‘I became a writer because I’m a reader’

‘I became a writer because I’m a reader’

Malawian writer
Stanley Onjezani Kenani was a memorable participant at the 2010 Caine
Workshop, held earlier this year in Kenya. He regularly gave impromptu
mini performances, quoting long lines from Shakespeare’s plays and the
canonical poets; and listeners could only marvel at the evidence of a
lifetime of reading and the writer’s feat of memory.

Kenani’s short
story, ‘For Honour’, won the third prize in the 2007 HSBC/SA PEN
competition (Henrietta Rose-Innes and Petina Gappah pipped him to first
and second places respectively). The judge, J.M Coetzee, described ‘For
Honour’ as “a deceptively simple story that finds a new and creative
way of approaching the tragic subject matter of AIDS.” The story
garnered even more acclaim on being shortlisted for the 2008 Caine
Prize for African Writing. Kenani’s poetry credentials are also
impressive, having performed on the same stage as the legendary poets
of nationhood, Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish and South African Dennis

Early literature heroes

Asked how he became
a writer, Kenani initially says, “It’s a very difficult question.” But
then he offers an answer, saying, “I became a writer because I’m a
reader. I have a passion for reading widely.” He cites his first
literature heroes as “Malawian writers who are not known in the rest of
the world: namely Jolly Max Ntaba and Willie Zingani. They were huge
influences on me.”

Kenani grew up in a
Malawian village where there were no libraries, but the teachers
fuelled his love of reading by giving him books by Ntaba and Zingani.
Particular favourites were Ntaba’s ‘Chichewa’ (“a sort of magical
realism in our language”) and ‘Mtima Sukhuta’ (the heart is never
satisfied). At the age of 12, Kenani moved to the town of Kasungo,
where he kept up his love of reading by borrowing from the local
library. “I ended up reading all the books in that library. I was able
to read Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, which I found very
interesting. I still have huge passages in my head,” he says – and
renders as if on cue the first paragraph of Achebe’s classic novel.
“Very moving book,” he declares.

Once President of
the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU), Kenani recalls that, “It was [at the
age of 12] that I began to write short stories.” The Malawi News
published short stories every Saturday; the young Kenani could not
afford the newspaper, but luckily, a friend used to buy it and let him
read. The name of the friend is supplied; names of people and places as
well as dates are always drawn from Kenani’s huge memory vault, so a
conversation with him is a narrative in itself.

Quote after quote

“I kept improving.
I wanted to write a novel even by the age of 15,” he continues. By now,
he had moved on to secondary education in a new town, Dedza. It was “a
Catholic School, and it had a beautiful library, well stocked.” The
budding writer took science subjects but read voraciously in his spare
time. Two books read around this period, remain significant for him:
‘Bulldog Drummond’ and ‘The Black Gang’ by Sapper (the pseudonym for
Cyril McNeile). “These are books that I’ve read repeatedly since Form
One – even till now. They teach me about putting humour in my writing,”
he informs.

As a student of
Accountancy at the University of Malawi, he found himself reading a lot
of poetry. It is at this point in the conversation that he quotes, with
a beatific smile on his face, immortal lines from Dylan Thomas and W.H.
Auden. “Marvellous poet,” Kenani says of Auden, adding that, “I also
love Robert Herrick”. Cue another quote, this time from Herrick’s ‘To
the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ and ‘Delight in Disorder’.

Malawi’s most famous poet

Kenani became a
practising poet in his first year at university, and says he got a lot
of encouragement from “Malawi’s most famous poet, Benedicto Malunga.”
But, isn’t Jack Mapanje Malawi’s most famous poet? “Jack Mapanje is the
most famous poet internationally. But when you talk of poetry in
Malawi, in the villages, everywhere, the household name is Benedicto
Malunga,” comes the answer. “I love Malunga’s poetry,” Kenani adds,
mentioning the former’s “very rare” collection, ‘The Haunting Wind’.
“It was Malunga’s finest. I had it in university – a huge influence.”

The writer’s
journey into publication began during his secondary school days. He
wrote plays and performed them in his own school and neighbouring ones,
all the way to national drama festivals. These were the first steps for
the poet who has since performed at many international literature
festivals including: Arts Alive (Johannesburg), Poetry Africa (Durban),
Harare International Festival of the Arts (Zimbabwe), the Struga Poetry
Evenings (Macedonia) and the London Literature Festival. The notion of
performance characterises every reading by Kenani, who brings every
nuance of the fictional character to life with his voice.

He had his first
publication while still in college, in 1996, after a friend lent him a
laptop to type with, “because the Malawi News wouldn’t accept
longhand.” Having his work featured in the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine
in 2001, was “very encouraging,” he recalls. “I began to feel that even
on the international stage, people can read my short stories and
understand them.”

The SA PEN Award
was another milestone: “It’s not every day that a Nobel laureate like
J.M Coetzee reads my story and commends it.” He describes the 2008
Caine nod as “a point of no return. I will carry on writing.” The
shortlist earned Kenani a place on the Caine Prize Writing Workshop,
which he finally took up this year. “I found the (workshop) experience
extremely interesting. It has taught me a lot. The animateurs,
Veronique Tadjo and Jamal Mahjoub, were quite incredible,” he says.

The future

Currently acting
treasurer for the Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA, headquarters
in Accra, Ghana), Stanley Kenani has lived in Lilongwe (Malawi),
Ethiopia and Nairobi (Kenya); and now resides in Geneva, Switzerland.
He has an unpublished poetry volume, ‘Slaughterhouse of Sanity’; and is
busy putting together a short story collection, having recently found
an agent. Several of his poems will appear in an upcoming anthology of
poems translated in Chinese, ‘No Serenity Here’. Also featured in the
anthology are Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and other greats like South
African national poetry laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile and Ghana’s Ama
Atta Aidoo.

Looking to the
future, Kenani’s focus is firmly on fiction writing. Asked why, he
replies, “One of my colleagues who has been following my writing told
me I’m a better prose writer than as poet. I just took it as naked

Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s short story, ‘Happy Ending’ appears in the
2010 Caine Prize anthology, ‘A Life in Full’. His new short story,
‘Vehicles of the President’ will be published in next Sunday’s edition
of The Lagos Review.

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