A Young Bull Mounts From the Head

by Linda Musita

An African proverb implies that a young bull does not know the back of a cow from its front.  What the adolescent does when it is horny is try to get itself “in” through the face of its object of desire. I would like to assume it is because the young bull does not know any better, but I am certain it does, it just wants to prove that it is a real man without learning the ropes.

I am a young Kenyan writer.  I like to believe that I am extremely wise and know everything about writing. My stories are perfect and no one can tell me otherwise. One day publishers will be scheming behind each others’ backs to get my work. I just know it.

I am not the only cocky writer around. There are many of us and we were all born in Kenya in the 80s and 90s. We all hate each others’ guts but live together like one big happy family.  We are young and relatively naïve yet we have one thing in common: our mixed feelings for Nigerian writers.

The Caine Prize 2013 shortlist was released on May 15 and it was full of Nigerians. Four out of the five stories chosen by the judges were written by Nigerians. This may mean that the country has a host of very good writers or the prize is just biased towards the scribes from the West. Take your pick. However, the odds that a Nigerian, Tope Folarin, was to be announced the winner were pretty high.

Last year, a Kenyan, Billy Kahora was on the shortlist but he did not win the award. This year, no Kenyan was shortlisted but, we, the young bulls complained about the “oga” infiltration even before reading the stories. My questions were why are there so many Nigerians on that list? What is so special about them? Why isn’t one of us on that list? The same old questions that my peers ask when another hardworking West African gets the recognition that they only dream about.

Do they know that to be considered for the  £10,000 Caine prize and its shortlist a story has to have been published? And the story is not submitted by the writer but by the publisher?

Do they also know that to be published, one must first write something and then try to find a publisher to put it in an anthology or something similar? Do they know that some publishers have standards and a story that the writer will not allow to be critiqued or edited will not cut it?

No, they do not. They are not making any effort to expose their writing to the right people. One could even question whether they are writing anything meaningful.

But I know all that and I have been writing meaningful things, exposing them to the wrong people because I am scared gutless of submitting it to a well established literary magazine as I have problems with censoring myself. I write very “forward” and ”brazen” things that have been called vindictive and shameless. Things that may land me into moral trouble. No, I am not making excuses. I am just being a clever, self-absorbed writer.

The Nigerians, like me, know that they must be published to scoop that prize money and the benefits that come with it.  That is why they haggle for space in any anthology or literary magazine they can find.

Do young Kenyan writers know what the judges of the prize look for and why they like stories about guavas, slums, diasporadical dreams and buck wild violence and war stories that are not really violent?

Do they know who Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, Sokari Douglas Camp, Lord Northcliffe, John Sutherland, Professor Nathan Hensley and Leila Aboulela are and why they had to put all those Nigerians on the shortlist?

I confess, I am a Kenyan writer and I do not know those judges and why they chose those stories.

I can bet my writer friends do not know them either, and at the end of the day, maybe all good, young and active African writers are Nigerian. In the same way that most good and active long distance runners are Kenyan.

Or could it be that Kenyan writers born between 1980 and 1993 are not faithful to the art?

Alexander Ikawah was shortlisted for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize for a story that he wrote in 2011. It is a good story, titled Fatima Saleh, about a woman who is sexually abused by police officers at a refugee camp and ends up being a mujahideen by poisoning them to their deserved deaths. The question here is; what has Ikawah been writing since 2011?

Another writer, Clifton Gachagua, won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He writes very good poems and puts them on a blog. Lucky for him, thanks to the prize, some of the poems on his blog will be published in his first poetry anthology, Madman at Kilifi, by the end of this year.

Then what?

These two young “bulls” are only known to a few of us who will never win the literary awards because we are not writing anything new. We are still basking in our Facebook friends’ flowery comments on our work or just looking at our one piece of brilliance.

What exactly is the problem with me and other 20 to 30 something year old writers?

  • Laziness

We are not writing.  We used to write but we are not writing anymore. We are mostly reading writing advice online that we never apply because we can never bring ourselves to finish anything we write. Our excuse is that we need to learn the craft before creating the art. Old fashioned practice makes perfect. If we have the talent, which we do, we should be writing not reading about how other people write.

