Is African Writing Really That Bad? Some Ideas For Being a Good Writer

Pencils

First of all, if you are an immigrant of high school age and you are reading this welcome. As I often say, I wish this was the blog I wish I had found, or at least something similar, when I first showed up in an Australian high school so anything I can do to make you feel at home let me know.

Compositions

As a lot of you know I grew up in the city in the sun, Nairobi, Kenya. All throughout my primary school days, Stnadard 1 – 8, one thing remained consistent: I was one of the best composition writers. For those who don’t know, compositions are basically short fictional stories which were assessed by the English teacher.

The Rules of Writing Compositions in Kenya

The rules to writing a composition in Kenya were quite simple really:

a) Use language that is as flowery,complex and grandiloquent (but do I say?) as possible.

b) Use metaphors, similies, proverbs and other linguistic tools that show you have read a book or two in your life more than you use regular language.

If you managed to follow the above two rules and piece together a somewhat coherent narrative, you were good to go.

Adapted from Shakespeare believe it or not

The Story That Got Told Over and Over Again

Towards my final years of primary school, we used to write compositions quite a lot. When it was all said and done however, I realized that I had told the same story over and over and over again.

I was attacked by a crazy/large/robber/stupid man and I somehow had to fight to survive.

In spite of the fact that Mrs. C (who by the way called herself a very “Hot Naabaa,” not hot number, “Hot Naabaa”, much love and thanks Mrs. C if you are reading this.) read the same story so many times, each time I managed to twist it into a slightly different version of something worth giving a high mark.

As a Result

All this basically meant that I left Primary school with the medal for English around my neck and a perfect score in English once the main exams came (how that happened, I don’t know, but I don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth).

My Kenyan High School Career…….

My Kenyan high school career was somewhat different. I went from being one of the brightest minds in primary school to having the intelligence of a mutilated cinder block. I thought this had affected me in many areas, science, maths etc etc but somehow I held on to the belief that I was still a good writer.

Western writing

A Plane Ride Later My World Came a Crumbling Down

Australian high schools typically don’t involve a lot of creative writing and so it wasn’t until Year 12 that I had to write a story to show to my English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher. The little ditty began like this:

I threw the stone as quick as lightning and it hit him with a blood curdling thud! As the blood leaked profusely from his eye, he let out a great big bellow like a wounded she-bear. And then he cast his gaze upon me, and as I looked into his eyes, they glowed with the malevolence of a dyeing ember (stolen expression that I used A LOT)

I galloped over to Mrs G., my ESL teacher (much love to you too, if you are reading this) and Mrs. G didn’t even bother mincing her words:

This story is terrible, it’s such a cliche!

An African Description of What Happened Next

My heart sunk lower than the Titanic. My breathing stopped and my heart began to beat at a million miles per hour.

“How could she think that was terrible,” I mused….as I perused……confused…….feeling somewhat abused

Books

Creative Writing Class 2006

Needless to say I put a lot of writing activities on the shelf for the next few years trading creative writing for creating feasibility studies, marketing plans and business manifestos. And then in 2006 I did something I probably shouldn’t have done: I did only one subject for a whole University semester: creative writing.

I Loved It

What I realized was that, Western writing had long since passed the point of using cliched metaphors, proverbs and similies. We were literally teaching and being taught the left overs of Western thinking.

Twelve weeks of Creative writing and never did we have lessons on the proper use of a similie, or where to sprinkle in clever sounding proverbs. Instead we learned things like the lesson I’ll share with you below:

iceberg

Ice Berg Writing

Whenever you write, your words should only express 10% of what’s going on with the other 90% being left beneath the surface in sub-text. In other words, the prose should only be the tip of the iceberg. An example:

The lipstick red dress continued to saunter and shimmy long after Nicole had stopped gliding across the room.

“Excuse me sir,” she purred ,” The Johnsons are here!”

“Thank you, Marta,” he barked from behind clenched cheeks.

“You are very welcome sir. Do you need anything else from me?”

” No, you may leave!”

And Sade crooned in the background as she smoothly operated her way out of that room.

He let out a sigh and prepared himself…….the Johnsons were here!

Well, I am not that good at iceberg writing but clearly there are quite a few things that one can infer from the above, including the character’s personalities and relationships to each other.

It’s more fun for one to infer these things in one’s mind than for me to blatantly say she dressed up to seduce her boss and she was making her boss very uncomfortable.

Betty Boop

Is There a Point to All This?

The point of all this, is simple really. Realize if you are coming from Africa, that the way we were taught to write is based on a way of writing that Westerners have long since left behind.

