The canon of Kenyan literature is one of the richest on the African continent, and Kenyan writers have played a decisive role in the promotion of African writing. They have also fostered a thriving local publishing scene which is slowly but surely winning young Kenyan writers the international exposure they deserve, as the success of the Storymoja Hay Festival reveals. These ten writers show the depth of Kenyan fiction writing, from iconic figures to up and coming stars.
An icon of not only Kenyan but African literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o casts a large shadow over the canon of literary works in Kenya, and his forthright opinions about language, publishing and writing make him a vital presence within the African literary world. His early years in Kenya were shaped by the specter of colonialism, with the violence of the Mau Mau War encroaching on his upbringing. He studied first in Uganda and then in the UK, where he wrote his first novel Weep, Not Child, a document of the effects of the Mau Mau War on ordinary Kenyan citizens, and a coruscating critique of colonial oppression. His most celebrated work remains A Grain of Wheat, which focuses on the Kenyan struggle for independence, and weaves a complex web of betrayal, deceit and bitter rivalry beneath the seemingly celebratory occasion of Kenya’s independence. In recent years Ngũgĩ has chosen to write in the Kenyan languages Gikuyu and Swahili and has published several works in these two languages over the course of last few decades. He remains a fiercely outspoken individual, who is unafraid to take on either the Kenyan authorities or the western media, and his decision to write in African languages rather than for the far more lucrative English language market reveals his truly iconoclastic nature.
A provocative figure who has developed a reputation satirizing western perceptions of Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina is a unique presence in Kenyan literature. He has become something of a figurehead for a younger generation of Kenyan and East African writers through his role in founding Kwani?, a literary network and magazine which brings together some of the best writers from across the continent. Wainaina’s debut One Day I Will Write About This Place was a memoir of his youth. It has been described as ‘a Kenyan Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and it instantly thrust him into the literary limelight after it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as a part of her book club. Wainaina also found fame for his satirical work How To Write About Africa, which took a scabrous look at depictions of Africa in Western literature, and included such suggestions as ‘in your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.’ Wainaina remains a high profile figure in the Kenyan literary scene, as readers wait to discover who his next satirical target will be.
A founding member of the Writer’s Association of Kenya, and the first African female writer to be published in English, Grace Ogot has been a pioneering figure throughout her career. Born in Kenya’s Central Nyanza district in 1930, Ogot published her first short stories in the early 1960s and her first novel, The Promised Land, in 1966. This depicted the migration of a young farmer and his wife from Kenya to Tanzania, and the tribal conflict in which they become embroiled. Ogot uses this narrative to question notions of female identity in East Africa, and to subvert the concept of the ideal African wife. She went on from this auspicious debut to release a string of celebrated works including Land Without Thunder (1968), The Other Woman (1976), and The Island of Tears (1980).
An up and coming writer who was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2006, Muthoni Garland is also the founding member of StoryMoja, a writer’s collective and publishing house based in Nairobi. She is most famous for her works Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori, which documents a troubled marriage against the backdrop of a rapidly modernizing Kenya, and Tracking the Scent of My Mother, which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. Beyond that her organization StoryMoja has given a boost to the Kenyan literary scene, and has fostered the careers of many promising writers. She has played a central role in organizing the Storymoja Hay Festival, which aims to celebrate and promote the best of Kenyan and East African literature. Garland’s most recent publication is an anthology of short stories, entitled Helicopter Beetles.
An inspiring figure who has published work in Binyavanga Wainaina’s literary magazine Kwani?, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 for her story Weight of Whispers. This depicted a Rwandan aristocrat who fled to Kenya following the 1994 genocide, and is a masterful, multi-layered portrayal of the political and social chaos of that time. She has published numerous short stories since and has also been recognized for her role as a cultural activist and conservationist. Adhiambo Owuor has also published a novel, Dust, which ranges over the contemporary history of Kenya, offering a stark portrayal of the lingering effect of conflict and colonialism on a people, and their individual identities.
A prolific writer who began publishing works in the 1970s alongside Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Grace Ogot, Meja Mwangi has developed a career writing works which reflect on the history and social conditions of his native Kenya. Novels such as Taste of Death and Carcase for Hounds from the mid-1970s are exhilarating yet tragic depictions of the resistance movement in the Kikuyu highlands against the British, while Kill Me Quick, Going Down River Road and The Cockroach Dance are depictions of the tragic persistence of poverty in Kenya and the difficulty in maintaining a livelihood, or even earning enough to eat. Although Mwangi’s subject matter may often be grim, he writes with a garrulous wit which never allows the more depressing elements of his work to overcome its human qualities.
A playwright and literature scholar who spent his career dissecting the corroding influence of modernity on African communities, Francis D. Imbuga is still widely known throughout Kenya and his works are often the subject of literary study. His most celebrated works are Aminata and Betrayal in the City, both of which focus on power structures within post-colonial Kenya, and relate the ways in which traditional hierarchies and conceptions of femininity intersect with new forms of power and dominance. He also published a novel, Miracle of Remera, which dealt with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its devastating effect on communities in Africa. Imbuga taught literature at Kenyatta University, and was a lifelong exponent of East African literary forms. He passed away in 2012.
Born in England in 1928, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye travelled to Kenya in 1954 to work as a missionary, and settled there for the rest of her life, developing a career as a writer and as a proponent of Kenyan literature. She was hugely prolific as a writer and also revealed the range of her talent by writing and publishing not only novels but also poetry and short stories. Her most celebrated work is Coming to Birth, which charts the story of a young woman coming of age against the backdrop of a nation attaining independence from colonialism. It was awarded the Sinclair Prize upon release in 1986, and remains a potent interpretation of the mixture of hope and fear that accompanied Kenya’s independence. Other works by Macgoye include Murder in Majengo, Street Life, The Present Moment, A Farm Called Kishinev and Song of Nyarloka and Other Poems.
Margaret Ogola was both a celebrated author and a doctor, who dedicated her life to the treatment of HIV/AIDS in East Africa. Her literary talent was revealed when she released her first novel The River and the Source, in 1994. This epic tale tells the story of three generations of women in a traditional Luo community, and relates the changing dynamics of the community and the women’s shifting place within it. The River and the Source was awarded multiple awards, including the Jomo Kenyatta Literature Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize ‘Best First Book in the Africa Region’. Ogola went on to publish a sequel, I Swear by Apollo, which focuses on the lives of AIDS orphans in Kenyan society. Ogola was notable for her achievements in the medical and humanitarian field as well as the literary one, and was awarded the Familias Award for Humanitarian Service for her work with HIV/AIDS patients. She tragically passed away in 2011, at the age of only 53.
Another young author who has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize, Lily Mabura has developed a career as an academic. She currently works as Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Sharjah, alongside her literary pursuits. Mabura is best known for her collection of short stories, How Shall We Kill the Bishop and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Fiction Prize. This varied collection contains a selection of brief, resonant tales which take the reader from Kenya, to Bosnia, Namibia, the Congo and the USA, and reveal Mabura’s ability to portray the human stories behind the narrative of globalization. Mabura has also published a novel, The Pretoria Conspiracy, which was awarded the National Book Week Literary Award for the Best First Novel, and a selection of children’s books, all of which have marked her out as one to watch within Kenya’s thriving literary scene.