Book Talk, Uncategorized

‘The book is a dead object’



Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina brings his colourful personality to this interview held on the sidelines of the Port Harcourt Book Festival. He talks about how winning the Caine Prize has impacted on his life and writing, his thoughts on the future of books and what he considers ‘evil’ in the writing business. This is vintage Binyavanga.




Binyavanga Wainaina, shall we start with your controversial view on books . . .

Which controversial views now?

You mentioned in a panel discussion that print books are a dead item. How would you justify that statement?

Ah! (laughs) I am still struggling to understand how that view is controversial at all. We are now in 2013. In 2005, I had lunch with the then New York Times editor who told me the growth rate for subscription for the newspaper had gone to zero for people under 30.  That was almost 10 years ago. So that’s why I am trying to understand why these issues are controversial because they have entered the dead centre of mainstream publishing. They are questions that people who work in policy, education  have recognised so we have passed the point because it was nine or seven years ago that libraries were deciding not to order print books and changed their budgets, created reading rooms for digital applications. There is no one that’s signed up to create the processes of production for a future which includes print as a significant option. So to pretend there is a conversation is to be in those hangovers that do not make sense anymore, right? That’s one. Two: we are Africans and one of the things that we have is a great adoption of digital technologies in many forms and for many applications, right? We’ve never seen tools so accessible that equalise the pigmy in the middle of the Congo and the man in the Banana Island, how do we imagine ourselves to be democrats or even concerned for people in the future when to get my text, I have to go through trees in Norway, through printers in London, through tax breaks, ships to get my poetry manuscript to 12 people. There is no sense in the idea at all. So my question really is: why do we insist on perpetuating this conversation? We have been having this conversation on panels since 2000 and we all came to the same conclusion. I don’t see any conversation to be had. The technology to maintain the print books for the few people who want it exists but for the government to be planning policies around print is an enormous waste.

And you are positive Africa is going to cope with these changes considering our vagaries and the failures of our various systems?

That is the good thing. I think the biggest operation in Kenya is exams. It attracts buses, missteps, floods. You watch the news during national exams and see what’s put out. To get apps out on a mobile phone is just to click, right? And I have 5, 000 books on my mobile phone, all I need to do is click. So even if there are going to be leakages and corruption in the system, it will be at a much higher level of efficacy by several hundred folds already. As a starting point, it’s far beyond where we are in natural existence. It’s a very important thing for one to start to accept very quickly game changing technology, you don’t hesitate. When the railway hiccupped and coughed just one minute, within 30 years, half the world had railways. So while we are having this conversation on this continent, Korea had this conversation adopted long before everyone else. They were having novels on mobile phones by the year 2000. There is only one simple reason books continue to remain in print in Kenya; it’s that the school education publishers make billions of shillings and they are not wildly enthusiastic because there are feeder communities of suppliers, sycophants, ministry of education officials and so on and so forth. It’s so massive. Three months ago, one of the wealthiest and biggest educational publishers called me up and told me we are stuck, we don’t know what to do. The government has told us it’s going to be digital content for standard one kids and there are 12 months to go. We have all these people, they have retooled their infrastructure but they don’t know how to think of the digital world. They have signed up like 30 new editors because it’s been announced that if you don’t shape up, you will be like the cassette tape in the rubbish bin. The speed at which that changeover is happening over the last three years is remarkable. Between now and next year, the conversation would have drastically escalated. The musical industry has gone digital and left us behind. In 2030 there will be someone who would want to publish his poetry collection and release it to nine people.

Let’s talk about your country, Kenya, and its literary tradition. There seems to be a huge gap between generations of writers. You had the Ngugi generation and for a long time not much was heard from Kenya until you came along. What happened in between?

