Pambazuka News 386: The writer in a time of crisis: Kwani Lit Fest
The authoritative electronic weekly newsletter and platform for social justice in Africa
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CONTENTS: 1. Editors’ corner, 2. Features, 3. Comment & analysis
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Highlights from this issue
- Mukoma Wa Ngugi on the present generation of African Writers
- Aurelie Journo interviews Binyavanga Wainaina on the role of the writer in a time of crisis and much more
COMMENTS AND ANALYSIS:
- Is the pen mightier than a machete Arno Kopecky asks?
- Shalini Gidoomal on the in and outs of the Kwani Lit Fest
- Introducing the Kwani Lit Fest Faculty
ANNOUNCEMENTS: About Kwani Lit Fest
About Kwani Lit Fest
Pambazuka News Editors
Kwani Litfest (KLF), August 1st to 18th, is one of the more exciting and robust literary festivals taking place in Africa.
Pambazuka News has been featuring more and more African writing. We are therefore especially pleased to bring you this special issue on KLF and some of the broader issues surrounding the political and aesthetic concerns of the younger generation of African writers.
This year KLF will feature a fortnight of writerly events, culture, mingling, discussion and inspiration. More than 40 African and international poets and writers will appear in fifteen days of panel discussions, l readings, book launches, conversations, literary lunches, cultural tours and performances.
Thiis dynamic 15-day writers festival which not only showcases the best of contemporary African writing, but also utilises established authors to provide inspiring writing tuition and manuscript assessments. KLF, now in its 4th successful year, brings together thinkers and writers from different continents and experiences to explore ideas relevant to the burgeoning African literary scene.
This year, in addition to creative endeavours, KLF will focus on the role of the writer in fast-changing conflict and post-conflict situations.
As a special theme following Kenya’s post election violence, KLF will explore the need for new definitions, solutions and ideas. Join us in writing, speaking, networking and devising ways to actively re-invent our society for the good of all.
Through a series of workshops, symposiums, book launches, discussions, retreats, travelling and networking, KLF will develop participants’ creative writing skills, with an emphasis on how stories can help society to see itself more coherently.
The 2008 Kwani Litfest will consist of:
- A series of one day workshops which begin on Saturday 2nd August
- Week long writing workshops geared towards the craft of writing, which begin Monday August 4th
- A one day symposium - Revisioning Kenya will take place on 8th August
- KLF moves to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Lamu on Sunday August 10th.
With special thanks to Dipesh Pabari, a Kenyan writer and one of the core KLF organizers for bringing this special issue together.
African writing in our time
Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Each generation of writers is confounded by the simple and clichéd paradox – the more the world changes the more it remains the same. The imagination wants to be freed from the hold of the past, and yet it finds that the present and the material worlds are indelibly tied to that past. I believe it is to this tension that James Baldwin was speaking when he wrote that a writer cannot write outside his or her times.
Each generation of writers wants to acknowledge the previous generation, but at the same time it begrudges them an unchanged world while claiming the new for itself. It is these tensions that in the end produce literature, and help draw a blurred line between one generation of writers and the next.
I remember a great moment around 2002 when South African poet and anti-apartheid activist Daniel Kunene read a poem he wrote soon after apartheid fell in 1994. The poem was about taking out the trash from the kitchen. By way of introducing the poem, he narrated how he had felt, after having spent all his life fighting this beast called apartheid, now that it was dead, that he could allow his imagination to work out other concerns - the mundane, the minutiae of day to day existence.
But that was 1994 when all seemed possible in South Africa. In 2002, Kunene was reading the poem as something written in a moment in time, before it was overtaken by change that remained the same. Today thinking about the xenophobic attacks, his poem about taking out the trash has deep metaphorical undertones. It could very well be about cleaning out the trash that the ANC has become.
Let me not put words in his mouth and say this: that in the xenophobic killings we find the paradox that allows the new generation of South African writers and Kunene’s generation to have a dialogue. In the same way that Mugabe’s one-man show and the recent Kenya crisis allows the older and younger generation of writers to have a conversation. If such a national crisis is seen as an occasion to blame, then an opportunity to move history and literature forward is lost. If it is used to build on the past and if we understand history as a process then the stage for the next generation of writers is set.
But let me also say this – that I do not know what it means to be a political writer. Perrhaps more than anything this designation has been used to take the African artist and the writer out of what he or she produces. The friendly critic thus says - the African artist is functional; the African writer is political. Yet, the imagination cannot be moved by ideology otherwise it simply gives the ideology a different form.
Imagination is moved by a profound desire to render tangible that which is around it. The artist is moved by beauty and ugliness, by the senseless and chaotic because deep down the imagination is haughty enough to believe that there is nothing it cannot grasp and make visible. The artist has to make music out of two, three or more dead and dying beats. A novel with ten characters means that the writer had to bring a Lazarus back from the dead ten times.
So the African writer lives somewhere between “making the ordinary extra-ordinary”, making the invisible visible and finding a “voice for the voiceless.”
And I think my generation of writers understands this very well. Look, during the post-electoral violence in Kenya, the Concerned Kenyan Writers did not put their pens down in order to be concerned citizens. They spoke as writers to a political situation without as much as giving a nod to those who see Africans as producing only functional art, or want the African writer to write about the snow caps of Mt. Kilimanjaro while ignoring the politics of global warming. So, yes African writers can be unapologetically political but as artists.
