working in various professions and that not all were expected to turn into authors. We can’t have a nation full of authors. Dr. Zippy explained that she teaches ‘performance’ (not literature/creative writing per se.) Tony described the early pushback the Kwani?’-generation of wordsmiths received from academia:
we had nasty fights (with academics). The worse was with (Professor) Egara
Kabaji. I did my first book (So What if I
am a Literary Gangster?) When I was just trying to ask him for a review, he
rushed to the newspaper and wrote that “these are literary gangsters with
Binyavanga as their godfather." I didn’t have a title. I though, yeah, so what
if I’m a literary gangster? So that’s how the title came about. But we’ve gotten
good friends from academia. The first convert we had was Professor Chris
Wanjala, the late…We travelled all over the country… '
An audience member asked, to wit: ‘Do university literary departments produce writers or just other teachers of literature?’ Responding to one question, Dr. Siundu said, ‘I will answer but, Khainga, this (academia bashing) is not what I signed for. (Dr. Godwin was in fact filling in for Dr. Alex Wanjala, another University of Nairobi literature don, so it’s hard to tell what he was expecting.) Responding to a question on the importance of MFAs and creative writing programs, Ciku said that she had considered taking creative writing lessons after her first book, Nairobi Cocktail. She later changed her mind. She didn’t want to be straitjacketed by the training; to be writing in her house and constantly wondering, ‘Does this fit in with what were told about such things?’ Tony said that he had not done an MFA either (he had in fact studied law) but had gained greatly from creative writing programs, in particular some that had been organized in Russia by Mikhail Iossel. The Saint Petersburg-born Mikhail is a professor of English at Concordia University and a Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars. An audience member wanted to know what the fate of students of literature and creative writing programs would be, now that journos had found a ‘soft landing’ in the writing profession. Tony agreed that many journos had turned to creative writing but warned that the writing life was no charmed existence. He said that he personally wakes up at 3:00 AM every weekday to write. That’s his regimen. (He’s also a long-time columnist for The East African Standard.)
Tony also spoke at length on ‘the power of language’, after bringing up literary icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o who is well-known as activist for vernacular tongues, despite living in the Diaspora:
‘These narratives sell. Like if I say, I’m saving (my native) Kisii. That would be a great narrative. If I say I’m saving Kisii language, not just literature – OK, I can’t really write in Kisii – it’s a great story. It’s like saving the dolphin, or something like that…My own thinking is whatever language we are using, we must learn to convert our Africanism (into it), to tell our stories. People like to say, “in our own language”. If you can do that, fine, but English is eating up everything. It eats up languages, it devours them. So we must tell our stories in this English that we speak and speak very strongly back to those white worlds…Or those Chinese worlds…I love this English language. It’s not beautiful like French…But English in its plainness and its brutality is a language that incorporates a lot of things, including one’s own thoughts.’
Towards the end of the session, things turned political again. Sitting in the audience Irungu Houghton, whose book new book, Dialogue & Dissent was available at the event, asked what role Kenyan scribes may have played not just in response to political happenings in the country but as agents of those very happenings. In keeping with the randomness of the discussions, host Khainga O’Okwemba remarked that he had been invited to South Africa during the African National Congress’ centenary celebrations. He was to participate in a discussion dubbed ‘The Role of the Writer’ but, as it happens, he never made it to the Rainbow Nation for the fete. This topic was not adequately covered due to time restrictions. In any case, a topic like that would require plenty of time and preparation in order to be satisfyingly tackled. May I suggest that ‘The Role of the Writer in Politics and Governance’ be one of the topics of the next NYrobi Fest? Irungu Houghton, the Chief Strategist at Amnesty International Kenya, can moderate or be a panelist?
|Irungu Houghton and Dr. Zippy Okoth (Photo: Msanii Kimani Wanyoike)
This year’s NYrobi Fest was the first of its kind. The idea stemmed from yet another literary program by the Alliance Française de Nairobi, a monthly interview session dubbed Mbogi ya Mawriters, which aims to promote new writing from Kenya. The key participants this year included the Kenya Writers Guild, Writers Space Africa, Bloggers Association of Kenya, Twaweza Communications, IFRA, Kwani?, Prestige Shop, Nuria Books Stores, Mystery Publishers, John Sibi-Okumu, Msanii Kimani wa Wanjiru, Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete, Salim Busuru, Douglas Logedi, Shi Marima, and yours truly. There were also performances by Wangari the Storyteller and Mufasa the Poet.