Why This is Great for You

This is great for you because in its place Westerners now have an absolute love and appreciation for the individual voice in a piece of writing. They want to hear what you, the authentic, uncensored you has to say.

In Creative writing class, I wrote a ridiculous number of stories about sex and romance because that’s what I thought about most of the time. My writing was full of swearing, breaking of grammatical rules but I was still did pretty well in that class.

On the other end we had my buddy Raj was great at writing things in a I-just-took-a-hallucinogenic-drug-style. He could make you appreciate every moment of an experience and really pull you into a point of view.

What is Your Uncensored Voice?

So what is your uncensored voice? What does it sound and taste like? What would you say if you had no fear of failure? Express yourself below.

To learn about some of the other stuff I have learned from my life abroad, subscribe via RSS or email.

Mwangi

Express yourself

No Comments

  • By Mo Ma, June 5, 2008 @ 4:26 am

    In my class 8 compos, I had a basic plot that would be adjusted slightly based on whatever topic we were writing on and I still managed to somehow hammer the corners and squeeze it in anywhere. It was death by cliche. I still remember every detail of it starting from my opening sentences till the end (still tied into the topic)…and laugh hard every time I do.

    It was a rude awakening for me much earlier than you when I went to GCSE for high school and was told my stories were too predictable. Have you got any of your stories online from the creative writing class?

    Also, tagged ya for a meme. No obligations; play along if you so please…of course, Ill be devastated if you don’t but, you know, no pressure…

  • By -jim-, June 5, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    Sound like I can relate a lot with you.

    PS. Nice and clean look.

  • By Mwangi, June 5, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

    @Mo Ma: You too huh. Really makes you question whether what we needed enhanced or merely minimized our creativity.
    I actually do have stories from creative writing class…I will link to a romantic story I wrote. In this class we were basically told to experiment with a genre of writing we had never done before and of course I wanted to write about romance and sex and so check out the story in the link below (it’s a zip folder that has 3 visual files in it. Enjoy!)
    http://www.thedisplacedafrican.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/romantic-tale.zip

  • By Mwangi, June 5, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

    @Mo Ma: I’ll get to the tag soon and very soon :D

  • By Mwangi, June 5, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    @Jim: I think as long as you learned the African style of writing that I spoke of above and/or had the……shall we say opportunity to get the African writing style shot down, you can relate.

  • By Kristina, June 5, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    Mwangi,
    why are you talking about “African writing”? Surely you mean composition/writing teaching in (Kenyan) high school?! That I can easily imagine – that teaching styles at school are out-dated. But if you think that African literature is no better than that, i highly recommend you go back to your Mzee Ngugi (Decolonising the mind) and then hit the nearest library. Or try buying a volume of kwani?

  • By Mwangi, June 5, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

    @Kristina: You are right, I probably would have specified, it just would have made the headline and the writing process much longer…..replacing “African” with “Kenyan high schools” and so on and so forth, and at times I get lazy.
    Anyway, no doubt our creative minds can definitely come up with some pretty powerful, interesting, idiosyncratic pieces such as, the default, Chinua Achebe and people like Chris Abani and even when one goes through the blogopshere and reads the work of folks like M of Thinker’s Room.
    It was still pretty amazing how outdated our method of being taught “creative writing” (isn’t it any oxymoron in a lot of cases) in Kenyan schools was.
    I have heard outstanding things about Kwani but have never had the pleasure of reading it.
    Thanks for stopping by Kristina and if you have a blog where you share your writing please do share.

  • By Kelly, June 5, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    First off, I love the new look. Very nice and clean. Being a figures person, I have never really invested time in learning how to write, though I think it’s a good skill to have and all. Is there like a writing book you can recommend?

    I must say our compositions were a far cry from the real creative writing we have out there, but I agree we have produced some awesome story tellers out there. The ones you mentioned, and the likes of Ayi Kwei Armah, on the blogosphere, there is awesome talent too. I’m currently thinking of running an ‘e petition’ to have this guy (http://blackknutz.blogspot.com/) to start blogging again! The guy can tell a story.

  • By Mwangi, June 5, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    @Kelly: That dude was just a hilarious idiot…completely over the top!!
    Yeah, the reactions so far are exactly what I was hoping for, less cluttered, cleaner, easier to read and find everything, it’s not yet 100% done but I’m glad we are on the right track.
    My recommendation is, if you want to learn how to write, don’t do it by reading a book, because I am sure you already read a lot of books. I recommend you get yourself around other writers in either a writer’s club or creative writing class, in my experience that’s where I’ve always done my best work: in community.
    I have never heard of Ayi Kwei Armah? What has he/she done? Do they have any online pieces?