It is precisely for these reasons that I remain very partial, even protective of the work that Kwani? Magazine has been doing for the last 6 or so years. I do not think Kwani? blames; I think it just does. And when it comes to African literature, there is a lot of work to be done.
Consider this, in the United States there are thousands of literary journals, some national, and some local, some in universities and some in high-schools. In Britain, you find the same thing. Yet in a country like Kenya, you have only one literary journal that can be considered national and in Nigeria half a dozen or so. One cannot even think of regional or provincial journals let alone high school journals in Africa. In the whole continent, with an exception of African Writing, there is hardly a literary journal that can considered Pan-African in that it serves the concerns of the whole continent. Considering Africa has a population that is close to 700 million, we are in terrible shape.
Or take the question of literary prizes. Again in the West, there are literary prizes for all ages and regions in addition to national ones. In Africa there are only a handful with the most prestigious being Western. In the US there are state and national art councils with their own budgets: African governments see writing as an act of spontaneous combustion by a few ingrates who should in fact be jailed. This is not to say that we need to emulate the literary traditions of the West, but surely we should be able to use them to challenge our own.
What does this mean? Quite simply that the African child sees writing a book as something he or she can never achieve. To chase after a dream, there has to be a belief that it can be achieved. The African student reads a novel by Achebe or Ngugi as a finished product; there is no process, books just happen to be born.
So the work being done by Kwani?, and other magazines such as Chimurenga and Farafina, is very central to the future of African literature. It is these magazines that demystify the writing process for aspiring writers. They become a magnet and home for national and continental talent. It is around these magazines that Literary Festivals are being held and it is around them that we should build African literary prizes. We need to invest in the creation of more journals till Kwani and Chimurenga become one amongst many.
This is not say that we do not have a few failings some of them bordering on the tragic. T.S. Elliot once remarked that a poet’s responsibility is first and foremost to his or her language. It is only fair to say that on this count we are failing - happily. But if we do not pick up the responsibility for our languages, who will?
*Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (poems, 2006), Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change and is co-editor of Pambazuka News (www.pambazuka.org).
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/
Binyavanga Wainaina: The writer in a time of crisis
Aurelie Journo (PhD Literature student) talks to Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of Kwani? about this year's Kwani? Litfest that will take place in Nairobi and Lamu from the 1st to the 15th of August. As the discussion went on, they found themselves broaching several subjects ranging from the state of the media in Kenya, to the role of the writer in times of crisis, with digressions on post-colonial theories and ideology.
PAMBAZUKA NEWS: When you created Kwani? in 2003, the idea behind it was that “the literary intelligensia, together with African publishers and founders of literary projects ha[d] lost touch with a generation of Africans who are tired of being talked down to; who are seeking to understand the bewildering world around them.” Five years later, do you feel things have changed?
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: The first challenge we face is one I would call that of "low expectations." Today, we see how far we still are from something really vibrant, but the reactions from outside vary from praise, which is nice, to complaints, accusing us of no longer being « underdogs ». The latter is shocking for me as it is not how I see myself. In the end we can say that what we have become has more to do with the lack of other things. (what things lack of other platforms/infrastructures for writers) Our main aim is to make it grow still, with demands from people, older generations for example, to include them. We have not become a new Department of Literature, we just want to make people access literature because we can.
The second element is the origin of Kwani?. The people who created Kwani? were on the cliff of hip-hop, excited by the new developments in Kenyan music scene, but not really into it. They were lovers of the written word, who had been great readers since childhood. In their teens, they saw books disappear, and had a problem with the didactic nature of the books written at the birth of the Kenyan nation, books that were telling us how to be and what to think. These books didn't really talk to us, to people born after independence, who felt less need to prove their identity with reference to ideology or colonialism. Many people consider our aim was to break with Ngugi wa Thiong'o, for example, but I don't see the evolution in literature that way, I feel our inspiration cannot be limited to national literature. After 40 years of independence, we just felt the need to create the infrastructure, the space within which we could express ourselves. The harsh criticism made against the intelligenstia at the time was maybe an overreaction, but the main message was to stand up against the idea, well spread within literary and academic circles, especially in Nairobi, that with Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chinua Achebe, everything had been said, that the job in terms of literature had been done.
PZN: Contrary to last year, the Kwani? Litfest will take place this summer, from the 1st to the 15th August, in Nairobi and Lamu. Can you tell us more about the creation of this festival and its objectives?
BW: The festival, at first, was inspired by the Summer Literary Seminars, founded in 1999 by a Russian-born American, Mikhael Iossel, who organised those Seminars in St Petersburg. The seminars aimed to work on creative writing. Several Kenyan writers, like Tony Mochama, participated in those seminars and a friendship was born. Mikhael Iossel's wife being Kenyan-American, the idea was hatched to bring those seminars to Kenya. The first couple of years, however, the American travel ban on Kenya made it hard to organize a wide-reaching event. The festival only brought together 8 writers in 2003. But the idea was there, and these writers travelled together and shared their ideas. Eventually, in 2005, many things came together: the ban on travel was lifted, we had our own budget, and it made it possible to bring the SLS to Kenya, with other workshops and travels around Kenya. The festival took on its actual format, with one week of intensive workshops in Nairobi and one week in Lamu, where networks of writers could be created. Our aim this year is to make it grow. The aim of the festival is really what I would call cross-polination, reinforcing the relations between writers, building networks, while providing useful information on publishing deals, blogging, advice on others' work, etc... Farafina, the Nigerian magazine, was born during the Kwani? Litfest. There are so few infrastructures today in Africa that cooperation between African writers is paramount. Kenyan writers will go to the Sable Litfest, for example, in The Gambia, even if the money is not there to pay for their plane ticket.
PZN: With the presence of Ishmael Beah, Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone), Doreen Baingana (Uganda), and Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria), to mention but a few, the festival is clearly international. How do you account for this?
BW: In the 1980s and 1990s, African writers were insulated, so defending their literary terrain today has to go through international cooperation. I would also say that we don’t have enough just in Kenya to limit ourselves to a strictly national festival. I also believe that creation takes place when there is friction and dynamic contact. Of course, this can happen on both national and international levels, but I would say that the literary traffic is and has always been international. The American students who come for the festival, for instance, are often disoriented when they arrive and they realize that they are not there to teach us how to write, but rather to learn. When people's heads knock is when they change. It is true that in the « geopolitical world of literature », Africa is still under-represented, but the festival is also a way for us to change this state of affairs. The aim of the festival is not didactic, its agenda was never really a planned project, it rather happened organically, so to speak, through interactions between people and exchange. Thus, the festival, as a place for networking and exchange, creates a platform that had disappeared in Africa after the 1970s.
PZN: Because of practical considerations and of the December 2007 elections, you decided to hold KLF this summer. Given what has happened after the elections, the festival and its participants will focus on the role of the writer in conflict and post-conflict situations. What is your view on this issue?
BW: My view is that the writer is at the service of the people. He is the one who creates a picture through which people process their experiences and their identity. However, I am hesitant as to whether his duty can be bullet-pointed, especially for writers of fiction. I believe that writers are always at the mercy of their imagination, and that imagination can not be commanded. The Kenyan writer, given the events that followed the elections, had his head engaged in this, and had to talk about it. Thus, the creation of the Concerned Kenyan Writers forum, where a dialogue and a debate were initiated. This space received a huge amount of reactions, of testimonies and reflection around what had happened. But in terms of fiction, I think books dealing with it will come much later. If you take for example, Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, it was written long after the Biafra war. However, it's impact was huge because, there was a whole generation who felt they could not talk about it, and her book made it possible to talk about it. The meaning of all that happened can not be seen now, I think, because of the many things that have to be said. I think that journalism dominates the discourse right now, because fiction takes much longer and is weaker when it is about situations or people who are still alive.
PZN: You mentioned the division between journalism and creative writing, but with the development of Kwani? one gets the feeling that you have tried to promote non-creative fiction. Does it have to do with a particular aesthetic position, realism?
BW: I think it has more to do with the particular nature of this country. If you watch the news, you come to realize there is not much being said about Kenyans. The news really represents a report on 10 or 20 families and what they do for Kenya. The Kenyan media focus so much on facts that the real stuff of life in Kenya is often left out. This absence accounts for the need for creative non-fiction that deals more with characters than with facts. Billy Kahora's story on David Munyakei touched many people and the reactions it got were very profound. You mention aesthetics, but I think the major factor is that Buru Buru for example has never been written about, and it has more to do with building the nation in print. Most people have never seen themselves in print, and it is one element that makes them real. If you ask a student to write about a Kenyan character, he will find it difficult. This is what we wanted to change, to make people discover themselves and their country by putting their daily lives and actions in print.
PZN: Among the events planned at the Kwani? Litfest, there is one entitled "Revisioning Kenya", a symposium where speakers who do not come from the literary world, such as the Nigerian anti-corruption official Ribadu or Virgin's Richard Branson, will discuss solutions for Kenya . Could you tell us more about this?
BW: The idea behind this was a conference I went to in Californian called the TED conference. The speakers come from varied backgrounds, and have 18 minutes to deliver their speech. During these conferences you meet people that produce great ideas in all fields.I think that in a post-violence situation it is a great service to provide such a platform, although it does not deal directly with literature. It serves to remind people that a territory of better ideas exist that is beyond politicians and their mediocre ideas. This new territory can be a source of inspiration for writers.
PZN: Another discussion that may take place during the festival, will have more to do with literature and its theories. It is entitled "The fallacy of Post-colonial Fiction." Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and other writers are very interested in the post-colonial debate. What is your position on this?
BW: To be honest, I had not been briefed on this panel discussion. I would say my approach towards literature is more pragmatic than theoretical. As I have told you before, I am not an academic, I am not a theorist. However, I read and consume post-colonial theory, but more as a citizen interested in new ideas. I would not read it to be placed on the theoretical map as a post-colonial writer, a modernist or in any other box created by the Literature Departments. If you asked me if I consider myself a post-colonial writer, I would answer that it's like asking a lion if he considers himself as part of the fauna and flora, the answer is that the question is of no interest to him. I am not saying that the debate in itself is useless. The academics needs us and we also need them, but as an author I reject being put inside a box, you could call this the dismissal of the box approach. Kwani? has always been and will hopefully remain resolutely not what people want it to be. We don't know what we are, but we are finding out, by trying, and sometimes failing. This is a very good defence against people trying to tag you.
PZN: In your Caine prize winning short story, Discovering Home, you travel from South Africa to Kenya to Uganda. Discovering Home is thus also about the cultural multiplicity that makes you who you are. With the post-electoral violence, identity has been a central issue. How do you feel about this?
