Only dons in the University of Nairobi’s Literature Department seem to have the privilege of writing scathing reviews such as Dr Tom Odhiambo’s, and speaking in the name of book reviewers and critics.
After all, the UoN literature lecturers are more likely to get published than the rest of us mere mortals teaching literature in other public – or worse, private – universities. With the legacy of a historical accident and big names such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a nod from UoN faculty is something that Kenyan writers crave, but is often difficult to come by.
The story of Kwani? probably best embodies this elite status. When Kwani? came into being, its books were scowled at as literary gangsterism. Yet last year, when Chimamanda Adichie came to Kenya, Binyavanga Wainaina waxed about being hosted by the University of Nairobi as a zenith of literary achievement, and then, apparently realising how unpolitically correct that sounded, hastened to add Kenyatta University to the list of prestigious hosts.
But the damage had already been done.
A few days later, Prof Chris Wanjala penned an article which revealed that he had not experienced a change of heart. He said that Kwani? targets “low-brow readers,” and excused writers such as Binyavanga, Tony Mochama and others for not being “graduates of English and literature departments, exposed to a proper literary education,” for not mastering “Western standards of literary criticism and creative writing,” and for not showing “a depth of knowledge of African culture beyond names of members of their family trees.”
And so, the real tragedy here is that while we’ve been shaken by Dr Odhiambo’s harsh assessment of Kenyan books, we will still be begging for recognition from the institution he represents.
In his latest article published in the Sunday Nation (April 20), Dr Odhiambo basically depicts reviewers as the quality assurance police of literature. They judge the readability of the book, and they insert books into a country’s literary canon. Books published with grammatical errors and basic mistakes like a change in character name, therefore, put forward a poor face of the country. That’s a fair assessment. What I disagree with is Dr Odhiambo’s vision of the critic as “a co-creator, even if of the vulture kind.”
First of all, “a co-creator of the vulture kind” is an oxymoron, because while a co-creator participates in bringing forth life, the vulture participates in the finality of death. In contrast to the life-affirming ritual of mourning, the vulture is death’s last laugh. The vulture pursues self-interest at the expense of another animal’s tragic fate. That is why it is chosen to symbolise people who make a kill from the misfortune of others.
Over the years, our dons have not been vocal in supporting Kenyan writers as the latter struggle to get publishers interested in their books, and as publishers remain obsessed with school text books.
When Kwani? opened up a new literary space for a new generation of Kenyan (urban) writers, the university dons came down on them like a hammer. Many Kenyan fiction writers now have resorted to self-publishing, unfortunately, because they cannot wait for four years for publishers to release a book. Authors are now more involved in marketing their own books because publishers’ marketing resources are committed to camping outside KIE – now KICD – offices for school textbook endorsements.
CRITICS AS CO-CREATORS
With all these struggles, the release of fiction by Kinyanjui Kombani, Stanley Gazemba and other budding writers is a major feat. In fact, Gazemba’s experience with publishing The Stone Hills of Maragoli is a heart-wrenching story to which Kenyans who value literature should respond by saying “Never again.”
Critics who are co-creators or literary midwives should be holding writers’ hands through the difficult process of birthing a book, not waiting until the process is over to chest-thump about standards, although that is partly motivated by academics’ need for material to boast about in international academic forums. With all its problems, Kenyan literature is ours, and, we, academics, must account for those problems and imagine solutions.
I also take issue with Dr Odhiambo’s insistence on “standards,” without an acknowledgement of the readers of the books. He needs to account for why Kenyan readers are buying the books that are apparently bad for the critics, and so should be bad for the readers.
I must admit that like Dr Odhiambo, I do find the resolution in Kombani’s two novels problematic against the realities of the Kenyan landscape. But contrived or not, Kenyans are buying the books, reading and enjoying them, and that indicates that there is a need for such books.
In fact, several ordinary readers have said on social media that they have read Den of Inequities in one sitting.
Moreover, all “happy endings” are contrived, whether in Kenya or in Hollywood. Who honestly believes that the stuff of romantic comedies and soap operas is reality? Or that the cars driven by James Bond or the stunts of the Fast and Furious series are real? Yet Hollywood movies, Nollywood cinema and Mexican soaps remain popular in Kenya. Why not, then, have happy endings collared by Kenyan sensibilities, and the world will be better for it?
In fact, Kombani’s books have achieved an interesting feat of tackling political and institutional violence — which many writers have not done — while entertaining readers at the same time. His novels are better appreciated as thrillers than as novels like Things Fall Apart that depict historical landmarks.
Another reason why we should embrace “happy endings” is that they help us imagine a different Kenya, which is partly why we teach literature in the first place. We Kenyans have been unable to resolve our essential problems mostly because we lack imagination. We cannot visualise what a different Kenya would look like, and so every five years, we vote in the same thugs, for the same ethnic reasons, who go on to perpetuate the same problems of corruption, greed and social stagnation. Our writers should be commended for daring to dream a different Kenya where systems actually work.
The bottom line is that the Kenyan writing and reading landscape has changed. Kenyans are buying more books, self-publishing is easier with computers, and marketing of books is faster with social media. We live in a global environment where our reading and cultural tastes are increasingly influenced by cultures of other countries.
Festivals and groups like Kwani? and Story Moja promote reading for life, rather than for exams. So, gone are the days when academicians dominated conversations about books. And that is the real birth that critics should be midwifing, even as they remind writers and publishers that correct grammar, visually appealing books and a coherent and credible plot must remain part of the package.
While there is a need to push for higher standards of published works, there is no need to magnify errors into a condemnation of the entire literary establishment, or into a lament for the Kenyan critic. But the bastion of literary criticism that Dr Odhiambo represents seems stuck in the past, reluctant to address Kenya’s new literary realities.
The writer is the head of the Department of Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University in Nairobi.