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Four must-reads of 2023

Arts and Culture
 Tanzanian-British author Abdulrazak Gurnah. (Courtesy)

East African literature continues to grow and reshape itself in exciting new ways – and 2023 was no exception. The world really did take notice of the region when Tanzanian-British author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. Interest in Gurnah’s work continued last year when he made a homecoming to East Africa.

But it is in Tanzania that Gurnah made a proper homecoming in 2023 – through the first ever Kiswahili translation of ‘Paradise’, now out as ‘Peponi’.

I am an interdisciplinary scholar with a research focus that cuts across journalism, creative writing, African literature and postcolonial studies. I’m also a big reader of books from the region. My highlights of 2023 range from the masterful Gurnah to stunning newcomers, a bold biography to a pacy memoir.

Abdulrazak Gurnah in Kiswahili

Now aged 74, Gurnah has recently headlined a literary festival in Kenya which seeks to foster conversations between and among Anglophone (English-speaking) and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Africa. Just the other day in Uganda, his life and work was celebrated by the creative collective Femrite.

But it is in Tanzania that Gurnah made a proper splash through the first ever Swahili translation of his Booker Prize-nominated historical fiction, ‘Paradise’, now out as ‘Peponi’.

Indeed, Gurnah’s literary interests have always hovered around east Africa, from his seminal Memory of Departure, which chronicles the sojourns of a young immigrant in search of education abroad. Haunted by the life left behind, and roiled by the uncertainties of the new lands, he seeks meaning to his life.

This echoes the author’s own pursuit, after his dislocation from Zanzibar. In his many interviews, Gurnah has maintained that immigrants do not arrive on European shores, or any others, empty handed: they have their unique tales and histories and ways of seeing the world that should enrich their adopted lands.

But it is ‘Paradise’, first published in 1994, that propelled Gurnah to international fame, following its nomination for the Booker Prize in the same year. A coming-of-age tale of Yusuf, a lad who is pawned to a merchant to offset his father’s debt, it’s a story that’s at once heart-breaking and spellbinding.

Some critics read the novel as a retake of the Biblical saga of Joseph (Yusuf in Swahili) who is sold into captivity by his envious siblings, while others read it as a parody of Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Whatever the case, Swahili readers who have not encountered the text in other languages are in for a great treat, and ‘Peponi’ is a good place to start in their exploration of Gurnah’s work.

Kenya’s rising star

In Kenya, it was the emergence of a new author, Linda Musita, that caused excitement.

Her debut book of short stories called ‘Mtama Road’ has been well received locally.

The seven short stories (although perhaps short-shorts is more appropriate – the book comes in at under 100 pages) are all set on one road in Nairobi’s Parklands.

The protagonists of Musita’s stories all find themselves having to navigate different elements of adulting.

Rebirth of the biography

After nearly 30 years of obscurity, the Kenyan biography appeared to enjoy a rebirth this year, with the publication of ‘For The Record: The Inside Story of Power, Politics, Lawmaking & Leadership in Kenya’, ghostwritten for Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Defence, Aden Duale.

A foreword is authored by President William Ruto, and it prologues the crux of the story: a peep into the machinations that define Kenyan politics, with a particularly penetrating gaze into the fallout between former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and his successor.

Unsurprisingly, the book found immediate traction with readers soon after its release in the middle of 2023, following its serialisation in the local press, precipitating five reprints in six months.Still, the Kenyan biography represents a literary oddity: it’s often staid and formulaic, parroting a predictable trajectory to explain successes, never failures, of politicians and technocrats, as they look back on their lives.

In Duale’s ‘For The Record’, we come close to approximating the truth of his political motivations and his quest for power, even though we cannot infer what he intends to do with the power, now that he’s among the most powerful men in the land.

The sprightly diction deployed in the narrative could help buffer readers from the obvious flaws in a story that’s peppered as a rags-to-riches fable, even though his trading parents were people of reasonable means, within their context.

Uganda’s action-packed memoir

If the new memoir by the Buganda queen is anything to go by, Uganda took literary candour a notch higher in 2023. In ‘The Nnnabagereka’, Queen Sylvia Nagginda Luswata, the journalist-turned-monarch, recalls her eventful journey from New York, where she lived through most of her childhood, to her unconventional dating of Prince Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II of Uganda. The tale includes a proposal via email.

“Dear Sylvia, I think I am ready if you are,” Mutebi is reported to have written to his future wife. Another elliptical line in the memoir records another milestone, thus: “On December 6, 2010, I was blessed with two more girls Jade Nakato and Jasmine Babirye born in Kampala… They’re two amazing kids.”

The phraseology does not indicate if they belong to the Kabaka (or king). A statement from the Buganda king’s office clarified the twins did not receive the special drum sounded to herald the Kabaka’s biological children, which fanned online speculation about their paternity. The royal family is blended as the Kabaka has three other children from three different women.

Here’s hoping 2024 will be just as lively.

- Peter Kimani is a Professor of Practice, Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC). This article was first published by The conversation.

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