  • Undergroundism

There are a number of writer cliques. These usually consist of writers who write for each other once in a while. They then read each others’ works out loud in classrooms or coffee houses. Make some cryptic comments about the work and then get into a discussion about how they like sitting together like moles and enjoying the darkness around them.

They are in the”underground” world; a mysterious place that does wonders for their brains. They will not show their work to anyone else, especially a publisher, because it will get contaminated once it becomes mainstream literature.

These underground rats are the “sufferers” of the writing world. Lack of recognition does not bother them at all.

  • Fear of critique

We have few good literary critics in Kenya. And they are busy writing academic papers about this and the other. They are the reason Kenyan writers do not know what to do with critique.

On the rare occasions that the work of young Kenyan writers is put under a public telescope they form an odd almost cultic brotherhood and attack the critic mercilessly. It does not matter that the critic is right. What matters is that a small or a big truth has been told and an objective reaction to it is not possible.

A writer’s work will always be praised or trashed. The wise ones know not to trust their family and friends as critics. They also know that a writer should never ever respond to critique. When their work is beaten up, they try and see if what the critic is saying is true or false, if it is true they accept it, fix the problem and move on. If it is not true, they ignore it and move on.

The critic is not the enemy. That is the only person in the literary world who gives the writer the chance to grow a thick skin and create better work.

  • Worship of the old and the dead

When a person sits on a grave, forever mourning and praising a dead man, that person is as good as dead.

Yes we had very good writers in the past. Now they are old and some of them are dead. We loved their work when we read it. Some of us are not reading that work anymore.

We want new fiction. Fiction that is relevant to this day and age.

But what are we young writers doing?

We still think of Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the great Kenyan writer and are utterly confounded by David Maillu’s wonderful lack of self censorship. So confounded that we forget to write our own stories.

We are barren and do not have the knack to sit down and write a full-length manuscript. Ironically, we have it easy with our computers and fancy gadgets, the people we still worship had to work with paper, pen and typewriters.

It is okay to read and praise the writers that came before us but being eternally star struck and hypnotised is another problem that may require exorcisms and séances.

  • Cronyism

Birds of a feather flock together and excrete on the same leaves. There are publishing houses in the country that only work with certain writers. These writers in turn introduce their writer buddies to these publishers and together they produce very bad books.

This is one of the things that discourage young writers from writing because talent and merit do not count. It is whom you drink beer with that will take you where you want to go.

  • Talk

There are very many literary forums in Nairobi. I know not of across the country, but there are loads in Nairobi.

We meet and talk about the first drafts of our novels that only have a 3000 word count thanks to writers’ block. We say mean things about the Nigerians winning prizes all over the world. We complain about how literary festivals in Kenya only invite foreign authors to speak and lead workshops.

The forums also turn into pools of gossip about which writer is in bed with that other writer and how the genes will go crazy if they procreate because, well, writers are stark raving mad.

After the “literati parties” we all go home and sleep. Zero writing follows all that talk.

  • Lack of foresight

There are two young creative Ghanaians, Eyram Tawia and Wesley Kirinya, who have  formed a gaming company, Leti Games, that among other things writes comics. Their premise is African superheroes. In that brilliant mix of superheroes, they have a Maasai one called iWarrior. Their story was reported on BBC and they have very big goals that they are keen on attaining. One look at their website and their vision is absolutely clear.

Young Kenyan writers have the same ideas, the same technological opportunities, the Maasai warriors and the avenues for funding. Yet we still believe that the only way we can express ourselves is through print.

Very few of us want to collaborate with artists and techies to create something brilliant. And those who are willing are all talk. And talk is very cheap.

  • Lack of editors

Everyone doubles as an editor. The truth is, a writer should never edit his own work. Neither should a writer have a friend do the editing.

However, Kenya does not have enough editors who can do their job well and without distractions or fits of uncontrollable jealousy.

They will not give honest advice and would much prefer a writer to fail than succeed under their guidance.

All that said, there is a new prize in town. The Etisalat Prize for Literature was launched in Nigeria on June 4 and all submissions must be made by a publisher. One of the judges is Billy Kahora, but who wants to bet that Nigerians will win this one too?