Okay. There was no gap. I think there was a gap of visibility because I guess Ngugi, Grace Ogot’s generation, which was in the ’60s, by the early ’70s there were vibrant writers who were building good reputations and were known internationally like Meja Mwangi, Charles Mamwa, John Ruganda who was Ugandan but lived and practiced in Kenya. They were very many. The tap started to run dry, I would say, in the mid ’80s as political repression reached its pinnacle and the country became dull. There was also a big transition when the multinational publishing industry and their distribution system collapsed or gave up and said there is no future in Africa and the publishing industry became very school book oriented and independent publishing kind of died. It didn’t mean there wasn’t much writing going on but there was no structure to carry it. What this generation, which started in 2002, had very much the fact that Kwani? was out within the first year of our democratic elections so the amount of writing that came out after our first democratic elections transformed publishing. So there was something very political about that idea.

Was it the absence of this structures that inspired you to set up Kwani?

It was just a very bad feeling of frustration that existing publishers and writers associations were bureaucratic, boring, you know, obsessed with who-is-the-treasurer kind of thinking. That was one. Two: in 2002, the year that I won the Caine Prize, I had tried to have a meeting with a sub-editor of a subeditor of a publishing house, right? And I came all the way to Nairobi with very little money from my home town of Nakuro for a 9am meeting and I was ringing the bell at the office and I was being told she was busy. And I couldn’t afford to stay in that hotel past six. After being in communication with someone for three months, the thing gets bankrupt. You hear of people waiting for three years before getting notification that we can’t publish your work. But you have to remember that my story that won the Caine Prize was a story published quickly on the internet, so already people were feeling the energy of speeded up structures and how you can do things well and at high quality without all these bureaucracy and files and forms and so on. But also watching the music industry, there were people releasing albums, kids, 17 years old, and you are sitting here complaining that no one is doing anything for you.

So you feel writers need to do more for themselves than sit down and complain?

The refrain that says the problem in Nigeria is that writers are not being published, I say two things to the idea: I would say to make indigenous publishing work was a great act of the ’60s. It was necessary to create an instant body of work so that people don’t continue consuming all that white stuff, right? And so there were subsidies, loans, grants and many, many things to get books to people. But somewhere inside there came the idea of an entitlement to be published. Which, when you look at the moral question about it, of course we want our countries flooded with books and ideas, who can debate that? You can’t have any meaningful country without such an idea but the history of publishing has its own specificity. Publishers are people who love books, sometimes they are even writers themselves who go and take money without even thinking they are going to make profit and surprise themselves that they do. So the assumption that those infrastructures are just there to serve you don’t make sense. But in the last 10 years, what Kwani? Saraba and other people have shown is that you don’t have to wait for oga. There is no oga to wait for. That a small group of enterprising and dynamic people can set up their own publishing house and distribute and sell makes meaning. If there are 500 small publishing houses producing 12 books a year all over Nigeria, then you are in a position to start saying literature is booming.

Interestingly your book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, there was quite a long wait for it before it came out. What’s the story?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I am a slow writer.

Was that really the reason?

Kind of, you know. There is no simple answer to the question. It would have been nice if I had a ready novel manuscript when I won the Caine Prize. I had one, had a publishing contract with a South African publisher called Kwela on a sort of funny novel, and I was so excited that it was going to be published. But the moment the Caine Prize thing came, my impatience with the quality of writing had climbed quite a lot and I was really eager to experiment a lot more, stretch my stuff a lot more and so on and so forth. But of course that process of institution building was thrilling and consuming so the Kwani? thing took four years of my life to make. Not much writing happened in that period. There were lots of editing, a lot of structure building, drama, running around chasing invoices, learning how a printer works and so on. It had to be done now-now-now. I have no regrets about it. But more than anything else, it was really important for me to find a strong voice and style that I felt fully comfortable with, like a more versatile way to carry words. That was very important to me and it took me a long time to find what platform I felt could carry that book.

And it turns out you bring out a memoir and the language has thrilled many people, myself included, was it really that hard finding that voice?

