Stanley Gazemba is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi. He is a recipient of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the author of several novels, including works of childrens’ literature, a critically acclaimed recent short story collection, literary criticism and music journalism. He is also a contributor to the recently published crime fiction collection Nairobi Noir. I ran into him at The Godown Artcentre in Nairobi a year ago when he was working at a project at a recording studio in the centre, and got in touch with him recently to discuss the state of Kenyan publishing and the less than encouraging situation most Kenyan writers face today.
Nicklas Hållén: I wanted to talk to you about the Kenyan publishing world to get an author’s perspective on some of the challenges for Kenyan literature today. Not to be too pessimistic, but writers who are less established than yourself have told me that the interest from Kenyan publishers in what they work on is so limited that they either go straight to self-publishing or to publishers in the West. You have had more success with getting published and received the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, so what do you see as the biggest challenge(s) when it comes to publishing today?
Stanley Gazemba: First, I should correct you. Despite my debut novel, The Stone Hills of Maragoli (published in the US as Forbidden Fruit) winning the Jomo Kenyatta Prize, I can’t say I’ve had success publishing in Kenya. In fact the opposite is true. The first publisher, Acacia, soon after went bankrupt, and when it was later reissued by Kwani? I was forced to terminate the contract because of accounting discrepancies. It is a long story, part of which you can read on my author’s page on the website of my New York publisher, The Mantle. But the short of it is that save for the prize money, which wasn’t that much (50k), that book has hardly made any money for me in Kenya, despite having been adapted as a study text for literature students in three local universities. It is the reason I terminated my local contracts and sought a publisher abroad.
The writers you spoke to were right. There is no market for fiction in Kenya, and the publishers are not interested in it. The only fiction getting published is that guaranteed to be accepted for use in schools by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, which is plagued with its own problems and complications. Any other work that doesn’t fit that mould simply doesn’t find a publisher in Kenya.
Which means that emerging writers of general fiction either have to self-publish, or find a publisher abroad; which is what I am currently trying to do with my unpublished work. And I think it is an Africa-wide problem. It is the reason I said in a recent article, “African Publishing Minefields and the Woes of the African Writer” published in The Elephant online magazine that the most exciting contemporary work by African authors will not come from the continent but abroad. The publishing business on the continent is simply not designed for and receptive to experimental new works of fiction.
Meaning unless the writers can somehow come up with a way of circumventing the stifling bureaucracy and gate-keeping in the existing systems, they have no choice but to either self-publish or publish abroad.
Not to say that those options give them an easy way out. They both come with their own unique challenges, including rampant book piracy, high cost of printing, lack of proper book distribution networks that they can exploit, lack of access to capital, access to quality editorial and pre-print services, and many others for those who opt to self-publish. As for those opting to publish abroad there’s the challenge of finding an agent who can secure them a good deal with a reliable trade publisher.
NH: Do you think that this means that there is a need to rethink what an author is? I think traditionally, and this is true especially in Western academia, what we mean by an author is a person who has made writing a professional career and therefore can spend their life developing their style and responding to events and historical shifts in their writing. They have a specific style and their oeuvre can be seen as an aesthetic product that grows out of that person’s opinions, ideas and experiences. However, to me it seems that the way in which writing works in Kenya, for example, means that books are generally written by people who do something else for a living – it is not uncommon to read in the bio that “so and so is a dentist and lives in Mombasa” or some such. What is more, many writers quite reasonably seem to write what they think the market wants, rather than to make an intervention into a cultural or political debate. None of this is a strictly Kenyan or African phenomenon of course, but perhaps it is even more pronounced in Kenya and Africa than in, for example, the UK or the US.
SG: Maybe I can answer that by attempting a definition of what a writer is – at least the way I see it. A writer, to me is an artist, an entertainer, a social commentator, a critic and a catalyst, among other roles. This naturally places him in a unique position in that it detaches him from what he is commenting on. In other words to do it effectively the artist has to be detached from his immediate community. But at the same time he has to be a part of it in order to do it convincingly. It is the reason some people have equated writers and other creative practitioners to little gods!
If this is the case, then when an author finds themselves entangled in hawking their works on the streets or begging their publishers to pay them then they are naturally compromised, because they will be forced to dance to the tune of the holders of the purse-strings. To do their job effectively writers need to be elevated above the mundane day-to-day dealings so that they can focus on thinking and evaluating the situation around them. In other words writers have no place in printing and publishing. Their job is to create.
