Nairobi’s Kwani? Literary Festival Showcases “Afropolitanism”

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Kwani LitFest

Novelists Nurrudin Farah and Taiye Selasi stole the show at the the fifth biennial Kwani? Litfest in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this month.

By Alexander Nderitu

NAIROBI: The 5th biennial Kwani? Litfest took place in Nairobi from December 1 through 6th. It was themed Beyond the Map of English: Writers in Conversation on Language, and hosted both local and international writers at different venues around the city. Two books were launched in the course of the event, Nurrudin Farah’s 12th novel Hiding in Plain Sight and the Kwani? 08 journal, which is largely predicated on politics and language. The international scribes who graced the fest included Wu Ming (Italy), Nurrudin Farah (Somalia), Siphiwo Mahala (South Africa), Patrick Mudekereza (DRC), Taiye Selasi (US/Italy/Ghana), Mikhail Lossel (Canada/Russia) and Boris Boubacar (Senegal). Local writers included Caine and Kenyatta Prize winner Yvonne Owuor, poet and political activist Abdilatif Abdalla, Swahili novelist Ken Walibora, US-based author/academic Mukoma wa Ngugi and writer/academic Prof. Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Communications.

Two tragic events preceded the litfest: Kenyan Caine Prize winner and Kwani? co-founder Binyavanga Wainanina suffered a stroke in Nairobi and was later flown to India for specialized treatment, and Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye — one of the matriarchs of Kenyan literature – passed away, aged 87. In her tribute to Marjorie, who was published in Kwani? 08 and the second part of Kwani? 05, Executive Director Angela Wachuka (better known @SisterKilljoy online) said the departed novelist, essayist and poet was “a friend of Kwani?…We remember her, honour her.” The litfest incorporated a fund-raising ‘love concert’ for Binyavanga at which Ghanaian pidgin rap duo FUCKN Bois gave a rousing performance.

Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize

The inaugural Mabati-Cornell Prize for Kiswahili Literature was awarded on 4th December at a ceremony graced by the local co-sponsor – industrialist Manu Chandaria, Chairman of Mabati Rolling Mills Ltd. Curiously, all four winners of the prize – an initiative of Mukoma wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree – were Tanzanians: Anna Samwel, Mohammed K. Ghassani, Enock Meregesi and Christopher Bundala.

Hiding in Plain SightFor me, two writers stole the show: Nurrudin Farah and Taiye Selasi. Nurrudin (pronounced Noo-roo-dean) is a Somali-born “feminist and nationalist writer” and author of 12 novels. He started his writing career at the age of 9 by writing letters on behalf of adults (in three languages) in order to earn pocket money. In 1970, at the age of only 22, he wrote the seminal novel From a Crooked Rib. Centering on a young girl who flees an arranged marriage to an old man, it is highly esteemed by feminists and remains one of Africa’s towering novels. He left a socio-politically intolerant Somalia in 1974.

In 1976, he published his second novel, A Naked Needle. He wanted the second book to differ from the first so he centered it on a misogynistic man. He was horrified when the book become “the Bible of misogynists” and he asked the publisher to cease any further production! Somali authorities threatened him with a 30-year sentence should he return. They weren’t kidding: when his sister met him in Europe and took one of his books back to Somalia, “both she and the book were arrested.” By now he has lived in 12 different countries and is a recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. “The world becomes larger the more languages you speak, the more countries you visit,” he surmised.

It’s amazing how well Nurrudin writes English prose considering that it is his 4th language (After Somali, Amharic and Italian). As for verse: “I have never written poetry in English. I write in Somali.” And despite years of exile, his stories are still set in Somalia. In conversation with journalist Tom Maliti, Nurridin said, “I realized from a young age that there is power in writing, there’s authority, there’s truth…That is why I write about Somalia.” He equated the hierarchical and controversial clan system in modern Somalia to the Indian caste system which forbids marriage or even interaction between certain classes of people: ‘Any tradition that is unfair or unjust has to go, even if it is a tradition. We can do away with a tradition… In my writing, I challenge the authoritarian tendencies of Somali tradition.’ As for the publishing process: ‘Writing is an industry. There are publishers, interviews, promoting the book…Time is not on my side, like when I was 22.’ Ken Walibora would certainly agree that publishing is a time-consuming endeavor. In conversation with Prof. Kimani Njogu, he revealed that it took him 10 years to land a publisher for his signature Swahili novel, Siku Njema.

Capturing African Worlds

Taiye Selasi either has a very sunny personality or came to Kenya on a charm offensive. @SisterKilljoy introduced her as “a local of New York, Rome and Accra.” Taiye (pronounced ‘Ta-ee-yay’) gave a riveting public lecture, entitled Capturing African Worlds, in which she talked about being born in London to a Ghanaian father and Nigerian mother and later being relocated to the US. In college, she studied Yoruba – a famous Nigerian language. In 2005, her though-provoking essay on “Afropolitanism,” entitled Bye-Bye, Babar , was published by LIP Magazine. The next year, her first short story, The Sex Lives of African Girls, was published by Granta. In 2013, her acclaimed first novel, Ghana Must Go, was published by Penguin Press. “You cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition” Taiye said during her talk, quoting Chinua Achebe, and called for the acceptance of “Diasporic literatures as African literature.”

Taiye later shared a panel with Kenyan scribes Yvonne Awour and Nyandia Kamawe to talk more about literature, languages, identity and – of course – Africa. Yvonne mused that Africans’ failure to look beyond their ethnic diversity was ‘a failure of the imagination’ and while others pursue ‘world domination’ Africans are wondering how to further fragment (their nations) for their own good. For Taiye, who had reviewed Yvonne’s debut novel Dust for the New York Times, “The future is another country and I wish power and love to those who will live in it…I will saw seeds, but leave them (our descendants) to find their own path.” And apparently some of those seeds are of the literary kind: “I want my work to be universally accessible. I would like to see a publishing system that supports that…A government or national policy can save a language.” As an example, she talked of being intrigued when Finland bought rights for Ghana Must Go. ‘We buy and translate books into Finnish,’ the gov’t department involved explained. ‘So that (Finns) don’t have to read in any other language.’

And talking of nations and their people, Taiye appeared to have fallen in love with Kenya. She said she was ‘thrilled’ to be here and had had a marvelous time in the sun-swept Lamu archipelago before the litfest began. She said she felt at home and drew parallels between Kenya and Nigeria and Ghana. The audience also seemed quite taken by her extroverted nature, kindness, eloquence, intelligence and implacable accent. The brochure described her nationality as USA/Italy/Ghana. We might soon add Kenya.

Alexander Nderitu is Kenyan e-book pioneer and the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre. Twitter: @nderitubooks,

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