Celebrating East African Writing!

Urban Fiction: Storymoja Writers’ Blog

Urban: of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city

Urban fiction: a literary genre set, as the name implies, in a city landscape; however, the genre is as much defined by the race and culture of its characters as the urban setting.

The premise of this genre of writing is based on the fact that anyone outside of the culture depicted cannot accurately describe the people, settings, and events experienced by people in that culture.

In the case of Kenya, my description of the little town I grew up in (not so little now), will tend to be a lot more accurate than the description done by someone who visited it once on a holiday weekend. I know a bit more of the history of the town, more intimate with the landscape, understand a little more the motivations, concerns and hopes of the people who live there.

In the same way, having passed through Langata Road, and peering over the tin roof tops of the largest slum in East Africa, hardly qualifies me to write urban fiction based in Kibera. I’d have to be more connected to Kibera, to know what it’s like to walk home along a path lighted up alternatively by tin korobois and yellow bulbs lit up by badly connected power lines, to know what it’s like to wake up to the sounds of my neighbours getting ready to go to work, to know what it’s like to live, to love and to laugh surrounded by what everyone else on the outside describes as poverty and misery, but which to me; is my life.

But urban fiction is not limited to the dark, the poor and the ugly. The people dominating the urban culture today are young, trying to get set up in their jobs, negotiate a fast changing social scene, find life mates and build families, and that is a whole minefield of stories.

In the US, urban fiction was born out of the need to describe the life of African Americans in hard gritty urban settings. Those stories tended to be very dark and hardly shy; sex, violence and crime would likely be described in detail.

Over the years, however, the genre has evolved, allowing for more latitude, so the writer can include the changing scene of African American life. More and more African-Americans are going into the corporate world, succeeding in science and so on, but they are still in a way linked to the culture that raised the original urban fiction.

I had a look at what is available out there in terms of urban fiction. I came across a few stories of worth.

You might be familiar with this one. My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti – this 1980 Kenyan thriller kept many glued to the pages.

The Chance She Took by Kole Black published 2007 is a more recent and quite amazing story about a young woman who becomes the first in her family to get a college education. Unfortunately a few crazy chances she took in her youth threaten to destroy her success, end her relationship with a man she loves and bring a tragic end to her life.

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah, an author who became quite a favourite with young Kenyan women in the past few years, is another urban story. It  is the story of Winter Santiaga (aptly named because she was born during one of New York’s worst snowstorms), the rebellious, pampered teenage daughter of a notorious drug dealer.

Ricky Santiaga, Winter’s father, has attained substantial wealth through his illegal drug empire and lavishes his wife, Winter, and Winter’s three younger sisters, Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, with the best things money can (and cannot) buy. Unknown to her father, Winter uses his hustling tricks to get whatever she wants. Winter’s world is turned upside down on her 16th birthday, when her father suddenly decides to relocate his family and his growing business to Long Island, then her mother is shot and her father arrested. Her sisters end up in foster care but she manages to escape this and instead goes to live with a man. Well, you can see where the story is going….

The Tale of Kasaya by Eva Kasaya would also qualify as urban fiction.

“Tales of Kasaya by Eva Kasaya invites the reader to see poverty as the author experienced it.  Her vantage point, an insider looking out, is utterly different from any sort of poverty literature that circulates in the press or academia. She asks the reader to accompany her through her youth, first as a girl growing up in Kerongo and later as an oft-abused house help in Nairobi.” [Review by Andrew Doughman in East African Standard]

Next week, we will have a look at short urban fiction and the rules to making it work.

Now, let’s have a look at what you submitted this week.

  1. A Perception Changed: So he wasn’t good with books, but there really was more to him. So what if he only understood black and white? Couldn’t anyone look beyond this inability to grasp…
  2. My Evening Matatu Ride: Dusk is falling over the city like a blanket. I don’t know what time it is. I don’t have a watch but I can always rely on the city clock, if it is working. But on this…
  3. Tamam Parade: This routine was a devil; he swore and cursed under his breath as he tried to picture the maize-high major standing in front of the main station office building; a dark man of …

Read, vote and comment about how much these stories fit into the urban fiction category. Have fun while you are at it!

Next Week, the genre I will be looking for is Kenyan Romance. Not in the way of Mills & Boon and Harlequin. Not High School Romance. Capture one moment, difficult moments, happy moments, and weird moments in the cycle of the Kenyan dating scene. You decide how mushy or how real it will be. Word Limit 1600 words. Send in to by Sunday 16th January 2010 at 4pm. This is a bit short notice, so if you find that you cannot make it in time, try and send in one of your other pieces that is closest to the topic. No Prizes this month due to the short notice. But you never know, I might just be able to buy you airtime from my pocket if you impress me!

Have a great week!





9 comments on “Urban Fiction: Storymoja Writers’ Blog

  1. Osas
    January 10, 2011

    “based on the fact that anyone outside of the culture depicted cannot accurately describe the people, settings, and events experienced by people in that culture.”

    That is not a “fact”, that is pure unadulterated rubbish. The very opposite is true.

    From within, you cannot describe accurately and astutely. The artist by default must be without. That is the artist’s positioning. Of course, she moves and floats. But she is never only within.


