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"Why African and Caribbean writing feel un-intuitive to each other."

In 2008, more than forty years after he had been writer-in-residence at Uganda’s Makerere University, V.S. Naipaul appeared at an event there and made this curious observation: ‘Africa came to me intuitively. It was not by searching.’ This was a writer who would later declare England his ‘home’ and India the country of his ancestors – how would Africa come ‘intuitively’ to him if not through his Trinidadian origins? Although his statement is understandable considering the shared histories of colonisation and migration in Africa and the Caribbean, Naipaul came to Africa from his adopted ‘home’ of England. This simple fact highlights some of the reasons for the invisibility of Caribbean writing in African literary discourse and institutions.

This is especially true of East Africa. As I was becoming a writer in the Nairobi-based literary network Kwani? around 2005, and yet to become its editor, the writer that was most often discussed was Naipaul. Of particular fascination to the early Kwani? generation was the complexity of his spiky persona and refusal of political correctness, calling out contemporary Africa as a failure without its European backers. His disparaging of Trinidad as back ward was privately admired for its brutal honesty, even if no one would have publicly acknowledged this, and his unflinching account of his humiliations in England elicited sympathy and admiration. Many of my Kwani? writing generation could not deny similar mixed feelings towards Africa, even after similar experiences in the West as university students or visiting writers. But above all, Naipaul seemed to demonstrate how to be postcolonial with out being evangelical – how to take to a global writing stage on one’s own terms. Kwani?’s then editor, the late Binyavanga Wainaina, was one who arguably followed Naipaul in developing his own brand of public notoriety.

This Naipaulian dominance might explain why contemporary Caribbean writers like Patrick Chamoiseau, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid and Kei Miller remain largely unknown in East Africa outside the literary intelligentsia. We came to know Marlon James through his Booker prize-winning A History of Seven Killings, but his next book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, set in an imaginary country not unlike Kenya, is largely unknown. African and Caribbean writing, in other words, feel un-intuitive to each other.

During my own tenure as Editor at Kwani? after Binyavanga, I always sought to publish Kenyans first, and then in concentric geographic circles, to contextualise this within East Africa, and then the African continent and the diaspora. If there was room, we would also publish writing from anywhere else that engaged the aesthetics and themes that we were addressing at the time. I was also keen to find artists and photographers who were doing something new that not only fit into Kwani?’s larger aesthetic project but also as a collaboration between text and image. This would become singularly important to the Kwani? journal’s visual look over time.

With this approach, we published photo-essays in the Kwani?5 twin issues on the contested polls of 2007 and the violence that followed. We curated a collaboration between photographers and writers on Nairobi, as a separate book from the journal, and then held an exhibition. This provided a way of looking at content beyond text and engaging with new visual spaces and artists. So, when I received unsolicited photos from a photographer called Louis Majanja who, after 18 years in the U.S., had travelled back to Kenya through the Caribbean and Latin America to capture the lives of African descendants, I was excited. Majanja had been away from home for 18 years, hustling in San Francisco, in what was then still the new digital world. Not only would this be the first time we’d published anything from the Caribbean, after trying to find ways of doing so in several Kwani? issues, but I also thought we could push for an exhibition on the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America to complement the full issue of Kwani? dedicated to the same theme. Like the photos of post-elections violence or of 24hr Nairobi we sought to reconceptualise the Kwani? take on the Kenyan and African diaspora with more than text. The photos from Jamaica, Colombia’s Caribbean coast and Guyana were especially powerful. But as we went to press with the journal and turned our attention to the exhibition there was muted interest from our donors. Media reviews on Majanja’s take on African life in the Caribbean were unenthusiastic. Majanja even played around with the idea of self-financing a small exhibition from his own pocket but I deterred him as I still believed the idea would catch on after success with other collaborations between images and text, and photographers and writers. Finally, we were forced to release the Kwani? issue with just a small sample of the photos that did not do justice to African experience in Jamaica, Guyana and the Caribbean coast that Majanja had captured and that few Kenyans seemed to know about. He eventually posted the photos online and, instead of interest in this work, he received overtures from individuals offering him banal work in taking images for their weddings. When I told Majanja that there was little traction getting anything going with more than the Kwani? journal, he smiled wryly and said: ‘We are just not proud of who we are. On my travels in Latin America and the Caribbean, whenever I met people of African descent and told them I was from the continent they were so happy. They asked me so many questions and told me how badly they wanted to see Africa. Those people I met out there, man they are proud of originating from Africa. Here, we just don’t get it.’ For me, this felt as intuitive a relationship as it got between the Caribbean and the continent. Only it was one-sided.

In 2017, I moved to England to teach at the University of Bristol. I knew Bristol was a melting pot of African and Caribbean diasporas and so expected to find more literary linkages between the two worlds. I was teaching creative writing at three places within a three-mile radius: the university, St Paul’s Learning Centre and the Barton Hill Community Centre. Students in my university classes were predominantly white and privileged, the community classes offered by the university at St Paul’s Learning Centre were filled with Black British writing students with a Caribbean background, while the Barton Hill classes were predominantly African and majority Somali. I decided to try a common reading list in all three spaces. Canonical short stories by writers like James Baldwin and Nadine Gordimer worked in all three, but Alice Munro and Raymond Carver suited the university but were not met with enthusiasm by all my off-campus students.

Since we were not yet in a curriculum decolonising moment in Bristol, in my second year of teaching, after reading Nadifa Mohamed with the Barton Hill classes and Pauline Melville with St Paul’s students, I focused on trying to find common ground between the two – a Somali-British novelist and a British-Guyanese one. When we looked at Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy, in the Barton Hill classes, it struck me how many of the Somali participants (especially the older men) became nostalgic from the early scenes of the novel in Somaliland and Yemen, while everybody else marvelled at the travels of the main character and his increasingly cosmopolitan world view from stop-over experiences in Marseille, Hamburg, and finally Cardiff, where he lands as a new immigrant. I still wanted to believe in the ‘intuitive’ relationship of African and Caribbean literatures and looked for writers from African and Caribbean backgrounds based in the UK who captured common immigrant experiences. These were fewer than I expected: Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and short story collection Knock On Wood seemed the only examples. Extensive research did turn up texts of African and Caribbean experiences that talked to each other, but they remain un-anthologised and outside the canon.

Yet I remain hopeful that Bristol’s current decolonising moment can bring the common experiences of African and Caribbean communities into the mainstream. Nadifa Mohammed and British-Ugandan Jennifer Makumbi, whose African-based novels I taught at Barton Hill, are writing new work about their UK experience. African literary festivals such as Aké in Nigeria regularly invite Caribbean writers. At Bristol University, I’m meeting more postgraduate students of Caribbean origin seeking to do their research in texts that talk to both their Caribbean and African identities. We might be coming full circle – back to a time when a young Kenyan writer at the University of Leeds, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, elected to do an MA in Caribbean Literature.

Billy Kahora

Billy Kahora is a writer from Kenya. He is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol and also working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. He was Managing Editor of Kwani? Trust, a Nairobi based literary network, and edited 7 issues of the Kwani? journal and other Kwani? publications, including Nairobi 24 and Kenya Burning. He was also Kwani? Litfest Curator 2008-2015 and initiated the Kwani? Manuscript Prize. His work has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale, Vanity Fair and Kwani?. He has published a non-fiction novella, The True Story Of David Munyakei (2010), and a short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War (2019). His stories ‘Urban Zoning’ and ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2012 and 2014 respectively. He wrote the screen play for the movie Soul Boy and co-wrote Nairobi Half Life, both of which won Kalasha awards. He is working on a novel titled The Applications.

© Billy Kahora