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.
READING IN BOTH GERMAN AND ENGLISH
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.