Random thoughts in a season of literary awards

Marx Kahende (left), who won in the Adult English category, with his book The Wayward Vagabond.

Marx Kahende (left), who won in the Adult English category, with his book The Wayward Vagabond, with his publisher Kiarie Kamau.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • These tokens of recognition should focus our attention on the significance of creativity and dedicated performance in the various fields of human endeavour.
  • This is why the top prizewinners of the season for me are the Thika-based Kendeka Prize for African Literature and its current laureate, Scholastica Moraa.
  • Let it be home-grown, grounded in our traditions and our major concerns and, especially, concentrating on our young and emerging writers.

The season of big prizes and awards is upon us.

Late September through early November is for us a season of talent, effort and achievement recognition with local and international trophies.

The Covid-19 scourge played havoc with our programmes the last couple of years, but we are now thankfully back on track and the winners’ celebrations are in full gear, as are the anxious expectations of the results yet to be announced.

Last weekend we witnessed the conferment of the Jomo Kenyatta and Wahome Mutahi honours, climaxing the Nairobi International Book Fair.

Before that, in Thika, we had the heart-warming Kendeka Prize for African Literature. Now, the biggest and most multi-faceted of them all, the Nobel, has started rolling in.

On Thursday, we scribblers and our readers got news of the Literature Nobel.

You can see one reason there why prizes and awards are on my mind. Another reason is that I am seriously broke, and I am wondering what I would do with the 10 million Swedish krona (British £840,000) that the Nobel prize is currently worth if it were to come my way.

Creativity

Jokes apart, however, these tokens of recognition should focus our attention on the significance of creativity and dedicated performance in the various fields of human endeavour.

Here, then, are my few musings on the few recent awards I mentioned above. I need not pretend that I am a disinterested, impartial or objective party.

Indeed, as I told you, I am in the running for the 2024 Literature Nobel, and you had better start supporting me.

You surely do not want to miss an invitation to the celebration party, and the budgeting sessions for the krona! 

The big Kenyan literary awards, the Jomo Kenyatta and the Wahome Mutahi caught me by surprise.

As I mentioned earlier, the disorientation of the past two years has affected most of our annual rhythms and sense of events.

The earliest point at which I realised that the prizes were coming was when the shortlists in each category, in both Kiswahili and English, were published.

My first reaction was a mixture of excitement and regret. I was excited to learn that these prizes, which have been a part of our writing and publishing calendar since 1974, were back.

I was also excited to see that several good books, some by my friends and colleagues, were on the shortlists.

My regret was that I could not tell you about them then, as I had intended to do, because that would look like an attempt to influence the awards.

Among the books I wanted to mention to you were Kithusi Mulonzya’s Leading Light and Kithaka wa Mberia’s Kwenzi Gizani.

Both were entered respectively in the English and Kiswahili adult fiction categories of the prize.

Leading Light fictionalises the bitter struggles in Ukambani between the traditionalists and the “progressives” in the early years of the advent of Western influences.

The book struck me, particularly with the neatness of its structure and the elegant fluency of its language.

Kwenzi Gizani (A Starling in the Dark?), which earned Prof Mberia the first prize in its category, tackles the delicate topic of incestuous abuse within many of our families.

Mberia, one of our most prolific writers across all the genres of fasihi, is at his best in the dramatic mode.

Kwenzi, his new play, is likely to ignite a serious and long-delayed debate about the insidious sexual depravity among close relatives.

Successful awards

Anyway, I feel that the awards were a tremendous success for all who participated, organisers, publishers, authors and us their readers.

I, for one, am eager to get my hands and eyes on to all the highlighted works, like M.G. Kahende’s The Wayward Vagabond, Samuel Wachira’s The Hustler’s Chains.

I will also be enjoying the young people’s readers, like Chadi’s Trip and Fumbo la Watamu by my friends Sarah Haluwa and veteran Ali Attas.

While I also congratulate the publishers of all these works, I would like to urge them to be more active in submitting our works for the many local and international prizes for which they qualify.

There is a tremendous lot of these, and I am confident that many of our writers are good enough to compete on any platform in the world. 

Our expectations for the Literature Nobel this year were admittedly low, since last year’s winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah, came from among us.

Incidentally, I should congratulate the organisers of the Macondo Festival for their role in getting Gurnah and a host of other great literary figures to Nairobi during our season of celebration of the book. 

Maybe we should start working on plans to invite to Nairobi next year the 2022 Nobel laureate, Prof Annie Ernaux.

I am sure we will be hearing a lot more about this 82-year French “bionarrative” (auto/biographical fiction) specialist whose fiery feminism startles even old pretenders like me.

But, as Hayati (immortal) Chinua Achebe said about the Nobel, “that is their prize” with which they can do as they please.

This is why the top prizewinners of the season for me are the Thika-based Kendeka Prize for African Literature and its current laureate, Scholastica Moraa.

I am yet to learn more about this Kenyan initiative to develop and encourage African Literature, but this is the way I would like our literary recognition to go.

Let it be home-grown, grounded in our traditions and our major concerns and, especially, concentrating on our young and emerging writers.

Moreover, we cannot wait until we are as rich as Alfred Nobel, with millions of krona to indulge our winners.

I am not trying to minimise the significance of decent rewards.

But, as the Waganda say, “the warrior who throws the only spear he has is no coward.” We can start our prizes within the realistic limits of our resources, and then grow them as we go along.

Heko (kudos), Kendeka! Expect a pilgrimage from me the next time I am within reach of Thika.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected] 

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