Perhaps writers choose their politics. Or maybe it is the politics that chooses them. I do not know, man. I do not even know why we keep trying to figure out which one came first; the chicken or the egg, when Biology already proved a long time ago that it is the cock that did. But yeah, there comes a time in a writer’s life when a certain issue sticks on him/her the way Somali perfumes stick on clothes; holds on with a stubborn grip and never leaves. It usually ends up being the tag of their existence. Chimamanda has her Feminism. Taiye Selasi with her Afropolitanism. Arundhati Roy, Human Rights. Binyavanga Wainaina has the LGBTIQ business going. Ngugi has been going on about writing in African languages. Nearer home, Owaahh is not a name you mention without asking yourself questions regarding history, investigative journalism and bananas (the fruits, not the republic). Lately, Kinyanjui Kombani caught the bug. Piracy. In particular, Book Piracy.

He might not know it, but at this moment Kombani is like Jake Sully in the Avatar movie. Remember when Jake had to scale a mountain to get to the nest of some giant birds? Banshees, they were called? Birds so scary, they had not decided whether they wanted to be dinosaurs or dragons. It was tradition, however, that Jake had to seduce one of these banshees to accept him so that he could fly it around. A rite of passage of sorts. I remember watching that scene and wondering why it was tradition for someone to have to ride those motherlovers. If it was a rite of passage, why the hell couldn’t Avatars just cut off their foreskins, knock off six of their front teeth, or hunt lions like normal people? Anyway what Kombani does not know, is that Mountain Banshees do not just accept people simply because they offer themselves. 

Book piracy is Kombani’s banshee, it seems, and I am not sure he understands that it will be a long painful process to finally ride that beast. Part of the pain will involve stomaching reactions such as the ones he got when he put up this post about a hill of books produced illegally, scheduled for destruction by the Kenya Copyright Board. That post made me angry. Not so much the level of thievery going on, but the responses that it elicited.

1. Donations;

I have a problem with this whole idea of donating pirated books to public schools and libraries. At face value, it seems noble. But is it really? There is no nobility in gifting proceeds of crime, hoping that somehow somewhere there is a moral redemption that could come out of it. You cannot use charity to sanctify a wrongdoing. Otherwise, what this means is that you encourage the injustice of one person for the benefit another. I mean surely, if you want to do right by the less fortunate, then do it right.

All this donation of pirated books talk feels a lot like we are strong-arming authors into giving their work for free. We are telling them, “Look man, this was something horrible. But just let it go and give away these stories because you are a good person. Your reward is waiting for you in heaven” If you want something, buy it. I understand that our economy is fucked up and not everyone can afford books, but you know what? There is always the option of asking. Have the decency of allowing the author to say yes or no. Just try and remember that they are under no obligation to choose either. But it would be a travesty of fairness to wait for a criminal to steal their work and then employ ‘charity’ to guilt trip them into donating their work.

As far as public schools and our education systems go, how about we ask the government to provide adequate funding so that they can afford these books? It is a more permanent solution anyway. We cannot depend on the irregular ill-luck of criminals or the goodwill of the public. Concerning public libraries, stocking them is an awesome idea for ease of access. But the truth is, Storymoja Africa has the Start A Library program that can attest to this, that it is one thing to set up a library and it is another to actually get people to utilize it. So my only question here is, what do we need more; more libraries or a more demanding hunger for books?

As it is now, when Kombani decides to ride his banshee, I find it rather unsettling that for some people, the first thing they are concerned with is how exactly the public can benefit from this injustice, rather than the injustice itself. It is flat out selfish and grossly insensitive. 

2. The Writing Economy

Lunga Fa, Kinyanjui Kombani, Book piracy

When invited to PAWA 254 the other day to speak about Creative Writing, something came to my head inadvertently while on stage. I think it was from someone in the audience who complimented me by saying that my work is good and that I am gifted writer (it could have been earlier). What I know for sure is that my head swelled for a moment. Obviously. What can I say? I am still excited by remarks like those – I doubt I can ever get used to them. But then on further interrogation, I found myself thinking “What does this even mean? Gifted?

Once in a while we find something beautifully crafted; could be a Facebook post, a Tweet, a poem, a piece of flash fiction,  a short story or even a novel. The good kind that leaves you wishing you did not  have to finish it. This is the feeling I got after reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I hated that I had to go back to my own life after page 300. In that moment of weakness, I remember thinking that Yaa Gyasi is one blessed woman. No way anyone can write a book this good without divine intervention.

But really there is a problem with this. The product that you get when you read a good story is seldom a result of a natural gift. It is the result of a skill well honed. So when someone told me that they thought I was gifted I had to feel some type of way. For two reasons. One, I do not think that highly of myself (there is no article/story I have ever written and loved). And Two, even if I write better than a few people, it is not because of a gift. It is because I have chased (and I still am chasing) this writing thing for quite a bit.

Come to think of it. It took Makumbi 12 years to write Kintu. It took Yvonne 7 years to write Dust. Yaa Gyasi must have put in kitu 8 years or so years of her life into Homegoing. Remember “Hold The Door”? That scene in Game of Thrones that broke our hearts? Well, George R.R. Martin had been playing with that idea since 1992.  Twenty freaking four years! Shieeeeet! At the time of being executed by the show runners, that idea was old enough to be married with 2 kids and a student loan! And that is not even the book itself, leave alone the entire series. It is just a scene.

