Celebrating East African Writing!
Nothing has more retarded the advancement
of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds
to ridicule or vilify what they cannot comprehend.
A lot has been said, much of it positive and much more not so positive about the quality of authorship to be found within the bounds of the East African region. The dearth of quality writing in the region may be laid on the doorsteps of East African writers. It would, however, be disproportionate to do so without also adequately apportioning it to the critics of East African literature.
Literary criticism has been wrongly adjudged by some to be complete only if expressed in the most contemptuously high- minded and discouraging terms possible.
On the contrary, it is my measured opinion that literary criticism should be a wholesome constructive process of assessing and discussing a body of work by a fraternity of professionals brought together by their love of the art with the sole intention of improving it. This is so as to enable the literary work to be celebrated and enjoyed by a wider, non – participatory literary audience.
The critic who sits down to pen his critique without the above intention in mind therefore drags down the noble fraternity of writers to which he also ascribes membership.
By his wanton tearing apart of a potential genius who endeavours only to entertain, instruct and inspire thought (for that should be the purpose of all writing). The critic only succeeds in proving that his acrimony is excited merely by the pain of seeing others pleased and hearing applause directed at another person. In simpler terms, his main motivation is jealousy.
A saying whose truths I cannot ascertain nor subscribe to goes thus ‘those who cant do, teach’. Well, if I were to coin one, it would be ‘those who cant write criticize’.
That being said, the so called literary desert that is East African literature is not due to a lack of talented and willing writers. For writers abound and prolific ones at that.
A finger may be pointed to the much maligned reading habits of the residents thereof(East Africa). Limiting myself to the Kenyan scenario, Kenyans have over the years displayed quite peculiar reading habits that gravitate more towards a preference for what one publisher I know, Mr. Barrack Muluka, referred to once in a conversation as pedestrian literature that is, the daily paper and on a good day maybe a magazine or two.
Few will aver to having parted with their hard earned money to buy a book in a non – academic capacity i.e. for leisure. To them I dedicate this quote from Samuel Johnson: That knowledge is a means of pleasure is confessed by the natural desire which every mind feels in increasing its ideas.
Those few who do buy books display a marked preference for self-help and motivational books, thus ensuring that a book title beginning with the words ‘how to’ will literally fly off the shelves. With due respect to the writers of these books, I doubt that they qualify as literature.
One sure way of getting a title on a Kenyan bookshelf even if it is as an item of interior décor( for packed bookshelves are becoming quite classy in the emerging bourgeois middle-class) is for it to be a foreign publication with the banner New York Times bestseller splashed across the cover.
Another reason for the shortage of literary sustenance from local writers may also be ascribed to the publishers. Kenyan publishers are not non-profit organizations and are therefore always reluctant to attempt publishing and marketing work by little known and god-forbid-unknown writers.
This therefore is highly discouraging for potential writers who would like to pursue their writing, not just as a hobby but as a full time rent paying endeavor.
Most writers do what they do (write) out of a compulsion to put down their thoughts and ideas. Few if any sit down to write with a purely financial motivation. We write because we want to write. We write because we have to write. Most of all we write because we love writing.
Given that what we write will most probably not translate into any visible monetary imbursement. We propose no other reward for ourselves than praise and are therefore are easily discouraged by contempt and insult.
“It is so much easier to be critical than to be correct”