Linda is a writer, a literary agent at Lesleigh Inc and an editor at the Star newspaper.

30 Replies to “A Young Bull Mounts From the Head”

  1. Wow! No time for gloves this morning huh? Well, I guess there shouldn’t be in a call to arms. Great article. Honest and provocative to the sleeping writers; the dreamer-non-doers of Kenyan writing. For a while as you have noted, Nigeria has been leading, and West Africa, perhaps what we need to do is illuminate what they have been doing to get there. Maybe it’s more than just heritage, talent and bias. Do they have deliberate skill building that deals with some of the issues you have mentioned above like how to find a good editor or how to deal with fear? Perhaps their motivations vary ever so slightly…whatever the reasons, they have dealt with common writer obstacles and created gems. I ask, how did they do it?
    The idea of video games and seeing writing as a cog in a bigger machine, presents more opportunity in today’s skills inclined world. The better you are at something and of course how you sell it, makes you valuable because you are the master of that skill. Learning to synchronise talent, writing + another skill = new spaces to create art. Video games (Leti and the like), movies, comics, YouTube, offer writers the chance to push that skill and talent into different uncharted realms of art and media. We don’t have to do it the ‘Nigerian’ way to be good at it…but we do have to keep writing and putting it out there.

    Great read. It got me going.

    1. Hi Ted,

      Thanks for reading my rumble.

      I think Nigerians are more aggressive than us. They are rather shameless with their talent and they will rub it on anyone who they think will help them advance. That plus their numbers makes them more competitive than us, I guess.

      Interesting that you mention YouTube. I never thought of that….

  2. Truth. Truth. Truth. “We are still basking in our Facebook friends’ flowery comments on our work or just looking at our one piece of brilliance”. That would be me.

    A lot of things you said are applicable not just to Kenyans but Nigerian writers too.

    1. Hi Jyte,

      We all go through that Facebook phase. I was in that space from 2009 to last year and boy o boy I was the “mightiest” of writers back then. I have a neglected blog now. Go figure, a new self-destructive cycle has begun 🙂

  3. “Birds of a feather flock together and excrete on the same leaves. There are publishing houses in the country that only work with certain writers. These writers in turn introduce their writer buddies to these publishers and together they produce very bad books.”

    Heeeeh! You have said it. I love the challenge, Linda. Thank you for this piece.

  4. Am I not ashamed that you got all my vices there… and that critique thing we were planning often ends up as you said it, a forum where we discuss why Gor and AFC are still the names that brings in soccer crowds in Kenya.

    You got me good

  5. Wow, this isn’t just for Kenyans. It is for every unpublished African writer. Surprisingly, I think Kenyans even have certain advantages over Nigerians: Close knit circles, easier collaboration, proximity to publishers, presence of foreign head hunters etc. In the end it isnt about those though. It is about writing and publishing, short stories and books . Moving away from the adulation of a select few to the big stage. I think this calls for an action plan. I have a lot of thinking to do, writing and publishing too. Unpublished Nigerian writers need to read this. I feel like airing it on BBC. Thank you for writing this.

    1. St Naija,

      Exactly. A writer should write. End of story. J D Salinger was a recluse. I suspect that is why he wrote so well. Sometimes these “circles” are harmful.

      Thanks for reading this and commenting.

    1. Meh,

      Well you could be right but what solution are you offering? The first step in seeking a solution is identifying there is a problem. The article does that. Why dont you start sharing the solutions you have in mind so that we move to the next level!

    2. Meeeeeeeh,

      Of course I am part of the problem. That is why I included “I” and “we” in the “article”.

      Now, be a trooper and spoon feed us with the solutions, will you? Bleat? Meh? Pweety pwease?

  6. I don’t have solutions, that’s why I didn’t write an article telling people what they already know. But since the author wrote one, I expected it to offer some concrete solutions. This problem is not a new one. How is this article different from all the others written about it? There was one saying the same thing this past weekend in one of the dailies. Like that one, how did this article help Kenyan writers improve?

