What you need to know:
- We are not wishing Taban away from the East African literary discourse. For some people, Taban’s essay in the East African Journal on literary barrenness may have become a classic. As Lennox Odiemo-Munara has argued, Taban can be off the mark, infuriatingly so, but he awakens us. To Lennox Munara, Taban is what Socrates was to Ancient Greeks, a gadfly.
- Taban walks like S. T. Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” and spellbinds professional writers and publishing editors into churning out his incoherent pieces every time he is in Nairobi. Then he has the temerity to help himself on the plate on which his dinner has been served after he has eaten and begin to shower vitriol on his hosts.
Why do Kenyan newspapers allow this ingrate called Prof Taban Lo Liyong to shower his literary offals on the Kenyan literati year in, year out? Who appointed Taban, who agrees that he is not a professional scholar but a creative writer, to throw mud at professors and lecturers in literature, drama, poetry and cultural studies in Kenyan universities whenever he lands here from Juba?
This African has been writing books about himself, his emotions, and his constant relocation from one country to another in the South Pacific. He has renounced his East African citizenship and lived in Japan and South Africa, and then emerged in South Sudan as a phoenix, and then comes to Kenya regularly and wants Kenyans to stop whatever they are reading and read his works.
IMPOSING HIS WILL
Taban is imposing his will on Kenyans and will administer a lethal curse on any Kenyan intellectual who does not retain him in full glare.
What literature is Taban Lo Liyong publishing that would be worth serious attention in a university and secondary school curriculum apart from his rusty manuscripts that he composed while studying in Iowa in the mid-1960s and that he is wont to pulling out one by one, like a witchdoctor pulling out magic wands from a mysteriously dark bag, to unsuspecting publishers and media practitioners?
We are not wishing Taban away from the East African literary discourse. For some people, Taban’s essay in the East African Journal on literary barrenness may have become a classic. As Lennox Odiemo-Munara has argued, Taban can be off the mark, infuriatingly so, but he awakens us. To Lennox Munara, Taban is what Socrates was to Ancient Greeks, a gadfly.
But Socrates lived with his people and reasoned with them. He never left the place where he was carrying out the discourse.
Taban was looking for attention and the best way to achieve this was to attack Ngugi. Taban looks for fights and he will sit there and celebrate when he hits the headlines again.
Taban and I are buddies, but why is he hitting the Kenyan university teaching fraternity below the belt? I was his pupil at the University College, Nairobi, before I joined him to become a teacher. Surely, what does he have against Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o not to want him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature? And to judge him only against two novels, The River Between and Weep Not Child, which Ngugi wrote when he was an undergraduate student at Makerere?
How many novels, volumes of essays, plays, and interviews has Ngugi produced over the last 50 years? Why was he detained? Why does he live in exile?
Taban walks like S. T. Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” and spellbinds professional writers and publishing editors into churning out his incoherent pieces every time he is in Nairobi. Then he has the temerity to help himself on the plate on which his dinner has been served after he has eaten and begin to shower vitriol on his hosts. What moral right does he have in saying that there are no writers and scholars of metal in Kenya to compare with him? Why do we literary people in this country allow this man to throw spit on us in this manner?
WROTE POEMS WITH ENCOURAGEMENT
Taban wrote his poems with the encouragement of Rajat Neogy of Transition. Later Odinge Odera of the East Africa Journal published it in 1965, helping Taban to ask the question: “Can We Correct Literary Barrenness in East Africa?” This was written when Taban Lo Liyong was a second year in an undergraduate Fine Arts class. Looking at it now, it cannot pass as an A essay in an undergraduate class. It would be totally incomprehensible in a Master’s coursework class.
A genuine mark for that essay would be 15 out of 40, because apart from dropping names of authors like Leopold Sedar Senghor, Ferdinand Oyono, and Eskia Mphahlele, it does
not tell us the books these people have written nor try to analyse them. This essay is now 48 years old.
What set me wondering was why Kenyan journalists run after Taban every time he sets foot in this city to allude to this essay, which tells a lie over and over that there is literary barrenness here in spite of the volume of published creative works in East Africa.
Prof Wafula Okumu of the African Union has shown how Taban was to Idi Amin what Martin Heidegger was to Adolf Hitler.
In the 1970s, whenever Taban was challenged about supporting Amin through his writings, he launched tirades against his critics and trashed other authors from the East African region.
He says he was the first African to receive an MFA in Creative Writing. But the question is: “So what?”
Can he claim to be a literary critic when all the books he reads are his own manuscripts?
Let us look at his own CV and identify the number of scholarly essays he has written.
Taban admits that he is a creative writer and not a scholar. University of Nairobi lecturers and professors have been holding teacher training sessions in Aramwear, Maridi, Malakal and Juba with him, and they commend him for fruitful conferencing.
They commend him for his wit and humour when he comments on art and craft objects. One of the professors at the University of Iowa who recommended Taban for the post of a lecturer at the University of Nairobi in the 1960s commended him for his ability to communicate verbally, but cast doubt on his ability to write scholarly essays.
He has made it a habit to arrive in Nairobi from Juba, book himself at the United Kenya Club and then make phone calls to publishers, lecturers and journalists.
He will then appear on television, radio, or be interviewed by members of the Fourth Estate over tea or tots of whisky.
I have myself hosted him on GBS and invited him to address the youth at Egerton University. But oftentimes, after he has had one too many he begins hurling insults at fellow writers and former colleagues like James Stewart, Andrew John Gurr, Adrian Roscoe, Angus Calder, Okot p’Bitek, Henry Owuor Anyumba, Ngugi and Bahadur Tejani.
The writers and scholars I have talked to have different explanations for this behaviour. Taban seems to be in need of sympathy rather than criticism.
In the erudite interview with Emeka-Mayaka and Julius Sigei (Saturday Nation, September 14, 2013), he said: “Nobody has studied my books to interrogate me since 1965. Nobody has followed the arguments; I am always explaining myself. I feel that I have not been taken seriously. I am frustrated. I feel let down.”
But this assessment of his place in scholarship is misguided. There are numerous essays and interviews with him and essays and articles on him.
Peter Nazareth and I have written on his works. Dr Benjamin Odhoji of Kenyatta University wrote a PhD on Taban’s works when he was a student at Emory University in the US.
Right now, a publisher in the US has asked me to vet essays which are going to form an encyclopaedic book on World Critical Perspectives of Taban Lo Liyong.
What then is the basis of this claim that people have not researched on him since 1965?
Prof Wanjala is the chair of the National Book Development Council of Kenya