About the blog
“Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? ” — Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa
There are no lions in Nairobi. Nor are there lions in most books by Africans. In the literary world lions are mainly the preserve of foreigners who write about the Africa of their fantasies — big, wild, open, untamed. This Africa, as Binyavanga Wainaina writes, exists as a place for foreign people — people like me — to pursue their own freedom and self-actualization. Needless to say, this is an Africa that does not have much space for Africans.
When I write about Africa and African literature I write as an observer and critic. I’m excited by what people are writing here and how they’re making their words heard within their society. This writing deserves attentive, honest, sensitive, critical, reflexive, and extended consideration, not only by the people of Africa to whom the writing is often addressed, but by engaged readers abroad as well. This blog is part of what I’m doing to encourage and facilitate that kind of reading.
I’ll be posting mostly about African literature — reviews of new and old work, ideas about current trends and debates in literary studies, comments on literary events, and so on. I’m interested in the way literature circulates through society and how that affects the relationships between author, reader and text, so I’ll be commenting on that too. I might throw in some random thoughts about African cultures, academia, American politics, Nairobi, Judaism, origami, etc. Stay tuned.
How does a Jewish boy from the suburbs of Miami wind up studying literature in Nairobi?
I’ve been reading and studying African literature for about a decade, since an inspired professor showed me what was what. I was first hooked by the stylistic mastery that I found in writers like Bessie Head, J.M. Coetzee, and Mariama Bâ. I also identified with the sensibility I found in so many African books of being caught between cultures, of being not quite one thing or another. It’s a sensibility that I knew and inhabited from growing up as a Jew in America, and I was delighted and moved to see it approached through different eyes. And I also gravitated to the powerful orientation within African literature towards truth, justice, and self-knowledge.
I first visited Africa in 2004, studying and exploring around South Africa and Zimbabwe. Since then I’ve spent about 2 months a year (on average) studying, traveling, and reading my way around the continent. In the process I’ve expanded my taste in local literature, from the esoteric (Dambudzo Marechera) to the popular (John Kiriamiti). In particular I got very excited by what I was reading from Kenya, especially the hugely ambitious new work that has blossomed in the last decade.
I’m attracted to Kenyan writing primarily because Kenya has produced some of the most thoughtful and compelling work when it comes to thinking about the role of literature in (African) society. This has always been an issue for me — maybe because as a readerly kid I felt acutely that the beautiful and intimate worlds I created with books were rejected or simply ignored by most of the people around me. Being in Kenya and studying Kenyan literature help me speak to that deep-seated issue. I’m currently writing my doctoral dissertation on one aspect of that issue, specifically the relationship between literature and consumer culture.