Celebrating East African Writing!
There are some parts of the world to which I have always been drawn – the sensuality and delicious imagery of South American literature and the promise of finding threads of belonging in anything that comes out of India.
Lately China has been on Kenya’s mind. Whether we like it or not, the influence of this Supernation is seeping into the fabric of our country. From super highways to dim sum in Hurlingham, from a seemingly insatiable thirst for Ivory to a smattering of Chinese fathered babies near the new road networks, China has always felt singular to me. More like one huge, incongruous entity than a country of a billion stories.
When I heard the formidable Chinese historian Jung Chang, author of ‘Wild Swans’ speak at the last Storymoja Hay Festival, I was reminded of the power of literature to unveil the stories that are often hidden behind layers of stereotype. It is so easy to decide what and who China is, based on our varying experiences of the country in Kenya and yet they are so distinctly foreign, completely unfamiliar compared to our pop culture exposure to the Western world. After reading Wild Swans which I highly reccommend, I was left with a deep curiosity about what a history like the one China endured would do to a society’s psyche. How does a shared imposed state control affect citizens’ outlook on life and their interactions with the world outside their borders.
It is this that drew me to a session with Chinese writers Ma Jian and Yan Lianke…well that and the sublime description:
“If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates. But if a woman gets pregnant she is treated like a criminal. What kind of a country is this? The author of ‘Red Dust’ and ‘Beijing Coma’ introduces his new novel ‘The Dark Road’. He is joined by the brilliant satirical author of ‘Serve the People’ and ‘Lenins Kisses’ who is shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. “
Ma, an outspoken critic of the Chinese regime has been denied entry into China for many years and lives in the UK. With a blanket ban in China on all of Ma’s books nobody in China has access to his novels. His new novel was borne out of experiencing the birth of his child and being haunted by the spirits of children who were wanted by their mothers , but whose lives were ended through forced abortion.
I knew about the one child policy but had never stopped to think what that meant in reality for a woman, what It would be like to have your body so tightly controlled by the state. What must it be like for a woman to have to go through mandatory invasions of her body every 3 months to inspect whether she had become pregnant, to have her body and dignity intruded upon so rigorously and so regularly. I simply cannot imagine. I have always felt that one of the strengths of stories is the ability to unveil acute differences whilst also being able to highlight the commonality of human experience.
This is one of my favourite things about Hay…the discovery of new writers and the promise of a whole new part of the world laying in front of me to be unveiled. As Yan says, ‘the power of literature is that it can reveal a side of society that is unseen.’
Aleya Kassam is the Storymoja Hay Festival|Nairobi Producer : Follow @AleyaKassam and @SMHayFest on twitter for more updates on the festival in the UK (May 23rd to June 2nd) and the upcoming festival in Nairobi in September 19 – 22, 2013.