BW: I am quite resentful of identity politics. The American notion of it has become "memeness." What is this ? It's me-me ness, narcissism and egocentrism if I understood well, disguised as empowerment. I recently read a short story about a Hawaiin-American girl working as a volunteer in Lamu who was offended when people there called her "China-girl." She read this as racism, as a rejection of her cosmopolitan identity. Her pose as a victim, through this issue of identity really irritated me. In such cases, identity politics is a language that has permeated the system and ceased to be useful. It is strongly linked to the location of power. I have met many Kenyan students in the USA who tell me they don't know who they are, but I just feel like telling them, "you are simply Kenyans living in the USA, what is so problematic about this?"
I don't adhere to the Rushdian notion of global citizen, because I have trouble seeing exactly what it means. Identity is the product of so many commitments, ideas, and natural circumstances. On the other hand, nationalism and its offshoots tend to try hard to limit the vision you have of your possibilities. Many people ask me about my name, claiming it is not Kikuyu, so I have to define my "Kikuyuness", whereas my name precisely comes from the Kikuyu naming system, even if my mother is Ugandan.
Nativism is profoundly dangerous, and too many ideas about African writing are infested by it. With this binarity between nativism and global citizenship, most citizens miss out on sensible evaluation about identity. I think all of our identities are precisely in between those two extremes. The influence of American culture should thus not be seen so negatively, as it has led to the development of Kenyan hip-hop in sheng in the 1990s. I would say this movement was a proper literary movement, that carried a culture. In as much as it is a true bottom-up phenomenon, it has empowered people in a very powerful way. I met young people from Turkana who knew Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, which shows how far this movement reaches. The new generation of hip-hop, cyber cafés, and open TV is a generation of networking. I consider myself part of the in-between generation, neither that of Ngugi wa Thiong'o nor that of hip-hop, a « cursed generation », who didn't invent forms, and are thus instinctively drawn to recognize what there is, to report on what is out there to be seen. For us, ideology and aesthetics have to take the backseat, our aim is to make literature a living thing, to move things along by promoting networking and focusing on the chemistry at work when people meet.
And that is surely what will happen during the Kwani? Litfest...
*For more information on the festival and the workshops go to the Kwani? website: http://www.kwanilitfest.com/
*Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org
Is the pen mightier than a machete?
Is the pen mightier than the panga? This was the question confronting Kenya’s literary establishment in the opening days of 2008, as war spread throughout Kenya’s urban centers and across the fertile Rift Valley in the nation’s heartland. As belligerent armies of unemployed youth paraded before news cameras armed with the one weapon all Kenyans have access to, pangas (machetes) once again became the symbol for death and destruction in Africa. Spoken words, it seemed, coming from the podiums of politicians of every stripe, were what helped ignite this chaos in the first place; was it possible that written words from a more thoughtful source might help reverse the spread of violence? Or barring that, could it at least make sense of the chaos and thereby ensure that when peace returned, it stayed?
Kenya’s writing community didn’t wait long to find out. Three days after the killings began, a truly unique creature was born: the Concerned Kenyan Writers group, a broad and passionate coalition of almost one hundred thinkers, philosophers, poets, journalists, novelists, film-makers, and just about every brand of outraged humanist a person could imagine.
The CKW began simply, as a ‘google group’ whose members submitted prose for the whole group to debate and critique; part workshop, part battleground of ideas, the stories, essays, poems and rants that were posted to the google group would go on to grace the pages of newspapers like The New York Times and the Mail & Guardian, magazines like Nigeria’s Farafina, and dozens more international publications. And despite its name, the CKW quickly grew to include writers who didn’t hold Kenyan passports, but nevertheless felt a strong enough connection to the country to play an active role in its rehabilitation – writers like Kalundi Serumaga, the Ugandan radio and print journalist, and Petina Gappah, the Zimbabwean writer/activist.
But the impact was greatest inside Kenya’s borders. Within a month of its creation, the CKW had grown to encompass virtually every literary institution; Kenya’s three major newspapers, for instance, were ably covered by Rasna Warah, a columnist for the Daily Nation, Martin Kimani, writing for the weekly East African, and Tony Mochama, whose weekly ‘Smitta’ column in the Standard reaches more of Kenya’s youth than any other printed space in the country. Together, these three (and many more like them) presented stories to millions of Kenyans that went beyond the usual stenographic political coverage. They poked and prodded the consciences of not just politicians, but of readers themselves, urging the public to share in the responsibility for what befell the country.
And they went far beyond newspapers. Tony Mochama, normally known for his sharp-witted interviews and vodka-soaked poetry, published a short story, “The Road To Eldoret,” describing one man’s ill-fated drive through Rift Valley. The tale appeared in a small but vivid collection called After the Vote, alongside stories like Simiyu Barasa’s “The Obituary of Simiyu Barasa,” in which the journalist-turned-filmmaker describes his own death at the hands of imagined rioters; and an untitled essay by playwright Andia Kisia who, in imagining her parents’ witnessing the birth of Kenya, realizes that “the country was a continuous experiment with the ever present possibility of failure, a fragile thing that had only just come into being and might very well go out of being…”
Published in early May, After the Vote was the first post-election book to hit the shelves. Many other like-minded initiatives had already come to the public’s eye, though, like the special edition of Wajibu magazine that came out in mid April with doves and flames on the cover and words by every Kenyan writer of note inside. One of those writers was Wambui Mwangi, who had recently started a multimedia project called Generation Kenya aimed at exploring and celebrating the identity(ies) of post-independence Kenya.