Yes and no. I think it was hard to feel confident . . . this is the best way to put it, when Tiger Woods changed his swing, you see what I am saying? There is this way you are making sentences up to that point of 2002 and 2003 and had a kind of big aesthetic feeling of impatience that my sentences and phrases are not carrying fully what I want them to carry. I knew what I wanted to do in my head, but to get confidence in the practice of all these change words meant I had to get into the habit of writing like that. So basically I had to rebuild a style like you had to rebuild the swing but of course now when you are rebuilding the swing and you hit the ball, it goes wayward, you know. That’s really how it was. Now it’s a style that I am very comfortable in and I feel it can stretch and do a lot of things Now what I don’t know is amending the style enough for the novel I am working on, the hangover becomes . . . I have been thinking too much of myself as a character and so rendering other characters now, they end up having too much of my own voice. That’s Binya’s problem now. It’s very frustrating but I love doing it.

And I have heard rumours that your next book will be out in 10 years. Is that true?

No, oh God! No. I want to have a full workable draft by mid next year and these last few months it’s been moving really well and so I am quite happy with it. What I have discovered is that my writing cycles last around 10 years. What I am working on now is the frame of the language I am going to be using and sort of the approaches, maybe I will use the first person or the third person for the next 10 years, and be less involved in dramatic institutions or Bard or whatever. Embed myself at home rather than be schizophrenic, half here and half there. So I want to kind of write from within the continent for that period of 10 years.

When did you realise you wanted to be a writer, what was the defining moment for you?

The moment someone paid me 240 rands. I was so afraid of risking and failing at writing that I had to be forced. So when I had no money and suddenly I had an opportunity of making money for eating and living, and I had no visa and nothing and I was living in South Africa and when the world did not fall apart when I wrote something that wasn’t good, writing became easier to do but I knew that the best job in the world is a writer as early as when I was seven.

You are quite popular for your interactions with younger writers through the regular workshops you have here in Nigeria and through other forums. If you have one advice for upcoming writers, what would it be?

Don’t be a fucking victim. The continent is for you to make. That whole thing of the publishers don’t, I don’t . . . can you  link me up with publishers abroad? And I am like, tell me the name of one publisher abroad. You can’t be living in the age of Google and cheap internet where you can find out the resources available to you as a young African writer through the social network and other avenues, waiting for your father to make the policy or arrangements for you is immoral. In fact it is evil. It’s your job to make it. That hustle must stop. You can’t say I am upset because Cassava Republic or Farafina rejected my manuscript. Get four, five friends and set up one. You have 150m people, you need another 50 publishers before you can say you are anywhere.

Book Talk

‘Winning the NLNG prize has changed my life’

Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe

On the sidelines of the Port Harcourt Book festival, I caught up with festival headliner, Chika Unigwe, and engaged her in this interview where she talked about her life after winning the coveted NLNG prize. She spoke also on other sundry issues.
How has life been since the NLNG prize?
How has life been? It’s been a lot easier to convince other people that writing is a serious business and that’s what winning a big prize always does. Suddenly people who help baby sit your kids so you can go and gallivant round the world and do things start taking you seriously. It’s been such a great honour to be recognised in my country. Of everything I would want to win, the NLNG was top of the list simply because it is something from Nigeria. It’s been nice coming back to Nigeria as a writer some people have heard of. So it’s been a wonderful experience.
Was winning the prize a kind of fulfillment for you?
If I had a literary bucket list, it would be top of the bucket list.
Since winning the prize, you have been working on a writer’s centre here in Nigeria.
Another thing on my literary bucket list is a writers’ centre and that requires a lot of money. I was in Nigeria in July because Governor [Peter] Obi [Anambra State] promised us some land for the project. There was a mix up with the initial land we got there but it’s being rectified now. The initial land we got was designated for a government project and that project is not a government project. What else have we done since then? We have registered the trust. It’s called the Awele Creative Trust (ACT) Awele in Igbo means not just a journey but a safe journey, a good journey, wonderful journey, which is what I wish for the writers who come to inhabit that space and wish them the best in their writing journey. I have spoken to at least one foreign residency and they are very willing to collaborate with us but I need the money. So next year, I am hoping we would be able to have a fund raising event somewhere in Nigeria that will bring enough people, individuals, corporate organisations who will invest in this. I have gained a lot from residencies abroad, other people’s country. Apart from Ebedi, we don’t have any such thing for writers in Nigeria. If I could get this done, to give back, it’s the biggest thing on my literary bucket list that I could hope to achieve. And that’s another way my life has changed since the NLNG. Before the prize, it was just an idea but what the NLNG has given me is the contact I wish to tap into. I think prizes give you a certain credibility or validation with certain people so if I go to some organisation and say I am trying to set up a writers’ centre, I have some credibility because it is on my CV that I have won this.
What exactly will writers be doing at this centre apart from the residency?
What I envisage is to have Nigerian writers, established writers, or establishing writers, ideally. I would like to have an established writer from one of the residencies I am talking to, because I think that interaction is important. Then you have other writers, established and establishing from Nigeria and from abroad. So apart from giving them space to work on their writing, I would want the immediate community to get something from them as well, maybe workshops in schools. I want it to be an interactive residency. They are writing and giving back. But everything depends on funding. If I get enough funding to start it off and run it for some five years and the reputation would help it run itself, then it is all good. But I don’t want to start something that will fall apart. I have very good people who are enthusiastic about the project on the board. I have a very good friend of mine who is into project management, Kainenedi Obi. And I have Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, I have Prof. Femi Osofisan and I have a very good friend of mine who is a business man, Nnaetu Orazulike so I have a very good mix. And these people, if they are not practitioners of literature, they are very enthusiastic about literature and creativity because it is not just about literature. The trust is called Awele Creative Trust and some of the residencies I go to abroad, it’s not just about writers, you have other artistes such as musicians or painters. When we start, we are going to start with writing because it is good to start from some point and grow from there. Ideally, we would like to expand. I have lots of plans for it but first things first, we get the land then we look for funding. Nigerians are very generous so hopefully . . .
You are a very popular person. So with the land and the fund-raising, we should be looking forward to the project taking off next year?
Insha Allah. If we get the funds. I can’t afford to build it on my own. You are also setting up a structure and you need manpower to run it and in Nigeria if you set it up, you need a working generator to keep it running, you need a gateman for very obvious reasons (laughs). You can’t keep writers where they will not be comfortable.
In a previous interview you said you were going to buy shoes with your NLNG prize money. Did you buy the shoes? How many?
No (laughs) I didn’t buy shoes.
Not even one?
Maybe a few pairs (laughs)
Do you have a thing for shoes?
I love shoes. Some people have a thing for makeup, some have a thing for hair extension. I am a shoe person, I like footwear a lot. Mhmm. I am not too much into jewellery unless it’s an African thing. But shoes, yeah.
You have a new book out, Night Dancer. What is it about?
Night Dancer is about the relationship between mother and daughter, a single mother and her daughter, how the daughter begins to understand the mother only when she dies, how she understands the extent to which the mother had sacrificed for her only after the mother dies and she reads the memoir the mother has left her. Some of the strongest women I know are single parents and in our society, single mothers have it very tough especially single mothers that are not widows, like single mothers that are divorced or whose partners are somewhere. I know a few of these women and I know the extent to which they sacrifice for their children. But I think it is the nature of kids to take it for granted that their parents would sacrifice for them not realising that some of the parents go over and beyond . . . well, I don’t know if you can go over and beyond the call of parenthood. Anyway that is what the novel is about and I think single parents are the unsung heroes of Nigeria especially single mothers who choose to walk out on the relationship. I have heard people say it is better to be married to a bad man than not to be married at all. I am so scared about how society is very judgemental.
What are your thoughts about this?
I think marriages are good. It’s a good thing if it works. If it doesn’t work I don’t see why it shouldn’t end. It’s supposed to be about two people loving and respecting one another. As long as the love is in there and the respect is there. but if you have a man who comes home and beats his wife, or a woman who beats her husband, because some women do that, if you can’t have a conversation with your partner without biting off each other’s head, that kind of relationship is not healthy emotionally. When you are abusing each other physically and emotionally then I think it is better that you part ways. I think marriage is good but marriage is not for everyone. I don’t think one has to remain married under any circumstance, especially when there are children involved because it is doing a lot of harm to the children who are witnesses to a dysfunctional relationship. I have been married for 18 years so you won’t hear me say marriage is not good.
