It is a season of awards, and I am almost bewildered by the richness of national and international prizes harvested by my acquaintances, colleagues and close friends, especially in the literary and creative arts.
Indeed, the whole year has given us plenty of reasons for celebrating our creative endeavours, even the face of the incessant and brainless rants about “marketable” courses and the “uselessness” of the humanities.
I may have missed, by a hair’s breadth, my well-deserved Nobel Prize for Literature, for the simple reason that it was not awarded at all this year. But I am not complaining.
A whole squad of my younger comrades is bravely soldiering on, and their recognised achievements emphatically assert to the world that, wherever sanity and civilisation rule, the arts matter and deserve respect.
The list of outstanding achievers is long, even in the literary field alone, and naming names would be an invidious task. Suffice it to say that the few that I mention here are those with whom I feel a particular affinity, or those whose awards underline our society’s appreciation of creativity. The three names, for example, that readily come to my mind just now are Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kinyanjui Kombani and Dr Hamisi Babusa.
Makumbi, as you will remember, is the one who won the humongous Windham-Campbell Prize in excess of US$165,000 (about Sh16.5 million) for her epic first novel, Kintu. Kombani put us on the map recently when he clinched the 2018 Canadian-sponsored CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature in Accra, Kombani with his OUP-published narrative, Finding Colombia.
Dr Babusa, whom most of us at KU refer to simply as “Daktari”, was last Monday decorated at the Faces of Kenya Science Awards as one of the leading 20 “scientists” in Kenya.
It was actually Dr Babusa’s award that alerted me to the importance of the new (post-me) East African writer as a scientist or, preferably, a technician.
Dr Babusa, as you know, is a language specialist, an eminent Kiswahili poet, short story writer and children’s author. His elevation to the lofty podium of pragmatic, empirical knowledge producers suggested three possibilities for me.
The first is the line I have always pushed with my creative writing associates, that you need technique in order to be a successful writer. Technique in literature means a systematic understanding of and competence with language and texts and how they work. These skills are acquired through objective study, observation and analysis of languages and texts and how they work for specific effects in various contexts.
Believe you me, no amount of emotional heat or fiery political conviction and advocacy will make you a good writer if you do not have a sure grasp of language and how it works. Equally importantly, a fair understanding of the principles on which texts are structured is essential to the production of an attention-grabbing story, play or novel. Makumbi handles her text with delicate skill over nearly 450 pages of her narrative.
The second techno-scientific aspect of literature that modern trends raise in my mind is the scientific “savvy” required of the present day writers. I am on record as suggesting that the future of our creative writing is probably online. This refers particularly to ICT. The predominance of the computer and the Internet in our lives means that most of our communication activities are shifting to the digital realm. This is true of literature, too, which is, after all, a mode of communication.
The shift has challenges and setbacks for all of us, but let us rather look at the opportunities. First and foremost, digital technology has liberalised communication, including creative writing.
It is true to say that anyone with a keyboard, a screen and an Internet connection can create a text and share it with the world. Other aspects of ICT also reduce our dependency on traditional publishing procedures and establishments.
Blogging, for example, is now an accepted publishing medium, and I believe my friend Frank Muiruri also recently won an award in that domain. Moreover, it is always possible and increasingly easy to pass from one mode of publication to another. Hard print texts can be converted into e-books, and electronic texts can be issued as printed texts, even at a personal level, through desktop publishing.
My friend Antoine Oduori successfully self-published and distributed his first poetry collection, Jam on Our Faces, bypassing the foot-dragging conventional publishers.
Incidentally, Antoine is a banker, like Kinyanjui Kombani, who is also promoted as “a banker who writes”. This debunks the humbug that doing literature or language, at university or elsewhere, locks you out of other pursuits or professions. Another bank manager startled me recently at a Diamond Trust Bank office in Kampala.
I was trying to introduce myself to her when she quietly said, “I know you. You taught me Sintaksia ya Kiswahili (syntax) at Makerere.” I was dumbfounded. I could not even remember teaching such a tough course, especially as my Kiswahili grammar, generally, is purely instinctive.
But what intrigued me even more was how the syntax had helped her clinch a managerial job at an international banking institution.
Back to Daktari Babusa, what delighted me most was that the professional body that recognised him appeared to be making two very significant points.
The first was that we should discard those outdated rigid separations between the “sciences” and the “arts”.
Good science should endeavour to be as imaginative and as human-centred as the arts, and good arts should strive to be as systematic and as technically competent as the sciences.
Secondly (and this was specifically the reason why Babusa was awarded), the scientists who chose to count him among their number were acknowledging that imaginative creative writing is a viable way of communicating and sharing scientific knowledge.
Science need not be dull and humdrum, nor should the arts be erratic and vacuous.
Incidentally, Dr Babusa was one of my most resourceful young assistants during my command at Kenyatta University’s Performing and Creative Arts Centre in the mid-1990s.
Should I not offer my humble congratulations to the good scientific Daktari?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]