ART CHECK

Kenyan writing in the wake of coronavirus

It is up to the writers to seize the moment and make of it what the generation of Ngugi did

In Summary

• Writers brainstormed on a literary response to the virus

Tony Mochama mentors creative writing students
Tony Mochama mentors creative writing students
Image: JKS MAKOKHA

Early this week, the government announced measures that will help mitigate the spread of coronavirus. The measures were announced by Health CS Mutahi Kagwe and his Education counterpart George Magoha and emphatically enhanced by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The gist of the announcement rests in disbanding group events and contexts, such as sports, schooling and other public or open activities, such as conferences.

This came in the wake of four coronavirus cases confirmed in the country as of Tuesday. The first one was confirmed on Friday and Patient Zero, as the reference goes, is reported to be in quarantine and attaining stability under the watch of health workers and experts.

This week has seen the closure of public and privates schools as well as private and public universities across the country in line with the presidential and governmental directives.

 

Interestingly, on the 5th of this month, a group of young writers and their mentor at Kenyatta University had brainstormed how Kenyan society will respond to the virus from a literary dimension. They were attending a half-day creative writing workshop under the aegis of the Writers' and Poets' Club. This is a student initiative that seeks to give a voice to young talents from across the disciplines and faculties in matters of creative writing.

The club is headed by Imou Eparis, a Ugandan studying a Bachelor of Education degree at Kenyatta University. It brings together aspiring writers of her generation with talents in spoken word, flash fiction and other narratives as well as poetic forms. Dr Esther Mbithi, who teaches creative writing courses at the university, noted the importance of using established writers to augment lectures in this subject.

Their first workshop last week was facilitated by Tony Mochama of the Standard Media Group. Mochama is a well-known Kenyan writer of international stature and a senior journalist in the media world. He has won the international prize called Burt Award for Young Adult Fiction thrice for his works: Meet the Omtitas (2013), Run, Cheche, Run (2016) and A Jacket for Ahmet (2017).

He is also a poet of note, having begun his writing career sensationally over a decade ago with a provocative anthology of poems titled, What if I’m a Literary Gangster?

It is with this background, laced with manifold international visits as a facilitator or creative writing teacher and writer-in-residence in places such as Italy and Russia, that the wisdom he shared with the young varsity writers made their evening last week.

He cited the ancients, such as Epictetus, to exhort them to write and write and write again, for in that lies the golden tip of how to make it in writing. Stephen King, the American horror novelist popular with young adults, has famously pointed out that reading and writing are the pillars of a good writing career. He mentions them as the secret to his own golden career that is now worth millions in dollars. Mochama brought this message home clearly through a series of mini-lectures and interactive sessions.

Together with his mentees, they fictionally imagined a horror lockdown situation, for months, involving a campus environment in the wake of the coronavirus attack. Prophetically, the first case in Ghana has been reported this week at the University of Ghana, which is in lockdown now.

In groups, the KU students were offered newspaper pages to use as a launching pad for their own literary assignments. The idea was to retain focus on the epidemic but from a cornucopia of perspectives inspired by the incidents in the diverse newspaper handouts. It became clear there is no magic needed to inspire a budding writer.

 

Stories abound around us, and it just takes a writer who is acutely attentive and sensitive to the narratives of the times to find a worthy starting point for new work. Such a work, if approached with discipline and free imagination while shunning mediocrity and clichés, can turn out to be a literary gem of both national and international sensation.

It remains to be seen whether this season of precarity announced by locusts, viral imbroglio, terrorist attacks and calls for constitutional reinvigoration bodes well for the established and emergent writers and poets of Kenya.

However, one thing is for sure. The new decade is already full of literary providence in so far as stimulation to new narratives is concerned. It is up to the writers to seize the moment and make of it what the generation of Ngugi did in the wake of the Mau Mau war, State of Emergency and the bloody birth of our motherland.

Mochama believes the future of Kenya, and Kenyan literature, lies in the hands of the youth, and mentorship is one pathway that earlier generations of writers can use to pursue their literary legacies.

----

Dr JKS Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University. His books are available from www.amazon.com