GUEST COLUMN: Stranger than fact: the new Kenyan writing
By Parselelo Kantai
Published: June 13 2007 10:41 | Last updated: June 13 2007 10:41
Early in his short story, Discovering Home, Binyavanga Wainaina takes on Nairobi:
This is Nairobi! This is what you do to get ahead: make yourself boneless, and treat your strait-jacket as if it is a game, a challenge. The city is now all on the streets, sweet-talk and hustle. Our worst recession ever has just produced brighter, more creative Matatus.
That novella, a semi-autobiographical account of a young Kenyan’s return home after years away, published in the web magazine G21, won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, the most prestigious literary award for writers from the continent. In the five years since, Wainaina has founded Kwani?, Kenya’s first literary journal in a generation.
A new group of young Kenyan writers is redefining the country’s cultural landscape. On evenings in Nairobi’s bars and restaurants, writers and budding poets now regularly take to the stage, read and extemporise on all manner of issues in front of packed audiences.
Kenyan literature had been in a state of chaotic stagnation. The country’s leading writers were all in exile. Publishers, accusing the public of not reading, had turned away from fiction and were making a killing from the sale of primary school textbooks (they still are). Occasionally, a novel would trickle off the printing presses. But its appalling cover design seemed to suggest a bizarre lack of faith, as if publishers had decided to launch marketing kamikazes on their own products.
The year 2002 was a watershed for Kenya. Then President Daniel arap Moi was leaving office after 24 years in power. We replaced Kosovo at the top of Gallup International’s “most optimistic people on earth” chart. One of the consequences of the politics of one-man rule – the 39 years divvied up between the Kenyatta and Moi governments – had been an ever-growing silence.
Like so many other aspects of national life, thought was a State-run activity. Dissidence was punished. Writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o were detained without trial and would later escape into exile. As literature and journalism were excavated of their brightest talents, a deep mediocrity seemed to settle in. Reading and writing went underground. Poets, thespians, writers – the ones who stayed on – went into retirement at the National Theatre Bar in downtown Nairobi, getting drunk on warm Tuskers in the afternoon and squabbling overmoney fromnon-governmental agencies.
On Sundays, Ali Zaidi maintained an open-door policy at his Loresho home, deep in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs. Over the years, Zaidi, perhaps Nairobi’s only Marxist editor working for a corporate business weekly, had attracted many of Nairobi’s literary odd types. His garden had become a meeting point for freelance journalists, photographers still attached to defunct magazines, accountants writing thrillers at night – people struggling to hold on to a conscience and a decent living in a city of more than 3m people, 199 slums and an excess of Mercedes Benzes, gossip and churches. It was a place to meet and drink and talk about books and writers.
It was also where the idea of Kwani?, was first hatched. Change was in the air and Wainaina’s Caine Prize victory opened up a whole new set of possibilities.
“There was a lot of excitement after Binyavanga won, but also a sense of unreality,” says Muthoni Garland, who began to write at 40. She had previously worked in Nairobi’s advertising industry. “But there was no money in [writing]. It was almost a vanity project.” She had met Wainaina on the online magazine Zoetrope. Until his victory, she had been rather sceptical of his enthusiasm for a literary revival in Nairobi. “Prizes changed something. They made the idea real.”
There was a need for Kwani?, for a literary showcase of Kenyan writing – primarily because the lack of new fiction had made the country strange to itself. Like so much on the African continent, it had become a place externally described and therefore misunderstood.
It is a sign of the changed times that little of the subject matter in the short stories published in Kwani? is directly political. Unlike the writing of the Ngugi post-independence generation of writers who wrestled with neo-colonialism and the post-independence politics of betrayal, most of the stories are street-level examinations of Kenyan life. Also, where many of the first-generation writers, were suspicious of the city, this present generation is steeped in it. Yvonne Owuor’s Caine Prize winning story, Weight of Whispers, tracks the declining fortunes of Rwandan refugees post-1994, in Nairobi. This retreat from a prescriptive, ideological stance is perhaps reflective of a generation of writers grown cynical of the redemptive possibilities of politics.
The expected change turned out to be a hoax. The new government quickly set about privatising the state for its own consumption. Tribalism, cronyism and corruption resumed almost unbidden. There were, however, attempts at grand public gestures. A year after coming to power, the Kibaki administration announced its intention to re-inter the remains of the liberation struggle hero, Dedan Kimathi. In A Likely Story published in the inaugural edition of Kwani? in 2003, Andia Kisia seemed to anticipate such an event. In almost farcically identical circumstances to the Dedan Kimathi debacle, nobody can remember exactly where he had been buried. There was one big difference, however: where the politicians have ended, the writers are just beginning.
Parselelo Kantai is a Kenyan author and journalist.