Was it ironic that Mwangi should have sprung her project into motion in December of 2007, at almost the exact moment that Kenya revealed its darkest side to itself and the world? Certainly, “Kenyan-ness” suddenly seemed much less of a cause for celebration by the time December 27th came around. But Mwangi adapted her website, Generation Kenya to the new circumstances and used it as a platform to profile the countless ‘mashujaas’ (champions) who had performed acts of heroism on grand and modest scales throughout the election. It turned out to be what Kenya needed most – true and heartening stories that spoke of hope and a fundamental integrity in the Kenyan character at a time when barbarians dominated the stage. The GenKen project resonated so well with the public that the Nation Media Group is now including it as a supplement in their pages, the most widely read in Kenya.
Not to be outdone, the diaspora intelligencia contributed from afar as blogs and websites roared to life – perhaps none more vocally than KenyaImagine.com, whose cast of writers provided an ongoing narrative of the Kenyan drama. Managed by a handful of editors living as far afield as England, the US and South Africa, KenyaImagine blended the humour and absurdity of the post-election period so deftly it was hard to imagine the people running it could be living anywhere but inside the heart of the story. Other sites used their cyberpens to do more than tell stories; they raised cash for aid, like like Dipesh Pabari’s Sukuma Kenya, which pulled in 1.2 million shillings and funneled it towards reconstruction efforts in Kisumu.
And then there is Kwani?, the annual anthology of east African literature spearheaded by Binyavanga Wainaina, who was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the CKW itself. Kwani? was halfway through production of their fifth volume when the election struck and rendered all other topics irrelevant. Instead of pursuing their original table of contents, the editors decided to clear the plate and start fresh; in February, Kwani? sent a dozen writers on the Testimonial Project; they gathered over two hundred interviews from across the country, drawing out voices that were involved in all sides of the conflict for an unprecedented glimpse of what January’s chaos looked like on the ground. Other writers, some of whom had already been commissioned to follow the campaign, were brought in to flesh out the narrative, bringing creative nonfiction, poetry, essays and analysis to the mix. The result will be launched in August, a special twin issue that promises to be the most authoritative and comprehensive reflection to date on this most indelible of historical periods.
That launch coincides with the Kwani Litfest. Writers from all over Africa are coming to Nairobi for the first week of August, an event that may provide the first real opportunity to reflect on a different sort of question – the most painful one for writers, of just how much difference their work has made. There is little doubt that the Kenyan crisis has inspired an already talented crew of writers and forced them to reach for new heights. But the question does remain: Can their collective pens defeat the swords that were drawn in January?
For now those blades are sheathed, while the scribes continue to wage their sharp-tongued war on the status quo. It will take some time to tell how deeply into Kenya’s conscience the country’s writers can cut with their words. In the meantime, the activation and engagement of Kenya’s literary community is already proof that at least one good thing has come from this country’s descent into madness.
*Arno Kopecky is a Canadian journalist and travel writer, currently based in Nairobi. His dispatches have appeared in several international publications, including The Walrus magazine, Utne, Harper's, The Toronto Star, and Kenya's Daily Nation, for whom he reported extensively on Kenya's post-election chaos. He is currently an editor with Kwani?, a literary anthology of east African words, photography and art.
*Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org
Putting on the Kwani Lit Fest
As dusk descends, preparations continue apace outside the main entrance of the National Museum. Trees planted in sturdy plastic bags brought in for the occasion are being wrap-dressed in gold shimmery fabric. A disco set of powerful spotlights alternate green, blue, red, shining through the customised Kitengela stained glass windows of the newly built reception area. The monotonous “one two, one two” of the sound test irritates – it always does. A large cardboard cut-out of the Gedi ruins is placed in one area; a model of the oryx and the lioness in another. Pacing through this activity is a woman, painted toenails showing hints of white from panic scrunched toes, hair akimbo as she rakes her fingers through it in distraction. It appears that the newly minted Minister for Tourism has decided to introduce himself to the diplomatic community outside the newly minted National Museum in Nairobi. And she, the proposer, and organiser is struggling to get all details in place before the jamboree kicks off.
I know that feeling. At the last Kwani Litfest in 2006, I got caught in Nairobi’s notorious evening traffic, made worse by an accident, on the eve of a fundraiser that I was in charge of called Authors in Conversation. As I sat, gridlocked, on a single lane road that really had nowhere to go, the phone didn’t stop ringing. First it was the DJ, Chimurenga editor Ntone Edjabe, saying that the owner of the venue had been so rude that he didn’t want to take part any more. Then it was the main attraction, MG Vassanji, who’d been insulted by the interviewer who had just confessed that he hadn’t read a single Vassanji book. He didn’t want to take part any more. Vassanji’s call was followed by the interviewer – who up to this point had thought he was the interviewee, having brought out a book himself just recently – he too didn’t want to take part any more. With all the major players resigning with just minutes to spare, it was actually a relief not to be at the event. That is until I received a call from the panicked restaurant to say nobody was manning the front desk, so everyone was coming in to our fundraiser for free. Squished on Tarifa Road between a matatu on one side and a green Peugeot on the other, I too raked fingers through carefully combed hair as I felt weeks of plans and organisation slip into chaos.
