Stop the criticism and do some actual literary work

What you need to know:

  • This idea of so-called professors and experts prescribing to the rest of Kenyans about ‘how to write winning plays’ or ‘what a classical novel reads like’ or decrying the death of Kenyan literature since Ngugi wa Thiong’o last wrote a novel – which novel, The Wizard of the Crow, they seem unable to talk about – is insulting.

A visitor to Kenya, unfamiliar with our national pastime, would imagine  there is no literature being written in this country. They would conclude that we don’t have poets.

They would send messages home that thespians were last spotted in Kenya before the refurbished National Theatre went to the dogs.

They would clearly write long essays explaining how Kenyans stopped writing anything worth calling literature since Ngugi wa Thiong’o went into exile. They would have gotten all these ideas of a land bare of creativity from these very pages.

Well, unless the essays I have been reading in the recent past on the state of Kenyan literature have been written with a deep sense of irony, then there are just too many false literary prophets out there.

Is Kenyan literature really dead? Is it true that there are no poets worth listening to or reading in this country of almost 40 million people? Could it be that all those plays on show at Alliance Francaise and the Professional Centre in Nairobi – we can agree to ignore the overdramatised subject of sex and corruption – are actually not drama? I recently read several riveting Kenyan novels in Kiswahili. Or could these have been fiction by Tanzanians, masquerading as Kenyans?

This dumbing down of the debate in these columns by the self-appointed connoisseurs of literature is sickening.

This idea of so-called professors and experts prescribing to the rest of Kenyans about ‘how to write winning plays’ or ‘what a classical novel reads like’ or decrying the death of Kenyan literature since Ngugi wa Thiong’o last wrote a novel – which novel, The Wizard of the Crow, they seem unable to talk about – is insulting.

This dismissal of all who don’t agree with one’s point of view, this claim that literature or art or culture, is what the ‘experts’ have baptised so, is sheer tyranny.

It is conceit to imagine that the beginning of literary creativity and end of literary criticism precisely fit with the first or last book you read and the last excoriation one wrote on their blogs or for the literature and culture pages of the weekend newspapers.

I say that this Saturday to Sunday preaching about the deplorable state of Kenyan literature is a pathetic self-exposure. First, Kenyans may not be producing books in large numbers but they are surely writing.

If the Anglophiles among us are sad that there aren’t enough books being written in English then they should actively engage in activities that will promote writing.

They should mentor and promote young writers. Maybe they should undertake translations of the many novels, plays and poetry anthologies in Kiswahili that litter bookshelves in this country. Or they could consider that it is vain and vanity to keep on comparing ourselves to Nigerians! Why would Kenyans want to match themselves to Nigerians? There are almost 200  million Nigerians. We are just about 40 million.

We won seven gold medals at the recent World Athletics Championship in Beijing, Nigeria won nought! The host, with over a billion people, won one gold medal! There! There are more and better Nigerian and Chinese novelists than there are Kenyans! But we beat them in athletics, cricket, rugby, etc.


My favourite sign of laziness is when Kenyan critics rant about a deficit in literary creativity. Aah, so, does this mean the Kiswahili fiction I read all-year round isn’t literature?

Or are we talking about people who are monolingual claiming no one else around the market is speaking their language! Kiswahili literature is absolutely fascinating. It has all the ingredients that the literature in English purists are looking for.

It is just that it doesn’t reference itself to Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemmingway, Plato, etc. Literature in Kiswahili from Kenya and Tanzania is steeped in the local lore; its language expressing the dreams and fates of its writers as they interpret the world around them. We may argue all day, all week, all month, all year, about ‘how good is this Kiswahili literature?’ But we have to read it first.

And in case the literature in Kiswahili is a bit difficult to plough through, check out one of the several blogs or WebPages that retail gossip or oral literature of the Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya or Kisii.

To add to these modest suggestions about how to go about dealing with the anxieties about Kenyan literature, what if these critics and specialists travelled around Nairobi and then outside the capital  to see, hear, listen and talk about what people out there are writing, reading, singing, dancing to, watching, creating and recreating etc, as their art and culture.

This is the month of literature in Nairobi (and not necessarily Kenya). There is the Nairobi International Book Fair between September 23-27, at the Sarit Centre. Preceding it will be the Storymoja Festival from September 16-20 at the Nairobi Arboretum. There will be, I am sure, a pretty decent serving of Kenyan fiction, drama, poetry, auto/biographies, history, etc.

But apart from these Nairobi-centric activities, there are tens of ‘book clubs’, ‘writing workshops’ (yes, they actually do help some writers), ‘theatre groups’, ‘performed or spoken-word or dub’ poetry all over this city and country.

Many of the so-called poets may not be published. Very few dramatists may have their plays in print. But these individuals do actually create. What critics need to do is to find a way of ‘adding value’ to these works and archiving them. I guess this value addition and archiving won’t come through workshops that ‘instruct’ artists on how to make money out of their art! Such money should actually be invested in art studios, editing skills and production.

Lastly, what if we actually just did some literary or artistic work instead of prescription and proscription? What if the critics did some work? What about more workshops and conferences on the state of Kenyan literature with eventual production of books? What about these critics picking a specific book and saying  what it is that is poor in the book?

What about writing about artists, writers and cultural producers beyond Nairobi? What about creating a Kenyan Canon that is democratic? What about some recess from insisting that Kenyan literature or art or culture has to measure up to World standards? What world? What standards?


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]



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