Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Lunchtime Visit to Kenya

I didn’t particularly like her story, the one that won the Caine Prize.  I guess it’s good I’m not the judge.  It’s not that I didn’t like her writing – I was rather ambivalent, in the American sense of the word, about it.  But, I didn’t care for the topic.  It was depressing, gruesome, death-filled in its ghost and background characters that were nearly ghosts.  She was going to be reading from that story, and I knew that, but I went anyway.

Some small part of me hoped that hearing the story in the author’s voice would make me like the story more.  The rest of me, well the rest of the part that had caused me to get up from my desk and clip through the dangerously smooth tunnels under the old buildings, justified it as “how could I not go?”  What an opportunity, to take a lunch hour, a common daily happenstance that nearly everyone has, to listen to authors, scholars, intriguing people from all corners of the globe, talk about their passions.

So here I sat, in the Africa and Middle East Reading Room of the Library of Congress, listening to the 2014 Caine Prize winner, Okwiri Oduor from Kenya reading a story I didn’t care for in a dull unpoetic voice.  She would say later in the interview portion, “I used to fancy myself a poet, but now I know better.”  I agreed, and simultaneously felt connected to this young – younger than Munchkinhead – African woman with a style simultaneously flamboyant and subdued echoing of Whoopi Goldberg, thick twists and nose ring with Keds and dreary faded navy capris.
The interviewer started with “When did you start writing?”  Why do they ask this question.  Is there anyone who does not write as a child, anyone who has access to paper and does not take to it with a writing implement?  Of course, Okwiri gave the expected “as a child” answer and then continued.  She spoke of her muses, her influences, her hopes, her reality:  Africa is bustling with young writers and burgeoning support systems, reading groups, writing groups, publishers, etc.  She spoke of rediscovering Swahili literature.  She spoke of the continent, not of Kenya, finally effusing emotion as she expressed her desires for unfettered visa-free travel and the equivalent of “in-state tuition” for all Africans at any country's universities.  A true pan-African.  I shall check back in a decade.  I’ve known many Pan-Africans in their 20s.  By their 30s, they view this idyllic panacea of Pan-ism as foolish.

By the end, I still had no love for “My Father’s Head.”  However, I had found an interest in Okweri as an author and imagine I will seek out her future work, particularly if she returns kuandika kiSwahili as she did years ago.  And I’ll look for her kiSwahili translation of “The Last Wave.”

She’s about to start a writing program at the University of Iowa.  I really wonder how this shy, Afri-centric, bold woman is going to survive in Iowa City.  I expect she’ll find herself rather bored and lonely with few familiarities.  I wanted to hug her and tell her she’s brave for going.

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