This is your second book to be published in Nigeria. How excited are you about that?
I am happy it will be available in Nigeria for people to buy at affordable price. Because the problem with having your books published abroad is that people import these books and it becomes difficult for readers to buy because it becomes very expensive.
It’s obvious there is an absence of structures, especially in the publishing sector and even with theatres which are not even available. How much of a problem do you think this is?
Just from my interaction with young people who want to be writers, what I noticed is that they really want to read. Here are people eager to read books and unless they buy them they have no access to them. I haven’t been all over Nigeria but I am yet to find a well stocked public library in the places I have been to in Nigeria. In Awka they are building a library and hopefully when it’s finished I hope it will be well stocked. You can’t grow writers unless they have access to good books. I saw some universities have book stands at the book fair but the books on display there, if that is representative of the books they have on their shelves, then I really despair. There is a huge problem. Where I lived in Belguim, in Turnhout, it is a small city but the library was well stocked. It was where I saw [Buchi] Emecheta’s book in English and in Dutch. So if little cities elsewhere in the world can do it, why can’t we do it in Nigeria? There is nothing stopping the Nigerian government or the education ministry from making well stocked libraries a priority. And it shows that we don’t read enough. You pick up a Nigerian newspaper and nine out of 11 articles are poorly written you wonder if this people went to school at all. And it’s not just poor grammar, it’s poor construction, using words wrongly and this is totally inexcusable.
That is indeed a problem. And at the same time, there have been talks about writers needing to take things by the scruff and . . .
But these things need money. I don’t see how a writer who is struggling will do this. People are saying writers shouldn’t write for money, so if they don’t write for money how are they going to build structures. It is not a writer’s duty to build libraries same as it is not a doctor’s duty to build hospitals where people can come and get free treatment. It is not the car owners’ duty to make sure roads are tarred. There are things that are the government’s duty that’s why people pay taxes. There are things the government should provide. It may not be a basic amenity like power and the likes, but reading is very, very important. It’s just that in Nigeria things are so dysfunctional that we end up doing things ourselves. There is no power so you buy a private generator; the roads are bad so you tar the road in front of your house, the universities are bad so people build private universities and people with money send their children there. We are not holding the government to task for things they are supposed to do and we are doing them for ourselves so that when one governor tars a road people will start praising him.
What should writers do in view of the challenge thrown by a prominent person here urging writers to challenge the people in power with their writing?
That person hasn’t read enough. Writers have always been holding up the mirror. If you read any book coming out of Nigeria, the theme might not be bad government but it will always feature there. Look at Igoni [Barret’s] short story collection. He doesn’t say I am going to write about corruption in the civil service but you see it. That person hasn’t read enough or is ignorant. People say if you want to know about a country, read their writers. Just pick up any contemporary Nigerian literature and you see all this social issues. Look at The Spider King’s Daughter, it’s a love story but you have all these issues in it.
Interestingly, you are mentioning recent books by Nigerian authors; you are very connected to what is happening here even though you have been living abroad for close to 20 years. How do you do that?
There is the internet. The world is not as big as it used to.
But you are busy writing, going to residencies and writers’ programmes. How do you find time for all these writers sending you manuscripts?
I try to make out time because that sort of encouragement was important to me while I was starting off. So while waiting to build the residency, which requires money, this is something I can do on my own and all it requires is time and patience so why not? Depending on how much time I have and how good the story is I can’t always be as detailed as I would want to. There are people that I simply can’t help and those that I can, I do what I can. I see writers as a kindred community and it is important that we encourage each other, especially young writers who have no idea where to go to or who to turn to.
From the huge sampling of work you have looked at, how would you assess the potential of writing coming through?
Most people who write to you are people who are genuinely interested in writing. But like in every profession, some are good and some are not. Some require more than mentoring and a few require mentoring and that is what I try to do.
Do you get this impression that there are too many people interested in writing; that there are too many writers?
I don’t think there are too many writers, I don’t know where the impression is coming from, I don’t know if the impression is coming because there are so many self published books, or self printed works not even self published. When I am talking about writers, I am not talking about people who have gone and printed 20 copies of their works. When we are talking about people who are real, real writers, there aren’t many of them. I don’t think we should be afraid of being overrun by writers because that isn’t going to happen. Even if there is one writer for every two people in Nigeria, it wouldn’t matter because people have different tastes.
We have all these writers coming up, we have the absence of publishing houses and we have talks of book going out of fashion and it’s not the e-book generation . . .
I don’t know if books are going out of fashion. My kids are younger than I am and they still read books.
Do you think the book in a printed form will continue to have relevance?
It will always have relevance. This is not the first time that someone would say the book is going out of fashion. The book will still be relevant for many, many years to come. There is something about holding a book in your hand that you can’t get from holding a kindle so if a 12 year old will tell me he doesn’t want a kindle and prefers a book, then it means the book is alive and well. Even in schools that are technologically advanced, they still ask children to read books. The e-book is going to be out of reach of many people.
You don’t see the e-book totally dominating the landscape anytime soon?
No, I don’t.
Is this for practical or sentimental reasons?
I just think there is something about the book, it’s not just about the printed words, it’s just what it is and it will be a very long time before we start thinking of the book as something we can scroll through on the e-reader rather than physically turning the pages. There is no reason why both books can’t coexist. We have had the audio book for long and all you have to do is to play it and lie down and listen and that hasn’t pushed traditional book out.


