Season of asserting the book and all matters reading and writing

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Anja Bengelstorff and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. 

Photo credit: Pool

Late August into early October is increasingly establishing itself as Nairobi’s season of the book and all the joys and challenges that go with it. This year, for example, we may trace the beginnings of the season to the impressively curated inaugural award of the Indie Prize to Jerusha Kananu at the Alliance Française on August 24, 2023.

Then we had the scrumptious Litfest “Mtaa” affair, with its celebration of our Sheng home experiments, at the Macmillan Memorial Library in the City Centre. Then, last week, we had the third edition of the elegant and international Macondo Literary Feast at the Kenya National Theatre.

The Macondo Festival, which was in its third edition this year, pulled off an astounding surprise last year by bringing to Nairobi the absolutely mesmerising Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah, fresh from his Nobel Literature Prize triumph.

Zanzibar-born Gurnah, as you know, is so far the only East African winner of the prize, never mind my regrets that he won it for his writings in English rather than in Kiswahili. An important fact I did not know about the Macondo Festival was that it was actually founded by our very own Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and her friend, journalist Anja Bengelstorff.

I have not seen Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor close up since the launch, at the Prestige Bookshop, of her opus magnum, The Dragonfly Sea, a few years ago. One of my memories of that occasion was the luxury and pleasure that Yvonne and her team gave us with hardcover copies of her novel.

We dwellers of these climes are so used to paperbacks that a hardcover edition of any work is a rare treat. Indeed, one of the reasons why Yvonne’s launch returned to my mind was that the hardcover phenomenon is being replayed in Kampala and Nairobi this season, by my friend and fellow FEMRITE founder member, Goretti Kyomuhendo.

Kyomuhendo is one of our region’s most significant authors, whose work, like her early novel, Waiting, was among the first East African texts to be published by the Feminist Press of New York, alongside the novels of our dear ancestor, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye.

 Though quite young at the time, Kyomuhendo was among the militant feminists who pioneered women’s writing and publishing, founding FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE) in 1996. She was among its first published authors, and was later its CEO for several years.

Anxious to place her activities on an international level, she relocated to London in 2008 and founded the African Writers Trust (AWT), which mentors, trains and occasionally publishes aspiring writers from all over the continent and beyond.

On the writing front, Kyomuhendo has consistently published several solid narratives, including the novels, The First Daughter, Secrets No More and Whispers From Vera. She gained an early reputation for her frank treatment of so-called taboo subjects, like female sexuality.

A fellow of the International Writers Workshop in Iowa and a graduate of the University of Kwazulu Natal, with an MFA in Creative Writing, she is often compared to Central and South African writers, like the late Yvonne Vera, for whom she admits a definite fondness.

For me, however, Kyomuhendo’s work is more reminiscent of the Egyptian women writers, like Nawal al Saadawi, author of Woman at Point Zero, and Alifa Rifaat, author of Distant View of a Minaret. But I should not prejudice your prospective reading of Whispers From Vera, the reworked novel is launching.

Kyomuhendo will be in Nairobi during the coming week, and I understand she will be in conversation with her fellow writers and other book enthusiasts. One of her confirmed appearances will be on Wednesday, September 27, at the Cheche Books and Café in Lavington, where she will be chatting about her work with Lutivini Majanja.

Then, on Saturday, September 30, she will have an afternoon session at Soma Nami Books, Green Mall, on Ngong Road. I guess there will be opportunities at both venues to hear readings from the author’s work, and maybe bag a hardcover copy of Whispers From Vera. We should also find out from Goretti how we can benefit from the African Writers Trust (AWT), which now has a base in Uganda.

Though these activities are not explicitly touted as such by the hosts and convenors, many of us familiar with the literary scene know that they are within the ambience of the Nairobi International Book Fair, the biggest book event of the year.

This year it will run from September 25-30, at the Sarit Centre. I had very much hoped to be in Nairobi and witness or even participate in all or some of these rich activities, but alas, it was not to be. Homo proponit sed Deus disponit, as one ancient author has it. We propose but it is God that disposes.

My joy, however, is in seeing these younger colleagues of mine, like Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Goretti Kyomuhendo, not only continue with their creative activities but also actively play frontline roles in the assertion and promotion of our trade.

 I imply here that our responses to literature and, indeed, all the arts must go beyond mere celebration and admiration of the objects we create and aggressively and articulately demonstrate their relevance and purpose in society. I know this may seem to go against the grain of some of the values and attitudes, like aesthetic detachment (“beauty doesn’t have to plead its cause”), that we strove to instil into our charges.

But the times are changing, and they will continue to change, drastically, way beyond anything we have known or felt before. Unless we learn, fast, how to change and adapt at the pace of the cyber-powered AI world, we risk succumbing to the self-fulfilling prophecies of the automatons. How do we, poets, novelists and dramatists, turn a smile into an algorithm and program it into a ChatGPT application?

We have to equip ourselves and our world to listen to the joyful tidings of the future cyber-time.

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