Kenyan writer and freelance journalist Wanjeri Gakuru participated in the 2014 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. She spoke with Chiagozie Nwonwu about writing and her Nigerian experience.
How does the Kenyan literary scene compare with that of Nigeria?
Wanjeri Gakuru: The Kenyan literary scene is very young at the moment. It is populated by people in their mid twenty to late thirties. I think this is because no one took the mantle from Ngugi and people like Margaret Ogola, who are the pioneer writers. As such, there was a huge space in between. I think the problem was that we went through a very repressive regime, which killed everything in terms of culture arts, all of that stuff was dead. Then people like Binyavanga came out, but the opportunity for publishing was hard to come by. You will find that even the fact that Kwani, which is one of our major publishers, exist was because Binyavanga won the Caine Prize. That’s the kind of situation we’ve been struggling with. So coming here (Nigeria), I think Farafina and others have been doing great to fill that gap and there are lots of writers coming out of Nigeria, so it’s not just all about Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. I think the major difference is that Nigeria, because you are a bigger country, have more people writing and more books out, but I think there is a similarity because it is the same age group that is getting published. And these age group are people who did not study writing as their first profession, but people who studied to be Doctors, pharmacists, other professions, and are now saying; ‘I’ve done this degree, but now I want to do what I love.’ Anyway, that’s my observation.
Why apply for a creative writing workshop and why this one in far away Nigeria?
Wanjeri: First, because Nigeria came to me first, in the form of Chimamanda, last year (laughs). In Nairobi, I am a freelance journalist and a writer. One of the things I do is management and public relations. I have a partnership with Kwani and the director Angela Wachuka asked me to chaperone Chimamanda when she was in the country for the Kwani 10th anniversary. I’ve been reading her work and following her things online and I was totally in love with her so I said of course. When she came to the country, it was my job to make sure she was at interviews on time and that she was well cared for. It was an opportunity see her in person…you know when you have an idol, it is really very nice when you get to see them as a human being and that was quite wonderful. When I heard about the Farafina Workshop, I felt it would be a great opportunity to learn from her. So I applied for it and I didn’t even inform her, I just hoped that I would enter and my work would be of merit. At the workshop, we never talked about the fact that I had met her in Nairobi until she mentioned that I was here on my own merit because the work was of value and that really was wonderful for me.
Reading culture in Kenya
Wanjeri: Anytime I hear the phrase ‘Africans don’t read’, I say no, we read. I think the challenge is cost. A writer struggles and writes a book in seven years, of course they would want to recoup the money they put in, and this affects what the book sells for. For example, in Nairobi, Binyavanga’s book goes for approximately two thousand Naira. At that price, people can’t buy it. As such, people have to choose between putting fuel in their cars, feeding their kids and buying a book. What happens is that in Nairobi we have a large number of street hawkers selling second-hand books. You find that while people are not reading the mainstream stuff or African writers, they are reading; they are reading American authors, they are reading spiritual our motivational writing. There are different forms of reading happening, it is just that access to our stuff, the new stuff, is very difficult.
Impression about social media and what it does for writing and writers
Wanjeri: There is that short attention span. People read a story on a blog and they think the day is done. It is a shame, but I think it is changing. Young writers are getting spaces to publish for free on blogs, so nobody is curbing their growth and they can propel their own names through their Twitter and Facebook following. And when they publish, that’s their first audience, they’ve been reading their work and will support them and you get a ripple effect from there.
Impression of Nigeria and Nigerian writers in the workshop
Wanjeri: I must say that it has really been fantastic; I think you have fantastic writers. What I loved most actually, and it will be a huge challenge for me going back home, is that because of the fact that we were colonised longer than you guys were, we speak in a way that makes it hard to place where someone is from regionally. But here, all of you can hear where someone is from, not only from the name. I love the fact that your culture and your language is something you embrace. People here are writing in pidgin English and having characters who are settled in villages. I like that the writers here are in touch with their culture. It’s an influence already, when I go back, maybe I should write about a character from my village who speaks in Kikuyu. It was really nice to mingle with and learn about the culture of Nigeria from this small melting pot of ours. We had people from different ethnic groups and different economic and social strata.