A Shawow’s Quandary (Flash fiction)


For two weeks I watch the widow toil, trying to pick up the pieces of her life that would forever be incomplete, struggling to put food on the table and clothe her orphans. I have come to know her routine from sunrise to moonrise. She would wake up in the morning, have her bath, make breakfast, wash her children and dress them for school and then she would go to the school where she teaches and is paid peanuts at the end of the month.

But for two weeks that is all I could do – hide in the shadows and watch her, rummage through her garbage to find out exactly what she eats, what she uses and the drugs she takes for her ulcer. Several times I have sneaked into her house and seen precisely how she lives; like the struggling widow that she is. For two long weeks I stalk this poor, defenceless woman but could not find the courage to walk up to her and just…talk. How different things are now. Back then, in those days, all I would need was a minute to make the widow cease to exist.

Now I am haunted in my sleep by the faces  and death cries of the men I have slain in the name of doing my duty; protecting a self-serving dictatorship, silencing those that dared to have a contrary opinion, those who wanted change. In my wakefulness, I am troubled by thoughts of the families these unsung heroes have left behind. That was why I sought out this widow; because I knew her husband, because I knew exactly what happened to him on that night, because I think my atonement should start with her – perhaps then I will find the elusive peace to raise my own children, my family that cannot live with the penitent grouch I have become because they do not understand. I have no hope of making heaven and I feel as if the angels eye me with disapproval. I could almost feel their icy glare lashing me.

But watching this widow with her simple modishness, her charm that allows her to smile through her suffering with tears in her eyes, with her need for help that her pride would not let her ask for, my fear for her ebbed and in its place other feelings blossomed – sympathy, respect, admiration and then that.

But how does one approach a woman like that and say, ‘Madame, I knew your husband. I have read his file. I also know what happened to him that night, the night of the accident. Well, it wasn’t an accident really because I was there. I was driving behind him in my big, black, monstrous jeep. I stalked him, just as I have been stalking you these couple of weeks and when I had him on the lonesome road; I ran his car off the road, into the old, tin mining pit. I came out of the jeep and lit a cigarette while I watched the cold, murky waters close him in. I smoked and waited just long enough to make sure that he would never come up alive. And then I drove away, playing Brian Adam’s Summer of ‘69, feeling like one who had just fallen in love. The next morning, I felt so proud when my boss, the colonel, said, ‘Excellent piece of work, soldier, you deserve a commendation. ’

How does one tell a woman all these things and then say, ‘But … I love you, Madame’?