  • By Kelly, June 5, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

    Unfortunately I don’t have any online articles, but he authored ‘The beautiful ones are not yet born’, then we did a couple of his short stories in high school.

    Now, I have never read a book in writing, and I tend to learn more from reading especially stuff I’m shy about e.g writing. A writing class is a good idea, will search for one, though I doubt there are any in Nairobi.

  • By Carol, June 5, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

    Wow, changes. This looks pretty, not that the other was ugly!
    I was good in composition too,much less in Insha (if you remember what this is!). Talking about that , Kenyan Lit. isn’t that good,no? I have a friend who asked me what I thought about Kenyan authors, to be sincere I wanted to say nothing, but I said,” I have not liked a majority of them, they do not reflect Kenya. I must have turned,ummm….red?no,darker!
    I later on thought of the River and The Source, which is a great novel.
    As you give much love and thanks to Mrs. C and Mrs. G, what should I give to Mrs. R my F1 an F2 English teacher? The opposite of that? No I give nothing!
    Thanks the post is nice, I recomend high School students here,esp. Kenyans!

  • By kenya.fm, June 6, 2008 @ 2:05 am

    Ya new look is 1000X bette. keep it up. Its clean and clutter free
    What theme are you using, so that i borrow it.

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 2:39 am

    @Kelly: I am sure if you head on over to your closest campus you should be able to find something. Actually best not to heed my advice in terms of becoming a good writer…I have never ever written to express myself but rather to gain approval from others by bringing something good into their life (humor, good story etc etc) so from the moment I knew I was a semi-decent writer I have been trying to get my articles read and criticized by as many folk as possible. It used to make me giddy with delight when my classmates and teachers would take my composition book, just to get a good read or to demonstrate to others how to write.
    So if anyone has any information to share with Kelly, please do….

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 2:42 am

    @Carol: Thanks for the feedback on the design and for soothing my ego about the old design, I kinda liked it too. I wish I could say I had much experience with Kenyan lit but my experience with African literature only goes as far as Chinua Achebe, Facing Mount Kenya and one chapter of a Ngugi book. It gets worse because the older I have gotten the less interest I have had in written fiction, I always prefer self help and autobiographic prose.
    Didn’t we all have those Kenyan teachers who…..em….em…we wouldn’t wish blessings on.
    Thanks for recommending the site to folks too…let’s grow this baby and see how far she can go.

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 2:43 am

    I copied it too, from this site: http://www.mytropicalescape.com (which I recommend for folks interested in lifestyle design and 4 hour workweek and that type of thing).

  • By R, June 7, 2008 @ 1:35 am

    Mwangi, I’m late to the party, but still, I echo what others have said: love the new look.

    Some good tips here… enjoyed much.

    Have a nice weekend.

  • By Mwangi, June 7, 2008 @ 1:38 am

    @R: Merci…by the way should you decide that you shall indeed enter into the literary world, make sure you inform us in the blogosphere first so we can be your loudest supporters.

  • By njeri, June 8, 2008 @ 4:45 am

    Mwangi: I am interested in taking my writing skills to the next level. I find that ideas flow in my mind but sometimes putting the words together is not as easy. Whenever i write an essay i get great recommendations from the professors and have started thinking there is a hidden talent underneath all this self-doubt. I love to express myself without any inhibitions or fear. I think i will check out the ‘creative writing’ that you’ve suggested. Thanks a lot.

  • By Mwangi, June 8, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    @njeri: You’re welcome. I was actually quite terrible at writing essays all through my University and high school careers, I appear to be slightly better suited to creative writing than essay writing judging from how teachers reacted to both when I wrote them (as an example, English as a Second Language was the only subject I got a B+ in when I finished my Year 12 whereas everything else, including the creative field of drama was A and A+).
    If you get unsolicited compliments from people, you have a gift….and for every gift you have been blessed with, there is someone waiting to receive it.

  • By mark, June 17, 2008 @ 3:09 am

    Hi Mwangi! How are you? Just checked my stats and noticed a bunch of readers coming over from your site.

    Thank you for the recommendation! :) And your sited looks really great!

    The funny thing is, I have never read the Four Hour Work Week but I have spent the last fifteen years busting my butt to get to a place where I am able to truly live the life I want (lifestyle design?). I sincerely look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    All the best,
    MH

  • By Mwangi, June 17, 2008 @ 5:13 am

    @Mark: No, thank you for the fantastic theme that I fell in love with as soon as I saw it.
    Hey Mark, soon I will be going on a 4hour work week journey which I will blog about and I hope that the channels of communication will be open so I can bounce some ideas and notes off you…..
    Again thanks for the beautiful theme and congratulations on 15 years of toil coming to fruition.

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