Critics can’t have their cake

By Tony Mochama

The headline said it all: Blame Kwani? For East Africa’s literary swamp (December 29, Standard on Saturday); and there you had it. Your literary scapegoat in ropes and a bow, ready for slaughter as your New Year nyam chom. Good to chow, courtesy of the literary Santa clown, Abenea Ndago.

A swamp is a water-logged ground, bog or marsh and I suppose in the cant of Abenea the Desiccant, Kwani? has swamped, or overwhelmed the region, with a large amount of what he considers “urban sexed-up sketches” that are not literature.

He takes issue with Kwani editor Billy Kahora for telling the BBC that “Kwani? wishes to subvert the ordinariness of contemporary African writing, together with its expected oppressed voice”, and accuses Kahora of being the mouthpiece of hobgoblin literary figures like Keguro Macharia and Binyavanga Wainaina.

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Fresh mode

Yet this ‘sinister’ agenda to subvert literature is not Kwani?s. It is the agenda of art, the rhetoric of modernism in literature.

In his essay The Soul of Man, Oscar Wilde fulminated against “authorities that use classics as bludgeons for preventing the free expression of art in new forms.”

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Wilde wrote: “These critics are always asking a writer why he does not write like the old masters.

A fresh mode of literature is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears, they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions: One, that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that it is grossly immoral.”

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To prop up his shaky argument against ‘new writing’, Abenea quoted literary scholar Evan Mwangi who said 21st Century Kenyan writers should not be in the syllabus “because it is hard to think of any that we would want our children to emulate. Their works are opportunistically written... and pretend to tackle burning issues of the day such as ‘drug abuse” (the quotation marks are Mwangi’s, not mine).

Drug abuse is actually a major burning issue of the day among Kenyan youth. When this writer wrote Princess Adhis & the Naija Coca Brodaz (Storymoja, 2012), I was not ‘pretending’ to tackle the drug issue. My drug lords, their enforcers, drug traffickers, drug mules and the heroin-addicted high school drop out (Hussein) were meant to be a realistic contemporary reflection of the drug chain characters in Kenya today.

Isn’t such a work of literature more relevant to our youth today than Betrayal in the City, a 1975 work back in the syllabus, perhaps as a gesture of last respects to its departed author?

Death is not a literary meritocracy and should not be. It is just the last chapter of our lives, period.

Pen executive member Alex Nderitu calls scholars like Abenea Ndago ‘tweedle dumbs’ who “are classic old guards, refusing to let the new guard in! They are ‘ageists’ in their literary comments and must review or at least mention Ngugi (wa Thiongo) or Imbuga ... whatever else is happening in the literary word.”

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 Literary geniuses

Indeed, Ndago opened his swamp salvo against Kwani? in his article by quoting Francis Imbuga right from the get-go. He then quoted Pen Chair of Linguistics and Translation, Prof Chris Wanjala, as severally saying, “The future of Kenyan writing is in the countryside”.

“Kwaniacs (Kwani maniacs) are out to urbanise East African literature,” Abenea ranted. “This is a very bold attempt to legitimise a literary fraud.” (sic).

Like the literary scholar Egaji Kabara, who has even gone so far as to label some of us ‘literary gangsters’, Ndago is crying wolf in the desert of which some of these critics and academics are the prickly cacti.

They speak as if somewhere in a hamlet in the wetlands of Kapsakwony, or a hot hut in the dry lands of Moyale, there are some solitary and secretive literary geniuses with hidden stashes of manuscripts waiting to be discovered like oil in Turkana.

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This is idle, fanciful, foolish thinking by the same kind of folks who idealise the countryside as rustic and picturesque, even when it is just a rusty rurality.

Kwani? has nothing against the countryside. Indeed, they re-published Stanley Gazemba’s The Stone Hills of Maragoli when it had gone out of print a few years ago.

But a good writer works with materials he researches, knows, and lives. You don’t scour the boondocks and scratch the back-necks of the woods looking for the artistic ‘spontaneity’ Ndago fancifully spoke of.

If the Sh500,000 Kwani? put out for regional manuscripts did not draw out these imaginary ‘better mouse-trap’ builders of literature, nothing can.

Filled with life

I will not go into Ndago’s random statements about the Social Realism period of Russian literature, as it was clear to me from his comments that the fellow understands very little about the context of this Communist ‘cultural’ era, when Samizdat (underground literature) produced some great writers like Alexandre Solzenhitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, A Lenten Letter to Pimen).

I will instead quote Barbara Kingsolver in the opening of The Poisonwood Bible: “First, picture the (swamp). I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, bridled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life; delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves ...”

Poisonous

Abenea described the Kwani? outfit as, “More poisonous than hemlock”.

If we are poisonous frogs in a literary swamp, so long as we are secreting precious eggs (books) onto dripping leaves in what used to be a literary desert, Kwani? Wakina Ndago wata-do? (What will Ndago and his ilk do?)

It is an insult we would wear with pride, and drink hemlock, Socrates-style, all covered with the writer’s war paint.

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East Africa swamp Kwani editor Billy Kahora