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An elegy on the death of Kenyan fiction

Friday September 4 2015

In this July 27, 2004 file photo, Poet and

In this July 27, 2004 file photo, Poet and activist Dr Maya Angelou addresses the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. She built a career out of serialising her life into a total of eight books . PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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As we await the arrival of that great Kenyan novel that will knock A Grain of Wheat and Margaret Ogola's books off the bestseller charts, we must – given all the things that are happening as we wait -- ask ourselves whether by the time it arrives, the allure of fiction will still exist.

What do novels actually achieve? Have blogs, Twitter hashtags, WhatsApp and Facebook posts  taken over the core functions, merits and fulfilment of the novel as an enterprise that sells imaginary worlds and moral lessons?

We live in the moment. We read on the run. Everyone is armed with a camera and a keyboard. The trials of a morning of visa applications and the triumphs of a day at a funeral in central Kenya are reported colourfully, in real time. Within minutes, the post receives the steaming adulation of 1,000 likes and 525 retweets.

In such a world, why should anyone slog for six years to complete a novel and then spend another 30 years anxiously awaiting the favourable judgement of the Nobel committee? What value is to be found in lengthy imaginary characters and situations when daily accounts of the lives of strangers are available on your handset?

When we go to blogs and hashtags for our literary sustenance, are we really missing out on the staple nourishment provided by a good novel or folktale?

Before we appear to set up a fixed “either/or” wall between the ways of the novel and those of these bustling digital spaces of free expression, let us acknowledge that the two share numerous things including their methods and motivations.


Social media employs the essential templates of fiction. Many of the blogs we love and the hashtags we congregate around are cautionary tales. Their aim and style is similar to ethnic folktales about hare and hyena.

Hashtags like #PoleKwaMwirigi and its antecedents in the blog, give growing minds the same promissory notes sprinkled in fairy-tales about princesses and frogs.

#PoleKwaMwirigi taught the Kenyan boy child the same lessons found in the fairy-tale Rapunzel and the legend of Lwanda Magere. The business of declaring love and winning wars is still heaped on the boy child. The business of the princess is, number one, sit pretty; two, fret about, doubt the boy with a bit of sneakiness and flaky distrust; three, wait for deliverance.

#PoleKwaMwirigi teaches our much maligned boy-child that even in this digital age, to transition from a boy to a man, he  needs a grand horse, limousine or helicopter to carry his princess to that distant place called happily-ever-after. 

The folktale of old had no copyrighted owner. It was narrated by different voices, night after night from one hut to another. Each night, it retained its fundamental moral but the individual narrator was free to throw in some minor embellishments, adding colour to a character or a scene.

Similarly, the stories we now weave through #ThingsYegoCanThrow, #PoleKwaMwirigi, #BabaWhileYouAreAway are all products of the collective imagination though they move a little faster through the community of users.

Each new Tweet becomes an episode in the bigger narrative. Some are downright hilarious; others are biting and cynical. The words are few – no more than 140 characters – but are loaded with the possibility of multiple meanings.

So the craft of narrative is alive and well in our popular hashtags, posts and blogs. They are filled with the delights of fantasy, fear, flight and fortune that define literature as the artful expression of a people’s aspirations and identity.

But craft aside, have the writers in these new digital spaces escaped the other labours of fiction?

Fiction entails keen observation. Our bloggers achieve that very well. They study those around them with admirable scrutiny. But fiction is more than mere reportage. It is a game of patience - the patience to link the observations that you make everyday into abstracted portraits of people, places and events.

An incident at the kinyozi becomes the basis – not the carbon copy or direct quote – of an anecdote in a short story. A neighbour you once knew provides the basis of a character in your novel.

The character is a composite of many people you have known over time, not a replica of your old neighbour. 

I have often remarked that amongst our acclaimed new crop of writers, no one is writing fiction any more; everyone is writing graphic episodes of their autobiographies.

Are the numerous creative writing workshops budding writers are now required to attend the culprit in this inability to imagine worlds outside one’s own?

Invariably, participants are instructed to, “write about a time when you found yourself in blah blah blah.” It is all inward-looking; all about you.

Biography writing has exploded tenfold in the last decade and, thankfully, we now have a growing galaxy of stories of those who shaped our nation.

That kind of writing contains many fictive elements, most of which have to do with the employment of events and the choice of dramatic elements to bring a particular incident to life.


But the issue here is not that classic autobiography and the technical aspects of its writing. What is of concern is possibility that the reason why the next great Kenyan novel is not forthcoming is because we are currently suffering from a failure of the imagination.

Has that novel eluded us because we are increasingly unable to create characters, to paint scenes that never happened in reality - to explore possibilities rather than to describe or analyse people we know and moments we have just lived through.

A few months ago, a reputable international newspaper published a story by Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie about her personal challenges with an illness. Within hours, the story was pulled down and replaced with a profuse apology to the author for the “erroneous” publication of her story.

We’ll never know what forced the paper to pull down the story, but those of us who had already read it had little doubt  it had to do with someone’s second thoughts about the value of privacy – for the writer and for her family.

Last week, a Kenyan blog left me wondering, once again, about the place of privacy in this brave new world of confessional posts in which we detail feverishly the circumstances of our cheating spouses, the dark depths of our recently abandoned addictions, our triumphs over domestic workers and a whole range of mundane everyday experiences in between.

Do we Kenyans lack the talent to fictionalize accounts we think are significant? Do we lack the ethical compass that leads old-school authors to state in disclaimers upfront, “all events in this book are fictitious and characters are completely fabricated, but the city is real”?

Are we too impatient to wait, collect several more kinyozi and matanga accounts, analyse them and draw remarkable portraits and insights that will help our readers understand more about the essence of being human and humane in a time of ethnic hate, mega corruption and instant messaging?

Do we lack the sophisticated grammar to weave compelling out-of-the-box life lessons in a time when socialites and other stars in nebulous professions have imitated Oprah’s confessional couch and turned digital gadgets into littered sites of dirty linen and instant gratification?

Kenyan bloggers are not the first writers in the world to turn the daily events of their lives over to the publishing mill.

The celebrated American artiste Maya Angelou built a career out of serialising her life into a total of eight books.

But the socio-political circumstances of Angelou’s world made her confessions compelling political tools rather than salacious accounts of indulgence in which relatives are recklessly exposed and friendships are callously betrayed.

That great Kenyan novel will eventually come. Perhaps, it will even emerge online, like the novels of Alexander Nderitu, but whoever writes it will have to spend many hours warding off the pervasive temptations of the present, the seductive pull of the “send” button and the garrulous call of the “share” icon.