  2. ndinda
    January 10, 2011

    Someone outside the depicted urban setting is able to mirror it in writing- however, research is needed- you can never write about dogs without an idea as to how dogs live-you must allow yourself to bark for sometime- when you say that one needs a vast experience in the depicted culture, you deny writers an opportunity to be beyond the culture they were born—


  3. Sheblossoms
    January 10, 2011

    Great writers, write what they know. And to know best, you must be. And so yeah, someday you might be able to write about Moi Avenue at midnight. But first you have to be in the culture, in the setting, in order to write it. That does not neccesarily mean that one who never has, cannot be.

    But really, Osas? You shock me sometimes. Do you really think you can describe Mtwapa better than I can? The landscape, the places I played in, the water I once swam in, the old mzees I used to talk to down the street from my mom’s house, the expectation to greet everyone of them Shikamoo and wait for the Marahaba response everyday for 20 years of my life; The old landlords, and their rules, and how those have affected the residents, some who don’t really know much about the history of the town because they are just passing through on a three month job stint, and others who are too busy living the hustle to know that there was once a huge species of fish that lived in the Creek, but has now died off and is almost forgotten because of the pollution of sewage from the Shimo la Tewa Prison; the culture, the village fishermen baby octopus hunters and their everyday routines, why they do what they do?

    Don’t you think that you might be distracted by what is there now, the coves that are now ‘private’, the town that is overrun by random apartments built by new ‘Kikuyu’ landlords, the new business practices, the commercial sex workers that give the town a new name? Is that a possibility? That you might end up telling one side of the story? You’d have to take some time to be there, to learn what I already know, to be able to accurately describe what I would feel or think or do.


  4. Osas
    January 10, 2011

    Being within does not help. Actually, it hinders. It blinds.
    Time and again, when in Nairobi (but to some degree, this is also true for other city slickers, though my cherished Nakuru and Eldoret qualify better as “villages”, and as “towns” at most), I experience this:

    Many educated Kenyans, usually from the upwardly mobile middle and upper middle class, who know absolutely nothing about their country, their peoples (plural), their own politics. Many a foreign ambassador knows a lot more about Kenya than her senior journalists and her diaspora. No wonder that the two very best (most astute, and best-judging) journalists in Kenya are foreigners (namely a Ugandan, Charles Onyango-Obbo, and a Tanzanian; Godfrey Mwampembwa). No wonder that the


  5. Osas
    January 10, 2011

    … that the most nuanced, most understanding, most culturally sensitive assessment and very fine depiction of the complex Mount Elgon woes and suffering came from a Swiss foreign correspondent (of the NZZ, doubtlessly the world’s best newspaper), who was virtually “parachuted in” from abroad?
    Yes, your rendering of Mtwapa would not be without your experience. And Millie Dok with some of her unique stories. And Jackie Lebo’s supreme deeply probing essay-novellette (such a talent, and perpetually underchallenged !) on the Kenyan runners. None of that could be written from outside alone. And none of it could be written from the inside. Even less so.


  6. Storymoja Africa
    January 10, 2011

    And yet your comment is right! Both the outside, and the inside count. That is probably why some of Africa’s best writers have had a chance to be on the outside before they can really write well about the inside. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example.

    Still, the sentence which has you burning up with dissaproval, is not a statement of the absolute, but a note of what the premise for the development of the genre was. Black Americans, felt that no one could understand Harlem, unless they had been Harlem, and so those such as W.E.B Du Bois sought to show what Harlem was. They might have been wrong, perhaps, but that is the thought that inspired them nevertheless.


  7. Storymoja Africa
    January 10, 2011

    But you somehow prove me right.

    See those middle and upper middle class know nothing about their country because they probably never have been to their country. How many young people do you know whose folks have the money to send them to high end private international schools know what the kid in Kibera [who wakes up at 4am to do their household chores, and leave in time to be in a class in a mabati school at 6am] feels on July morning, negotiating through sewage, mud and slime. How many Kenyans do you know who have gazed at the wonder of the wild beeste making the migratory cross over Serengeti? How many journalists have taken the time to actually understand the feelings that fan the fire of the Mt. Elgon conflict?

    The Swiss journalist wrote a good report, because he had the chance to learn those feelings, not just imagine them from the safety of his bureau office in NZZ, he was parachuted in, no?


  8. Osas
    January 10, 2011

    I could probably show you a number of Kenyan (native; black; not just self-celebrating white Kenyan animal-huggers) journalists who cover or have covered the famous, spectacular, Discovery-Channel-officially-approved wildebeest migration. But I would be hard pressed to find even one who knows about honey-badgers (the most ferocious and intrepid fighter of all Kenya’s fauna); or even, to call closer to my home, about the social life of inderit (hyraxes).
    I am not being punctilious. I am actually making a point. I think. 😉


  9. Paul Kariuki
    January 12, 2011

    Reading this weeks posting, except the ‘Evening Matatu Ride’ doesn’t qualify as having a contemporary urban setting. Did you mean we have to depict the urban slums in their graphics? well, with proper guidelines, I’d have written a moving story but by ‘urban’ many readers will interpret the story to have a Nairobi setting, that’s why am missing in the writers honorary blog this week.


Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on January 10, 2011 by in Writer's Blog.
%d bloggers like this: