Young talent proof we are not a literary desert
By - Aug 28th 2023
In 2021, I met Silas Nyanchwani in Kitengela and we got taking about books and publishing. This was shortly after he had published his first book Sexorcised. I was interested in knowing what writers of his generation and below were writing.
“A lot is going on,” he said in his soft-spoken nature. “Young people are writing, but they are mostly self-published.”
That rang a bell. I had worked closely with Kenyan publishers for more than 10 years so I would know when a new novel was out. In that period, not many books were produced by mainstream publishers, perhaps due to the fact that they were focusing their attention on producing books for the new Competency Based Curriculum.
At around the same time, I had heard some buzz about Nuria Bookshop, a tiny outlet, which was then situated along Moi Avenue. Every time I met my colleague and friend John Mbaria, he would speak highly of Nuria. Mbaria, a renowned environmental journalist had co-authored The Big Conservation Lie with Dr Mordecai Ogada, a conservation scholar.
This book had gotten people in conservation circles around the world talking. Mbaria and Ogada, in their book, had taken no prisoners with regards to the rot in Kenyan conservation circles. You would never look at conservation and the people around it the same way again, if you read that book. It was that explosive.
Due to the controversial nature of The Big Conservation Lie, not many book outlets in Nairobi were willing to touch it, perhaps fearing being taken to courts. You could not blame them. In 1999, the late Nicholas Biwott, who was a powerful minister in Moi’s government, won Sh10 million after he sued Bookstop, for selling Dr Iain West’s Case Book, which had linked him with the murder of Robert Ouko.
Nuria had no such hang-ups though. They happily stocked Mbaria and Ogada’s book, which has been making brisk sales since.
The self-published writer
In early 2022, Msanii Kimani wa Wanjiru, another of my colleagues, asked me to meet him at the Alliance Francaise Library. After our meeting, Msanii introduced me to Dennis Mucheru, the chief librarian. It is Mucheru who helped me connect the dots to what Nyanchwani had told me about young people writing.
In his office was a stack of books that had been launched at the venue since 2019. Mucheru told me about Haroun Risa, a young author who would not take no for an answer. “This young author approached me requesting that we host the launch of his self-published book, Mombasa Raha My Foot,” explained Mucheru. “He told me that he did not have a venue and neither did he have the funds.”
Risa got quite persistent and because the library had not done such a thing before, Mucheru sought out, Harsita Waters, the Cultural Affair Director at Alliance Francaise, who gave the go-ahead. On the day of the launch, Mucheru was in for a surprise. “Risa brought in an audience of around 100 people, who filled up our space; they also bought the book.”
Risa’s ground-breaking launch marked the beginning of Alliance Francaise being a venue for launching books, mostly by self-published authors. What is more, the venue is absolutely free! “We get lots of inquiries from authors wishing to launch their books here. Right now, our venue is fully booked up to December and more are coming,” explains Mucheru, adding that they also offer the venue for other literary-related activities, like book discussions and poetry recitals.
As this discussion with Mucheru was going on, I was itching to ask him about the quality of books being self-published. While the quantity was not in doubt, quality was another thing altogether, especially where editing is concerned. Some self-published authors are known to cut corners and bypass editing.
After I raised the issue of editing with him, Mucheru said since he could not speak for the writers, he gave me the contacts of Muthoni Maina, a young woman who wrote The Leaves of May, a self-published novel that had also been launched at the Library.
Investment on editing
When I met Muthoni at the Kenya National Theatre, she told me how after finishing her manuscript, she got contacts for an editor, whose services she paid close to Sh50,000. Reading the book, it was clear the investment on editing had been worth the while.
Before I left the Library, I borrowed When a Stranger Called, a collection of short stories. The collection has stories by, among others, Charles Chanchori, Ndugu Abisai, Brian Mbanacho, Euniah Mbabazi and Vincent de Paul. When I read the stories, I was blown away.
Such was the quality of stories in this anthology; very well written and even better edited. These writers are the big hitters, currently spearheading a revolution in Kenyan writing.
These are stories written by young writers, who have a completely different view of the world as we know it. It is then that I remembered what Nyanchwani had told me about the young writers; that some of them were perfectionists.
I later gathered that all these self-published writers had one thing in common: they are all members of the Nuria Book Club and that their books are stocked at the bookshop, which moved from previous location on Moi Avenue to the more spacious Bazaa Plaza, on the 11th floor. Operated by the ever-jovial Abdullahi Bulle, the bookshop is a one-stop shop for authors. Not only does Nuria have the largest collection of locally authored books, the bookseller also offers a wide range of services to authors, like connecting them with printers and designers.
Nuria, through their website, also has an active book review section, where readers give feedback for the books they read. You can order a book through Nuria and it will be delivered anywhere in the country, at a modest fee of course. So there you are: Kenyan writing, especially by the younger generation is alive and well; you only need to look in the right places. They have completely negated the old notion by Taban Lo Liyong that East Africa is a literary desert.
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