This feeling of hopeless panic was to descend on me over and over again in the next fortnight. It happened when the photocopies of manuscripts for a workshop didn’t materialise; when dinner in Lamu’s fort arrived so late that half the participants wandered off in search of other food; when a tutor fell through the bottom of a fibre glass boat as he leapt in excitement from a dhow (the same tutor who, only minutes earlier, had been rescued from a roaring tide that had yanked him far away from the boat). Oh, and when the additional luggage on our return charter from Lamu included spoils such as wooden carved chests, large mkeka’s, lamu chairs and other such cargo that the pilot, fearing that his overweight plane would just bounce from the runway into the sea refused to take off until great chunks of luggage was removed – resulting in a two hour haggling negotiation with a scheduled airline to take the goods.
Such is the world of Arts Management or Event Organisation. For some enterprising souls, this moniker involves securing a million dollars to helicopter a posse of people up north to dress Poi mountain in gossamer thin red silk carried up its sheer face by barefoot dancers who have learned to mountaineer for this specific purpose – to peg, in a gesture of oblique Samburu symbolism, said fabric to the climbing cleats driven into the rock by a more prosaic batch of Czech mountaineers. The scene is then painted at speed by disabled French dwarfs from the renaissance movement of art while Mongolian throat singers provide an appropriate and stimulating sound stimulus to the entire shebang. Ah, Creation!
Our approach is more prosaic. The Kwani team agonised as to whether to have a Litfest at all this year as the violence struck, stuck and spread across Kenya; bonfires and machetes uniting the land in the horror of our very own gruesome trance dance. It quickly became clear, as tourists hopped, skipped and jumped out of their bikinis and safaris suits and leapt onto leaving planes that holding our event, revised, revisioned and fully reflecting all that writers can do in unpacking a nation’s crisis was in fact completely vital.
Of course, some elements, regardless of theme or urgency don’t change. Having started so late meant that funding was painfully short. No urging from Mongolian throat singers then. Instead underpaid organisers, together with no pay volunteers work out how to structure, guide and direct opinionated creative people to (just for a short time) co-operate with the timetable, and the requests of the event. Simultaneously we persuade sponsors and attendees that what they are about to see/hear/read/pay for is in an awesome enough activity for them to part with some cash – even if it doesn’t involve yards of gossamer silk.
Arthur Flowers, better known now as “Mganga Maua” is a regular invitee of the Kwani Litfest. He has watched it evolve over the years and wrote in his blog of 2006:
“I have met so many strong African writers this trip, its been an experience
this kwani movement never ceases to amaze me
my workshop full of fellow teachers and academics who know the craft as well as i do
ive gained as much as ive given in that workshop a gathering of very powerful women that see things i dont see
often im sitting there with my mouth open catching flies”
Arthur and fellow writer Jeff Allen, were so inspired in 2006, that they decided to set up their own festival – kicking off next week in Ghana – check out their acitvites at www.panafricanliteraryforum.org
In the UK, the advent of the Olympics being awarded to London led to an almost instant, 30% cut in Arts funding. A clear case of prioritisation for the UK government then. Of course here in Kenya, getting any funding at all from the government for such an event is well nigh impossible, as nothing is earmarked for such endeavours in the first place. More shame them. I prefer the Korean’s approach. In November 2007, the Koreans funded the beautifully organised Jeonju Asia-African Literature festival, to which I was invited. It was a massive event, funded by a government that understood if you feted writers who have the potential to alter their countrymen’s thinking, you can basically get them to do all the promo work for you. It’s a good approach. The good people I met in Jeonju and beyond are often on my lips and at my fingertips. I’ve rarely been so well fed, so comprehensively photographed, so carefully chaperoned, or shown such wonderful treasures as we were in South Korea.
See the Koreans figure that once us writers have softened up our nation by repeatedly extolling the virtues of our Korean trip in magazines destined to sit around in dentist’s waiting rooms, or newspapers to be passed through eight different hands, then our fulsome praise will touch a lot of people. Those words, these days can also be googled many years after the event, and all serve to build up positive PR about the country. And they are right. Now that I’ve seen how well they do things, how much space they now give to their thinkers, I am favourably disposed. When the Koreans come in with their products and services, I’ll sign up. They do a good line in digital dictaphone recorders by the way.
Anyone with a love for books must make a trip Paju Book City – their custom built, wetland surrounded, architecturally inspired new City – a whole area entirely dedicated to publishing the most beautiful of books. Here the new technologies of sophisticated printing presses merge with old techniques of producing beautiful hand made paper. A whole 360 publishing houses specialising in science, poetry, fiction, turn out hundreds of wonderfully designed, immaculately executed books for a 100% literate population that has one of the strongest reading cultures in the world. Your average Korean is an avid book purchaser, and they are able to support this thriving creative book making industry (and they possess the largest bookshop in the world).
This, by the way, is a nation, that in 1963 at Kenya’s independence shared the same level of GDP as we did. Look where a government policy, which includes proactively encouraging - and paying for - an interest in reading has taken them.
Say something often enough and it embeds itself in a nation’s psyche. Write opinions that reflect support and uplift the ideas of the masses and you have a revolution. That’s why they lock up writers don’t they? Too dangerous, too powerful?
And yet we can’t even get the enthused, but nonetheless assistant Marketing Manager at Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) to return our calls. It seems that bringing in prize winning, best-selling authors into a country recently ravaged by the negative publicity of violence and disorder isn’t so relevant to changing the perception of this nation to outsiders. Our assertion, that we can show these powerful people, through the Kwani Litfest, a facet of Kenya that is fascinating and thriving enough for them to want to write about seems to carry as much weight as the Gedi ruins cut-out at the Ministry of Tourism big bash this week. “The weekend papers have been full of Kenya specials, so they (KTB) must be throwing some money around,” commented Aminatta Forna, one of our invited writers. “But to get an advert in Harper's Bazaar would cost them their entire annual budget and more.”
