'Engineer of English' passes the literary torch

Saturday July 06 2024

Canadian scholar Prof Mikhail Iossel (R) with the late Binyavanga Wainaina in Nairobi during a previous visit. PHOTO | POOL


St Petersburg, Russia, and Nairobi, Kenya, may be in the exact same time zone.

But the two cities are worlds apart — literally (6,868km in direct north-south distance, and literary, too — if you listen to Prof Mikhail Iossel of Concordia University, Canada, describe the city of his birth, from which he is now exiled and to which, for 10 years in the 2000s decade, he took dozens of Kenyans to (including Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, as a younger writer) in a programme dubbed the Summer Literary Seminars.

“St Petersburg is, all in all, a timeless and dignified place. It is not what one would call an open city: It won’t greet you with open arms, slap you on the shoulder, tell you to feel right at home. It is an inordinately beautiful city, perhaps the most beautiful in the world—but not necessarily a very lovely one. The aloof brilliance of its aspect can render one speechless initially, but not set one’s heart aglow with warmth. One may recall how, in Chekhov’s Gooseberries, the two rain-soaked travellers walk into Alyokhin’s estate’s main building and are met there by the maid, ‘a young woman so beautiful that they both stood still and looked at one another.’ St Petersburg is like that young woman.”

Nairobi of the last quarter a century is one of the noisiest cities in the world – even when you turn down the volume on the Gen Z protests of the last few weeks. It is also one of the continent’s most dynamic cities today, the hubbub of everything with Western zeitgeist, a hypermodern metropolis, pulsating non-stop with generations-worth of pent-up anger and hunger, but also the funny and funky vibe you find on X to art, books, culture and music.

Read: Caine Prize winner speaks highly of local storytelling

It is the accidental city of urban sprawl, modern 25-storey buildings eating up the trees to accidental, unplanned constructions as you leave the centre, to the various slums on the periphery, and stony ghettos producing hardcore Gengetone with lyrics we cannot publish.


Nairobi’s brash brand of capitalism, rife with overweening ambition, unabashed leadership rapaciousness and cynicism so vile by the political class, is what made Mwalimu Nyerere call Kenya a “man-eat-man society.”

Yet, 22 years ago, with the late Mwai Kibaki just about to come to power, and the country throbbing with euphoria -- the opposite of the mood today -- a man called Mikhail Iossel was starting a literary collaboration between his Summer Literary Seminars and the Kwani?Journal, headed by the late Binyavanga Wainaina, which would see at least a dozen Kenyan writers visit Russia (for literature) over the next decade. Dozens of (mostly) North American writers (George Saunders) and editors (Deborah Treisman, New Yorker) and publishers (Fiona McCrae, Gray Wolf) came to Kenya.

Just as his Summer Literary Seminars successor, the International Literary Seminars, led by Carrie Lynn Hatland is doing until the end of July, with a programme that starts in Nairobi, moves to Lamu, then for some, ends in the Masai Mara.

Prof Iossel was born in the mid-1950s in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the heart of Leningrad,or the St Petersburg of Dostoyevsky. When he was eight, they were moved to their own apartment by the State – not because of the extra addition to the family, but because his father was a brilliant submarine electromagnetic scientist “working in a secret research institute.”

Brilliant in literature from the Tenth Grade, young Mikhail followed his father into the career of electro-magnetic engineering via the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute in 1978.

Late entrant

Today, Iossel is a distinguished professor of English at the Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

“Because I only wrote in Russian until I was thirty,” he says,“I do not approach texts in a hurry, and can often see in sentences things many native speakers of the language cannot see.”

In that way, I think Prof Iossel is an engineer of English.

Now, with the torch passed onto Carrie Lynn Hatland, at the International Literary Seminars, the trans-continental creative writing torch once more burns over the placid waters of Lamu in 2024, with a whole new generation.