AFTER A TIME IN AMERICA, KENYAN IMMIGRANT WRITERS NEED TO COME HOME

Reading Taban Lo Liyong’s interview last week, I unreservedly agreed with one of his arguments, ‘That African authors and literary critics who emigrate to the western capitals stop speaking to the audiences in their homeland.

Like Anthony kamau in his article ‘African scholars wasting their time abroad, ‘ it worries me that many African writers ,once they hit the ‘fame’ button take the next flight out of town(literally and figuratively).

Save for the offer of writer in residency that some prizes like the Caine Prize come with, many African scholars seem to be on a mission to move to the Wild West. Akin to Lo Liyong, I am concerned that once these writers move abroad, they start speaking a different language.

No longer aware of their ever changing native homes, these writers stick to writing about what happened in yester years. They give up authenticity and start to see Africa through the eyes of the west. Their world view changes from an appreciation of the everyday ‘hustling life’ lived here to a sort of high handedness. Beautiful tales that they once coined, of university life and happy childhoods swiftly turn to ugly disconcerting tales of unimaginable poverty, crime, war, and incurable diseases. It leaves us, the readers who have been born and raised here, wondering just how horrible our childhood were and why we, unlike the writers, only remember the good old days.

Except ,we know the truth that there are pretty yarns about Africa. Of when we go to family get togethers and slaughter mbuzis, of how we meet up friends on weekends, and spiritedly discuss the politics and economics of Africa till the sun goes down; of when we plan weddings and spend up to one million on this ceremonies . Yet such stories are rarely written in the New Yorker’s African Story section.

Once these immigrant writers start conforming to the western ‘standards’ they lose the African and in so doing , they stop speaking to the audiences in their homeland; they start to feed the fantasy of the western reader who strengthens his resolve to visit the ‘poor’ continent after retirement.

In an earlier interview, a well thought-of Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie of the ‘Purple hibiscus fame; passionately spoke of how she wanted to write differently about Africa. She wanted to move away from the ‘single story’ and speak of the middle class Nigerians who were rich, empowered and generally happy with their lives. And she did a great job at that, in her first book ‘ Half of a Yellow Sun ‘ which tells the story of the Biafran War through the eyes of a well off middle class young Woman Ollana , her scholarly husband and their friends. The book is so well written, the events in it so ‘authentically African ‘ that a reader is left yearning for more, more of the story or even just a taste of the jollof rice she avidly writes about.

Regrettably, I do get the same feeling I got as I read her latest book ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. In this collection of 12 short stories previously published in popular magazines like Granta, the New Yorker and Iowa Review, I get the feeling that Chimamanda is careful, very careful in her selection of themes and characters. With every stroke of her golden pen, she seems to be painting her characters quite guardedly, and probably against a backdrop of Binyavanga’s ‘How To Write about Africa.
Nevertheless, she is good. Her writing carries with it the fluidity of one who truly appreciates the developmental issues and politics of Africa. That she is so careful to say the right ‘things however, kills her creativity and leaves, me, her African reader, with a sort of anti-climax.

There is a good reason why BBC gets an Egyptian to do a documentary on Egypt after the uprising. They know that when one lives in a place, they get the mood of the people, the changing languages, the little rumors, the private jokes and secret hopes of the place that a stranger ‘ who visits the place for a little while cannot see regardless of how carefully they look.

Chimamanda herself , in a recent interview said that she was shocked when, during a visit to rural Nigeria, she heard a village girl walking from the river cursing in a very obscene ‘white’ manner. Had she not been in Nigeria , she wouldn’t have imagined that such curse words could be used by a villager meaning she only got the real picture of the local lingo because she was home.

The latest kwani? Journal, the ‘majuu’ edition comprehensively tackles issue of writer immigration. In a bid to answer the question of whether scholars going abroad is good, one of the contributors to the anthology, @roomthinker in his piece ‘Having your cake’ tells the Kenyans in Diaspora that sending money does not build Kenya. That the only way to build Kenya is to come back and work here.
The rest of the stories in this ‘7th Majuu ‘edition attempt to answer the question ‘why’ through its writers. Besides the famous ‘Tom Mboya airlifts after independence, Some writers go to look for greener pastures as in the case of Doreen Baingana in her story ‘Two Airports’, others seek political asylum like Isaac Otidi in ‘Waiting for America in Kampala’ yet others to pursue scholarships as in the comical case of Kalundi Serumanga’s ‘of Fridges and Exile Movement’

The troubles of visa applications and the lengths to which some go to ensure their green cards are not revoked makes one wonder whether this hope for a better life abroad has turned us into ‘hope-fools’ as Ngwatilo Mawiyoo says of the persona in her poem ‘After a time in America.’

Whatever the reason for their immigration,(and we do understand that the heart has reasons which reason cannot explain) these writers should, like their founding father Binyavanga Wainaina, reach a place where, after quenching their green card thirst, they swiftly pack their bags and return home, to write about this place. Assuming, of course, that they do not find ‘home away from home’ like Phylis Muthoni says of Stephen Partington in her poem in the same journal.

However, moving back is becoming even more unlikely since just this week, the USA senate has been debating on and seriously considering giving illegal immigrants legal documentation and even green cards after a couple of years, and what’s more? The New York state wants its green card holders to be involved in decision making and voting! Talk of greener pastures!

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