By ANJELLAH OWINO
A talented filmmaker and good friend, James Kahindi, and I created a feature film early last year for his final school project. As we developed the story, one thing I could not stop asking myself — and him — was why we had to include ‘foreign plot’ in the story.
Why should we write about terrorism and people held hostage for hours? Plus, thinking that a politician’s daughter could be among the hostages was way out of the ‘Kenyan-terrorism league’.
Here, terrorists hurl grenade while passing by a nightclub, then run away. They are not ready to die, unlike the terrorists we had in our feature film. Ours called the media, and dared the government to kill them. And since when did the Kenya Defence Forces and the police officers clash in a rescue operation?
These and other questions rose to test many things in the plot before us. I wrote the film regardless. That was February, last year.
Seven months later, the Westgate Mall attack happened. I spent days watching the story as it developed before my eyes, but it seemed like life was playing a big joke on us.
In writing, whether for film or ‘literary stuff’ such as poems, novels, short stories and drama, writers are at times discouraged from exploring different themes, characters and settings, with the argument that their work will not reflect the society around them.
The conflict can also be within — many writers, like I did, think that for a story to be relevant to Kenyans, we had to do with the ‘norm’.
Thus, many authors hinder their creativity because they set barriers for themselves on what the audience might relate to. They try to fit their story to what has been done before, aiming at ‘staying African.’ If something has never been written before or happened in the country, they dare not write about it.
But can authors write something alien that later happens? And can they do this while remaining ‘African’ and not seeming to copy the West?
“It is true that writers can predict something through their works. We can combine the futuristic element, and also what is currently happening, into our plot. But at the time of writing, we don’t have to think whether or not whatever we write about will happen or is completely unreal. We only write,” says Clifford Oluoch, author of Fight like a Man.
“Ngugi used to write about what he experienced, and we cannot compare that to the time we are living in. Contemporary issues remain the same; what changes is the setting and other elements in a story.”
One literary enthusiast informed me that a writer should write about things he or she can relate to: “If you write from what you know, you are more genuine, and you breathe life into your story. Eyewitness accounts carry more weight than hearing about something. A writer can write about the moon, depending on where imagination takes him, but one has to localise everything. Also, writers can be futurists in the sense that what is imagined might happen.”
There have been many books that depict the village setting. I am not of the opinion that it is wrong for one to have a traditional setting and write about what has happened in Kenya. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s and Chinua Achebe’s books revolve around the pre-colonial and colonial period, and we cannot expect them to have a contemporary setting.
But, in the same way, we should not force traditional scenery on stories about modern technology with the aim of sticking to our roots, or should we?
It is a literary rule that the setting, themes, names of characters and plot in a story should relate to one another. If the plot says 21st century Nairobi, surely, we cannot expect to see huts and people queuing at a cowshed, waiting for the cow to be milked so that they can make milky tea.
On the other hand, a contemporary setting does not mean that a writer must include planes, titanic-sized ships and spaceships. But, if the story demands that a writer include these, then why not?