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How Kenyan writers have failed to etch their own literary identity

By Abenea Ndago | October 24th 2015 at 11:22:00 GMT +0300

Kenyan writer Yvonne Owuor. [PHOTO: FILSTANDARD]

NAIROBI: It’s true that certain historical circumstances made it possible for colonial powers to establish university colleges in West Africa – such as Fourah Bay, Achimota, and Ibadan – much earlier than they did in East Africa.

This occurrence partly explains why, in terms of literary production, Kenya will always chirp sadly behind Nigeria like a chick running after its mother. This is as true of creative output as it is of literary criticism. The case of Southern Africa as a region is similarly understandable.

As for North Africa, Sedar Senghor must have had a definite reason for suggesting that Sub-Saharan Africa relies on the Arab world as a tentative cultural bridge to Europe. But the question must always be asked about how best Kenya is to run the catch-up marathon. The only choices are: do what the other successful regions did; or copy theirs and call it yours.


I do not think that the Kenyan addiction to short-cuts, taught us by the Kanu culture – and which has lately fully flowered in literary terms through Yvonne Owuor – would ever have allowed any room for the wiser choice. It should worry Kenyan literature that practically all the so-called “young writers” are incapable of inscribing an East African landscape in their art.

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Of course, Yvonne will write about Nairobi, Kisii, and Wuoth Ogik; but listening to the phonic characteristics of her prose leaves Wole Soyinka roaring with laughter. I suspect that the reason Nigeria beats Kenya in the written word is because a regional literary identity relies on a certain minimum thumb print of level-headedness which Kenyan writers seem incapable of.

These minor adults prove illiterate when the task involves drawing from the universe of basic geographical imagery which should steer Kenyan literature. The enzymes of their symbolism are weak and effeminate (except for a tiny, quiet, sagely lot, usually far from small-minded Nairobi). However most literary scarecrows in Kenya will never manage to master, ingest, and synthesise the East African topographical and oral milieu the way their Nigerian age-mates have West Africa.

And the weakest minds of them all are, as usual, Nairobi’s empty-headed tragic sirens.

Nigerian literary legend and Nobel Laureate for Literature Prof Wole Soyinka at a past function at the Nairobi Museums.

To this day, you identify a young Igbo author by the daring clarity and spacious frankness of their prose (Adichie for instance), traceable to Achebe, partly tied to the open savannahs of South-Eastern Nigeria. Similarly, the young Yoruba writer is known by the subdued endlessness of their diction, tight, closed, almost impenetrable, traceable to Soyinka, partly attributable to the rugged terrain of the Yoruba highlands.

But most importantly, Nigerian writers boast a breed of mental toughness that brooks neither childish coquetry nor aping. It’s all in the mind – which brings me to Kenya’s interesting case.

Two respectable critics have argued that the Kenyan writer is free to borrow their style from anywhere in the world. For two reasons: one, we live in a global village; and two, because the Nigerian author, Ben Okri, has appropriated magic realism in his art, a style of writing native to the larger South and Central America, and South Asia.

These are valid suggestions. However, one of them smells to me like defeatism, while the other is an inadvertent endorsement of what it sets out to object to. What must remain disagreeable about the Kenyan interpretation of cultural globalisation is its regular misinterpretation to mean living off other people’s art in the same parasitic way that lazy Kenyan writers stuff literary pepper into their pockets and await “Karibu mgeni” from Nigerians.

The first suggestion does not address the difficult task of how much to borrow. In the case of Kenya and Nigeria, for instance, what do you do when the ‘borrowing’ is so one-sided as to be a theft?

On the other hand, it has been shown how the African narrative universe heavily lends itself to magic realism; that the literary style for which Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie are known is not as new to the African continent as it is thought to be.

Critics who point out South America and South Asia as the home of magic realism are usually in a hurry to forget that these are the same regions which boast contact with Africa deep inside history. Ben Okri, then, steals from his own farm.

Nothing depresses me about Kenyan literature more than the original sin that a certain Kenyan author was ‘influenced’ by Chinua Achebe; that one of his earliest texts was an East African rendition of the timeless Things Fall Apart (1958).

Even worse, that some of his other books might have been lifted hot and steamy from Joseph Conrad. I know that Kenya’s postcolonial heretics will call it ‘intertextuality’, but I think it’s time we learnt to brand these things with their proper names since they seem to be the only reason our modern-day literary marionettes repeat them with alacrity.


The author I have just referred to above did some commendable job while trying to address the Kenyan situation in thematic terms; but he hopelessly failed in cobbling up a regional literary style. A certain unhelpful obsession sucked out any hope of his prose capturing the East African landscape, the way Hemmingway’s, Huxley’s, and Blixen’s, did. He could have saved our prose a great deal had he learnt something from Blixen, had he not just seen the Danish author as a white woman with syphilis.

Reading one of his books (1982), we should laugh louder than the hyena these days, at what literary monuments we hoped to erect by inspecting white women’s pants like tireless zoological researchers bent on profiling Caucasian victims of sexually transmitted diseases in East Africa. There have been others near the lake. Jared Angira, one of Kenya’s foremost poets, tried very hard to be ‘influenced’ by Nigeria’s Christopher Okigbo. In Yvonne Owuor we have come full circle (I congratulate her on winning the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature).

But this winner will never appreciate how such wins mean totally nothing for the growth of a Kenyan literary texture. East Africa will never know a Wole Soyinka ape more devoted to her copycat career than Yvonne.

It will take us dead long, but I think that Kenya’s literary fraternity ought to learn how to publicly denounce those who win the Caine Prize through probable con art; who honk “I’m a Kenyan writer!” when they’ve never invented a single East African imagery that sticks – not half a savannah proverb that’s original, which can then be quoted as often as Achebe’s gems.

It has been suggested in the past that Dust (2013) and Weight of Whispers (2006) make Yvonne Owuor the East African equivalent of Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie. Have some mercy. I understand this restless endeavour to masturbate Kenyan writing to the level of Nigeria’s well-grounded style even when all it involves is critics deluding themselves that these wind-blown comical scarecrows in my father’s crop fields are real human beings.

Yvonne Owuor Wole Soyinka nobel prize for literature
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