What literary desert? It’s a book jungle out there!

Thursday January 20 2011

Kimani Njogu addresses participants at the KWANI? Litfest 2010 in December. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL

I was recently watching – on Youtube – a clip of celebrations facilitated by the Library of Congress in Washington DC, a couple of years ago, to mark the 70th birthday of a man I have come to consider the chief priest of African literature, Chinua Achebe.

In the clip, Achebe, after reading excerpts from his first published novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), is asked whether he shared his work with anyone before presenting it for publication.

“No, I did not show it to any of my teachers, critics, friend or anyone else. I just wrote it and submitted it. I had been frustrated by teachers who had refused to comment on my works before,” he says. He goes on to explain how, on many occasions, his teachers, had flip-flopped endlessly on what they thought about his work. One teacher said the writing lacked “form,” but when pressed to elaborate on what she meant by “form” she turned around and said she did not think anything was wrong with Achebe’s writing.

One shudders to imagine the racist attitude and other obstacles Achebe must have faced back then, when trying to convince the world that an African could write a novel.

Lacking a mentor for a writer can be disheartening. Most up-and-coming writers want to talk to an established writer, someone to evaluate or critic their work.

A young writer from Taveta, recently wrote to me asking to be linked up with his favourite writer, Meja Mwangi, as he felt that Mwangi’s opinion would be a great source of motivation.


I’m in the process of linking him up with Mwangi, because I know what it means.

This is also validated by the appreciation shown by budding East African authors when the Kwani?

Trust organised a festival a few weeks ago where the literary generation of Marjorie Oludhe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Pat Ngurukie and other famous Kenyan authors discussed with the poets of the generation of Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Cindy Ogana, Tony Mochama and other fine poets of our time.

Writers, like all other professionals, need mentors.

Many young writers feel abandoned, not when their work is rejected by publishers, but mostly when it is returned without comments on what is wrong with it or how it can be improved to “acceptable” standards.

Peer review or an evaluator’s report is something many successful reviewer’s across the world treasure.

In the West, literary agents read scripts and refine them with the authors long before the publishers get to see the scripts.

This means that the writers get lots of input in terms of what needs to be done.

This also saves editors’ a lot of time, which is a luxury that a literary editor at a publishing firm in East Africa does not enjoy.

Compared with the West, therefore, writing or publishing a great book involves a lot of hard work and determination on the part of the writers, agents and publishing editors.

The publishing editor therefore has to wade through thousands of manuscripts before identifying an award winning literary gem.

Given the absence of professional literary agents in many parts of Africa, we must appreciate the amount of work that authors must do on their own before their work catches the eye of a publishing editor.

The publishing editor, on his/her part, has to read many scripts before deciding on what to publish as there are no literary agents to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

So whenever armchair critics bash local publishers for not spotting good scripts or castigate the tendency of budding African authors to send their scripts abroad, I could almost fall off my chair in laughter.

For it is these self-same armchair critics who should act as literary agents and help publishers sift through the numerous scripts.

Thanks to critics who do not take time to find out what new books have been published lately, many readers do not know that new books are published in East Africa every day.

Have you heard of Omar Babu, Pauline Keah, Joe Kiarie, Violet Barungi, Vivian Natukunda, George Bwana, Masera Lewela, Godfrey Ipalei, Pasomi Mucha, Dennis Kyalo, Elizabeth Kabui, Paul Vitta, Nyenyo Kenga Mumbo, Frank Odoi, Waithaka Waihenya, Ng’ang’a Mbugua, Kariuki Waihenya, Rebecca Nandwa, Michael Mboya, Tobias Otieno, Omondi Makoloo, Okelo Nyandong, Kingwa Kamencu, Orchardson Mazrui, Sean Otoole, Ike Oguine, Ellen Aaku or any other exciting unsung literary heroes and heroines of our times?

If the names above sound strange, it means that you haven’t heard the latest in African fiction.

And the reason you haven’t read reviews of these books is that we are in dire need of critics who have the keenness to keep reading and reviewing new books to an extent that they have their finger on the pulse of publishing and the literary trends in East, Central and other parts of Africa.

A literary culture, outside one-off events where we showcase established writers and reminisce on golden years gone by, should help us subject the many as-yet-unknown books that publishers in East and Central Africa have continued to publish even as critics continued decrying the dearth of cultural publishing in East Africa, while falsely claiming that publishers only dream textbooks.

I have been a publishing editor for many years and the last time I touched a textbook was almost 10 years ago!

Make no mistake. We do have good critics. Hard-working types who take time-off their busy schedules to review new books and many who act as external evaluators for many a literary editor in East Africa.

My worry is the type that insists that no new writers are coming through the ranks and that no new great works are being written.

Sometimes when I think about the pain and the laborious process of writing, evaluating, revising, editing and other processes that a book must undergo in East Africa before it is published, I feel for these new writers whose works are stealthily sneaked into the market without a critical review.

If it were not for professional dictates, I would review books by all these great young wordsmiths, which though well marketed, are not widely read outside closed school distribution channels.

My only wish is for critics and reviewers to help us feel the gravity of the literary generational changeover happening right under our noses, and cease spreading the lie that publishers only go for established writers among other annoying untruths.

Its a jungle out there, there is no more literary desert.

The writer is a literary editor based in Nairobi.