In the business of writing, any writer worth his/her salt learns to appreciate criticism.
Once upon a time, the late veteran politician Martin Shikuku said that you run fastest when you know you have a challenger behind you. That metaphor expresses the relationship between writers and critics.
As a writer you strive to do your best when you are criticised. In fact, your worst critics could be your best motivator. The higher you go in the academic world, the more you appreciate balanced criticism.
Similarly, there is the saying that your weight is measured by other people’s hands. However, although there are professional critics, there are deliberate destructive critics. That is the stand on which my learned friend, Prof Chris Wanjala, stood when he “sonkonised” my works in the article published on this forum last week.
Over the years Wanjala has remained a rather bizarre critic to me who, since early 1970s, has posed as a friend. When Wanjala and I meet or when he invites me to address his students, or when he sends a student to me for some help, he doesn’t refer to me as someone who writes works characteristic of “sonko” in behaviour.
Instead, my friend refers to me as an African literary icon, and then proceeds to shower me with all manner of praises.
However, behind my back, my friend pours literary venom over my works. He and I have shared several international writers’ workshops and forums. The earliest was in Nigeria in 1977 during the African Arts Festival, and the latest was in Sweden.
Once upon a time, while he was still a professor of literature — when he didn’t sonkonise my creative capability — Bwana Chris Lukorito Wanjala, begged me to be my student in creative writing.
He was dying to write a novel but he lacked the imagination of how to go about it. Periodically, I tried to coach him for nearly a year then I left him go flying on his own wings. Years after, he came up with one sadly grim novel, Drums of Death — the only novel he has ever written and published.
My critic friend should admit that it is not true that no institution in Kenya would have my books set for undergraduate scholarship. The truth is that I have works read from primary school to university levels.
Unfortunately, my friend does not appear to know this. He doesn’t even know that my latest book, Man From Machakos, is highly appreciated in Rwanda. I am being read the world over. That is why I have an international acclaim. I cannot count the number of scholars who have done doctorates on my work.
Surely, Wanjala knows a host of some of my distinguished academic literary admirers, whom he has also interacted with for years. Thank God one of them, Prof Egara Kabaji, stressed some important points in the article.
Hate him or like him
It is Kabaji who once said: “(Maillu) hate him or like him, he is flamboyant, daring, adventurous and whimsical at times, prolific, almost mysterious, vulgar, talented, knowledgeable, and yes, simply enigmatic.” (East African Standard newspaper). And the eminent Prof Bernth Lindfors said, “Maillu, the moralist, Maillu the practical psychologist, Maillu the homegrown philosopher, Maillu the comedian, Maillu the publisher.”
As for Prof Evan Mwangi: “Scholars see the value of Maillu’s popular novels in showing the hidden social reality… Africa has its Shakespeare; praising Shakespeare and condemning Maillu is illegitimate and against the spirit of scholarship (Nation newspaper).”
Prof Micere Mugo told me when she was the Dean of Faculty of Arts at the University of Nairobi, “We study you (Maillu) in literature as the most original author in Africa.” And Prof Henry Indangasi said, “Maillu is not only Kenya’s most prolific writer but also the favourite of the average reader in the country. (Dictionary of Literature Biography, Vol 157).
I overheard Kabaji saying something true: that most people who criticise my books are actually people who have not read them. I have met many people who ask me, “Have you stopped writing?” My answer to them is, “You are the one who has stopped reading.” They usually laugh and go away.
There is nothing special about reading my book, but I challenge my friend Wanjala to say how many of my books he has read. It is so unfortunate that we have a brand of lecturers, with the number growing fast, who hardly read and who, in teaching, they rely primarily on literature notes they took ages ago.
Although even in academic circles Wanjala is well-known for being a lecturer who hardly reads and in teaching he relies primarily on literature notes he made in 1970s when he read some of my books, some of which he used for his doctorate thesis before he stopped reading, he has been publishing demeaning stories about my work.
No wonder the professor’s ignorance can make him afford to claim that no university would list my works for undergraduate studies.
The story of knowledge is that the more you read, the more you realise how little you know. Reading culture is built on insatiable curiosity to discover what and how much you don’t know.
Traditional setting has it that sharing knowledge was achieved by interacting with people. The more you interacted with people, the more you got educated.
Unfortunately, that tradition is fast dying, leaving persons as individuals and nuclear families. Even the extended family is losing grip over people. People are not there any more to share their knowledge with you. However, there are books with all the knowledge you want to replace the fast disappearing social order.
This is why, if anybody has to progress and if we have to promote our cultural values, reading culture has to be developed fast and religiously.
