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Kenyan writers, forget barbie dolls and Harry Potter

By Binyavanga Wainaina in Nairobi
Posted on Wednesday, 11 December 2013 16:03

An eighty-year-old man from Embu, who had been a teenager in the late 1930s, told how he had been arrested by British colonial authorities for not paying hut tax for the home he shared with his impoverished single mother. His story was remarkable: the British offered him a deal: he could join the King’s African Rifles or stay in prison. He chose the former.

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As World War II began, he found himself in Ethiopia, then Egypt. After the war, he decided to take his savings and start a church in Israel. He went home to see his relatives, who shot down his ideas, and he ended up a mild-mannered farmer in Embu.

As African writers, we cannot leave the imagining of our continent to others

I was moved by the idea of his imagination moving across place and time when the tectonic plates of the world were shifting. We published his story a decade ago in Kwani?*, the Nairobi-based literary magazine.

My generation lived in different times. We were stranded, often in single-party pseudo-democracies under International Monetary Fund economics. We were trapped at home and dreaming of the world, or else we were entering into that fabled world through new immigrant pathways.

Then we were preparing for a permanent return to a home that no longer recognisably exists. Things changed rapidly.

The new generation of novelists in Kenya no longer hail from the well travelled middle classes. They are children of the internet age, able to find vast archives of material online. Some of these young writers are bloggers. Many make a living as content producers: writing scripts for soap operas or doing social media for corporations. This allows them to develop their personal manuscripts.

When writers of my generation were making their way, many of us felt we had to leave the country to have access to well-stocked libraries or to our literary peers: fellow writers, lovers of books and other arty people who do not fit into the larger society.

Now you can interact and share ideas with your counterparts anywhere in the world through social media.

So, the Kenyan in the world, the Kenyan writer in the world, is no longer a diaspora question. The world is here, all of it. The explosion of music, film and more is coming from a younger generation.

The members of the new generation seek no subsidy and prefer to produce, direct and market their ideas outside of stale institutions. They have thrived.

Those writers who continue to rely on the same old networks are drowning. They want to be like your average writer in the West, able to work and produce inside an ecosystem that was built long ago.

In theory, that system was designed to carry and distribute many kinds of writing to differing audiences, but it can marginalise works that are not in vogue or somehow outside of the mainstream.

Young African musicians have built dynamic and fast-growing businesses by learning how to distribute their own work and build their own networks.

They do not moan about being marginalised. Such moaning makes us victims of often corrupted and dated universities, publishing mafias and foreign-supported publishing networks.

A decade after the explosion of Nollywood, it is clear to me that Kenyan and African writers have been wary of experimenting with new forms of delivery of literature.

I cannot think of 10 genre fiction stories available online by younger African writers. But there are thousands of independent films of varying quality, all kinds of music, opinion pieces and manipulated photos all available online, through DVDs or even CDs.

That level of production can monetise itself. Many writers, even younger ones, are moaning that publishers refuse to consider them. But this is at a time when the power to find and influence an audience is at its cheapest and easiest.

Time to break out

Much of this stagnant mentality comes from the way the educated elites see themselves in the world.

Writers, myself included, fought to find a place in the English-speaking publishing networks that are controlled out of London and New York. But these networks are only able to handle three or four African writers at a time.

Obiageli Ezekwesili, Nigeria’s former education minister and former World Bank vice-president for Africa, chided younger African writers for shying away from the new dynamism that has created fast-growing industries including film, comedy and music.

She used the Port Harcourt Book Festival in October to make her point about how writers must find ways to develop the new creative economy.

Those industries have created jobs, the power of advocacy and real influence for many. Not enough is being done to take creative writing into new places. What about writing in new forms for school children?

There is a market of hundreds of millions for those adventurous enough to invest their time, money and creativity to produce a new ecosystem of reading material.

I believe the writers now finishing school may be the only ones adventurous enough to seize these opportunities.

Meanwhile, we should worry that our countries will be inundated by cheap foreign content to influence yet another generation of English-speaking Africans. This could continue to alienate our hearts from our hinterland.

We cannot leave the imagining of our continent to others. To imagine this continent, this country, our writers need to start to build small content businesses that look into our own hinterlands and are relevant to us.

The music of a new generation of Africans is cutting across conventional forms and allowing a new generation to imagine themselves in forms and styles that expand our possibilities.

It is such music that will develop great engineers and architects, that is people who will not just run to the internet to copy and paste home designs that mean nothing in the context of places where we dream, eat, think and work.

If the children of Africa’s middle classes imagine making a new continent while they buy Barbie dolls, pick daffodils and read Harry Potter, it becomes easy to see why we will need Chinese contractors to build our countries.

The new possibilities should be at the centre of educating the next generation. We are in a season of the most dramatic changes, and we need tens of thousands of adventurers to write our new country into being.

Will those Africans with capital and those with real creative abilities see that they can come together to grow a new kind of publishing?

They could do so at a time when hundreds of millions of Africans can afford to spend a little extra money on things to read.

It promises to be a great time for literature, for education.

A great start would be to see the outpouring of hundreds of cheap, cheerful or even bad digital novels, series and stories – all available through new media.

Then we can start to imagine worlds that help us see our own world with ourselves at the centre. The market for writing fiction is yet to be built. ●

*Binyavanga Wainaina was the founding editor of Kwani? magazine. His memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was published by Graywolf Press in 2011.

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