The writing course is stimulating so much thought that I’m lying awake at night. It is an amazing journey but not a pleasant one. The idea is that after this week we all leave better prepared to describe a three dimensional character, but whether we can pull it off or not remains to be seen. Some of the writers in our class were pretty good in the first place.
The uncomfortable tendency for our tutor, the esteemed author Binyavanga Wainaina, to tell the assembled group that dreams of being a big selling author, fame and fortune simply won’t happen, is humbling. He’s obviously frustrated with his own career. He’s bitter.
‘These big name authors who churn out a book a year are not even writing them themselves. It is a marketing machine. Their publishers have invested in a focus group of ghost writers who construct stories in the author’s style too keep up with demand. What is more, the author attained success because they are marketable. To succeed you must be white‘ (this is the second time he has said this, all eyes look down at the desk once again and as the only white person in the class, I feel like a villain). He continues …
‘To sell books you must be attractive, so you look good on the dust cover of the book and in the newspapers and magazines that are pushing your novel, that is what is important. Therefore it is just not going to happen for an African writer.’
To be honest, I quite literally am the elephant in the room. Fellow students are young, in their twenties, they are cool and interesting. And interested in my blog, which is flattering. Then there is a retired headmaster and a very proper lady with grown up kids who is having a career break. I’m the only non-Kenyan in the room.
When we read out our descriptive pieces, the MauMau era is the theme for the latter lady. She’s reading out loud, an account from the life of her father or grandfather, depicting him standing in a hole dug into the dirt, waist deep in water, shackled with other prisoners. The headmaster’s piece is on the same theme. Torture during the MauMau. Terrific. I blush. I’m so not supposed to be here, the embodiment of early colonialist settlers. My story is about an old lady descending some steep steps to the sea along a coastal path in England. It’s not setting the classroom or my tutor alight by any stretch. The students write about nightclubs.
There’s a national holiday but our class is still on. A couple of students turn up late (I might also have been late by about 5 minutes). Binyavanga throws a fit and leaves the class in a huff without teaching us anything, making us all feel like we are 5 years old again. He comes back about 30 minutes later. Why is he there? He wants to teach Kenyans ‘how to write about Africa’ but not me. Hang on a minute, do I have ‘bored housewife‘ tattooed on my forehead? I wonder at his seething, suppressed anger. He even though he studied at the same British university as me (University of East Anglia UEA). To be honest, I was not there to study the famed creative writing MA (which has spawned so many great young authors) but was studying something else, however, we could be having shared jokes about the student union. Maybe he hated the experience.
I applaud the success of ‘blog to book’ stories like ‘Wife in the North’ and ‘Petite Anglaise’ who seem to have had only to jiggle their blogs around a little to make a book, rather than face a combative writing course led by a Kenyan author who would really rather you weren’t there. I wonder if they re-wrote their material seven times until reaching the final product as we are being told one must do to seek our best, most evocative writing? I guess that anything that stretches you is always worth doing. A fellow student said: ‘you can be drowning in heaps of praise but only criticism will save you’
or something like that?! – Not that I am bitter or anything of course!
Binyavanga Wainaina – Short bio
- Caine prize winner for his satirical article: ‘How to write about Africa‘
- Co-founded Kwani? Trust which prodcues a quarterly publication which is a showcase for East African writing.
- Novel – ‘One Day I will write about this place. A memoir‘ autobiography written about growing up in Nakuru
- How to write about Africa ii – another blasting on how ignorant ‘westerners’ refer to Africa. (which I kind of dig – and reminds me of my current favourite website: Barbie Savior – The Doll that saved Africa
*Note: I updated this post in Jan 2017. It took me that long to pluck up the courage to reveal my tutor’s name and add a bit more detail.
Photo credit: Unsplash.com