As Observed by Obwavo Ndavula
Where in Kenya are you likely to find several great minds in one room, provoking and then running wild with new ideas? The likely answer is at a Storymoja Ideagasm session. That is what the Storymoja website says. I have to admit though that I was apprehensive about my first Ideagasm session at Storymoja. I dreaded a session where one or two participants dominate the discussion and fumigate others with their points of view. But this session approximated a high school reunion, where each person has a narrative to tell, but none superior to the other.
Perhaps it was our provocation that didn’t allow much bragging, few of us had won writing prizes, none recognizable beyond our circle of friends and family, and certainly none life changing.
So what if you never win any prize? Juliet had sent the provocation: ‘The criteria for winning and the verdicts of literary prize competitions are purely subjective (and probably biased). No writer of worth should actively pursue them.”
That is where we began, but certainly not where we spent much time. This is because all present were trying to get a firm foothold into the publishing world.
It is no wonder then that the discussion drifted to ways of getting published.
We talked about the crazy things Kenyan writers do to get published. Mostly there are things that writers do not like, but nevertheless can swiftly usher them into a publisher’s arms. Examples abound: leaving out your ‘English’ name and using your African ones only, writing only about poverty and disease, among others. Julie calls it ‘poverty porn’. Confessions started pouring. Most participants, either published or with works in progress, admitted to having a good dose of ‘poverty porn’ in their works.
Poverty ‘porn’ talk led us to think about the population that can be categorized as poor. The subject of women and poverty cropped up, and we eventually began puncturing the affirmative action balloon. Storm in a tea cup, you may say. Women fought among themselves as the men watched on the sidelines. Some women said it was necessary because of historical injustices, while some argued it negated the efforts of women who never needed it to succeed in life. When Magunga and I threw ourselves into the battle we were like moths to light: singed. So I took aside one female participant (name withheld) during the coffee break and asked her if she really thought there were no women deserving of affirmative action. Although she expressed concern that affirmative action would negate the achievement of hardworking women, she also believed that if implemented right, it would work for those truly marginalized. As matters stood, affluent women were taking advantage of affirmative action initiatives to benefit themselves, she lamented.
Julie (Not to be confused by the aforesaid Juliet) insists that the coffee in her cup was brewed. The rest of us took instant coffee or tea. So did this make her ideas ejaculate straight?
Magunga, a writer I meet for the first time, wants to write better short stories for his newly revamped website. He says he studies law but his heart is for fiction.
Away from personal aspirations, we come back to prizes. We wonder about what happened to Jomo Kenyatta prize for Literature. Someone says beautiful writing, and award winning, can be found in Chimamanda’s inbox from nondescript writers.
An ideagasm session would not complete without a debate on who an African writer is. We note that most award winning writers have lived part of their lives abroad. Is that a criterion for winning, we wonder? We abandon this line of thinking.
We almost agree that connections are a pre-requisite for getting published. Someone in the room says “I’m getting published yet I didn’t know anyone.” Someone else shouts, “But you know me.” We laugh. Seriously what chances are there to be published if you don’t attend writing workshops? And how many aspiring writers can afford the luxury of these workshops? Someone says they can make it, if they want. It is about choices.
There was talk of writing compositions from primary school. I do not recall how this started or who started it. Someone said they won prizes in high school. We wish we went to her school. One participant says his high school Journalism club patron refused to admit him, yet he ended up teaching journalism. The way his face looked, he seemed to be having the last laugh.
As I said at the beginning, it sounded like a high school reunion. So we talked about our high school teachers, and what they did or failed to do for us in terms of writing. Some of us were clearly rebel writers, we did not follow our teacher’s writing assignments for thinking them not creative enough for our liking, opting to write compositions on topics of our own choice.
I can tell we shall not follow our publishers’ dictates once we climb the ladder from upcoming writers to established writers. M.G. Vassanji, who was recently hosted by Storymoja, said as much about himself.
As the Ideagasm session concludes, from where I sit, I see everyone growing little ivory horns.
Soon they will be sharp and sturdy and we shall train them on publishers.
I can’t wait to see the literary fabric that shall emerge when new writers eventually pierce the old hymen of African writing.