Open Letter to Dr. Nyairo on “An elegy on the death of Kenyan fiction”

Dear Dr. Nyairo,

Thank you for expressing your honest thoughts here about the state of Kenyan fiction but I take issue with several points in your article. The biggest one being that you would publish a piece titled, “An elegy on the death of Kenyan fiction” when Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s searing debut novel, Dust was published in 2013 and her Caine Prize winning story “Weight of Whispers” in 2003.

Dust is the great Kenyan novel. The accolades that span the globe and the sheer, undeniable brilliance of Yvonne’s writing rightly crowns it so. But that is my opinion, so I know you (and others) may feel differently. However if you asked me if “that great Kenyan novel will eventually come” I’d say that it is here. It has been here for the last two years.

Is there truth to the observation that social media has stolen our creativity? That we do in fact “live in the moment”? Absolutely. But that Kenyan Literature suffers for it is an unfair and frankly far too ambitious supposition about how many publishable writers exist on the Internet.

These people who run these blogs and Twitter and Facebook accounts that you deem are time-sucks that prevent them from penning the Kenyan novel cannot be assumed to be automatically dope, not in the Lit world anyway. Perhaps their writing works better in small, matatu-ride-long chunks.

And while we’re discussing the dearth of good writing in the wake of social media, why didn’t you spotlight the “serious” online magazines, journals and blogs where fantastic writing that isn’t lacking in the sophisticated grammar to weave compelling out-of-the-box life lessons (as you put it), actually exists? For instance, Jalada Africa?

Yours isn’t the entire story and it bothers me that you present it as such.

I’d be more impressed with your piece if you called out established or promising writers, like say, Teju Cole who in 2011 tweeted tiny, delicious posts Small Fates that would be great as a stand-alone book. (Turns out New York City fates were later published in John Freeman’s 2014 anthology, Tale of Two Cities.)

But even that argument wouldn’t hold much water because it ignores the editing process that goes into producing exemplary writing. The “wuui, social media has killed actual writing/publishing” argument is a low hanging fruit. We are way past that. The earlier statement about alternative Lit spaces online proves this.

Oh and this line: “In such a world, why should anyone slog for six years to complete a novel…”

Yvonne slogged for 10 years on Dust.

I agree that more Kenyans should publish novels but you must not ignore the spaces (both online and offline) that are doing a lot to support these ambitions or the books that already exist. I know four young writers who’ve self-published.

Ironically, on the matter of Kenyan imagination, Yvonne agrees with you. In her public lecture on the occasion of Kwani Trust’s 10th Anniversary, she asked “What kind of nation gets so terrified of a grand imagination?” but was cognizant of the hurdles blocking this thinking, paid homage to those who defied them and encouraged those too scared to try.

People are writing, Dr. Nyairo, perhaps you’re reading the wrong ones.

6 Comments

  1. It’s only fair to conclude that you did not understand Dr. Nyairo’s article, and that Dr. Nyairo on the other hand does not understand literature, which makes you justified in your failure to understand hers.

    I don’t see a convincing case being argued about Kenyan literature. I think we have great literature for children. I was, growing up, fascinated by Ewoi and the Giant, Mbogholi Cooks Lunch, all those stories about journeys by train to Mombasa, etc, etc…they used to move me in ways I cannot explain.

    I remember the first time, in form one, I read Siku Njema, up to that moment I had never read a book so greedily.

    I don’t think mind, today, can accomodate Siku Njema…I’ll see moral lessons on every page, and I am waaaay past the simplicity of wisdom.

    Great literature for kids, period!

    I am not a fan of Yvonne’s Dust…it’s too square for me, I am not saying it’s not a great book, just one that I’ll never read…I could tolerate the poetry of the Zimbabwean Yvonne, just not Kenya’s Yvonne. Perhaps the latter’s was too close home for me just like Jesus was too close to Bethlehem to be trusted by the Jewish people…just like one Ikhide does not trust Chigozie Obioma’s novel.

    As for Dr. Nyairo and her rant about imagination, and how writers should write experiences other than their own, all this makes me wonder if she only reads Vampire Diaries. Most the great masters wrote (and still write) about themselves (or something very proximate), be it James Joyce, Kenzaburo Oe, Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Earnset Hemingway, John Updike, etc, etc, there’s nothing satanic about writing about yourself like Dr. Nyairo and her ilk would want us believe. It requires creativity, too, to talk about yourself eloquently and arrestingly.

  2. I did not misunderstand Dr. Nyairo. Her article’s premise was clear from the title and the various supporting arguments within. My letter challenges these false and sorely incomplete narratives.

    The argument you seem to be making is one about not finding Kenyan adult fiction that you can enjoy. On that point I cannot argue with you because it would be regarding your own taste. I can only tell you; like I told Dr. Nyairo, that people are writing perhaps you’re reading the wrong ones.

    Shall I recommend a few titles?

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