Sometimes I listen to speakers during writer’s workshops and I am left grieved by what their proposals as to what Kenyan writers should focus on to be published. The picture they ask writers to paint in a bid to represent ‘Kenya’ I would say is completely out of line and very much unnecessary. Why is there such a need to constrict the writer’s choices so much as to leave them dry and with nothing to write about? A while ago I remember having a discussion with a friend of mine, wondering as to what exactly is the Kenyan romance story. Is it possible to find a book that does not go all Mexican Alehandro or George of the Jungle , giving us something in the middle of these two? Something to fit into the locks.

I remember the love stories of David Maillu, set in the subtleness of the countryside where rendezvous would happen under a chosen tree. Here no act of love would surpass that of him carrying her on his back to cross the river or a line of army ants. This used to be the Kenyan story because the ‘shadiness’ and lack of civilisation in it qualified. However, that was a ‘back then’ story. Again, there were the Mills and Boons ; those with a cover of an immensely muscled man lifting an underdressed but over-cleavaged damsel. With time, the David Mailu girl and boy under a tree and the man and woman on the cover of Mills and Boon have come to unite. They have become masters of coffee dates, rave nights, blankets and wine, steamy Facebook chats, et al.

Unfortunately, some publishers and producers have refused to accept this and still want writers to walk slower than the hand of time and dig deep from the wells of history to create their stories. Why wouldn’t a publishing house like Longhorn accept to publish a story on chipsfungaism in Nairobi? Why wouldn’t they have such a story as a set book in high school as opposed to books about a Mwaura and Wambui in ‘The River Between’ who are scoffing away their life in the thick of a village that this student does not even identify with? Is it because it is an ‘obscene’ story? Why is it only a few publishers who can look at Nairobi Nights blog run by Sue as publishable material?  Because it is not African enough? Whatever happened to literature being the mirror of the society?

I don’t find it wrong to delve a hand into the bag of history and craft a story; it is good; it is one way of preserving our culture. However, when publishing firms make it the cutting line as to what should or should not be published, then we have a problem. Sometimes I think that the reason we do not have as many readers currently is because there really aren’t any books on the shelves that a present day Kenyan can read and identify with. There are no stories of our lives. The stories that they can identify with are now on blogs. They therefore turn to them. You can’t blame readers then if you will not give material that they want. It is probably essential for publishers to study the market well; try to establish why books are collecting dusts on the shelves of libraries and bookshops.

If you look at writers who have decided to defy the odds and even do self-publishing, as much as it is expensive, these books have sold immensely well. I am sure someone like Neema Mawiyoo has made quite a good handful of cash from Blue Mother Tongue. Hers is a book that tells the familiar Nairobi story.

At times, it is the strictness of these publishing houses that makes some of us pile up manuscripts after manuscripts in the dustbins of our minds because the restrictions they put on you will not even allow you to lift a leg. Well, unless you are recommended for publishing by the moguls, the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. Only then will a publisher look your way. However, until that time, if you want to be published by some of these houses, be ready to tell their story…the one set in the jungle where cow dung is fragrance and women spend their days pounding maize in mortar with pestle.