She’s got us an editorial and is arriving with a commission – a travel one no less from Harpers Bazaar to write a piece on her Kenya trip. For the price of an air ticket and a good hotel room, that’s valuable column inches being given over to the recovery a vital fact of this country’s economy.
If you type Kwani Litfest 06 into Google, over 1150 blog entries appear. And the reports are often glowing entries from writers who were wowed at Litfest 2006 and went on to tell the world about it. Similarly, a fat, favourable five-page spread in Vanity Fair appeared after its book’s editor attended in 2006, going to workshops, but more importantly swooning with pleasure at the gentle comforts and the delicious seafood of her Lamu sojourn. Her riff went something like this: “It seems everywhere one goes these days – those in the know are buzzing about an African Literary renaissance…. Nowhere is this more evident than at the SLS Kenya Kwani? Litfest this past December, where a historic number of writers, journalists and magazine editors from Congo to Cape Town, Bangalore to Boston have gathered to catch a ride on literature’s new wave…Fuelled by the internet (and few Western publishers who have rubbed the sleep out of their eyes), the African revolution is on your doorstep….Lucky, lucky you.”
In that same issue, Kwani founder - our very own Binyavanga Wainaina, who has achieved some notoriety and no small amount of power from his writings (see separate interview) was given another five pages to expound his opinions of Kenya and Africa. Add the ever more vocal and more immediate world of blogs; the kudos of stories in national daily newspapers from New York to New Zealand (as Vanity Fair would not doubt put it) and you can see that our gathering had some pretty good clout. One guy even wrote a whole book of poetry based on his experiences of Lamu. We plan to launch it at this year’s Litfest.
Despite all this hard evidence, it seems we are still viewed as a specialist esoteric group of individuals, not relevant enough to shaping this country’s ideas to be taken too seriously. Its’ enough to make you whip out your dictionaries of Korean characters (purchased in Paju Book City, and printed on thick luscious hibiscus flower paper), and start learning the language of a nation so as to move to a place where the critical importance of writers shaping a citizenry’s thought has been understood.
Except there are enough of us “in the know”, as Vanity Fair asserts, to see our influence filter out all over the Kenyan arena. We see excerpts of our ideas dotting the opinion pieces of journalists in the national press; we’re quoted by businessmen; our words are spoken with authority by donor agencies. We watch the hive of creativity grow and blossom into new projects that we barely dreamed of when we first thought of putting local and international writers of all hues and styles together in this particular sphere. We see heated arguments morph into brilliant collaborations.
There were 100 little adventures to be had at Kwani Litfest 2006. From swimming across the Lamu to Manda channel, to getting lost somewhere in the middle of the island, to eye-popping visits in Dandora and incredible poetry performances that are still talked about today - those many little organisational glitches, turned quickly into many, many triumphs. The Nigerian Litmag Farafina was born at a Litfest, as was the Pan African Literary Forum. Watch this space for the advent on an exciting international literary archive project called Goonj. All these created the many narratives that made up the Kwani Litfest 2005 and 2006.
KLF 208 is set to bring an even brighter cast of literary icons and events to Kenya during the first two weeks of August for a world-class celebration of African stories. From literary safaris a la Hemmingway to sailboat excursions on the Indian Ocean, plus the usual dose of 'Afropolitan' workshops, dinners and symposiums in the teeming capital of Nairobi, KLF 2008 will harness all of this country's vivid diversity. "Kenya has never been more relevant to global development than today," notes Binyavanga Wainaina, founding editor of Kwani? magazine and contributor to Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Granta, and other notable publications. "For the best writers on the continent to gather in a setting that embodies Africa's greatest hopes and deepest fears is an extraordinary opportunity."
The 2008 faculty also includes Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian star whose novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction; Sierra Leone's Ishmael Beah, whose book A Long Way Gone thrust the plight of child soldiers into western hearts and minds; plus many more prize-winning journalists, authors, influential editors and publishers from across the literary spectrum.
In addition to honing participants' skills in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and journalism, this year's litfest will be informed by the horrific post-election chaos from which Kenya recently emerged. The role of the written word in conflict situations will be examined by writers fresh from the field, their experiences and insights sure to electrify colleagues and participants alike.
Join us for a collection of new incidents this year.
*Shalini Gidoomal is a freelance journalist, writer, businesswoman and inveterate traveller, born, and currently living in Nairobi. She has worked extensively on various UK and international magazines and newspapers, including The Independent, News of the World, Today, FHM, GQ and Architectural Digest. She profiled five Northern Irish photographers for the book Parallel Realities, and has worked in Kenya for the Standard and Camerapix. Her short stories and non- fiction have been published in The Obituary Tango, Jungfrau and Kwani 04. She is editorial co-ordinator for the Generation Kenya 45 project and festival director of Kwani Litfest 2008.
* Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org
Kwani Lit Fest Faculty
Kwani Lit Fest
Kwani faculty comprises a selection of some of the most exciting contemporary writers from Africa and beyond. Setting new agendas, they will teach, explore, debate, read and engage through a wide ranging series of panel discussions, literary lunches, workshops, and readings throughout the 15 days of KLF.