Sadly this is not the case in Africa. Which opens the door wide to people who might not necessarily be writers but whose allegiances lie elsewhere by day – dentists, and so on – and this no doubt allows in mediocrity and charlatanism. The ideal situation would be for the dentist, if he feels he has a story to tell, to work with a writer, who has the tools, to bring out his story effectively. I think this happens a lot in the West. But in Africa every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they can write, simply because they own a laptop computer and went to college and can speak English! It is the reason we have so many badly written books by professionals in other fields masquerading as writers.
It is also the reason why more and more African writers are opting to publish abroad, where this kind of mess has been sorted out over time and the systems are much more organized and streamlined, with everyone understanding their role within the publishing chain, from the writer, literary agent, publisher and so on. Otherwise as it is in Africa, everyone is trying to be their own jack-of-all-trades, which results in the mediocrity I mentioned above.
NH: Younger, aspiring authors who have not yet received the acclaim you have received have told me that it feels futile to try to get their work considered by Kenyan publishers (unless they write textbooks for schoolkids). Therefore, they have a non-Kenyan and often even non-African publisher in mind when they work on their texts. To me, this means that they inevitably also write for an overseas (often Western) audience, rather than for the community around them. To what extent do you see this in Kenyan writing today and do you think it is a problem?
SG: Despite winning the award you mention I am still struggling to get Kenyan publishers to look at my manuscripts and give me feedback. Meaning that the perception that I am better placed is a fallacy. That award was just a piece of paper. It didn’t open any physical doors for me as far as local publishing goes; like the guys you spoke to seem to think. Again if you refer to my author’s page on The Mantle website it will give you a clearer picture. I am still struggling to pay rent and to see my kids through school, so, where are the benefits?
As you rightly pointed out, once you start targeting a foreign publisher you will have no choice but to write with an international audience in mind. And so, you are right, the treatment of the story will change, even if subtly. And so the question becomes: who does an individual writer write for?
Personally, much as I want to be read in the little village I come from in Western Kenya, I have never wanted to be confined to it. I want to be read by this guy in Timbuktu or Samoa who has never been to my village or city and entertain and make sense to them, because I believe that is the purpose of literature: crossing international borders. Likewise I like to know about the cultures of those places I talk about through reading literature produced by their writers.
And so, ultimately, the decision remains with the individual writer and who he/she wants to address. Otherwise quality literature – just like good art — will always transcend geographical, political, cultural, racial and continental borders. It is about the idea therein, and how it is expressed. It is about how the writing is perceived and interpreted by the reader, which is something universal, and not confined to a given region. It is the reason we enjoy music whose lyrics we do not understand!
NH: I agree that literature cannot be contained within a geographical space, but in some contexts I think literature can make itself useful, so to speak, to the community by providing a space where that community can work through some of its tensions or common problems. And sometimes it may even be unconducive to the author’s purposes to write both for a Western and an African or national audience – for example, when writers discuss the way (neo)colonialism has affected local communities. Do you think that there is a risk that regional or national concerns do not get adequately explored in literature because Kenyan writers have to look to Western markets?
SG: If I am not wrong, I think what we are skirting around here is that maligned author out there in the Diaspora who some of us on the continent have previously condemned; the African writer who has never set foot in Africa – born and raised in the West all their lives – but who is trying to pass of as an ‘African Writer’. I remember having a heated discussion with some of my colleagues about this at a conference I attended in Kampala, Uganda, a few years back. It is no doubt a touchy issue.
But the point here is, there is a growing breed of writers producing what would pass for ‘World Music’ on the inboard entertainment on an international flight – writing that has African characters, an African flavour, but is not quite African: ‘World Literature.’
There must be a market for it, otherwise it wouldn’t get published. Meaning, maybe this is what agents are looking for, because it is what works with the publishers.
Having said that, I think, ultimately, it will be treacherous if the market continues to dictate the direction of the writing in this way, because what will happen is that we’ll be painting the picture of a non-existent world. The African abroad is a rootless creature; a hermit; a nomad moving from Munich to Venice to LA bedazzling enthralled audiences with his mastery of the language of the colonialist and displaying his assimilé-ness – for lack of a better word – to his buyer (read, master). Whether that is the ideal of a writer, is an open question out there.
