I’ve started a couple of posts in the last week only to find myself half way through with no obvious end point. I’ll have an idea but no follow through. My thought process goes something like this:
I should do a post about the triumphalist langauge used for Africa at the moment and compare it to similar American writing in the 19th century. Then I can say that this is an indicator of the 21st century being the ‘African’ century. But, no, wait, this is the Chinese century isn’t it? Ok, so maybe the 22nd century will be, but, then again, it would be a pretty ridiculous thing to try to say in less than 1000 words. Hmmm.
So I end up with a bunch of Walt Whitman quotes, vague notes and a missed deadline. Now, this happens to everyone and normally it passes by itself. I always find that reading something new and interesting, relevant or otherwise, can help me focus again. With this in mind, I headed down to the local Nakumatt (large chain supermarket) in search of a book. I didn’t want to go looking for one on my list, I wanted one to jump out at me and pique my interest.
Almost all of them did but for the wrong reason.
My local Nakumatt is a particularly big one. It fills three floors and offers practically everything: from food and drink to solar panels and industrial catering equipment. Next to the magazines and within sight of the music section, there are two rotating book stands – like something you’d get sunglasses on. There are probably more than 150 books there. When I looked, not a single one was by a non-Western writer, let alone a Kenyan author.
There were two auto-biographies of English cricketers on there. Two.
Most of the books were pulp thrillers and crime fiction, like a similar stand in an English supermarket. Exactly like that, in fact, filled with the same authors.
The truth is that western readers are crucial for any African writer who is looking for success today, and it is inevitable that the west will continue to determine the value and worth of literature from the African continent.
If a Kenyan company as large and successful as Nakumatt offers books in its stores it is not for charity. This must be a product worth carrying, something that benefits them to sell. Do they choose to sell Western writers to African audiences because African writing doesn’t sell? Does the auto-biography of Geoffrey Boycott genuinely make them more profit than, say, the recently released Binyavanga Wainaina memoir?
I should say that these are not the sum of books offered by my local Nakumatt – the second floor has a wider bookstore – but they are the most visible and accessible books, in prime location by the checkout counters. These were featured products.
I hope it was oversight, not business acumen, that filled those book stands.
Seeing them gave me another idea for a blog post but, once again, I find myself with no end result, just questions. Why were these decisions made? What do they mean? Does the source of available culture necessarily do any harm? Maybe Kenyan shoppers should be offered the latest Danielle Steel, not expected to embrace Kenyan writers because of their nationality?
But they are, at least, interesting questions I’d like to hear some response to. And that’ll do for now.