Back to the Great Kenyan Novel (GKN) idea, Ted Malanda said that the novel I was looking for had not yet been written but should be out this decade or in due course. Likely to be written by Millennials or Gen Z.
A few people among them Mike Ndegwa suggested that my novel Sexorcised should be included in the Kenyan canon, which was flattering, though one said, that for it to be included, the vulgar and pornographic bits should be edited out (or adopted a more euphemistic approach to capture its rawness)
The Great Novel of a country usually is not a singular piece of work. Neither is it permanent. Countries evolve. Each generation deals with its angsts, troubles, depressions, prosperity and what have you. And thus, the search for a Great Novel is always continuous.
In America, where the concept was birthed in 1868, the Great American Novel “is a book that perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric, and its troubled conscience, it is individual voices and strivings, our loves and losses.”
If we were to use similar criteria, only Coming To Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye and Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor capture this essence. A few of Meja Mwangi’s books can be contenders, though Meja Mwangi captures the Nairobian essence more than he captures the Kenyan essence. But if we were to take Nairobi as a synecdoche, where it represents Kenya, and Kenya is Nairobi, Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road comes close. Cockroach Dance too.
However, from people’s choices, I realized, that people fell in love with the set books they studied, and that is why set books were voted en masse. It was also evident (some by confession) that people don’t read fiction beyond high school.
Truth be told, KICD and KIE always try to do a good job in picking the set books, though the religious and moral commitment on their part will always limit our appreciation of what good literature is.
The unlikely, but understandable choice for many Kenyans was Across the Bridge by Mwangi Gicheru. The novel is a story about the class divide, a story of love, told with vintage Gicheru comic humour. Ideally, such a novel should be a class reader for seniors in high school. Same way, I love The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, because, in another life, Holden Caulfield would have been me, and many teenagers can relate with/to him.
If I ever end up at KICD, my commitment will be towards humor and picking the most interesting and funny books with great stories. Funny books can endear people to literature, and at times, I think our educators get caught up in their turgid tastes and forget that tastes are variable.
There are books that are complex in processing them. They need patience, intelligence, and also a historical understanding of the country. Dust for instance. Some can be straightforward, like Going Down River Road, or its movie equivalent, Nairobi Half-Life. There are books that can be adequately understood by anyone but need further interpretation. For instance, being taught Coming to Birth on campus was a completely different experience from reading it as a high schooler (or would have been, had I sat for it for my KCSE). Reading a Man of the People(my high school setbook) for a paper I presented at an Achebe Colloquium we arranged back in 2019, was a novel experience that led to my appreciation of Achebe even more.
More novels have been written in Kenya in the last five years, and I hope to read each of them. I am sure there have been good ones, only poorly or less marketed. And such novels can be rediscovered in the future and be celebrated in hopefully our lifetime. It hurts me that Scot Fitzgerald never lived long enough to see The Great Gatsby become a hit.
And soon enough, we will be as proud as Nigerians for the books we write. I have that feeling, even when in Kenya, we have this unhealthy stop-start-stop way of doing things.
Rightly, as people noted, Kenya has too many disparate identities to forge a nation. The collective Kikuyu colonial trauma has arrested our cultural development. The Kikuyu-Luo drama, the Kalenjin-Kikuyu land problem too often subdues other problems and hijacks our entire political-cultural revolution. That means, we rarely get to appreciate the beauty of Luhya, whose music, poetry, and talents in sports are simply unmatched. That means we see athletics as a Kalenjin affair (though the love our athletes get lately is phenomenal and national). We pretty much forgot about the Coast since age caught up with Them Mushrooms. We don’t pay attention to the Kambas and whatever is part of their culture. We take the Maasais for granted (I was genuinely excited seeing our president in their regalia). Somalis, whom I am made to understand make good poetry, and write so well, that we easily overlook them, and no chance is given to those in the North. And we forget that in terms of craftsmanship, poetry, and music, the Luos take the lead. Often I do have counterfactual moments where I imagine the Luos as the majority, their language as a national language, and their culture as the standard, and all the prejudice aside, that would be something.
Yet, I strongly feel, that after 60 years of independence, there is such a thing as a Kenyan identity. I feel at home anywhere in the country where I can speak Swahili, there is a rule of law, and our dual existence (as our tribe first) and Kenyan second (and Africa third), is acknowledged by everyone.
And from this, will emerge the music, the art, the books, and everything that captures the essence of being Kenyan. We just need to love ourselves more.
Music is the closest we have come to forging a national artistic identity. DJs have this thing of playing vernacular Kenyan songs and they must appease the big five Kenyan tribes (Luo, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luhyia, and Kamba). Was rather appalled that for Kisiis, it is Embarambamba who first broke the mould and was once played in Halcyon Kitengela to my chagrin. Of course, the majority rules in everything. Unbwoggable was an unapologetically Luo anthem, lauding its various leaders, but it became a symbol of triumph against Moi, and 20 years later, it is still a banger for all generations. Rugby has unified us, just as athletics most recently. If only we had an elite that appreciates Kenyan culture from their hearts, then we would go very far. I am thinking about how Ronald Reagan endorsed Tom Clancy’s novel, The Hunt for Red October, making it a bestseller, and launching Clancy’s career as a writer of chunky novels.
But here is an urge for Kenyan writers. Keep writing. Don’t aim to write an award-winning book (it is good to win the awards), but importantly, write the Kenyan story.
If we were to tell the Kenyan story, it must touch on our yeasty politics and how it affects our lives and our bodies, it must touch on our troubled inter-tribal and gender relations relationships, look at what the Kenyan dream should be, and paint a picture of continued disappoint by the political and intellectual elite of the country. Weirdly, I have a feeling, a Kenyan woman will deliver the first-ever, universally acknowledged Kenyan novel, in the mould of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I say this, not as mere pandering, but from the two experiments by Yvonne Awuor and Marjorie Oludhe. Women tend to have a more universal outlook on life as opposed to men who can be conservative and provincial. We have a Deputy President, who, with all due respect has never said anything Kenyan, one year into power. See what I mean?
Men too, should get down to work.
Jacob AlietCharles ChanchoriScola MoraaBetty Kilonzo Euniah Mbabazi, Rehamz ZeddarBrian W. MbanachoNdugu AbisaiEddy AshioyaMwangi Khimani Collins Sakwa, Eric Rugara Miyamoto-MuswahiliTony OntitaJohn MwazembaAdipo SidangMbugua Ngunjiri and all.