I read with intense interest the extensive article in Saturday Nation’s Literary Discourse on February 2. I must commend the Nation for giving us such a special and valuable forum.
Please allow me at this stage to correct some misinformation carried in the article. One of the mistakes is that I worked for KBC only in 1970 when, in reality, I worked for 10 years, from 1964.
Secondly, it strikes me that some people think that you can only get educated through the formal system of education. Of course, that is the common procedure; but, there are other ways of going about it.
I went through the unorthodox approach because I wanted to have higher education at a time when institutions of higher learning were too few. I am, and proud of it, a self-taught man from Standard Eight. I did my high school and other levels through correspondence courses.
My earned doctorate, from St Clements University, an accredited varsity in Australia, is in African Literature and Political Philosophy — subjects which I can teach anywhere in the world.
The doctorate was based on assessment of my published works that included Broken Drum, Our Kind of Polygamy and other works. The Political Philosophy part of the doctorate was based on my published scientific work: African Indigenous Political Ideology, which took me many years to research.
The biggest misinformation was that, although I have published about 70 books, I have had 130 manuscripts turned down. The correction is that the 130 manuscripts is the number of unpublished works I hold.
The article claimed that my latest novel, Man From Machakos, published by Jomo Kenyatta Foundation was launched in Nairobi. The correction is that it was never launched anywhere, not even at Machakos town, from which the title is named.
Prof Wanjala, who is the chairman of the National Books Development Council, should know that my books were never banned in Kenya.
They were banned only in Tanzania together with Ngugi’s books just before the collapse of East African Community in 1970s. However, they were banned in the apartheid South Africa where After 4.30 and My Dear Bottle were regarded as Marxist works, something that my learned friend, Wanjala, does not appear to know.
In addition, the theme of the article was: Why veteran writer (me) believes literature lecturers and publishers cannot stand his brilliance. Some of my literature friends and publishers are up in arms against me for that expression.
I should make them at peace by saying that the statement was misguiding.
On the contrary, I have got many literature lecturers and publishers who admire my brilliance. That is why I am published by more than six publishers in Kenya and overseas.
In Kenyan academic institutions, I have interacted closely with most of the literature lecturers, sharing ideas, teaching and helping one another. These include professors like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, late Okot p’Bitek, Tabal Lo Liyong, Micere Mugo, late Francis Imbuga, Henry Indangasi, to the latest and youngest.
Publishing industry is the biggest industry in the Britain and Britain leads the world in publishing.
Kenya has the infrastructure to establish a dynamic publishing industry, which would have far-reaching implications on the development of humanity.
Publishing creates a solid foundation for developing the culture of the people. Publishing of books is sharing, selling, educating people and expanding knowledge. The greatest civilisation on earth is supported by reading culture. What are we doing about that reading culture? Very little.
Kenya could be a publishing powerhouse, selling knowledge to the world and creating jobs. Does the government know this? There is an African proverb that he who lets the world feed him shouldn’t complain if he is fed with rotten things.
Today if you walk into a Kenyan bookshop what you are confronted with are books published in white man’s countries, where African books are almost invisible. Some of the bookshops give the few African books an invisible corner somewhere. Shame on us! What will develop African pride and civilisation?
Furthermore, the few books that we publish are published in English. If you go to school up to Standard Eight you can rest assured that you have come to the end of your reading age because you are limited by the language. Possibly the only thing you will be left with for reading is the Bible since missionaries were smart to publish vernacular translations.
Embedded in mother tongues
The base of our culture is embedded in our mother tongues, which include Kiswahili. If publishing in mother tongue is not addressed, how will those values be harnessed for the future generations? If education is based on reading, that education will remain to be for the elite.
This is where the government should come in and stop promoting a culture of mitumba brains. Even if we cannot publish in every vernacular, certainly we can advance very far by publishing aggressively in Kiswahili— a language closer home.
I asked a Kikuyu who is a publisher why he would love to publish a novel in English and sell only a thousand copies per year instead of publishing one in Kikuyu and selling at least five thousand copies?
His answer? “Where are the Kikuyu writers?” I asked him whether I should write one book for him in Kikamba and he said, “Well, who will read it?”
I wrote one of my best selling books for children, Poor Child, in Kikamba and I suggested a translation to the publisher, Mr Henry Chakava.
He agreed and I did the translation. Today it is the publisher’s best seller in the series. In other words, mother tongues, including Kiswahili, have potential for producing classics.
In 1970s I wrote a lot of poetry in Kikamba which I broadcasted. The programme became a hit.
The big question is: where do we go from here?
Mr Mailu has written more than 130 books.