An aspiring young critic asked me last week on Facebook why the “eff” I tend to be polemically dismissive whenever I’m talking about Kenyan literature, more so that written by our dear young writers.
I told him I’ve always thought myself the paragon of level-headed and mature criticism, fair to all and eager to see young writers thrive to excellence.
Well, maybe I’m a bit moralistic and old-fashioned. This is not because I’m the only follower of F.R. Leavis still alive today; even successful young 21st-century writers like Zadie Smith insist on moral responsibility among writers.
You don’t accept any junk as literature and expect a meaningful cultural revival. You won’t glorify vice in your juvenilia and expect to be taken seriously when you critique the corrupt morons in power.
Therefore, I don’t like to hear someone using using taboo words when talking to me, however strongly the person feels about a literary issue. I doubt I’d use such swear words when speaking to myself in a drunken stupor. I mean, people should be mature and civil in their literary conversations.
Be that as it may, I do understand when a critic of Kenyan literature turns cranky. Ours is a young literature, and rules governing the way we read and write about our art need to be established, rethought, and revised all the time.
Thus, it is okay to fight once in a while.Otherwise, any quack who fails in the profession for which he was trained will come to lord it over us with rules that make no sense, such as “you must quote my work.”
Quote what? Paraphrase is an accepted practice in criticism, especially if the text under study is of no consequence. Although these days he seems to have mellowed and tends to include on his lists almost every Kenyan book as a great work of art, Chris Wanjala did an excellent job in the 1970s by criticising writers who did not add much value to our national conversation.
Wanjala’s only unforgivable mistake then was to sideline emerging women writers of the time and to quote too liberally from the books he was criticising, including some quite pornographic ones.
Don’t quote me on this, but anyone who has taken a lesson in literary criticism will tell you that quoting books that have no literary value goes against the principles of close reading. Such a formalist reading, in which the text is at the centre of enquiry for thorough dissection, works best with well-wrought poetic texts whose meanings are intricately hidden between the lines.
In her Translation and Conflict, Mona Baker has suggested various ways a translator can change the original text to diminish some offending parts.
A similar approach can be used to paraphrase offensive texts, without quoting them verbatim.This is easier said than done. Benjamin Zephaniah is one of my favourite poets. A Black British lyricist and a trouble maker per excellence, Zephaniah once in a while drops the N-word and B-word in his poems.
When I use such poems, I try not to reproduce the taboo words even if I don’t know how to handle them in the bibliography when they feature in the titles of the poems.
Despite the pervasive racism across cultures, no living person today has suffered as much trauma as those people to whom the N-word was appended.
It’s a word I can’t repeat, even when it comes from a Benjamin Zephaniah poem. I only note the anger it signifies and move on.
Having mastered ellipsis over the years as a technique of suppressing the unsayable and the unspectacular in texts under analysis, Prof Wanjala today wouldn’t quote from the sexually explicit materials whose analysis he includes in The Season of Harvest (1978) and For Home and Freedom (1980).And there’s a lot of such texts today from writers whose responsibility is to someone other than the Kenyan society.
I’m now old enough to have witnessed the pettiness of what passes itself off as the Kenyan literary fraternity. These people claim to be writing, but I don’t see what they write.
Kiswahili writers are doing some good job, but the English-language artists are only making noise, like empty debes.
I know you might want to know why I don’t consider it my duty to encourage these writers. But do I do that by telling them they write well when they don’t?
I like reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kikuyu (again, not to decolonise my mind) because that’s the language I can speak most fluently. In passages usually lost in English translations, Ngugi’s texts urge us not to be lenient on them in any way, however intense the harshness of the circumstances they were written in. I wish our young writers could adopt Ngugi’s attitude and welcome criticism openly.
Indeed, let’s not continue flattering ourselves that we have made any literary progress since independence. Like other sectors of our nation, the growth of literature in this country is stunted. In terms of aesthetic sophistication and thematic depth, not even Ngugi’s novels are anywhere close to Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa (1937) or Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika (1959).
I would not say, then, that Kenyan writing is dead or that its standards have fallen. It simply has never been there. The golden age usually spoken about by nostalgic folks is just a figment of an optimist’s imagination.
After reading Grace Ogot, Francis Imbuga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, David Mulwa, Meja Mwangi, Margaret Ogola, and Henry ole Kulet, you can go through all the other Kenyan writers in a single Sunday afternoon.
And you probably won’t come across a book by a 21st-century writer that you can sincerely recommend very strongly to anybody you respect.
Our few good writers are published by the East African Educational Publishers, Longhorn, Oxford, and Phoenix. These are outfits that safeguard the region’s literary standards and should be applauded for the good works they do.
They may not be terribly experimental, especially in their English-language publications, but they don’t publish the kind of trash we now call Kenya’s 21st-century writing.
I know some of you are just about to trot out authors and titles, works you haven’t read and are not planning to read. But what I want to hear is an honest argument about what is unique about those texts.
And say it in 700 words or so, not as an abusive tweet punctuated with some emojis. Otherwise, you can move on to read your porn and leave me here to rant. Or just follow me on Twitter.