Kenyan Creativity with Attitude
by Stephen Derwent Partington
Time is a peculiarly disruptive thing. As it wearily plods its inexorable way, once indisputable Truths become mere hackneyed Truisms, and Wisdom often stales into Arrogance or, at least, Stubborn Wrongheadedness.
Don't get me wrong: I love Taban Lo Liyong, and if you were to criticise him in my presence, I'd surely be rude to you or - if you're bigger than me - would politely point out his historical importance, hilarious critical impertinence and delightful irreverence. For, let's face it: if one role of the socially-responsible artist is to epater le bourgeois (or 'shock the elite'), then Taban was an occasional hero.
But on a recent visit to Kenya, he disappointed many Kenyans by doing the contemptuous thing: he sank into repetitiveness and, as if idly remembering something he once said in a previous millennium, he drearily pontificated to a newspaper that 'Kenya is a literary desert' . Yaawwwn! This while, the Nation reporter wryly pointed out, he carried in his plastic bag a sad collection of his own unpublished manuscripts.
Well, this new, unimproved Taban arguably no longer knows what he's talking about - although he once did - while thousands of other Kenyan readers, young and old, do know what we're saying when we celebrate, rather than miserably denigrate, the new Kenyan literature and the increasing ease with which we find it in Kenyan book shops and – excitingly – myriad other unconventional outlets.
Let's be frank about what we have to thank for much of this: The Kwani? Foundation (TKF) , publisher of Kenya's leading lit-culture journal, Kwani? , that bumper, socially-committed miscellany of eclectic and exciting works of prose, poetry and eccentric inbetweenery. TKF , which encourages not only new, young writing by unknowns and the established from all areas of Kenyan life, but that also increasingly recognises and promotes the peaking-and-troughing history of Kenyan literature since Independence and the connectedness of Kenyan and some other African literature, appreciating, as its website
(www.kwani.org ) suggests, a tentative 'Pan-Africanism'.
After all, wasn't it TKF that supported the recent visit by West Africa's excellent Ayi Kwei Armah? Isn't it the TKF website that hosts a petition condemning the abuse of artists and others in Kenya, focusing especially upon the incidents surrounding the visit of Ngugi wa Thiong'o? Isn't it TKF that sends its editor, Binyavanga Wainaina, around this continent and others, promoting not only its own contributors' interests, but also those of wider Kenyan literature, selling reputations to local and international readers? Isn't it TKF that hosts regular, informal bar readings, showcasing the good (and occasionally awful) work that, although it may not get published, gets an airing, gets given voice, gets born into orality? Isn't it TKF that continues to wrench Kenyan literature from the grasp of both foreign cultural centres and the boundary-policing academies? It Shengs us out of our complacency.
Frankly, if it wasn't for Kwani? and its engagement with both the young and the previously snobbishly-rejected 'Low' culture of this country, I am certain that, within another derivative decade, no-one would be reading any Kenyan literature beyond prescribed schoolbooks. The Kwani? journals have brought balance: between high/low, between old/young, certainly privileging the first category in these two hierarchies, yes, because these have always been the silenced partners, but nevertheless recognising the breadth of Kenyan literary production and celebrating it in all its exciting and wonderful variety.
And its efforts seem to have rippled out, thrillingly, beyond TKF , preventing 'The Foundation' from becoming something monolithic like, say, The Empire in Star Wars ! For, although some forums - like Nairobi University's Journal of Literature , which may or may not still exist - seem to focus only on a clique of established names, others are springing up in the most unexpected places. For example, the usually conservative KBC - which nevertheless always had the engaging Egara Kabaji - has recently piloted a cross-generational show entitled 'Literary Giants', hosted by the veteran Chris Wanjala and the eloquent young postgraduate, Kizito Siboe. This programme has featured, yes, discussions on the undisputed giants such as Ngugi, and on established poets and vital transitional figures such as the pivotal and occasionally experimental David Maillu, but also on new developments such as Kwani?, 'celebrity musicians', and neglected writers from groups such as the KenIndian community, whose sensational writings have been woefully undervalued.
Isn't it also thrilling to note increasing cross-fertilisation not only between different cultural practices in Kenya - visual art, fashion, literature, film, music, orality, etc . - but also between magazines and journals? For instance, isn't it clear that although these three excellent regulars may have different perspectives and purposes, Awaaz (the KenIndian magazine), Eco-Forum (the red-green environmental magazine) and Kwani? seem to intellectually and culturally support each other, sharing respect and, well, spreading the love?
So, what's my point? Well, Kwani?3 is out. It's as big as ever, and phenomenally better, continuing to publish a vast variety of different works within its sexy, retro-smooth covers. It has found its feet, but found them running rather than standing still, true to its good habit of seeking the new, the excellent, the experimental. In his retrospective of last year's literary scene, Professor Evan Mwangi announced correctly that the publication of Kwani?2 was the 'most exciting Kenyan literary event of the year'. Well, 2005's not yet over, but already the publication of Kwani?3 promises to be this year's highlight. It's the best issue yet!
For Kwani?3 , although seemingly doing what it believes to be right rather than succumbing to any dull pressure from commentators such as myself, clearly answers some of these few - though often unwarranted - concerns that were raised in the press following previous issues: 1) the 'coterie' (as well as a few staple names, whose works have clearly been chosen on merit, more 'new' writers appear); 2) elitism (a richer high/low mix is in evidence, and a tongue-in-cheek pseudo-academic article rubs shoulders with writing that feels no need to justify itself intellectually); 3) urbanism (it would seem that moves are underway to ensure that the journal reaches out, centrifugally, away from Nairobi alone); 4) 'yoof-ism' (certain 'other generation' writers are admired, even included!) Simply, it's a better mix, and better read; a read that doesn't lecture, but that instead involves the reader in the creative act as s/he unravels and interprets the glorious multiplicity of items in the miscellany.
In-depth appreciations of Goldenberg whistleblowers are juxtaposed with eloquent poetry; editorial rages sit side-by-side with Sheng lyrics; interviews with ‘elders' stand near disturbing, shock-generation cartoon sequences; extracts from the excellent 1970's Joe magazine face extracts from the academic biography of a Harlem Blues singer; photos of 1960s French-African haircuts stare out at archive photos of Dedan Kimathi or contrasting, middle-class Nairobi folk. The overall effect is Bladerunner -dazzling, carving out multidirectional futures for Kenyan literature by creatively (re)presenting the past through retro-chic.
We must buy Kwani?3 , must read it and discuss it - the bits we love, the bits we only like, the bits that confuse and confound us, the political bits. Do this, and we'll prove that the desert has sprouted, and our flowers are beautiful, though bloody.
Stephen Derwent Partington is a Kenyan poet