The biggest part of writing is not writing. It is rewriting; constructing and deconstructing, restructuring, rethinking, trying new things and lots and lots of failures. These have very little to do with a natural talent. This is pure labour, dealt with in the good old style of breaking your back and persevering. And this is why, to me, writing is not a gift so much as it is a skill that takes work and a bunch of time to perfect. Some never even do. Calling it a gift means that writing is something you were given, rather than something you have worked for. Gift reasoning discounts the blood, sweat, tears, doubt and (let’s just be honest here) alcohol that go into writing.

That is why people like Lunga Fa can say writers are capitalists. It becomes difficult to value something whose work you do not appreciate. Lunga’s is the same thinking that pirates have when they make fake copies of books to be sold. They have never been through the writing work. Mostly because all that work is usually done in private. It is a personal struggle. The frustration of putting together something glorious is a writer’s own burden. And since it has taken work, it is gorgeous. It is art. And it is rather difficult for people to credit a human being’s hard work, so they give all the glory to God, or, in many cases, weed.

I have witnessed Kombani trying to explain all this to people who did not care about piracy and I feel awful for him. They won’t get it. What the public gets to see is the product, not the process. Many of them won’t care. So long as they can get your work for KES. 500 on the streets instead of KES. 1500 legitimately, the earth will continue to spin. An author’s royalties? Who gives a shit about those these days? This is 2017 for Chrissakes. Pay them with Exposure.

Pirated Books, Kenya Copyright Board, KECOBO

3. Environment

Human beings, we are funny. Not hahahahaha funny. The strange, weird kind of funny. The way we are wired is that we play a card that is most likely to win the money in the pot. Sometimes it is sexism. Sometimes it is gender. Sometimes it is religion (actually, this is the most abused card). Sometimes it is the environment. Oh, Mother Nature is a favourite. No wonder when Kombani put up this story about destroying books, people who do not give a shit about the environment half the time, all of a sudden remembered they had an ace up their sleeves. 

All of a sudden, they forgot about the charcoal lit jiko boiling githeri in their kitchens, the drawer full of plastic bags (because Kenyans will be horrified if they buy a packet of Royco kadogo from the kiosk 2 seconds from their gates, and it does not come wrapped in a branded polythene bag) that they will discard without thinking, and/or their motor vehicles revving out carbon emissions from poorly maintained engines – in their wake, stamping their middle fingers in the form of carbon footprints bigger than Jeff Koinange’s ego.

But when it came to the destruction of illegal books, ah, you could hear their hearts breaking through their phones as they typed “Wangari Maathai did not die for this.”  Conveniently, none of these crusaders cared to keep vigil for the trees that died only then used to rob another person of his livelihood.

I would rather watch these things go up in flames. For a long time. They should burn with Wild Fire, just so that they can be digested properly by the fury of flames. I know this sounds it is dramatic, but that is where the fun is. In the hyperbole and drama of life. It would give me great pleasure to watch the blaze each page of those fake books, then spit out their black ashes indignantly the way God spits out lukewarm people from His mouth.

Actually, a part of me thought of an even more exciting idea; why not build a stake, tie the book pirates on it, pour kerosene on books and arrange them at the foot of the pole, then strike a match? I mean, considering the recent happenings in Eastleigh, and how many of us reacted, it seems as if this is something Kenyans would enjoy, right? Now that we literally sanctioned mob justice barely a fortnight ago, surely, burning pirates at the stakes would not be that indelicate. Ama namna gani?

Unfortunately, anything fun is either unhealthy, illegal or bad for the environment. So yeah, no fire for the books or the pirates. Carbon emission, top soil disintegration, global warming and all those blues. But destruction of pirated books must still (continue to) happen. Even if it is just for show. I am a strong believer in symbolisms like those. If the furnace is too much to ask for, then maybe these counterfeit books can be pulped, (or something?) then recycled into more useful things like toilet paper. Which would be so appropriate given the fact the people who abused them in the first place were complete assholes.

Of course this was a rant. “The thing about pain is that it demands to be felt.” That is what Augustus Waters said. Lakini I would be lying if I said that I was hurt when writing this. I wasn’t. I was angry. And the thing about anger is that it demands expression. And a drink.

I need a drink.

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  1. When I saw ‘Banshee’ my first thought was of Kombani riding the Shrieking female spirit in mythology (I slept through Avatar, you see)…now there’s a vision…

    I think it is brave of him. I find our social platforms so loud and claustrophobic I bolt. Even when I believe I have something to question, say or learn. And I believe what he is saying is important. I believe he’s not just questioning our thoughts on piracy alone. He’s questioning our values, beliefs as individuals and as a society.

    Here’s a thought, a question really. If we truly valued art, which is supposed nurture creativity, critical thinking and communication, do you think the conversations surrounding book piracy would have been different?

    So keep fighting the good fight, Mr. Kombani. Someone is listening. Someone is doing some introspection… questioning. And because of you, someone will know better and hopefully choose do to better.

  2. Rant away Magunga. We should respect the hard work that artists go through and better still pay them their dues.

  3. Beautifully penned, I was going to say gifted…but….talented yes/no? You are doing good things edifying the mind and I thank you for that!

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