Report & Essay
True Imaginary Homelands: Billy Kahora on publishing Eva Kasaya
In 2005, Kwani? Founding Editor, Binyavanga Wainaina, received two green Karatasi Exercise books from Annette Majanja, then the communications officer. A young woman working as a domestic servant for one of Annette’s relatives had pushed them into her hands during a visit. Luckily, it was Annette who had an ‘eye’ for a story who received the piece, and even more fortunately, it was Annette who had a single- minded purpose in making sure the exercise books ended up in Binyavanga’s hands.
Now, in 2011, Eva Kasaya, who is no longer a domestic worker, wins the Jomo Kenyatta Award for Fiction(Youth Category). Like the life of creating most books, there have been moments and key people in this one, in creating both a published writer and a polished narrative. One such person was Jackie Lebo, who tirelessly worked with Eva both as a friend and rewrite editor to recreate the latter’s life story; she realized Eva’s understated nature into a voice and point of view that lacked self-consciousness, a major strength of the book. Another was Eva herself who recounted the story-journey, which she had travelled with almost total recall. Not in any factually-led doggedness, but with the sure instinct of a natural story-teller. Little of which she recounted ended up on the cutting floor, and in fact, Kwani? editors went through the usual editorial all too knowing chest thumping, imagining whole new chapters. But story is king and it instinctively rights itself – Eva’s own direction was self-defining, with echoes of Garcia Marquez; “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
Like in the life, there were bumps along the way in rewriting the tale – several readers who were chosen specifically because they were not only writers but on the other end of the class spectrum of the book’s subject. They did not react to the manuscript as writers but as class animals, subject to that universal snobbery of who should do what and who cannot do what. “Books are not written by house girls”, was the subtext of their comments. Their reactions were not dismissive but disturbed. And with that, we realized we had a gem. Stanley Gazemba, the writer of one of our other titles “Stone Hills of Maragoli” (another winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize) had encountered similar disbelief in university reading circles that, he a gardener, had written the book.
Within Kwani?, the manuscript was a delight. There is absurd self-consciousness that we get in a lot of our submissions that is both an inferiority complex and disbelief in one’s own context, which this book lacked. Its point of view, unlike the usual ‘objective’ voice of confused identity disguised as authority (the quick fox jumped over the lazy dog), was organic, self-grown – it did not apologise its context or beg for permission for entry into an imagined republic of letters, create pseudo-filters because it wanted to be on any lists, exhort knee-jerk ‘African’ themes to enter either Nairobi or London’s publishing drawing rooms. Its depiction of Thika (through the eyes of a young girl) and Western Kenya (through the eyes of a teenage girl) evolved from the very instinctive consciousness of a life that was one with its surroundings- in a language evolved from the uniqueness of its circumstances. For its refusal to use the usual trickery of mysticism and inter-textually force an Achebean ‘lens’ to make us see the village so that it could be accepted, it is a story in both its telling and its ends, one onto itself. And there it will ever remain, hopefully to serve as an example to many who come from other Kenyan places and stories that are still unrecognized in text but are our imaginary homelands.