Beyond the noise of political campaigns and public rallies happening in Kenya since the beginning of the year, the country’s literary scene has also been quite busy, if the flurry of book launches in recent months is anything to go by.
Earlier in the year, renowned PR practitioner Gina Din Kariuki launched her autobiography, Daughter of Africa, and others have followed, from book launches in restaurants outside Nairobi to upmarket venues like the Nairobi Club, where former Attorney General and professor of Law, Githu Muigai launched what he called his magnum opus, Power, Politics and Law, a fortnight ago.
The last weekend of July saw the launch of the much anticipated tell-all Presidents’ Pressman by Lee Njiru, the retired long-serving State House press secretary and personal assistant to president Daniel Arap Moi. The launch was in Nakuru County.
The same weekend the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi hosted the pre-launch reading of a poetry book by Kanunah Jerusha and John Sibi-Okumu.
The day was capped by the much-anticipated launch of Silas Nyanchwani’s Man About Town, a collection of essays which was preceded by an event at Cheche in Lavington of the launch of erotic poet Eudiah Kamonjo’s Black Coffee, Steamy Nights book.
All this coming the year after the Covid-19 pandemic just proves that Kenyans are writing.
Ahmed Aidarus, the proprietor of Prestige Bookshop on Mama Ngina Street in Nairobi’s central business district — and the Cheche branch in Lavington — concurs.
“We run the Jahazi literary workshops at Cheche, free of charge for younger writers, and from the output, there is a lot of younger literary talent,” said Aidarus.
He also hosts Goethe Institute readings at Cheche, and this September, he will be hosting a reading by Christopher Kloebe from Germany from his book The Museum of the World.
Aidarus’ belief in Kenya’s recent literary revival of sorts is such that he is now publishing local writers at his Aidarus Press. He recently released writer Stanley Gazemba’s Footprints in the Sand.
Jacob Aliet, a self-publishing author, believes that as technology gets more democratic and liberalises printing and the quality of self-published books gets better, it means more books can be published locally and authors get to keep the bulk of the book earnings.
“Traditional publishers give authors a miserly 10 percent of proceeds from their creations, claiming costs on printing, marketing, distribution and editing to justify it.”
These are roles that Aliet thinks the savvy modern writer can successfully take on and minimise costs.
He cites his latest book, Unplugged: Things Our Fathers Did Not Tell Us, which he says has sold about 800 copies in the past eight months at Ksh1,000 ($8).
For independent bookshops like Nuriah on Moi Avenue, in Nairobi, which puts a 20 percent mark-up on the retail price of local books, selling 800 copies of a title, as Aliet claims, would certainly put it as a national bestseller.
Nuriah, owned and run by Abdullahi Bulle, has a Whatsapp group — for local writers whose books it stocks — where they interact on matters books.
John Mwazemba, the regional director of the Oxford University Press says he has no issue with self-publishing authors or books.
“My philosophy is that a book can be self-published but shouldn't bypass the editorial process. A self-published book edited professionally could still compete content-wise in the market.
''The challenge is that some people think that self-publishing is a licence to bypass the editorial process when actually it inevitably leads to errors in books. In essence, a book doesn't have to go through the traditional publishing channels, but a good editor should be engaged. And a great manuscript needs a good editor just as it needs a good author,” said Mwazemba.
To get more people to write and get published, organisations like Gabriel Dinda’s Writers’ Guild are building the confidence and careers, especially of younger generation neophytes, by facilitating the publishing of their works.
Poet-journalist Jacob Oketch is a staunch defender of poetic licence, which is the right of the writer to write without judgment of how “meritorious” or indeed “deep” one’s work is.
He says; “What a writer writes is what he feels is valuable and pleasurable to him, and that, as a poet, feels joy and happiness after the writing of it. It is all quite ‘self-contained.’” He argues that writing is ''coming to being” even when one’s work is dismissed as an exercise in indolence.
This is a sentiment the recently published Njiru, might take comfort in. His book, Presidents’ Pressman, although flying off the shelves, has been criticised by a section of readers for presenting alternative facts.
Because the content is based on political events that many readers lived through, it is expected that people have different interpretations of what happened depending on their political viewpoint.
Oluoch Madiang, playwright, writer and book reviewer, is harsh on Njiru’s effort. “This is simply an anthology of half-tales that would have been aptly titled President's Apologist.’’
Madiang's overall take is that by their nature, autobiographies are lies and alternative truths and that their narcissism may be the reason why one shouldn't feel bad that the likes of former AG Charles Njonjo and former spy chief James Kanyotu didn't pen their personal stories.
But Kenya’s biggest book story so far this year, is the winning of the AKO-Caine Prize for African short story writing by Idza Luhumyo, who writes on Kenyan Coastal identities. This is the fifth Kenyan to win after almost eight years.
But Dr Tom Odhiambo of the Literature Department of the University of Nairobi and moderator at Goethe-hosted AMKA literary space isn’t optimistic.
“AMKA mentored Okwiri Oduor the 2014 winner, but she only resurfaced eight years later with her highly unreadable first novel Things They Lost, whose title is not even original. Makena Onjerika’s Caine winning prize story Fanta Black Currant in 2018 was first workshopped at AMKA, but she never returned since Caine to mentor others.’’ He is waiting to see how current winner Luhumyo will turn out.
Whatever the real situation is, even naysayers will have to agree that there just may be a big book and literary revival taking place in Kenya, even if some of the works being released are not of the highest standards.