Godwin Siundu teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. He also edits the East African Literary and Cultural Studies Journal and writes literary commentaries and book reviews for the Nation newspaper.
He spoke to Nation.co.ke about the Kenyan literary scene.
Which three books would you term as Kenyan classics and why?
I find it difficult to speak of Kenyan classics, in the sense in which we use the word in literature. This is not to say that we do not have good books in Kenya; it would be a bit of an exaggeration to talk of any book, so far, as a Kenyan classic in the literary sense.
Which one book do you hold so dear that it can’t possibly be lent out?
Ever since I decided to be a lifetime student of literature, I have read a number of books that are so dear to me, and which I go back to again and again, for different reasons.
Memoirs of childhood, generally, have a hold on me that I can’t fully explain. Wole Soyinka’s Ake, Gabriel Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, Wright’s Black Boy, and Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue have a place of pride on my shelves, and in my heart. And then we have that huge monument of literary creativity, Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin.
From these, you see that I am backward looking in a sense. Whether it is a good or bad thing, it is another matter altogether.
If you were to recommend a book to Hon Uhuru Kenyatta and another to Hon Raila Odinga, which books would these be and why?
I have never thought of these gentlemen as readers of books, but then it is hard to imagine how they got to where they are without reading! For both, perhaps I would suggest Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, each for the different narratives the book captures. When all is done, some anthills will tell quite uncomfortable the stories.
Which one book do you think all Kenyans should read and why?
Our compatriots are an interesting lot, and that is what makes us who we are.
I would recommend different books for different groups – and only for those who care to read.
To be ambitious, I suppose Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Ethics in a World of Strangers would do, but on a more practical plane, Nyerere’s essays would teach us a thing or two about forging a unified nation.
What are you currently reading?
I have not been up to it that is solidly academic in the recent past, partly because politically generated fatigue, but also for a few other reasons that are more personal.
So I went back to Gary Stewart’s Rumba on the River, which has soothingly eased me through the political madness of the past month or so.
Do you think eBooks are replacing paper books?
I don’t think so. There is something of unforeseen tenacity of the paper as a medium, which the digital can’t undo.
Of course, both have their strengths and weaknesses, but I believe that the paper books have such a secure place in people’s lives and minds that their place cannot even begin to be threatened in our lifetimes.
Do you think book reviews influence readers’ choices in Kenya, why or why not?
Book reviews definitely influence readers’ choices, first because they announce to readers the arrival of new books on the market, but also because they nearly set templates of engagement for the readers.
On the occasions that I have reviewed books, I have received phone calls and emails from strangers with questions and comments on the books.
This suggests that the reviews actually work.
Your childhood favourite book?
I do not have a clear recollection of my favourite book then, although Mohammed Said Abdulla’s Duniani Kuna Watu left a huge impression on me in my early teens.
If you were to dine with three writers, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Ernest Hemingway would be one of them, because of his ability to strike a delicate balance of emotions and aspiration while addressing what I consider to be some of the universal challenges. For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea are terrific works to come out of his mind, I imagine.
I would also go for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for the reason that his narratives demonstrate an excellent use of suspense, while dealing with concerns that are so dear to many people in the world; the usual struggles that people engage in with their neighbours and environments, and with themselves of course.
The essential beauty of a Marquez story is that its narrative almost always directs the reader away from the easy sentimentalism and more towards a more reflective response to the story.
Many years later, you find yourself reaching out, again, for Love in the Times of Cholera, or that gem, No One Writes to the Colonel. I have a deep respect for VS Naipaul, despite his well-known social aberrations, his A House for Mr Biswas and Half a Life, I think, still have a resonance in the lives that we lead now.
As a literary critic, I assume that you judge quite a few literary competitions in Kenya, do you think Kenyans are writing enough great books?
I have not been a judge of any literary competitions, mercifully. I therefore have little access to the latest publications from Kenya. The little that I come across, however, has room for artistic improvement.
To be fair, the writers are perhaps doing what is possible in the circumstances. But, and I hate to be the one saying it, our literature now is not good enough. There is room for growth. This can, and has been done.
For instance, anyone who reads Peter Kimani’s latest novel, Dance of the Jakaranda and compares it to his earlier works will note a definite finesse in the grasp of language, better editing, and the like.
This was not always so with Kimani’s earlier writings. So he has grown. I suspect the reason Kimani has grown as a writer is because he is open to genuine critical reception.
If other Kenyan writers did the same, perhaps Kenya shall rise above the less-than-average performance in regional and even continental creative literary presence.
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