Plagiarism vs. originality debate takes centre stage in book reading at Goethe

The novelist Virginia Woolf once said that if you want to come up afresh in thousands of minds and books long after you were dead, the way to do it is to start thinking for yourself.

Yet this is not exactly what Helene Hegemann seems to have done in her most intriguing debut novel Axolotl Roadkill, which was read and discussed on Thursday, April 16, at the Goethe Institut’s library. When we were introduced to the author, we learned that Hegemann wrote the book when she was only 16.

That, we may argue, is a huge achievement on its own. Yet, Hegemann included phrases in her novel that were “lifted” from another person’s blog.

When she was accused of plagiarism, instead of disputing the fact and claiming originality, Hegemann simply stated that originality doesn’t exist anymore, only authenticity.

This, needless to say, brewed a war of words between her “Internet” generation, which claimed information on the net was in the public domain, and Gunter Grass’s generation, which strongly believed in the sanctity of another person’s intellectual property.


Even so, I immensely enjoyed the readings in both German and English that were conducted by Sabin Bretz and Wanjiku Mwaura . In the novel, 16-year-old Mifti is a teenager living in Berlin with her half-siblings.

She feels abandoned by her absent parents, quits school and wastes her youth on alcohol, drugs and sex.

Yet just like many teenagers, she feels lonely and out of place. She therefore purchases an axolotl, a tiny Mexican amphibian that never reaches adulthood. The animal is, perhaps, a representation of her own wish to never grow up.

This reading of German texts and their English translations was not only a wonderful way of introducing German authors to Kenyan audiences, but it also brought forth a debate on plagiarism versus originality that seemed to have been lingering on the minds of the event attendees.

The pro-originality group, led by Goethe Chief Librarian Eliphas Nyamongo and writer Tony Mochama, were quick to point out that if writers use any material from other sources in their books, then they needed to acknowledge the sources.

The other group, led by Ugandan blogger Alexander Twinokwesiga and poet Wanjiku Mwaura, saw absolutely no problem with taking a little of this and a little of that from the Internet, blogs and social media platforms and coining a story from it.

After all, Twinokwesiga argued, the author needed creativity to coin the other two hundred pages of text that formed the rest of the story.

To me, Mochama may have been right to argue that those who cleverly steal plots and sentences are just too lazy and too uncreative to sit down and come up with original concepts.

For I firmly believe that, in matters where intellectual property is concerned, imitation is definitely not the highest form of flattery.



Marriage, it’s up and downs, fidelity and infidelity is a theme many theater lovers in Nairobi will confess is a tad too common in the local theaters. Yet John Kami dares write us another script on the very topic.  We are quite tempted to tell him as much but change our minds instantly upon watching his latest play For Better or Worse that has been showing at the Phoenix Theater this past week. Kami silences us by the interesting and very fresh perspective he gives to marriage.
The play tells the tale of the marriage of Mr Frank Juma (John Kinywa) and his wife Norma(Veronica Waceke) whose union, having run out of love, is held loosely in place by the children they have. Each spouse feels they have lost their partner but none can tell exactly when real love exited and left a painful routine of marital roles  just like Elvis Presley  sang in ‘I’ve Lost You’.
Jacob Otieno, the director, obviously did a great job of piecing the fragments of the past to the patches of present and we, the audience are taken on a bumpy back and forth trip smoothly, almost imperceptibly.
Even so, as the play unfolds, one gets the impression that the scriptwriter fell into the old stereotypical trap that portrays the woman as a devoted, happiness-sacrificing partner who cares too much  whereas the husband is a reckless cheating drunk with miniature moral bearing and very little care.
One is tempted, as the play progresses, to rename the play ‘For Worse or Worse’, for the marriage seems never to see a day of peace or laughter. The ice just never thaws. And the husband, sickened and wanting out, firmly informs his wife that ‘the only grounds for divorce if the fact that one is married.’
 The cast Joe Kinywa and Veronica Waceke outdo themselves with their fine and seasoned acting during the hour and a half that keeps the audience on the edges of their plush seats. The actor’s well-coordinated, lithe and purposeful movements demonstrate a well rehearsed play.
The set, homely and simple, is sadly, the only cozy thing in that home. Even as the lady of the home labors to dust and clean, we’re struck with  a terrible understanding that  the marriage is, and will possibly remain, full of  the dust of suspicion.
 The script, I have to say, is very well-written and we are constantly fed on terribly witty and bitingly funny one-liners that come to us fast, comical and clever every minute  by the couple who are sick of the truth and sick of the lies that bind them together.
Much as the unpredictability of the play keeps us, the audience, at our nerves ends, it nonetheless stretches the conflict for too long without a foreseeable antidote and we get somewhat disheartened, wallowing in palpable pessimism.
Even though we truly hope for a happy ending, the tale moves towards what, one might call, a too easy, too obvious or too cowardly suicidal conclusion.