    This is just lazy writing. The author just wanted to put herself above all other writers by showing how she ‘understands’ why Kenyan writers fail, but didn’t really work to solve the problem. You guys do that. I’ll just be here criticising.It’s evident throughout the article with her ‘I/we but I really mean you’ nuance.

  7. Hello Linda! An outsider speaks: non-Kenyan and non-youthful (though also – apparently thank goodness – non-Nigerian). I do, however, feel affinity to the great questions you are scrutinizing. After all, I am also this fledgling writer trying to find her way in a world of writing and publication that is both mysterious and mind-bogglingly difficult to inhabit. How am I a writer? There is no clean answer, and I must ultimately forge my own path. Will what I do ever lead to publication? Possibly not. Do I then continue to write? Perhaps. But what, then, will motivate me? The answer is: joy. There must be joy in writing. As well as acceptance that I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.

    1. Hi Jo,

      The joy of writing is fantastic. That is what drives every writer to write. The problem comes when a person who chooses to write for the joy of it, gets jealous of a person who so “shamelessly” wants to get published.

      I used to write purely for the love of it but now I feel that I need to have my own mark in the overcrowded world of very good writers. Yup, I am still groping in the dark here 🙂

      1. Jealousy is anti-joy. Let those who embark on that path deal with the consequences of their choices.

        In as far as we control anything at all, we control only our own destiny. I suspect key is to determine for ourselves, completely separate from society’s often rigid unimaginative norms, the definition of personal success as a writer. You explored this in your essay: is good writing measured in publication and sales and prizes? If the answer to that question is “oh, yes, indeed”, then the writer must be prepared to jump through the hoops, and play the game according to commercially instigated rules. If the answer is “well, no”, then the sky is the limit, especially in today’s global world of internet connectivity.

  8. Nice, articulate rant….and quite true! Did you mention that “140 characters” and blogs are also contributing to the lost enthusiasm for ‘real writing?’ We blog and decide we are complete writers.
    Too bad WordPress and Blogspot are not Publishers per se. They can’t nominate us for the Caine Prizes of this world. Sadly.

  9. An interesting article. There is some truth in this, yet in spite of what you say, there are writers who do not fall under what you highlight. However, they are let down by their editors, agents, or worse the publishers.

  10. An interesting article. Yet in spite of what you highlight, there are writers who do not fall in this category and they write. However they are let down by their editors, agents, and publishers. Again turning to Nigeria, we cannot compare Kenya to this country, for it has a bigger population thus a bigger labor force, market, and other elements of a fast growing nation.

    Nevertheless a good article all the same Linda, keep it up:)

    1. You are right, sometimes the writer is let down. But then there are writers who forget that badly written manuscripts take time to edit. Agents do their best and rely on publishers’ timelines so an author has to be patient. You cannot be published in two months and not every publisher will go crazy about your work, case in point, the Harry Porter series.

      Of course we can compare ourselves to Nigeria or any country in the world. As long as we are writers, we have to recognise our counterparts, what they do better or worse than us and what we all collectively fail or succeed at.

  11. But does being cocky make you good? Other fields are dominated by other Nations as well you know? If you write well, you will get acknowledged. i feel this is a good “rant”, not a good “piece”. I would’ve looked for a proverb that actually relates to what you’re trying to say, not one you have skewed to fit what you’re trying to say for one. That threw me off, and I stopped reading a few lines after that.

  12. Nothing but the truth! Bitter in the mouth, but does us good when swallowed. You described what I was not too long ago. I was drunk on my own Kool Aid, on Facebook praise. I’m now sober. And wiser. I submitted to critique recently. As a result, the first piece I sent out has been published in a regional magazine. I still have a long way to go, though. I’ll keep coming back to read this. I have a lot to learn. Thanks for the reality check.

    1. Julie,

      Glad you came out of that rut too. I was there for a very long time…then I began exposing my ‘perfect’ work to more helpful readers and at first I felt like they were killing my own children and making me watch but with time I understood that writing is not about me and my ego. It is blood, sweat and tears. Especially for people like you and I who want to be taken seriously.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  13. I stumbled upon this post and read it all the way to the end ,guys should just write we will read , awards
    which are secondary comes after

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