This powerful collection of individuals regularly write for some 75 publications and media outlets between them including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Granta, New Yorker, Conde Nast Traveler, The Province, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The Sunday Times, Harpers and Queen, Focus on Africa, The Economist, Wasafiri, Sable, Travel Africa, Chimurenga and more.
Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria): Her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize in 2007 and was a sensation in Nigeria for its subject – the Biafran war.
Doreen Baingana (Uganda): Author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, which won a Commonwealth Prize in 2006, among others. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Caine Prize.
Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone)– His memoir, A Long Way Gone, that tells of his time as a child soldier has sold close to a million copies.
Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya): Kwani? founding editor Binyavanga Wainaina is a Caine Prize winner and contributor to numerous international publications, including Granta, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Mail and Guardian, and many more.
Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) – Former BBC journalist, writer and tutor, her creative non-fiction work The Devil that Danced on the Water chronicled the life of her father in opposition in Sierra Leone.
Simiyu Barasa (Kenya) - A Kenyan filmmaker and writer. He was Writer/Director of the Feature film ‘Toto Millionaire’ (2007) and has written for numerous Kenyan dramas like Makutano Junction, Tahidi High and
Wingu la Moto. His fiction has appeared in Africa Fresh: Voices from the First Continent. His opinions have appeared on NewYork Times, Nigerian Guardian, and South African Southern Times.
Dayo Forster (Gambia): Born in Banjul, her first novel, Reading the Ceiling, was short-listed for the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book for the Africa Region. She has written articles for the East African, BBC radio, Farafina magazine and many other publications.
Stanley Gazemba (Kenya): Trained as a journalist, Gazemba lives in Kangemi, Nairobi and writes for Sunday Nation and Msanii Magazine. He is the author of The Stone Hills of Maragoli, which won the 2003 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, as well as 5 children’s books.
Parselelo Kantai (Kenya): One of Kenya’s foremost investigative journalists, Kantai is the former editor of the east African environmental quarterly Ecoforum. He wrote and oversaw the publication of “A Deal in the Mara,” which shed light on the corruption in the management of the Maasai Mara. He has contributed to a series of East African magazines and dailies and is currently working on a novel set during the 1970s Kenyatta years.
Muthoni Garland (Kenya): A Kenyan writer and publisher based in Nairobi. She writes stories for children and adults, including the Caine Prize-nominated novella, Tracking the Scent of My Mother and is the founder for Storymoja which encourages Kenyans to read for pleasure.
Jonathan Ledgard (UK) – Correspondent for the Economist and author of the novel Giraffe, he is a specialist writer in conflict, currently based out of Kenya.
Dr Lee (South Korea): Coordinator of the spectacular Jeonju Asian African Literary Festival, Dr. Lee is well versed not only in conflict, but in publishing and encouraging a reading public.
Tony ‘smitta’ Mochama (Kenya): A poet and journalist who lives and works in Nairobi. A Law graduate, Tony is also a vodka connoisseur, gossip columnist extraordinaire, and has a collection of short stories coming out soon titled – ‘The ruins down in Africa’. He has also been called a ‘literary gangster’, from time to rhyme. His collection of poetry, ‘What if I am a literary gangster?’ was published by Brown Bear Insignia in 2007.
Wambui Mwangi (Kenya): A scholar and a writer. She lives in Toronto and Nairobi, teaches at the University of Toronto, and blogs occasionally on Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman. She is the Director of GenerationKenya, a new multimedia project that explores the identity of post-independence Kenya.
Yvonne Owuor (Kenya): A storyteller based in Nairobi, her short story Weight of Whispers won the 2003 Caine Prize, and she has recently completed her first novel, Red Rain.
Nii Parkes (Ghana): A poet, short story writer, journalist and songwriter, Parkes has been published in magazines and newspapers across the continent.
Shailja Patel (Kenya): Kenyan poet, playwright and theatre artist, Shailja Patel, has performed her work in venues ranging from New York’s Lincoln Centre, to Durban’s Poetry Africa Festival. Her one-woman show, Migritude, received an NPN Creation Fund Award.
Kalundi Serumaga (Uganda): Independent filmmaker, media consultant, and host of a politically focused radio show in Kampala that several politicians (including President Museveni) have vowed never to return to.
Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda): Winner of the 2008 Caine Prize for her story The Jambula Tree.
John Sibi-Okumu (Kenya): John Sibi-Okumu is a renowned Kenyan actor, writer, playwright, and teacher.
Rasna Warah (Kenya): A columnist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper and an editor with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). She is the author of Triple Heritage, has contributed fiction and non-fiction stories to Kwani? and will launch her anthology at KLF 2008.
Neil Graham (Canada/Scotland) – Formerly a Kenya-based journalist, Neil Graham recently retired from teaching journalism at Langara College in Vancouver. He was perviously managing editor of The Province, one of Canada’s largest newspapers.
Dipesh Pabari (Kenya): Writer, Education and Communications consultant. He sits on the Editorial Board for Awaaz Magazine and Wajibu and blogs regularly on Sukuma Kenya. His short story anthology for children entitled, “The Unlikely Burden and other stories,” was recently translated into Kiswahili.
Andia Kisia (Kenya): Writer, playwright and perpetual student, Andia is a recipient for a fellowship at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre in London.
*For more information on the festival and the workshops go to the Kwani? website: http://www.kwanilitfest.com/
*Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org
Fahamu - Networks For Social Justice
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