But in my thinking, and at the risk of being accused of sour grapes by my compatriots who have found success in this way, this roving ambassador, much as they are flying the flag of the continent abroad, need to root their stories on the continent. They need to root their stories where their umbilical cord is buried, as we say over here in Africa. Otherwise there is a real risk of them eventually becoming irrelevant once the ‘African-abroad’ theme has been fully exploited by the market. It is the reason Yvonne Vera of Zimbabwe opted to abandon her thriving career in Canada sometime in the early 1990s and come back home.
Literature, by its nature, is steeped in the politics of identity, the politics of who we are. And the writer, as an extension of the community from which he operates, is merely a medium. Meaning, unless he is setting his work in some Utopian place, it has no choice but to reflect the world around him. The communal tensions you mentioned above have to be able to reflect in this writing. Even the popular ‘magic realism’ must draw from this source. The only exception to this would be sci-fi and other such genres.
And the writer has to be brave enough to tell the story as it is, regardless whether it will be rejected or not, because that is his duty. Otherwise if they choose to prostrate themselves before the god of profit, dancing to the whims and dictates of the market and the piper, then I think their career might not last long. Sooner or later they will be exposed, because time can be very unforgiving!
I hope I haven’t gone off on a tangent answering the question!
NH: One of your novels exists in one version published by Kwani? in Kenya, The Stone Hills Of Maragoli, and as a US version, Forbidden Fruit. This to me is different from the situation I described earlier, since it indicates that the novel was tested on the Kenyan market, so to speak, before being published again in the US. Has the reception of the novel been different in the US than in Kenya?
SG: I have already given the reason why I was forced to seek a publisher for that book in the US. But maybe to clarify, the original intention was to make a success at home first before I ventured abroad. In my village we are taught that a calf learns to graze by nibbling at the foliage in its backyard first, before it becomes bold enough to venture into the neighbour’s farm!
Anyway, sadly, things did not work out the way I wanted, and so I had no choice but to jump in at the deep end and learn to swim with the sharks as I grew my career.
It is still early to gauge the reception in the US, but I can say it is doing better than it was in Kenya. The main challenge there has been promotion. In America a book has to be promoted vigorously in order to sell. My publisher is not a major publisher with the financial muscle do that, so we are making the best of what we have. Otherwise I believe it would have sold even better by now, given the reviews it has attracted.
NH: I talked to someone at Kwani? who told me that it is in some ways more complicated to sell Kenyan books in, let’s say, Nigeria than it is to get books onto the Western market, particularly because of problems surrounding shipping physical books to Nigeria from Kenya. Do you think this means that Kenyan writers are less likely to write for Anglophone Africa than they are to write for the world as a whole or for the West?
SG: I have personally tried to publish in Nigeria. I hit a dead wall. The challenges the guy at Kwani? talked about are real, and I have addressed some of them in my article in The Elephant, “African Publishing Minefields and the Woes of the African Writer”. Cross-border and cross-turf publishing in Africa is rife with challenges that baffle some of us operating on the continent, and which I think have been successfully overcome in the more advanced Western markets. The logistics of placing a book on a bookstore shelf in West Africa by a writer from the East coast are simply baffling. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that it is way cheaper and easier to fly to Dubai from Nairobi than it is to fly to Dakar, which would require you being rerouted outside the continent before you can get to your destination? It doesn’t make sense.
And so, yes, putting Kenyan books in Nigerian bookstores is way more difficult than it is to put them on shelves in Istanbul. It is simply the way it is; and it would seem like the leadership of the continent is content to leave the situation the way it is!
And if that is the case, then why not? The writer will ultimately write for the audience that buys his/ her books, because the reality of the situation is that the market often dictates the product!
NH: I think there is a supply and demand logic to African literature on the Western book market. Western publishers are looking for African novels with a certain type of ideological message, not necessarily because they see it as their job to spread that message but because they know that that is what a certain type of reader wants. A number of young writers from Kenya and Nigeria have asked me to comment on their work for this reason (I think): they feel unsure about whether their work will resonate with western “liberal” ideology. And there are of course ideological ideas that are fairly common in say, Kenya, that are red flags for most liberal western publishers. One example is ideas that are central in the East Africa Evangelist community that don’t sit well with secular Western readers. Do you agree with this observation and if so, do you think this means that Kenyan authors consciously try to “hack” western liberal ideology in order to have a chance to get published?
SG: It goes back to what I was arguing above, and what exactly an author wants to achieve with their writing. There are writers who do it solely for the money and the fame, and who will willingly tailor their works to the dictates of the market. Well, they have a right to do what they do and to collect their pay cheque and go on holiday in the south of France or Watamu, if that is their ultimate goal. It is the same way a commercial sex worker trawling the streets at night will choose to give it to any guy who will pay. It is entirely their choice as individuals, and I don’t think we have any business poking our noses in it!