 In the end, to say that the play was very good may be a bit misleading, for it is a notch higher. And I cannot help feeling that I could gladly watch it again and again and again.


It’s funny how, even in this day and age; a woman writer is still a woman before she is a writer. Take the legendary Grace Ogot who passed on a couple of weeks back for example. Going through the scores of tribute articles in the Saturday Nation, all written by her male contemporaries, I  couldn’t help but notice an interesting angle,her personality, which the columnists took while remembering Ogot.
First came Professor Austin Bukenya who claimed that having interacted with the graceful gem Grace, he finds it impossible to restrict his comments to just her creative works which he, terms heartwarming. Next came Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’os rants about his beautiful literary sister, how her Christian name Grace, fitted her personality perfectly and her unforgettable mellifluous voice. Thirdly came good old doctor Tom Odhiambo’s  Lets Celebrate Ogot’s Extraordinary Life  which starts off with him saying he prefers not to speak of Mama Grace only in terms of, you guessed it, her writing. Odhiambo then cites Mama’s famous smile and I am left wondering if the same physical attributes matter when a male writer is being spoken of.
Of course it follows that I went digging out my old newspapers of tributes to Achebe when he passed on a couple of years back about the same time as Grace. Your guess is as good as mine. No one spoke of how handsome Achebe was in his youth (though a particular picture of youthful him holding a pen betrays this fact.) No one spoke of his deep baritone or how his christian name Albert, fitted his personality perfectly albeit his decision to drop it. Those who wrote remembered him as a great mind and unforgettable novelist.His themes, his sentences and humor formed titles were mentioned and we saw nothing close to Ciao Charming Achebe, Jewel of Nigeria.   Does this mean that Achebe had not a graceful personality to write of? or was his work just much more important than his personality because he was, say, a male writer?
The other category of tributes were more vexing than disappointing . One such was the article ‘Grace Ogot-The Reluctant Politician’ by Emman Omari. He says ‘She appeared too polite and motherly to be a politician’. Who, I ask, wrote the book that said politeness or motherliness and politics are mutually exclusive. Can’t a woman be polite and political at the same time? Could this be the reason, maybe, that drives us to faithfully line up every five years to vote for people who’ve been named and renamed in corruption scandals? Is motherly politician an oxymoron in Kenya?
 Omari then goes on to wonder why a scholar, writer and thinker with a professor husband of world repute would have dared venture  into politics.  And I dare ask, could the same be asked of a man getting into politics? Do we ask men why they choose to be politicians when they have CEO’s and  successful lecturers for wives?  Is a woman, just because she is married to a professor of world repute, supposed be so contented that she lets her ambitions, political or otherwise, crumble to dust?
This prejudices and repressive thoughts on women in general and female writers specifically didn’t begin yesterday. They started way back with the mother of English fiction Miss Burney. Her earliest manuscripts were burned and needlework inflicted on her as penance for daring to write. The subjugation then moved through to the times of Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice  who was so ashamed of her writing she slipped it beneath a book if anyone came into the room. Even as late as the Victorian age, women were forced to take up  male pseudonyms like George Eliot so that firstly, their work could receive impartial criticism and secondly, they would free their consciousness as they wrote, from the tyranny of what was expected from their sex-which for women was a certain moral purity that fit feminine character.
In an article on 14th March titled, ‘Ghanaian writer broke the glass ceiling for female authors’,  Professor  Egara Kabaji wrote quite insightfully on the matter here in Africa. Kabaji points out that Ama Ata Aidoo emerged as a writer at a time when there were very few female voices in African literature. He then surprises us by saying that up until now, the study of African literature still takes a masculine approach. This, he says is evidenced by the university course outlines.
Could this mean that we, just like the Victorian age thinkers, are uncomfortable with the defiant nature of the issues Aidoo, Ogot, Micere and other liberal women tackle in their literature? Might it be true, as the good professor points out, that we as a society aren’t ready to accommodate a liberal woman who is free to make choices and to even accept the consequences of those choices?
Even as we ponder on the above, let us not forget that this question is not merely a question of literature but a much larger one that encapsulates social history. Let us then, consciously rewrite this history by giving literature by women, regardless of the writer’s poise, grace or beauty, as much critical attention as we do the writings by males. Let us, even as we discourse Achebe and Ngugi and Soyinka and Okigbo the grandfather of literature, also remember Nwapa and Aidoo and Ogot and Kola, the grandmothers of literature who broke  many a glass ceilings.
Curriculum developers, columnists and writers like Mr. Omari , Odhiambo and Bukenya, need to consider carefully what message they pass across to readers. The developers should revise the curriculum to ensure a balance of sexes in the works of art studied at university. Columnists and writers need to double-check their works for subliminal nuances which when out in the public eye scream of prejudices or double standards. This will save us readers from the danger of wrecking ourselves upon that obsolete stereotypical rock over and over.
As you read this, you may be getting quite flustered and upset. If so, worry not. It could simply be case of deep seated prejudice like that which plagued some character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre who believed a lady ought not to possess such excesses of passion over matters. How about you get rid of that niggling stereotype first then read this article again?

