Africa 39 in Conversation: Review, Storymoja Festival

AiW Guest Alexander Nderitu

Writers from the Africa39 list were in conversation at this year’s Storymoja Festival which took place from 17th to 21st September in Nairobi, Kenya. The young authors, ably moderated by Kenyan academic and literary critic Keguro Macharia, were: Jackee Budesta Batanda (Uganda), Linda Musita (Kenya), Clifton Gachagua (Kenya) and Okwiri Oduor (Kenya).

Africa39 was a project launched by Hay Festival and Port Harcourt World Book Capital earlier in the year, with the aim of identifying some of the best writing talents in sub-Saharan Africa under 40 years of age. The Africa39 session was one of the most anticipated events during the five-day Storymoja literature and arts celebration and the tent it was held in was full to capacity.

Wole Soyinka at Storymoja Festival

Wole Soyinka © Storymoja

Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) did not open the session as expected as he was taking a break following his delivery of a memorial lecture on his fellow Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai (Kenya). Soyinka, who was flying in from Los Angeles, was due in Kenya the previous evening but arrived barely three hours before his much-hyped session due to travel difficulties. His address, followed by a Q & A session, was done in the sweltering heat of what US surgeon/poet Neal Hall described as ‘summer weather’ (to which I joked that it is always ‘summer’ in Kenya).  Soyinka’s session was packed solid and the issues he addressed ranged from environmental conservation to politics to literature: ‘There is no such thing as “African culture”’, the Nobel laureate asserted, ‘there are African cultures.’ 

Back to Africa39. The panelists started by introducing themselves and reading from their work. Jackee, Clifton and Okwiri read from their Africa39 submissions (which will be published in the forthcoming Africa39 anthology) but Linda Musita read from her racy (and I do mean racy) story in ‘pan-African writers’ collective’ Jalada’s ‘sex’ issue.

Linda Musita, Okwiri Oduor & Clifton Gachagua © Rayhab Gachango

Linda Musita, Okwiri Oduor & Clifton Gachagua © Rayhab Gachango

The bubbly Jackee, who had displayed vim and vigour throughout the festival, said that she entered the world of letters at a young age. She explained how she got wind of the Uganda Women Writers Association and joined them. The women, who included Beverley Nambozo who runs the BN Poetry Prize, were mostly older than her. Further opportunities opened up for her through a cultural exchange program that gave writers and artists the opportunity to travel abroad. She described in lively terms that she was so excited by this experience that she put down ‘professional writer’ as her occupation on her passport.  Still, she figures that writing is yet to become a full-time occupation in her home country, commenting: ‘It is really hard to survive as a writer in Uganda. You need another job to pay the bills.’

On the role of the African writer in society, Jackee argued passionately that we should not try to fit in to other people’s perceptions of writers but instead seek artistic freedom: ‘I wanted to create worlds, to play God.’  As for which language to use, she opined: ‘Some say because you are an African, you should write in mother tongue. I write in English because that was my language of instruction.’

Linda Musita amused attendees by her revelation that while her family was not enthused by her foray into writing, her mother was partially responsible for it because she was a librarian who ‘introduced me to books.’   Linda trained as a lawyer and apart from blogging and contributing to The Star newspaper is also part of Kenyan literary agency Lesleigh, Inc. Literature, however, appears to be very much where her heart lies: ‘Writing is what I love.’

Linda opined that the role of an African writer is the same as that of any other scribe: ‘To write’.  One should not concern oneself with too many imagined obligations: ‘Some things should happen by accident.  I shouldn’t have to have a message.’

On language, Linda said, ‘The only other language I speak is Swahili. There is an expectation that if I write Swahili word, I should have a footnote translating it. If I put a few words (in my writing) that you don’t understand, it is upon you to find out what they mean.  In any case, it makes it (the reading experience) more interactive.’  Her sentiments were similar to those expressed by a panel of eminent Swahili experts at another festival event. The Swahili authors, who included Hamisi Babusa, Ayub Mugwana and Ken Walibora, criticised Kenyan star athletes’ often-faltering attempts to speak good English during post-victory interviews.  ‘Just speak in Swahili,’ one panelist recommended, to wide applause, ‘Be a cultural ambassador.  People like Rudisha (Olympic champion and world-record holding Kenyan runner) are so big that no matter which language they use, the world media will have no choice but to translate.’

Okwiri Oduor © Rayhab GachangoOkwiri Oduor, who spoke in a quasi-American accent I couldn’t quite place, did not mince her words: ‘I am unapologetic about the use of Swahili in my literature. I also use Englishes.  I write in English and in Englishes.’  Being centrally placed and sporting long, thick dreadlocks made her stand out amongst the panelists. Asked about being mentored by older writers, Okwiri said that she read African writers of the past and this shaped her own writing.  She later joined a group of writers that used to meet and share work and this further helped her become a better writer.  It was a peer mentoring group and many of its members are also published in Africa39. A 2014 MacDowell Colony fellow, Okwiri was this year’s winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and is currently at work on her debut novel.

For some mysterious reason, 27-year-old Clifton Gachagua kept his hat on throughout the session. Although beginning his set by talking about his day and how he likes to take public transport which allows him to read en route, he was not quite as talkative as the girls.  While he discussed his love for books – and beer – his impressive array of publications and prizes suggest he probably prefers to let his pen to do most the talking.  He was the winner of the inaugural Sillerman Prize for African Poetry (2013) and has published a book of verse entitled, Madman at Kilifi. He also has a poetry chapbook entitled, The Cartographer of Water and is at work editing his novel that was longlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project.  He is one of the driving forces behind Jalada – an offshoot of Kwani?, where he works as an Assistant Editor.

The conversation between these four writers gave an insight into the multiple trajectories, concerns and voices the Africa39 list represents.  Panelist Jackee Batanda, who in 2003 won the Africa region prize of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, had this parting shot: ‘Buy East African authors. Read East African’.  This session showed these writers alone as reason to heed that advice.

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Alexander NderituAlexander Nderitu is a Kenyan-born novelist, scriptwriter and e-book pioneer.  He is the author of When the Whirlwind Passes, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese and Other Poems and short story collection Kiss, Commander, Promise (all available as e-books here).  His is co-founder of Artists for Contemporary Theatre (A.C.T.) and the author of several papers on Kenya’s literary landscape.

Photos by Rayhab Gachango

Read Wole Soyinka’s lecture from the Storymoja Festival ‘Parables From Wangari Maathai’s Trees’



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