In the June of 1998, a 42-year-old Russian-American university professor of literature held the opening talk of what he called the Summer Literary Seminars (SLS).
This was in St Petersburg, Russia, a great literary city that he had immigrated from only 12 years before, barely able to speak English – but returned to as a lecturer in English literature at Union College, NYC.
“SLS was not supposed to be more than a one off kind of impromptu literary event,” explains Mikhail Iossel, who is now a tenured professor of Creative Writing at Concordia University in Canada, as well as an irregular contributor to The New Yorker, one of the earth’s great literary magazines.
“But, somehow, it grew into one of the world’s foremost unique and international literary seminars.”
In its long winding literary journey across two decades and three continents, SLS managed to bring together more than 1,300 participants under its two to four-week workshop tutelages of about 100 international writers and creative writing faculty.
People like Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders, poet Matthew Zapruda, lecturer Pageant Powell, short story writer Mary Gaitskill, poet Brenda Hillman, are just five of the hundred.
The SLS workshops were held in Saint Petersburg, Russia (1998–2008), Montreal, Canada (2009–2012), Vilnius, Lithuania (2013–2015) and finally Tbilisi, Georgia (2016–2019).
In its time, the Summer Literary Seminars also took place in Nairobi and Lamu every four years – 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 – under the guidance of the late Binyavanga Wainaina and defunct Kwani?
This writer was part of that journey. But as Tyson Ritter (who is incidentally married to a Georgian woman) riffs: “wish cast into the sky/ we’re moving on/ sweet beginnings do arise ...”
“We will, starting the summer of 2020, open our new writer residency programme – as opposed to workshop seminars – in the fittingly beautiful city of Tbilisi, Georgia, Eastern Europe.”
Prof Iossel explains that Tbilisi is steeped in literary history to “no less a degree than Saint Petersburg – home of Nabokov and Chekov and Dostoyevsky and Anna Akhmatova and, and – but it is suffused with a decidedly different, near opposite (to SPB) existential kind of spirit.”
In December, the new residency programme will come to Kenya.
“We want to create a local high literary community involving established writers and really talented younger Kenyan writers,” Iossel outlines his vision lucidly.
“We don’t just want writers who drink against the system, but those who will engage on their own literary projects, as writers-in-residence, in retreats in Ngong, the Loita Hills, Mara, but mostly in Lamu, across four weeks in December ...”
Twenty years after the rise and fall of the Kwani? community, Prof Iossel thinks it is time to foster another literary community, with guys like Tee Ngugi and Dr Christopher Okemwa (Kisii University) as well as PEN’s Khainga Okembwa and lit-preneurs like Eric Wanjohi”.
While there are a number of talented and ambitious younger writers in the country, like those found at Goethe’s AMKA, there is very little of a literary atmosphere.
“Teaching yourself to write on the Internet is not the same as an international, well-organised residency programme. And since there is no language barrier between North America and Kenya, so, why not?” says Iossel.
He plans to bring American and English editors for his new residency programmes.
“We want to make sure that the residency writers have access to folks who can actually get their works published in the northern hemisphere, no doubt having already ‘conquered’ the local publishing houses,” he says.
“But we also want to take Kenyan writers out of the context of their ordinary, every-day Nairobi lives”.
To this end, Prof Iossel has teamed up with Swedish hotelier, writer and owner of Lamu’s Jannat House, Goran.
“Local and world writers will be able to live for a couple of weeks at Jannat – situated a short walk from the main street and Lamu waterfront.”
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