I think the writers you mention above are still looking for their vocation, and have not yet arrived at the station where they can be called artists – it is a growth process. Even a child wobbles and totters before they can finally find their firm feet and start chasing after the antelopes in the savannah!
What I think is that at some point any writer eventually matures and discovers their true calling. Once this happens they become fearless and extremely adventurous. It is only then that they can unleash their full potential as creators. History has shown that revolutionary ideas have never originated from those who stick to the trodden path—just ask ‘Che’ Guevara!
My belief is that much as the emergent African writer will write according to the dictates of the market to pay the rent and service the car loan in their formative years, when they eventually come into their prime they will predictably deviate and chart their own true course. That is because true writers are rebels who are not beholden to anyone but the story, and the story alone. And the true story is never designed to lull you, the reader, to sleep, but to challenge and irk you, even as it makes you laugh! The alternative would be those books that teach people how to achieve a prize-winning orgasm in bed or make a million bob in a day. I am not an expert in those, and so I can’t really comment on them.
NH: Even though Kenyan authors seem to face many challenges economically and in terms of resources and support, Kenya is obviously a strong literary nation that has produced and keeps producing literary voices. What do you see as the strengths of the Kenyan literary landscape?
SG: I think the strength of the Kenyan landscape is the sheer grit exhibited by her writers, who continue to forge on, despite the many hurdles put in their way. Kenyans have always been a resourceful people who don’t expect much from their government, and who will always find a way to circumvent that bribe-seeking bureaucrat standing between them and success. This is the one trait that I am extremely proud of as a Kenyan, and which enables us to keep going as a nation.
There are lots of stupid people out there shoving their muscle around and stifling growth, and who shouldn’t really be in publishing in the first place because they don’t understand what it is about. But I believe that were the playing field to be levelled and systems to work the way they are supposed to, the scene would literally explode. There are lots of creatives out there still struggling to find their niche!
NH: This is interesting, because the European model has traditionally been to support writers in certain ways – through grants and by lowering the VAT on books – in order to ensure that books are written in the European languages. For example, it is probably impossible for most Icelandic authors to make a living through selling books only (there are roughly as many Icelandic speakers as there are people in Kisumu). But I personally believe that the support for authors and artists will slowly disappear in places like Scandinavia which will leave them in the same situation as Kenyan authors, who are more used to finding ways of getting by and who are also used to address a larger, global audience. Do you think that Kenyan writers (ironically) have an advantage there?
SG: Yes and No. On one hand, the Kenyan authors, by having to hustle their way to the market, have an advantage in the sense that they are not necessarily confined to certain ideals as would be the case with Scandinavian authors who have access to writing grants. As you rightly pointed out, by receiving a grant the writer will often have to accept certain conditions, which in this case is writing in a given Scandinavian language. Grants the world all over always come with strings attached.
Meaning that this hustling Kenyan writer will be at a slight advantage as far as the creative process goes in the sense that they are operating purely on the dictates of the muse and have full license to do as they please; more or less like sewer rats as contrasted with lab rats! They will either swim or sink, depending on their instincts. Artistically this places them at an advantage.
But then the harsh reality is that it might take them a lifetime to finally achieve success with their work. In the meantime their pampered Scandinavian counterparts will have seen their kids comfortably through school and retired to their beach home to polish off their lucrative career with a paid-for memoir.
And so, who is the loser here? Unless you tell me that it is okay for writers to tramp on the streets eating out of garbage cans, then their Scandinavian counterparts will still be at an advantage. It is simply the harsh reality of the modern world of bills that we live in. It would not be the case if we were all living in some borderless Nirvana where the landlord doesn’t come knocking at the end of the month to collect the rent!
NH: Does the traditional daily press support authors by publishing and reviewing their work? Or are blogs and other online platforms of more value to you as a writer?
SG: I used to do book reviews for the media some time back but I stopped when I realised there were not enough new books coming through from local publishers to sustain the discourse. It is a complicated problem, not necessarily because the writing is not there, but because it is not getting published. It is the reason why, if you pick up a weekend paper in Kenya today, you will most likely be yawning your way through a didactic piece written by an academic addressing fellow academics in a dry language full of recycled stock phrases- that is what passes for a standard book review that you are expected to enjoy on the couch at home on a Sunday morning.
