Kenyan Writer, Speaker and Media Personality, Ken Walibora, in this interview talks lucidly on African Literature, themes, writing in indigenous languages and the secret behind his literary success.
We are pleased to have you on Mehara Prof. Walibora. On your Twitter handle, you describe yourself as a Swahili novelist, poet, playwright, literary and cultural scholar. How do you juggle all these roles?
I don’t know but somehow, I swim seamlessly between these oceans. The good thing is that all of these call for much writing and reading, which I very much enjoy doing. My life is fully immersed in the book world and what I do both as a creative writer and a critic is premised on this reality.
I trained as a critic to PhD level in some of the best institutions in the world, namely University of Nairobi in Kenya and The Ohio State University in the United States. But my creative work springs from self-determination and one could say, an attempt to create oneself. I never sat in a serious creative writing course almost all my entire life, save for one or two rudimentary undergraduate courses.
You have quite a number of titles to your name. Some of these books have won literary awards and others have been used as set books in Kenyan Secondary Schools. What is the secret behind your literary success?
Hard work and never accepting to settle for anything but the best. I write every book as if it is my first and last one, as if my life depends on it. I often strive to write stories that have no sell by date, stories that I would find riveting myself, long after I have written them. Yet, I don’t write with a view to winning prizes or my books being taught in schools. The decision to award my books prizes and to make them mandatory texts in schools is beyond me. I cannot allow myself to be overly anxious over things I cannot control.
I often strive to write stories that have no sell by date, stories that I would find riveting myself, long after I have written them.
As someone who has been involved with The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature as a Judge, would you say the exercise benefited you as a writer and were there challenges when it came to choosing a winner?
I was the Chair of the panel, that judged entries for the 2017 Mabati Cornell Prize for African Literature. It was a privilege and an honor beyond my wildest imagination. But this wasn’t the first time I was being called upon to judge fellow writers’ works. I was part of the jury for the Ubunifu Prize for Kiswahili Literature in 2015 and 2016.
I found the position of judge in a writing competition more arduous and back-breaking than writing itself. It is also a great learning moment as you encounter a wide range of stylistic and thematic preoccupations in the entries. I must admit that the task of sifting through the entries, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to come out with the best is at once daunting and rewarding.
Time is sometimes limited and some manuscripts are too long. Others are simply not suited for any sort of competition because of the pathetic writing and shoddy editorial work that went into their making. However, all in all, these prizes are a big boost to both experienced and aspiring writers and they augur well for the future of African literature.
From your perspective, what is African Literature?
I don’t wish to rehash what others have advanced in this great debate. Unless one takes it for granted, the very idea of African literature has continually remained a moot point. It all begins with our conception of who an African is, what language or languages he uses, where he is domiciled or whether or not these linguistic and geopolitical considerations should matter at all.
Are the footballers of African descent that won France its world cup twice in 1998 and 2018, Africans? Let me say in a nutshell, for me, we should think of a more inclusive definition of African literature that is devoid of a parochial and blind border police stance. Does the literature aptly and astutely capture an authentic African experience? Does it speak to the general “African imagination” as the late preeminent African literary critic Abiola Irele, would have put it?
We should think of a more inclusive definition of African literature that is devoid of a parochial and blind border police stance.
Some associate African Literature with dark magic, slavery and religion. Do you think African literature has gone beyond these and what other theme(s) do you think African Writers should explore?
It would be tragically overbearing, to prescribe to writers what kind of themes should preoccupy them. As a matter of fact, I resent any endeavor from any source that dictates to writers what and how they should write. I know oftentimes publishers and competition organizers come up with all sorts of bizarre dictatorial edicts such as “write a story on the dangers of HIV, the practice of FGM, and the plight of the girl child or the neglect of the boy child.”
In my view, this inhibits the free spirit of the writer. Having said that, it bears clarifying that themes in good literature are timeless. What is wrong with thematizing magic, slavery and religion? Has the colonial encounter in Africa outlived its usefulness as a theme? Are we already past the devastating impact of this encounter? Are we yet past these things?
For me, the greatest setback for writers is to tell them certain themes or styles are obsolete. I know for certain, newer African writers would be more audacious in handling sexuality and may take homosexual themes, to levels never before reached by their forerunners. But that wouldn’t imply that sexuality as a theme, with its concomitant anxieties and inhibitions, is new. Sometimes it boils down to the axiom: “ There is nothing new under the sun.
To what extent, do you subscribe to African Writers writing in foreign languages perhaps to gain a wider readership? Do you think writing in indigenous languages can be limiting?
For me, the line between foreign and African is nebulous. How would you argue that English, French, Portuguese and Arabic are not in a sense African languages? These languages are used by Africans in all official domains in African settings from being media of instruction in schools to courts and legislative assemblies? There are indeed Africans who cannot speak so-called African languages well enough or at all, but they have English, French, Portuguese and Arabic at their disposal.
I write mostly in Kiswahili because it flows much more naturally for me. But I don’t berate Africans who choose languages that originated from outside the continent. The anxiety of the size of audiences can be addressed by translation, which I think should be encouraged a lot.
It would be tragically overbearing, to prescribe to writers what kind of themes should preoccupy them.
Are there evolutions in African Literature that are deleterious to African Cultural Heritage?
None that I know of. At any rate, the so-called African Cultural Heritage is neither monolithic nor purely of African origin. The late African thinker Ali A. Mazrui talked about our rich “tripe heritage” with antecedents in Europe, Asia and Africa. Africa cannot afford to be isolationist and it would have to evolve, as it already does, with the rest of the world. African Literature, in my view, has not evolved in deleterious ways as you curiously put it. What is deleterious is the waning reading culture, not just after graduation but while individuals are still in schools and colleges. We are evolving perilously into a community of non-thinking and non-reading corner cutters.
What advice can you give to aspiring African Writers who are keen on writing in indigenous languages?
My advice is hardly that of a sage. Perhaps, I am in need of advice myself. But to any one aspiring to write, I would say write in the language of your heart, the language that flows freely for you. Is it one of the so-called African indigenous languages or one that crossed oceans to reach you? It doesn’t matter. Just remember that literature is the art of language and you should choose the language you have mastered the most for your art to be appealing.
Just remember that literature is the art of language and you should choose the language you have mastered the most for your art to be appealing.
To keep up with more updates and book releases from Ken Walibora, visit his website http://www.kenwalibora.com and follow him on Twitter @KenWalibora