Creatives Academy: Developing A Good Story
Another Saturday morning in Creatives Academy, and Tony Mochama was going on about steering away from stereotypes. A curious individual, that Mochama. He said most young writers grow dreadlocks so as to fit into some popular artistic look. His are very long, by the way, probably a decade old, and in various shades of brown and black. Three feet away from him sat the beautiful and neatly dreadlocked Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki – a newspaper columnist and the author of Nairobi Cocktail – and a bit further than that was yours truly. I followed Ciku’s lead. I did not flinch. Mochama went on to say that young writers should refrain from writing run on the mill topics like independence.
I hear him, especially on the latter. We need more buffet on the African Literature table – stories with imagery other than the stereotypical acacia tree, with the stereotypical grey elephant; or the stereotypical Maasai in red tribal prints, with a spear, battling the stereotypical gnarly toothed lion. It quite frankly reminds me of Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to write about Africa, an ironical mimicry of how we put Africa in literary boxes.
Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. … Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates… 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular. (granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/)
I agree. I have came across so many books on Africa, plastered with European hunters wearing khaki shorts, standing next to wildlife, rifle in hand, bearing titles like Untamed Africa. They make me cringe. They have always repulsed me. Who wears those shorts anymore, anyway? I do not know that Africa. That is not my everyday life. They do not tell my story. The writers are clearly hanging onto a boogieman myth.
Mochama is a prolific poet who is a rebel in his style of writing. He is also a newspaper columnist and author. His vocabulary sort of mimics Shakespeare’s in the sense that it invents itself. I never really liked his Smita Smitten column, though. I spend half the time trying to mouth the words on print, and the other trying to understand what he is referring to, rather than lay back and enjoy the stories. For that reason, I have never finished reading any of these articles. It was however a good surprise to note that he is multifacetted, in that he is renowned for other works.
It was quite interesting to see a man as unconventional as him exuding ingenuity and knowledge. It is like a breadth of fresh air. I had only known him for his Smita Smitten articles. They have always felt inane, and quite frankly irk me like fingernail on chalkboard. It had actually boggled my mind at first that the organizers picked him as a guest panelist. I have never understood why he would choose to write in a manner that so vividly requires extra effort to go against every iota of decades of schooling and deeply ingrained grammar that he – like the average Kenyan of his level of education – had obviously acquired. I could be wrong but I picture him breaking sweat, hovering over his computer, trampling on every rule of the language and checking them off a list as he goes along. Where is the joy in that? Why the name Smita Smitten, anyway? I should have asked. He does say he is a lover of Vodoski – granted.
Yvonne Owuor had a wonderful career in a multinational organization before she discovered her love for writing. She lost her job and went through a challenging time in her life. Wainaina persistently prompted her to take writing seriously, paving way for her novel Dust. Her struggle was her muse. Dennis Ndavi – a student and media personality – confessed to experiencing a blockade in a story he had began writing, and so Owuor lead us all through developing it. It blossomed into a thriller. I hope that Ndavi will allow us to buy ourselves copies of the completed work soon.
Ng’ang’a Mbugua, author of several books including Different Colours, talked about the amount of research it takes to come up with a plausible story, and the benefits of developing a reading culture as a writer.
This was my first Creatives Academy class. It was also both Ndavi and Waruguru’s (another classmate) birthday, and so we shared cake and sung in their honor at the end of the class. It was a pleasant blend of controversy and amicability. I was glad I came.