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‘Contemporary writers are less institutionally powerful’

Billy Kahora, managing editor of the Kenyan literary network Kwani and the author of The True Story of David Munyakei (2009) has been short-listed for the Caine Prize in the past.
 
He speaks to Silas Nyanchwani about his interest in creative non-fiction and his plans to diversify the Kwani publications. Excerpts:


Kwani publications has been branded by a local scholar as intellectually wanting?


We have to deconstruct what he says. He claims we are a bunch of celebrities without intellectual rigour, but he has never criticised a specific publication, so that we can engage in a constructive discourse informed by honest assessment of our works. We prefer to have a discourse based on issues, not what seems to be emotional biases. Aesthetically, we think that we produce great
publications or experiment on form. We prefer conversations at that level. About the work not ‘individuals’. 


How was the reception of your book The true story of David Munyakei?

Positive. I never came across a negative review. I  in  fact met people who were really touched by the story. The question of whether it works or not would be a worthwhile debate. I’d love someone to pursue it further from where I left.


How is African writing different from writing of the 60s in terms of style and ideological framework?

Mainstream published writing back then pursued themes along nationalistic discourse; writers were highly concerned with political and economic issues of their society, nation or continent. Writing and publishing structures were aligned to mainstream institutions such as the university and the media. And because of the power the institutions and the writers had  – those who did not toe the line went into exile.

In the 60s, there was a functioning institutional machinery, aligned directly to the government through the education system and through informal networks with the political class. And that’s why the African Writers Series dictated so much to the industry and outside of it because of such links.
 
Today, writing has become less systemic. A lot falls on the individual as a writer as there are fewer institutional systems for creative works. You see a lot of self-publishing these days. Publishing and creative writing seems to have retreated from the institutionalised public space and mainstream spaces such as academia and the mainstream media. There also seems to be a much more diversified sense of aesthetics. Now people can talk about the same issues, political or economic but in more personalised ways. Back then the writer was often male, missionary and university-educated teaching at the university or a professional, part of the new elites. Now writers come from less straitened spaces. Contemporary writers are less institutionally powerful.


What is the future of online literature?

Books can’t die that easily. Technology of course exists to make life easier but there are bound to be challenges. What works in print may not necessarily work on digital platforms. And that is what Kwani is trying to adapt to. The technology is there but the content is not readily available in new forms. The content available is quite incompatible with the online platform. To me the future of reading in Kenya is not so much about the computer but the mobile phone.

It will be a gradual process. We should get there with time.  


What will be African writing like in the years to come?

We have always tried to bring together artistically gifted people who can tell a good story and harness their talent.
 
Now, since there is space for all kinds of writers, we want people living in slums, in villages, in a high governmental position to come out and tell their story. We will provide a suitable medium.
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