http://www.pambazuka.org/images/articles/386/49335wainaina.jpgAurelie 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: