‘Literary gangsters’ take stock 10 years on

Some of the guests that attended one in a series of celebratory events to mark KWANI's 10 year celebrations. When writing organisation Kwani Trust burst onto the scene in 2003, its entry was treated with disdain and ridicule by mainstream academics and critics. PHOTO/EMMA NZIOKA

What you need to know:

  • Early turf wars laid to rest as Kwani’s role in democratising creative expression is recognised/.
  • The acrimony was perhaps best captured and historicised in the title of Tony Mochama’s poetry anthology, So what if I am a Literary Gangsta, an insouciant response to don Egara Kabaji’s dismissal of the group by the same disparaging tag of “literary gangsters”.
  • To celebrate its 10th anniversary , which was observed between November 27 and 30, Kwani Trust hosted a series of literary, creative and artistic events reflecting on its work and its place in the literary history of Kenya, East Africa and the continent.

When writing organisation Kwani Trust burst onto the scene in 2003, its entry was treated with disdain and ridicule by mainstream academics and critics.

Wars were waged on the literary pages of local newspapers, insults and epithets exchanged.

One critic, termed Kwani writing ”literature in a hurry”, saying it was “a clear case of journalism raping literature”.

Kwani writers did not take this lying down and some responded, describing the academic departments and the canonised writing sector as being full of “dinosaurs,” and “musty headed mastiffs”, who had become increasingly irrelevant in the last quarter century of Kenyan literature.

The acrimony was perhaps best captured and historicised in the title of Tony Mochama’s poetry anthology, So what if I am a Literary Gangsta, an insouciant response to don Egara Kabaji’s dismissal of the group by the same disparaging tag of “literary gangsters”.

With this beginning on seemingly polar extremes, it was thus refreshing to see Kwani’s 10-year anniversary public lectures hosted by academic institutions — Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi — pointing to the current cordiality between the former rival groups.

Once the pariah on the margins, it is now no exaggeration to state that Kwani Trust is at present one of the linchpins of the contemporary writing scene.

Its works and activities have received critical attention in masters and PhD dissertations in Kenya and around the world, and numerous other writing collectives have emerged from it.

SPACE TO DREAM

And then there are the writers whose rise it has supported and nurtured and, as writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor put it in her public lecture, “given space to dream.”

Kwani’s success is no pyrrhic victory over the mainstream however; cultural practitioners coming together only enhance the general field, something vital in this time of trying to resolve the Kenyan “problem”.

Speaking at the 10th anniversary public lecture at Kenyatta University last Thursday, poet Njeri Wangari pointed out how the group changed the literature scene, taking it out of its perceived “proper” place in academic ivory towers.

“Kwani changed the way we looked at poetry. Previously it was something we used to look at in books, but the open mic’s brought the performance aspect of it out and made people appreciate it more,” she said.

Indeed, Kwani exploded notions of what was seen as credible or “serious” art.

The Kwani? journal’s inception saw the embrace of forms that previously had not been deigned fit to receive analysis and attention such as Sheng writing, matatu slogans, hip hop lyrics, sms messages and e-mail forwards, among others.

Dr Mbugua wa Mungai, head of the literature department at Kenyatta University, spoke of Kwani’s effectiveness in increasing space for expression.

“Why I find value in Kwani and others is because they have allowed the space of creative expression to be liberalised. The first time I saw Sheng on paper was in the Kwani? journal.

As we celebrate Kenya at 50, we ask questions of identity. Many Kenyans today are below 30 and are not fluent in anything but Sheng.

These are reading constituencies that still need to be brought on board,” he said.

Dr JKS Makokha, a lecturer in the same department, points to areas of consideration for the future direction of the writing group.

“The Kenyan scenario is riddled with amnesia and silences in the context of its 50 years’ existence as a nation.

It is a Kenyan habit where events are treated as spectacle rather than events and catastrophes occur which capture public imagination and then disappear with nothing having being learnt or resolved.”

RAPID SOCIAL CHANGE

Dr Makokha looks at the past decade of Kwani’s activities and presence on the scene as having been a space clearing experience of expression to allow room for Kenyan and African voices to be heard, believing that it is in this area of uncovering silences and staying true to memory that Kwani has its work cut out for it in the next few years.

Kwani’s stated aim of “Creating a society that uses its stories to see itself more coherently” may never have been more relevant than at this time where amidst rapid social change, political uncertainty and global insecurity, Kenyan citizens and the Kenyan nation are trying to grapple and make sense of their place in the world.

Nevertheless, the fact that critics, theorists, producers and performers in the arts are working together will certainly lean to more dynamism on the scene.

Practitioners on both ends of the divide have realised the importance of this, seen from Dr Mbugua wa Mungai’s calling for the strengths of each side to be synergised for deeper levels of social clarity to emerge.

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Activities to mark decade of existence

To celebrate its 10th anniversary , which was observed between November 27 and 30, Kwani Trust hosted a series of literary, creative and artistic events reflecting on its work and its place in the literary history of Kenya, East Africa and the continent.

Culminating in the launch of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s debut novel Dust and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel Americanah, the programme included public lectures by both writers, readings.

There was also an awards ceremony for the Kwani? Manuscript Project and a visual art retrospective that reflected on a shared sensibility between photographers, writers and other artistes curated by Mbithi Masya (Just a Band).

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