You, too, will write big books

Monday August 17 2009

Vikram Seth at the festival. The audience,

Vikram Seth at the festival. The audience, below, was spellbound by quotations from his novel. And there, too, were other rich voices — young, old, brown, black and white. Pictures: Betty Caplan 

By Betty Caplan

"AND YOU, TOO, WILL MARRY a woman I have chosen,” said Vikram Seth, quoting the opening of his 1,300-page book, A Suitable Boy.

He wrote it while supposedly completing his PhD in Economics at Stanford University but in fact lolling about at the age of 37 at his parents’ home in Delhi.
The audience at the Storymoja Hay Festival was spellbound. Here was a writer who could talk as well as write! Wit and words flowed from his mouth like ripples over the surface of River Ganges.

Who would ever publish a volume that was over 1,300 pages long and took up more than three inches of space on the shelf?

As we know, the book has proved popular all over the world, though, like any writer worth his salt, Seth had to suffer the usual ignoble rejections. These are part of the initiation process. They harden your skin and test your resolve.

Will you continue regardless?

The answer in Seth’s case is a resounding yes. A man of the world, he feels at home everywhere, though his initial inspiration was a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. A true intellectual traverses the universe, and isn’t put off by anything.

People always pester writers with the same old things — why do you do it, what about writers’ block and give me the magic formula. Seth overrode them all with ingenuity and passion. Obsession is what drives him. He has to know how the story is going to end.

And there are the pompous questions like, “What is the writer’s responsibility in society?” To write, silly! What else? Not to provide solutions. Just to tell stories and to give pleasure. That is not to say there aren’t writers who lead revolutions or become politically engaged — just that Seth isn’t one of them.

THE FESTIVAL WAS THE brainchild of writer Muthoni Garland, whose Storymoja imprint, together with Kwani?, has circumvented the reluctance of Kenyan publishers to promote local writers in favour of that sure-fire bestseller called The School Textbook, which is enough to put you off reading for life.

Storymoja and Kwani? produce mainly slim, attractive volumes (no Vikram Seths please; though he does produce slim vols, too, when he isn’t being A Suitable Boy) that fit easily into the pocket and don’t break the purse.

The latest additions are Al Kags’ Living Memories and Richard Onyango’s story of his life with Drosie, that woman of ample proportions whom he immortalised in his paintings before she died prematurely of heart failure. And of course Billy Kahora’s True Story of David Munyakei, of which an extract was published in The EastAfrican of August 2-9.

Al Kags had recorded the stories of elderly people — living memories that have too often been ignored but which are very much part of our current collective psyche.

The organisers had deliberately asked Luo academic Garnette Oluoch to chair the session to underline the point that these stories, mostly about those who suffered from the Emergency period, were not just about Kikuyu homeguards or members of the Mau Mau.

IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS Kenya, these stories belong to us all, just as the pictures in Kenya Burning document the trauma of a nation during the post-election violence. The age of history written by white males is well and truly over.

If there is one useful thing about the events of 2008, it is that a space has been created where the unspeakable can at last be spoken, and the invisible brought to light.

It was a festival of voices — quite unlike its prototype in Britain, which is solidly literary and much more academic. This was very much a Kenyan product: Voices young, old, brown, black and white.

Some of the most impressive came from students who had worked with Steadman Research Group to come up with analyses of the causes of the violence that hit their institutions last year, causing massive destruction of property, loss of life and faith in the system that was supposed to be nurturing them.

The presentation by Molo Girls School was a model of clarity and lucidity. Beautiful diagrams accompanied by speeches delivered by each member of the team showed where the roots of the trouble lay —in a demoralised teaching profession which did not relate to pupils, poor school administration and a frustrating lack of equipment and resources.

The earnestness of these girls was moving as was their ability to handle the questions that came up. It was hard to imagine such students behaving riotously.
The research was enabling them to find solutions to problems such as ethnic rivalry, the environment and lack of communication. If these are our future leaders, we have little to worry about apart from their inability to achieve their potential.

Boys from Moi Forces Academy backed up this research and encouraged others to become involved in such socially and educationally useful endeavours.

SOME OF THE VOICES AND stories were overtly personal: Columnist Oyunga Pala, in a popular session called “Men Under Attack,” bemoaned the fact that the male gender in these parts had got stuck in an 1980s time warp where the stereotype of the little woman waiting for the man at home was wildly out of key with current affairs.

In the plush pink True Love tent, there was little about romance and a lot about the causes of domestic violence. Although women had always had the edge over men due to their tendency to gossip and share problems, they were still being harassed, assaulted and abused by men and, despite their independence, coming back for more.

After Nairobi Hospital opened its doors to victims of violence (90 per cent women, 10 per cent men — please note, Maendeleo ya Wanaume), they could not cope with the deluge. Fida is hampered by lack of funds, and by the sheer number of cases in the courts.

There was the familiar and the unfamiliar: Hanif Kureishi, in true laid-back British Indian style, admitted that he had benefited from an era when the birth of Channel 4 and the existence of a literary infrastructure made it possible for his early My Beautiful Laundrette to be written and then filmed.

Nigerian Chika Onugwe, who now lives in Belgium, spoke about her fascination with prostitutes. On Black Sister Street is a fictionalised account of the trafficking of young women who believe their minders’ stories about streets paved with gold only to find that they get even auctioned off, paraded naked with placards round their necks — a modern form of slavery.

Chika put on high boots and sexy gear to join the girls in their favourite coffee shop to eavesdrop. The result was a book of crime and passion, grimly humorous and truthful at the same time.

Now that the festival is over, what will we do till the next one — twiddle our thumbs or get on with writing? It’s up to you.