Fact or fiction: Writing does not pay in Kenya

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor during the launch of her book 'The Dragonfly Sea' at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi on May 12, 2019.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • According to Dr Peter Kimani, author of the internationally acclaimed Dance of the Jakaranda, Kenyan publishers do not give creative writing serious consideration.
  • Dance of the Jakaranda, a historical novel released three years ago, has done well internationally and is currently in its fourth reprint.
  • To qualify for use in schools, course books undergo a rigorous vetting process at KICD.

A discussion on creative writing and the status of reading culture in Kenya often sounds like the proverbial chicken and egg story. While the two are intertwined, it gets rather tricky when it comes to establishing what causes the ‘suffering’ of the other.

There are those who will declare that a poor reading culture is caused by a lack of enough creative writing materials. Then there are those who swear that it is due to a poor reading culture that fewer general readership books are being produced.

Riddles and clever arguments aside, the fact of the matter is that the situation in Kenya is far from being satisfactory. To start with, it is an established fact that Kenyan publishers are not producing enough books for general readership. This is as opposed to the huge volumes they produce for the school market.

The few books that are produced are hardly marketed by Kenyan publishers, which makes it difficult for the general reading public to know of their existence.

To make head of this debate, Saturday Nation spoke to a publisher, a bookstore owner and a number of writers.

So where does the blame lie?

According to Dr Peter Kimani, author of the internationally acclaimed Dance of the Jakaranda, Kenyan publishers do not give creative writing serious consideration. “To them, creative writing is a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) function after they have reconciled their profit and loss accounts,” he says, adding that as a result, the overall print quality of such books is not up to scratch.

Appreciate fiction

Dr Kimani, who teaches at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, at the Aga Khan University, says that although the Kenyan publishers who have produced his books have treated him ‘fairly well’, a lot still needs to be done if we are to compete on the international stage. “For one, we need to appreciate that fiction plays a crucial part in the overall development of a society,” he adds.

“It is through fiction that a society gets to know and understand itself better,” he says. “It is the biggest illuminating aspect of human life.”

He gives the example of Hollywood as the one institution that tells the great American story. “The same applies to William Shakespeare, whose writing enables the people of England come to terms with the development of their society through the ages,” he adds.

Dance of the Jakaranda, a historical novel released three years ago, has done well internationally and is currently in its fourth reprint. “It is currently being studied at graduate and undergraduate levels in the US, UK, South Africa, Pakistan and Jordan,” he explains, pointing at the power of marketing by international publishers.

“Had the book been published locally, it would still be in limited circulation here in Nairobi,” adds Dr Kimani. Ironically, when it came out, he couldn’t find a local publisher for the book.

Lawrence Njagi, the chairperson of Kenya Publishers Association, agrees with Dr Kimani to the extent that our educational system requires an overhaul as the current one is too exam oriented.

The competency based curriculum, now in the process of being implemented, explains Mr Njagi, will create room for the production of more creative writing, as it places more emphasis on research as opposed to cramming.

Good financial returns

He, however, rejects the idea that local publishers consider creative writing to be a CSR function and thus not taken seriously. “Publishers invest in a book, with the sincere aim that it will make good financial returns,” he says. “Remember, we are business entities. If it is a matter of CSR, then we give back to society, where it is mostly needed, like food aid to draught hit areas.”

How then does he explain the poorly written and edited books in the market? Here, Mr Njagi makes the rare admission that this could be down to the fact that such books do not require vetting and approval by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), which explains the numerous shortcomings in these books.

To qualify for use in schools, course books undergo a rigorous vetting process at KICD. Without a nod from the curriculum developer, publishers will find it extremely hard to stay afloat, and that explains why publishers dedicate so much of their resources and time working on course books at the expense of creative works.

Whenever KICD makes a call for submissions, publishers virtually suspend all their activities to focus all their energies on preparing these manuscripts. “Publishers subject themselves to punishing schedules; it is not uncommon to find language editors working on science scripts,” said a publishing insider who sought anonymity.

Like Mr Njagi, Kinyanjui Kombani, a multiple award-winning author, who has branded himself as ‘the banker who writes’, points an accusing finger at the education system. “Even in the study of literature, the students are purely focused on passing exams. That explains the proliferation of guide books, which are chiefly geared towards helping students tackle exam questions, as opposed to appreciating the text being studied,” explains Mr Kombani, known for his book Villains of Molo.

He adds that students are drilled into approaching a literary text within the rigid structures of thematic concerns and lessons learned, at the expense of enjoying the writing. He is of the view that such an approach to literature often breeds people with a poor reading culture once they are out of school.

Sustained publicity campaign

Mr Kombani also identifies poor marketing as the other issue affecting the development of creative writing in Kenya. “The best a local publisher can do is to organise a book launch as opposed to mounting a sustained publicity campaign for a book. Authors, too, need to play an active role in marketing themselves and their books, and not leave everything to publishers,” he adds.

Rebecca Nandwa, who has written a number of children’s books, and who has had a stint as an editor in a publishing house, says that local publishers need to have clear cut roles for editors who handle creative works and those who work on course books.

The ideal situation, according to her, is for the Kenyan book industry to introduce agencies like in the West, where competent persons act as half way houses for publishers. “That way the work of soliciting sound manuscripts is left to agents with publishers being left to do the printing and marketing of creative works,” adds Ms Nandwa.

On his part, Ahmed Aidarus, the proprietor of Prestige Bookshop, says that there is a section of Kenyans who are avid readers, but who are unable to find the right reading materials by Kenyan authors. “The people who frequent my shops have exceptional taste in the books they want to read,” he says. “They insist on good quality, which is not available locally.”

Having experienced what the rest of the world has to offer, Mr Aidarus’ customers have been hungering for similar quality writing from local authors. The challenge led him to establishing a publishing house, Jahazi Books, which has so far has acquired local rights for Dance of the Jakaranda and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s book, The Dragonfly Sea.

“This is the first step towards establishing a vibrant writing and reading culture her in Kenya,” adds Mr Aidarus, whose bookshop does not stock educational books.

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