Year was good for literature, and 2011 will be even better

Friday December 24 2010

Photo| File The cover of Kwani? 06, which was launched on the last day of the Kwani Litfest.

Photo| File The cover of Kwani? 06, which was launched on the last day of the Kwani Litfest. 

By Tom Odhiambo [email protected]

The last and definitive literary event of the year in Kenya was Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s public lecture in Taifa Hall, University of Nairobi on December 15.

Ngugi’s lecture, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A 50-Year Literary Journey, should set the tone for debates on culture and literature in the country in 2011.

For a writer and scholar whose career blossomed at the University of Nairobi, Ngugi’s lecture was a challenge to all who care about Africa, its people and their cultures to reassess their commitment and renew them. This is a point that he has frequently revisited in his latest essay, Remembering Africa and memoir, Dreams in a Time of War.

Ngugi’s lecture was prefaced by Micere Mugo’s Reflections and Lessons, which was also delivered at the University of Nairobi, in the 8-4-4 Building. It is instructive that Micere’s lecture, with its emphasis on history, was delivered in a building that symbolises the adoption of a new system of education and a time when, probably, Kenya’s culture began to be seriously adulterated.

But a more significant aspect to this lecture was the stated expectation by the Kwani Trust that these two grandparents of Kenyan literature meet and tell the story of their times and lives.

Micere did not disappoint, holding the attention of the audience for over two hours in which she weaved the cultural and literary trajectories of the post-colonial moment whilst emphasising the need to always remember history if we expect the country to offer a better life for all.

From a literary point of view, history is a weightier matter. With tales of poverty overwhelming the masses whilst the leaders rip off the country, landlessness, displacement, and mass unemployment among the youth, Kenyan stories have to contend with such ‘histories of alienation and emasculation’, whatever form a poem, a short story, a play or a novel takes.

History is also important in the sense of the ‘history of Kenyan literature.’ These two lectures and the other workshops, panel discussions and interviews that surrounded the Kwani Litfest recast the debate on the value of literature to the society, and what future there is for writing and publishing in Kenya and Africa.

Can young (unknown?) writers ever break through the publishing barriers, can the new Kenyan writing thrive without able critics who would also be willing to ‘grow’ with it, is there (or rather, should there be) really a barrier between the academy and the writers’ world?

These questions have floated around tables, workshops, seminars and such other places in this country for long. Maybe these questions are valid, maybe they are not. But they are still unsettling and not settled. Why?

Probably because there is unwillingness among the concerned parties to actually pause and reflect on it.

If you are a writer, you cannot ignore the question of publishing – what, where, how and with what consequences. It is this publishing question that saw the birth of Kwani? magazine.

It is the intergenerational gap in writing and the place of history that informs Kwani? 06, which was launched on the last day of the Kwani Litfest.

And this new issue does not disappoint. It is a mix of poetry, prose and picture. The poetry is from ‘emerging’ African poets, although largely Kenyans. The fiction is drawn from the selected texts to two competitions that Kwani Trust run last year: the Kenya I Live In and the Africa I Live In.

It is fair to say that this year has been good for Kenyan literature. Apart from the Kwani Litfest, there was the StoryMoja-Hay Festival in September; Lily Mabura was nominated and shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing; Mbugua Ng’ang’a got a good mention from the judges for the Commonwealth Prize for African Writing; Mukoma wa Ngugi and Moraa Gitaa were shortlisted for the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing; Wambui Githiora was shortlisted for African Studies Association (the American chapter) Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize; and I am currently reading Yusuf Dawood’s 10th book, Eye of the Storm, published this year, among many others by Kenyan authors from local and international publishers. I have thrown the bones and they say next year will be even more productive!

Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.