Billy Kahora left home to study in another country at the end of school because he and his parents could not see a future for him in Kenya. His parents wanted him to go to the US but it was expensive and a year studying there would cost the price of a degree in South Africa, so he came to Rhodes. His parents were keen for him to get into urban planning, but Billy chose journalism, English and politics. Visiting Rhodes last week he said to a class of writers: “I found myself here, trying to find a form.”
“I was very interested in theory but I didn’t want to be an academic. Rod Amner [a colleague in the writing and editing section of the School of Journalism and Media Studies] invited Jonny Steinberg to visit and he had just written Midlands. ‘This is it,’ I realised, ‘this is the stuff I want to write. Midlands had a style, an aesthetic technique, I wanted to do this, I wanted to do what Jonny does.'”
Billy began to devour the techniques of literary journalism, the Rolling Stone mag’s 100th anniversary packed with long form, Tom Wolfe’s techniques of new journalism* and especially William Faulkner who wrote about the American south — “he cracked the realistic surface using idiomatic language, I realised by reading him that educated English could not tell the stories of Kenya”.
When Billy returned to Kenya (after two years in Washington DC as an editorial assistant at Allafrica.com and an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh as a Chevening Scholar in 2007) he began to write fiction because he looked around at the writing being produced and found it was either “dry academic” or “journalism not well done”. But two years after the ending of the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi suddenly “corruption was being outed” and Billy wrote a book about David Munyakei, a whistleblower a clerk at the Central Bank of Kenya who uncovered irregular export compensation claims worth a billion US dollars.
But Billy had also met Binyavanga Wainaina who started Kwani? and in 2008 he became the editor of the journal Kwani? (Sheng for So what?). Billy explains the purpose of the journal as “exploring language at its most dynamic (hence the use of Sheng and other urban patois) and energetic and carrying on the literary traditions of Kenya”. Kwani?, he continues, experiments with form, it also takes visuals and artists seriously. “It’s also really crucial to create the Kwani? aesthetic in the digital and online space,” he says, “and we publish academic essays”.
He now has a short story collection about to be published which he says is the “kind of social realism journalism just can’t do”. Billy is interested in and preoccupied by the social and political infrastructure that makes writing possible (what he calls “the conditions underlying the genre”) and in the forms of writing that capture and explain social and political realities. During the post-election 2009 violence in Kenya he was asking “what forms can we use that tell a very good story” about the violence? So the Kwani? writers went to the violence ‘hot spots’ and did multiple interviews, these were then written up in testimonial form, and “we also published sms’s”, says Billy.
While he’s gently critical of the failures of daily news journalism, Billy told my students that they were extremely fortunate to be in a journalism programme because of “what journalism does for you”; it gives you skills others writers just don’t start out with, things like:
- confidence in public to approach people
- a process of research and thinking through questions
- an ability to work through complexity
- an understanding of the importance of theory and an ability to ask what frames are being used to make sense of things
So what are Billy’s commitments as a writer?
- To use simple writing that has profundity and explores complex issues.
- To produce writing that is a “fictive dream” (this from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction), writing that keeps the reader held in the dream/writing.
- To hold onto the tension between content and message — “I’m always conscious of these two things as separate,” he says.
- To achieve an aesthetics or style that is personal and individual and recognisable.
And finally, I asked him, how do you understand voice in writing? Voice, he says (echoing somewhat Pamela Nichols who talks as voice as framing), consists of three parts: narrator — who is telling the story; narrative — the basic message of the story and the point of the story; and narrating style. He ends by saying, “when the writing isn’t working, it’s usually because something technical isn’t working”.
* Tom’s Wolfe’s four techniques:
- Scene-by-scene construction
- Present each scene through the mind of a character
- Use extended dialogue between characters
- Include a lot of detail which is symbolic of the characters’ lives