I have had differences of opinion with Okot p’Bitek and Ngugi wa Thiong’o but they have been on literary stand points. On one or two occasions, I have not seen eye to eye on personal matters with Ngugi. That time has passed. But it never diminished my judgment of Ngugi’s leading stature in East African writing, especially of fiction.
I have said it on countless occasions and shall repeat it here. Ngugi’s River Between and Grain of Wheat are our best works of fiction. They are classics. Why our budding writers do not use them as models to be emulated, I do not know.
Your two interviewers booked me for an interview last week and arrived over two hours late. We had to walk through a dark tunnel to my favourite place of interview, United Kenya Club. That is the club I feel most comfortable when I am in Nairobi. I beat them in walking. They detained me till 11.30pm, answering an unstructured interview over any topic that they had collected — hence the lateness. Though they had a tape-recording gadget, they were slow in catching the points I was making. That is why the interview took so long. They were as slow walking as they were in comprehending.
I wish they had limited the interview to two main themes or topics and had researched them well. Then we could have convened as we went over a terrain we mutually knew very well and were elucidating unclean or complex issues. And in the process there would have arisen further clarifications.
But when each interviewer had two fullscap papers full of questions, and they jumped from one question to another, one is not surprised of the hotchpotch nature of the interview write-up.
Apparently there are some hot topics in Kenyan life now and the journalists have pet questions to hit interview victims with. The ICC is there. Gender is there. The Nobel Prize is there.
Governance is there. And these journalists’ approach is what I would call “knocking heads” journalist, or “controversy manufacturing” journalism. When you had written about literary barrenness in 1965, they make time stand still and drag you back to that remark. Over the years, I have never met a single journalist or scholar who has either read the East African Journal (where that article first appeared) or The Last Word appearance in book publications in 1969. So that article is a closed pamphlet, more existing as a hearsay than a read scripture.
It is not only the literary barrenness article that is not read. Most of our books are not read. When I campaign for the creation of “classics” and the publishers reject them in favour of easy-reading school textbooks, the journalists and academics say, “Taban, with so many books published, why do you still say there is literary barrenness in East Africa?” And my answer is, more ugali is still ugali, more busaa is still busaa.
Perhaps only when the almighty ministries of education turn to selecting school literature books from published books that have been in the market for two years will we have classics published?
At least the Nilohamitic speakers — Kalenjin and Maasai — know quality standards needed in running for gold in the Olympics. Why don’t our writers practise writing, strain their creative muscles as hard as David Rudisha or Usain Bolt? If A Grain of Wheat, produced in the mid 1960s, as well as Okot’s Wer pa Lawino and its translation into English as Song of Lawino, equally published in the mid 1960s, are still our classic novel and poetry, surely you will agree with me that in the production of classics the literary barrenness still prevails? And I owe nobody an apology for maintaining that stand.
Your interviewers, or copy writers, went controversy-creating or head-knocking, their favourite mode of journalism. I never said “Jua Kali artisans deserve the Nobel prize more than Ngugi.” I did not say “Ngugi doesn’t deserve Nobel”.
As a matter of fact, I skirted that question over a period of three hours. I took rounds of Vat 69, my preferred whiskey, and one of the journalists also took three rounds of white wine.
It is possible that the wine went to his head. When I glanced at his notebook, it was full of scribbles. Perhaps he was using hierolyphic shorthand! But the cassette will bear me witness. I never passed judgment on Ngugi’s merit or demerits regarding the Nobel Prize.
In reference to Nobel Literature Prize, I said that Chinua Achebe had deserved it. (I understand that Per Wastberg, The Swedish Commission of Nobel Literature Prize, had a disagreement with Achebe and swore that so long as he lived Achebe would never get it. And he lived up to his word).
The other writer who had deserved it was Leopold Sedar Senghor. I do not know whether he, too, had an altercation with Wastberg. But his rejoinder to Leopold’s promoters was that Leopold’s best writing were written far behind. Yet when the British promoters campaigned for VS Naipual, he got it even when his best books were written as far back as Leopold Sedar Senghor’s. So, the Nobel Literature Prize is a Swedish or European or Western prize which they award to whoever satisfies conditions only known to or by them.
That being the case, if African nation builders would like to engage the creative writers in creative writing, for nation building, they had better consciously set their own prizes, with rules and criteria established or vetted by their own experts, and mobilise interests in them. Kenyan jua kali artisans are building the nation in the process of improving their conditions in life.
GOOD FOR THEM
Finally, any reading of the above should have convinced the readers that I am not enthusiastic about discussing the Nobel Prizes. Neither, therefore, am I excited about the present crop of candidates. The Swedes will award the prize to whoever they want.
This being Kenya’s 50th year since independence, its citizens, including the writers, should take time off to introspect on independence and what it has brought. In retrospect have we, as Africans, fulfilled the dreams or expectations that we had on that chilly night when the Union Jack finally came down and our Jogoo flag went up?
And, we might do well to work under the banner of “The Future Kenya/South Sudan/Somalia/Eritrea/Tanzania/Rwanda/Burundi/Uganda we want.