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Kenya must tell her own stories

Tuesday June 25 2019

By MUTHONI THANG'WA
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Africa has many amazing upcoming and seasoned writers. Some of the upcoming writers may never be read, for various reasons. They may never get published in a market that is highly subjective, poorly funded, dominated by school curriculum and or biased towards certain narratives and styles of writing.

As a reader, I always have a wish list of books that I would like to read compiled from reviews, recommendations from friends, discussions of the book on social media or interacting with the author in one forum or another. Because time and money are limited, some books can stay on my reading list for a year or two.

Some join the list and immediately make it to number one, while some are shoved, jostled, view and reviewed, but take years before they are bought or join the waiting list on the bookshelf.

But now that I am writing, I am more sympathetic to the authors on my waiting list. After a writer has produced a book, either through self-publishing or through a regular publishing contract, there is still the danger of their work never being read at all.

PUBLIC BACKLASH

Natasha Tynes, a Jordanian living in America and working for the World Bank was on the debut of releasing her first novel when she tweeted about a metro worker eating on a train and the public backlash cost her the book deal. In the US it is an offence to eat on commuter trains and she tweeted to that effect sighting and posting a photograph of a uniformed member of staff doing just that.

The member of staff was an African American and the author, consciously or unconsciously entered into the fray of history of black people in America and their continued subjugation by the system and parts of the population. A university professor replied to her tweet ‘eating while black’ implying that the criticism was part of policing of not just the black women, but the implication of food on their body image and the pressure to be a certain way.

To make matters worse the author tagged the employer of the worker and her union hit back with human details of the requirements of the job of train and bus drivers in which they only had a 20 minute break to eat and move to the next location to ensure that Americans in the Washington DC commuter system enjoyed the comfort of reliable, efficient public transportation system.

California Coldblood, the company that was set to publish the book, in a tweet of their own said in part “we do not condone her actions and hope Natasha learns from this experience that black women feel the effects of systematic racism the most and that we have to be allies, not oppressors”.

Meanwhile America author Naomi Wolf, author of Vagina: a new biography, learned that the premise of her book Outrages: sex, censorship and the criminalization of love, that was set to be launched this year was centred on a wrong premise.

And no more than on a radio programme that was set to publicise the new book. The BBC interviewer pointed out that the premise of the book was a legal term ‘death recorded’ that was used in the Britain in the 19th century which allowed a judge to pardon a convict sentenced to die. But the author had based her book on the premise that the phrase meant the convict was executed – a tragic turn of events for a writer considering the work that goes into producing of a manuscript.

FACTUAL ERRORS

Of interest is that non-African authors have written books with factual errors about Kenya and no one has called them out. Some are as basic as assign a town the wrong province to more serious errors on the history of Kenya and the Mau Mau.

It turns out that the chickens are coming home to roost. Authors are now writing factual errors about Britain and it would seem this will not be tolerated at all. The author has said she will correct the error and I guess readers are waiting to see how one corrects the entire premise of a book.

This should encourage rather than stop any Kenyan who wants to write, and I for once will list a halfway decent book on my reading list any day.

It is our responsibility to call out any errors written about us and to quote Bivanyanga Wainaina in his essay, how to write about Africa, put a stop to the narratives that “treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving”.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa