Writing is a painful labour of love
By Mbugua Ngunjiri
| October 5th 2014
Despite the challenges facing the local publishing industry, writer Onduko bw’Atebe prefers to see it as a half full glass rather than half empty.
“The Kenyan writing scene is changing for the better,” he says. “More people are getting into the scene which is a good thing.”
Atebe’s book Verdict of Death, published East African Educational Publishers, won the inaugural Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize in 2006.
The prize is awarded by the Kenya Publishers Association every two years in honour of the late humourist Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers fame.
It alternates with the more established Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, also ran by Kenya Publishers Association.
Last weekend Kenya Publishers Association announced Yusuf Dawood as the fifth winner of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Award for his book The Last Word (Longhorn), which is a collection articles published in the Surgeon’s Diary column.
He beat Ng’ang’a Mbugua who had submitted a collection of poetry titled This Land is our Land and University of Nairobi lecturer Waigwa Wachira, with the play A Gift from a Stranger.
Mr Dawood pocketed Sh50,000, the same amount Atebe won eight years ago.
In the intervening period the cost of living has gone up as has inflation and ironically, writers are still getting the same amount of money for an effort that took them the better part of four years.
Is it any wonder that Kenyan writers do not have enough motivation to write?
While acknowledging that things could be better, Atebe nevertheless feels that positive strides have been made in the literary scene.
“Some of our Kenyan authors have made their presence known on the international scene,” he says, citing Billy Kahora of Kwani? who has been nominated twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing and Yvonne Owuor’s who authored Dust among others.
“Let us also not forget Okwiri Oduor who won the Caine Prize this year with her short story My Father’s Head,” Atebe says.
“You see, good things are happening on the local writing scene. With such shining examples, our children have something worthwhile to aspire to.”
In spite of the examples he has given, Atebe is however convinced that a lot needs to be done to improve the welfare of local writers, more so those who do not have international connections.
“The uncomfortable truth is that it can be difficult for someone to make ends meet through writing alone in Kenya,” he explains.
“You see after my book won the prize, I thought I would live off writing. I even took an initiative to market it in schools across the country but at the end I realised that my expenses outstripped what I was making.”
Faced with the stark reality of a shriveled bank account, Atebe decided to cast his net wider and veered off into business.
“In Kenya, you need a firm financial background only then can you embark on writing,” says Atebe who is nowadays a contractor in the rural electrification sector.
His business endeavours however have left him with little time to write.
“My work eats up most of my time,” he says. “I am forever on the road and in the evenings, I am exhausted and sleepy.”
Verdict of Death remains his only book.
“I had a completed a manuscript but it was destroyed when a virus made my computer crash. I spent a lot of time grieving over the lost manuscript.”
He assures his readers that if all go well, they will be reading another of his books in the near future.
“I have two incomplete manuscripts that I am working on. The good thing is that I am not new in the field of writing,” he says, adding that “a number of publishers have approached me asking me to write for them, so I am not short of options.”
Atebe asks Kenyan publishers to pull up their socks as far as marketing creative works is concerned.
“They do not do much marketing which explains why readers are not aware of works by local authors,” he says.
He disputes the notion that Kenyans do not read.
“Visit any local bookshop today and you will see stacks of novels, only that they are by Western authors. You cannot buy something you are not aware of,” he adds.
He faults his publisher for not marketing his book after it won the Wahome Mutahi Prize.
“The least they would have done was to ensure that subsequent editions had an inscription that it won a prize,” he says. “That would have boosted the sales.”
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