As I said it is a complicated problem that is not solely because of the press, given you can only write about what is available on the market. All this ties into the bleak scenario I have painted above, including the clueless but powerful gate-keepers I alluded to.
And so, yeah, you are more likely to read something fresh and enlightening in a blog online than you would in the traditional press. What changes would you like to see in the literary industry in Kenya (and elsewhere) from your perspective as an author? What do you wish for, if I put it that way – for you individually and/or for Kenyan literature in general?
People who don’t understand literature should get out of the industry. They have done enough damage, as it is. The writers are there and the readers are there as well. It is only this middle-man who is charged with taking the goat to the market who is the problem. Where he is not deceitful then he doesn’t understand the language of the market and how to shake hands on a deal. If we have just a handful of people who understand global literary trends and what books are supposed to do to a people’s culture, and more important what is needed to get good stories to the market, then we’ll be good to go. Otherwise we’ll keep whining and bemoaning in these spaces until Jesus comes back and nothing will change.
NH: Do you think this is primarily an economic issue in Kenya or is it also that politicians see it as not being in their own best interest to support writers? Obviously, there is no love lost between NgugiwaThiong’o and the political elite in Kenya, for example, but at the same time, authors like Ngugi must be every politician’s dream since writers like him help put the country on the cultural world map. After all, Western nations spend astronomical sums of money to present themselves globally as places with richand interesting national cultures. Ngugi is interesting precisely because the political elite must be ambivalent about him – on the one hand he is something for Kenya to be proud of, but on the other hand, if you are a politician, when he publishes something you know that that means you will be mocked and criticized in front of the whole world.
SG: Writers the world over have never been good friends with politicians, and any writer who opts to willingly jump in bed with a politician must be adept at walking the tight rope, otherwise they will be committing a grave career faux pas. That is because the worlds in which the two operate are diametrically opposed, and by dint of the responsibilities resting on their shoulders the two are bound to come into conflict sooner or later.
Now that you have mentioned Ngugi, I must say he is in a rather unique position in Kenya. I should confess that I was a little unsettled sometime back when I saw a photo of him at State House in the company of his publisher – who is known to me – when he came visiting. Having read him, I wonder what was going on in his mind as he stood there in front of the rambling house that used to be occupied by the colonial Governor. I’m sure it would make for very interesting reading, were he to agree to put it down in candid writing, especially following his well-documented run-ins with the previous dictatorships.
Not that I am saying writers should not accept an invite to State House to carve goat ribs with the president over a fine rye – hell, I would also jump at that! Who knows? The grand setting might just spark off the idea for a compelling cloak-and-dagger political tale. The thing is that, as they are carving the nyama choma [grilled meat], there is a real risk of this fellow forgetting that he is a messenger and ending up making himself comfortable at the high table!
To add tinder to this delicate argument, I will also point out the dalliance of the late Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, with the current Jubilee government in the run-up to our last general election and also that between Nigerian writer, Lola Shoneyin, and the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, regarding the sponsorship of her annual KABAFEST Festival in Nigeria. The friction that has resulted says it all.
Anyway, having said that, I must say that writers – especially those who have attained international stature — occupy a unique position as global ambassadors that politicians can only dream of. They can single-handedly sell a country without breaking the bank. Shakespeare is still selling England in his grave, same to other Victorian-era European writers like Flaubert and Hardy. Whenever you pick up a copy of Things Fall Apart you are being sold a piece of Nigeria by Achebe; likewise if I sell you a copy of Forbidden Fruit I will be selling you a slice of my rural Maragoli! This is a reality that the oligarchs in Government are well aware of, but which they will never admit to because of various vested interests, both financial and otherwise. For instance, as a music journalist I happen to have worked with the Kenyan band, Them Mushrooms, which gave the world the ‘Hakuna Matata’ slogan that eventually graced the Hollywood silver screen. This band would single-handedly have sold Kenya as a tourism destination to the world at a fraction of what the relevant body at the Ministry of Tourism spends ineffectually every year; but as I said, there are vested interests that this artist will disrupt if let in through the door.
And so, there you are. Sometimes it is not always about how efficiently something can be done. But, yes, politicians will always pale in comparison to writers on the global stage. And knowing how a majority of politicians manage to sustain themselves in office and the attendant whiff of scandal that often trails them, perhaps it is a good thing if the two remain like oil and water, talking to each other over the fence.