Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Novuyo Tshuma's Flirtations with Nairobi

from www.panorama.co.zw

It's a sepia tinted afternoon as we speed from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport, headed for the Fairview Hotel, situated near the city-centre. There seems to be a lot of activity here; construction everywhere, the skeletons of buildings in progress. Nairobi has the writhing vibrancy of Harare; the hum of traffic, the post-colonial ambitions of glossy architecture and inhabitants who throng the streets with urgent purpose.
The coming week is any writer's treat; five days of literary events organised by The British Council, Kwani, the innovative East African literary initiative, and GRANTA, UK's leading literary magazine.

I am grateful to British Council for sponsoring my trip, and my stay at the sparkling Fairview Hotel; I have flown in from South Africa and am to meet, among others, fellow Zimbabweans Jane Morris and Brian Jones of amaBooks. Jane and Brian are part of the Programmers' Workshop, which runs concurrently with our Writers' Workshop. This literary feast includes the launch of the latest GRANTA Issue 'Best of Young British Novelists 2013', a three-day fiction writing workshop, a lecture by visiting writers Nadifa Mohamed and Adam Foulds as well as a 2013 elections symposium put together by Kwani Trust.

There is a tingling feeling of having been here before, an intimate sense of having experienced this space and its people before; was it in Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina's evocative memoir 'One Day I Will Write About This Place'?

The fiction workshop begins on the morning of the 19th, with Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Editor of GRANTA, chairing the proceedings. With her is Billy Kahora, Managing Editor of Kwani, and the two guest writers, UK based Nadifa Mohamed and Adam Foulds, both of whom are on GRANTA's 2013 Best of Young British Novelists list.

There are 19 workshop participants; 15 Kenyan writers and four visiting writers from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda, myself included. The interaction with high profile editors and experienced writers is like a chipping away from a young writer of the crusty parts, a refining that sharpens writing focus. The workshop hones the craft of building a story, much in the same way one builds a house, building upon the foundation of plot a slab of setting, sturdy walls of language, cemented by effective research and airy windows for that clear-eyed characterisation. The gabbled roof is decorated by a writer's distinct style.

The symposium on Kenya's 2013 elections reminds me of Zimbabwe's own upcoming Presidential elections. Kenya and Zimbabwe seem to follow intersecting trajectories in the history of their elections; in 2008, when Zimbabwe spent an inordinate time without a President, it was dubbed “another Kenya”, seeing as Kenya had had a similar experience.

What is a space for a writer without a taste of its culture? Lunch at Campia, an Ethiopian restaurant - the tongue introduced to new tastes; injera (bitter pan-cake dough, which is eaten like sadza), tibtib (spicy meat dish) and zilzil (roasted meat dish). An evening at a dinner hosted by Kwani spent as a Maasai Woman, in a Kanga and a beaded bracelet which I am told Maasai women never take off; it is a marriage gift, much like a wedding ring. And a bag plump with books; intersections with the cultures of the world, any writer's delight.

What does one take away from the experience? Invaluable teachings, fresh ways of telling stories, new friendships, animating interactions with space... All of these beaded in memory, to one day embroider a fictitious truth.
The musky air, farting traffic and yellow lights as we drive to the airport on the evening of the 24th, remind me of a place called home. Strange, this, as I'm no longer sure where that is. - By Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.

*Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (pictured) is the author of Shadows. Her stories have won the Yvonne Vera Award and been published in various collections, including Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe.  She has been a participant in both the Caine Prize and Farafina Trust Writing Workshops. 

She holds a BComm in Economics and Finance from the University of Witwatersrand, and is a Maytag Fellow for MFA Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.

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