‘A LITERARY CRITIC IS THE AUTHORS BEST FRIEND’

Of all the job changes that Ken Walibora has gone through – schoolteacher, probation officer, author, broadcaster, professor – he describes the shift from journalism (he worked as a news presenter at NTV) to academia as the most painful.

“I loved broadcast journalism but it had lost its allure and novelty so I yearned for something mentally stimulating, challenging and more riveting. I also wanted a quiet life away from the limelight,” he said.

According to Prof Walibora, being an academic has fulfilled his desire for mental stimulation and engagement. Indeed, after leaving the media, Walibora studied for two masters degrees — African-American and African Studies, and Comparative Cultural Studies — concurrently and earned them on the same day at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Just before he completed his masters degree in Comparative Cultural Studies, the university offered him a tenure-track assistant professorship, which means that before he is employed permanently at the university, he has to fulfil “certain terms within a given period of time.” He got this position, which he says is coveted by PhD holders in the US, after an “exceedingly competitive and rigorous elimination process from a pool of richly accomplished candidates.”

Since 2009, Walibora has split his time between teaching, research and representing the Department of African Languages at the University of Wisconsin Madison. The professor, known for his impeccable Kiswahili, actually teaches literature in English.

“My competence in Swahili is an added ingredient but is not a necessity. It is my competence as a literary critic that gives me the job.”

Quoting British literary critic Terry Eagleton, Walibora describes literary critics as people “who say about literature what literature doesn’t say about itself.” While they might be perceived as “parasites” for their dependence on creative writers to exist, critics help both the writers gain visibility and the readers make sense of literary texts.

Walibora believes that critics enable writers to understand their own works, which in turn improves literature as a whole.

“I am sometimes struck by the ingenuity of a critic’s comment on my own creative works just as I am astounded by the less than obvious depth and richness or shallowness and weakness of creative works when I wear my critic’s cap.”

He admits that being on the receiving end of literary criticism is both a blessing and a curse.

“As a writer, I have profited tremendously from critics. They often help me to rethink my writing strategies, to ascertain what works well and what needs to be improved, what pitfalls to avoid and, above all, what to ignore.

“Overall, I have had fresh insight into my own works because critical responses by, for example, Prof Kimani Njogu, who made me realise the parallel between my Siku Njema and other novels from the West, Prof K. W. Wamitila on the preponderance of the journey motif in my novels and Timothy Arege on the incongruity of the narrator’s dream in Siku Njema.”

Walibora advises writers not to “assume the mien of gods,” as one critic put it, “conducting themselves as infallible and unteachable.”

According to Walibora, literary criticism in the East African region cuts both ways. It is good because “the region is home to some of the most eminent critics in Africa as well as creative writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Ruganda, Chris Wanjala, Kimani Njogu, Simon Gikandi, Austin Bukenya and Tom Odhiambo; it is ugly because the material conditions of scholars in the region are pitiable – so much so that some brilliant minds have either migrated to the West or are interred in moonlighting or alcohol.”

Walibora has won numerous literary, media and academic awards, written novels, short stories, poems, plays, journal papers and encyclopedia entries. He has published over 30 books mostly fiction. These include Kipara Ngoto (2000) Ndoto ya Amerika (2003), Kufa Kuzikana (2003) and Innocence Long Lost (2005). Sina Zaidi na Hadithi Nyingine, Machicha ya Taifa na Hadithi Nyingine, Wajaleo: Diwani ya Mashairi and others are in the offing.
In addition, he contributes to peer-reviewed academic journals. He is currently working on a book,Human Rights and Narrating Prison Experience: Self-Nation and Political Incarceration in Kenya.

“I open a new chapter after I close another. I would like to have an ordinary and quiet life away from the glare of the media and if a teaching opportunity arises in Kenya I would be happy to share the skills I have learned,” Prof Walibora said.

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