I read Nduta Waweru’s article ‘TalK is cheap for aspiring Writers’ . (Saturday Nation March 16th) with curiosity and mixed feelings . Curiosity because I too happen to be an enthused writer waiting to be ‘discovered’ ( in this sense I guess I can be called ‘aspiring ‘ too). Mixed feelings because I agreed with one half of what he says and disagreed with him on the other half.
I agree that writers do complain about publishers a lot. But I do not blame the writers for this. Are publishers aware that even talented writers need a lot of mentorship to grow and write better? Even as publishers’ reject a lot of work that they term sub-standard without giving a good reason they ought to ask themselves this . How is a writer supposed to know the standards expected for their work, if publishers do not spell it out to them?
Take me for example. A year back, having worked on a children’s poems book, I approached a friend who referred me to an editor in a renowned publishing house in Nairobi. The editor was kind enough to go through my work as I waited. He told me that some of my poems were too ‘English’ ( blame it on the Enid Blyton Famous Five books I read growing up). He said that when I write a poem for a local audience, I should be careful to write of things that all Kenyan children, regardless of location, can identify with. He was referring to a particular poem I wrote about an ice cream man. His advice rang true this year because I happen to be working in a rural area away from the city. It is true that not all readers can identify with certain analogies.
What then is a writer supposed to do? Do you stick strictly to what is in your readers’ vicinity or do you employ the use of vivid descriptions and give the reader a chance to activate their minds and use their imagination?
These are questions that many writers have but there is no one to answer them. I might have been lucky enough to have a sitting with the editor who rejected my work. How many writers get an explanation before their work is rejected?
Therefore, I believe that publishing houses need to work together and organize writers workshops where they talk to writers of their expectation and even get successful authors to meet budding writers for such deliberations .
Thumbs up to Kwani because they did this last year. They had a whole weeK workshop termed the ‘Kwani Lit Fest’ in December. Muthoni Garlands’ Story Moja is well known to do this every year when they host their Hay Festival towards the close of the year. They try to bring really polished authors like Nigeria’s Ben Okri alongside our own established writers.
Where are mainstream publishing houses in all this and how do you expect writers to be grow if they do not stimulate this growth through such avenues? They only wait with baited breath for the book-fare festival for a chance to sell their books to all-too-eager school children (after all academic books sell more and hence anyone with an entrepreneurial mind should focus on them, right?)
I agree with Waweru’s second point that most Kenyan writers play in a crowded field and they hate challenges and competition.
Most writers hide in cliques of writers who agree with them and anyone who doesn’t shower them with praises coated in flowery language is considered a hater, a bitch or an ‘old fashioned person of the literally era gone by’.
Are Kenyan writers ego’s too huge to take any sort of criticism whatsoever? Are critics wrong in disagreeing with writers? Do friends have to agree with your style of writing? These are questions writers should ponder over before lashing at critics. To me ,critics should be appreciated because they help writers raise standards. Let us not misinterpret the phrase ‘great minds think alike. In literature, they do not.
Perhaps we have learnt from the ‘best’, our politicians that criticism is bad and anyone who critiques you wants to ‘finish you and your people ’ but hey, we ought to embrace something called positive criticism to enable literature to bloom in east Africa just like it does in west and south Africa.
On the issue of cliques, publishers should grow from the habit of taking seriously ‘famous’ authors and ignoring upcoming ones.
I know of a local publisher who collects short stories for their annual editions. Theirs is a ‘do you know anybody’ syndrome and they seem to expect authors to now people’ so as to be published in their much coveted series. The said publisher never calls for submissions. They always already have a clique of writers whom they publish and rarely inject new blood in their ‘new’ editions. Is it any wonder that the Caine prize for African writers last came to Kenya over a decade ago?