LITNEWS :BBC names 1925 best year for literature!

The BBC Culture website recently picked 1925 as “the greatest year for books ever”. 1925 was the year Ernest Hemingway’s collection In Our Time, Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs Dalloway and  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were released. Moreover,  Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer  and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy came out the same year.
In her article on the BBC website, journalist Jane Ciabattari  explained that she arrived at this conclusion by searching for a cluster of landmark books, debut books and major masterpieces published that year then evaluating their lasting charm on readers and if they explored human dilemmas and joys in memorable ways.  She also examined whether the said books altered the course of literature by influencing literary form or content and introducing key stylistic innovations.
‘‘All the aforementioned books certainly fulfill these criteria. But 1925 was also special because it brought “a vibrant cultural outpouring, multiple landmark books and a paradigm shift in prose style”, explained Ciabattari. “Literary work that year reflected a world in the aftermath of tremendous upheaval,” she wrote, referring  to the first world war traumas reflected in Mrs Dalloway. Stein’s experiments with language, the foundation of the New Yorker magazine, and the general American postwar cultural excitement of what Fitzgerald dubbed “the Jazz Age” also graced 1925.
The definitive proof, according to Ciabattari, is the “shape-shifting’’ the novel has undergone, still based on these early inspirations – and the continuing resonance of Nick Adams, Jay Gatsby and Clarissa Dalloway”.

LITNEWS…South African Writer, Songeziwe Mahlangu wins 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature

The Pan-African prize for debut authors of published fiction books Etisalat Prize, has started off the 2015 African  literary calendar   with an  award session that took place on Sunday March 15th at the Intercontinental Hotel in Lagos. This second edition of the prize was won by 30 year- old Songeziwe Mahlangu for his debut fiction , Penumbra.  Penumbra tells the story of the life of an underachieving young man suffering from mental illness in post-apartheid South Africa. ‎The dark drama explores psychosis and religious fundamentalism
Mahlangu beat the other shortlisted authors; Fellow South African  Nadia Davids and Nigerian Chinelo Okparanta and took home £15000, an engraved Montblanc Meisterstück pen retailing for 2000 dollars and a fellowship at the University of East Anglia, mentored by Prof Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland. In addition, 1000 copies of his book will be bought by Elisalat.
The Etisalat prize, a fairly new Pan-African literary prize is sponsored by the telecommunications company, Etisalat Nigeria and awarded to the best debut fiction by an African writer. The maiden edition took place last year and was won by Caine-Prize winner and    Zimbwabwean  writer Noviolet Bulawayo with her novel We Need New Names.
Nadia Davids’ An Imperfect Blessing  tells a coming of age story about a girl caught between the throes of adolescence and the last but stormy years of apartheid. Chinelo Okparanta’s Happiness  Like Water  is a collection of stories which the New York Times describes as a powerful blend of heated plot and measured prose.
Mahlangu’s Penumbra , had been shortlisted for the Sunday Times  Fiction Prize last year.
‘I thank my publisher and my mother for giving me a platform and believing in him’ said the 30-year old Cape Town resident  during the  ceremony that was graced by Angelique Kidjo and the Etisalat sponsored Nigerian Idol season 4 winner, Evelle.