21 February 2013

Kenya: Chris Wanjala and David Maillu - Birds of a Different Feather

South Sudanese literary scholar Prof Taban lo Liyong came to Kenya in 1968, or thereabout, from the University of Iowa, to take up a teaching job at the University of Nairobi.

Soon he became part of a nascent group of intellectuals comprising students and lecturers from the then English Department, and journalists who met fortnightly at the famous Paa ya Paa arts gallery founded by Tanzanian immigrant Elimo Njao.

Before long, the arts gallery relocated to Ridgeways outside the city, and the group moved their sessions to the University's Halls of Residence, in Elgon House.

Chris Wanjala, then a sophomore, had been elected chairman of the group that went by the name of University of Nairobi Students Writers Workshop.

As chairman, Chris collected poems and short stories from students and lecturers, reviewed, stenciled and prepared them for publishing and discussions. Chris would glide more and more to the murky world of appraisals and embrace literary criticism as his first mistress.

His teacher Taban was fond of him, and would incite his student, "give them Chris, give them!" the euphemism between the two scholars when they engaged in literary discourse and polemics in the newspaper.

But Prof Taban lo Liyong never came to the defense of his student when his adversaries hit back. What he did was to advise, "Chris, when you're asked questions do not answer them all."

Those who have worked and read Prof Wanjala will tell you, he is as dangerous as the puff-udder, which, when attacked, will unfurl its seven fangs one after the other before striking. So who is his adversary?

When I interviewed Prof Wanjala and veteran writer David Maillu for TV documentaries, I found that both writers bring different experiences, perspectives, and ideas that enrich our literary heritage.

If the two had not been born in these parts, we would be missing something of a patrimony. Maillu combines painting and music with writing.

He is a haunting storyteller. Maillu is best known for his early books, After 4:30, My Dear Bottle, and Unfit for Human Consumption, which made him popular, albeit with the label "naughty" and "pornographic."

These books have over the years overshadowed his other works especially his interest in Ancient Africa, and the more recent books such as Man from Machakos, a story about the resilience of the human spirit, and Behind the Presidential Motorcade, the author's personal account about the collapse of his publishing house Comb Books with an egregiously tribal government as his tormentor. But Maillu has a loathing for university dons.

Wanjala on the other hand is an icon in literary circles. He combines scholarship and history with writing. Among his critical works are Standpoints on African Literature, the premier anthology of critical essays ever to be published in East Africa, The Season of Harvest, a response to Taban's claim of literary barrenness, For Home and Freedom, which evolved from his PhD studies, and a novel Drums of Death.

A moment with Wanjala will reveal in him a diorama; a rare literary historian bridging the early generation and the new breed of writers. At any point you will find him reading manuscripts and new books by the two distinct categories of writers.

"A critic," says Wanjala, "need be a lover of literature and ultimately a practising debater on books as they arrive and on issues literary as they emerge."

It is the requirement to debate authors and texts that makes the critic a god of imprecation and fate. Discussions lead the critic to appraise, define, compare, and categorise texts. There are different theories and methodologies of appraising a text, but they will constitute a description of style and an appreciation of content.

Wanjala says that when he was introduced to African-American writer Chester Himes in his undergraduate days by Prof Angus Calder, he noted in the texts a "deviation" from "serious" to "popular" literature.

One has obvious entertainment motif and the one, issues. In these matters, Prof Wanjala is Chief Priest Ezeulu and David Maillu is his adversary Nwaka in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God.

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