New Kiswahili science fiction award charts a path for African languages

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Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Cornell University and Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

The 6th edition of The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is back. Founded in 2014, the prize recognises writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages. Kiswahili is widely spoken across the east coast of Africa. This year’s prize also offers a special award designed to promote and popularise a Kiswahili vocabulary for technology and digital rights. We spoke to the prize founders – literary academic Lizzy Attree, also of Short Story Day Africa, and literature professor and celebrated author Mukoma Wa Ngugi – on the challenges of growing literature in African languages.

What’s the idea behind the special Nyabola prize?

Lizzy Attree: The Nyabola prize gives us the opportunity to work in a new area that is really exciting for us. Nanjala Nyabola, the Kenyan writer and activist, approached us with the idea and the funding to target vocabulary for technology and digital rights. This was particularly interesting to us for two reasons. Firstly, we have long wanted to offer a short story prize, but have stuck with longer works because of the opportunity it gives us to focus on Kiswahili literature as a fully mastered form. But we are aware that a short story prize is a good place to start for those who are only beginning to write. Secondly, Kiswahili is often considered to be steeped in archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms. These must be updated to accommodate the modern language of science and technology. It has been an interesting adventure to find out which words can be adapted or amended to fit with modern digital and technological advancement.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: There is also the idea that African languages are social languages, emotive and cannot carry science. Most definitely not true. All languages can convey the most complex ideas but we have to let them. There is something beautiful about African languages carrying science, fictionalised of course, into imagined futures.

Mukoma, you also write speculative fiction; what is its power?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: At the height of dictatorship in Kenya under president Daniel arap Moi, when writers and intellectuals were being detained and exiled, and their books banned, it was the genre writers who kept the politics alive. In fact I dedicated my detective novel Nairobi Heat to two such Kenyan writers, David Mailu and Meja Mwangi. We inherited a hierarchy of what counts as serious literature from colonialism, the division between minor and major literatures. It is important for us to blur the lines between literary and genre fiction – they are both doing serious work but in different styles. And the same goes between written literature and orature (spoken literature). Orature is seen lesser-than but, as writers and scholars have argued, orature has its own discipline and aesthetics.

How has African language publishing changed since the prize began?

Lizzy Attree: Sadly I don’t think African language publishing has advanced very much in the last seven years or that there are enough academic studies focusing on this area. The demise of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was part of the decline, or indicative of it. However, book festivals are growing, and we hope that in time this will lead to more awards and more publishing in African languages. Mukoma’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a pioneer in this area, and it’s been wonderful to see his novel shortlisted for the International Booker Prize recently. Although there are many other good examples of where changes are happening, considering the size of the continent and the number of languages, there is still a huge gap.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: Jalada Journal is a good example of how attitudes to writing in African languages have changed for the better. In 2015 Jalada took a short story written by Ngugi in Gikuyu and self-translated into English and had it translated to close to 100 languages. This made it the most translated African short story. But the genius of their initiative was that most of the translations were between African languages. The Jalada example is important for two reasons – it shows that innovation can happen when African languages talk to each other. And that for the younger writers, African languages do not carry the same sense of inferiority – English is just another language. All in all I don’t think the Nyabola prize, for example, would have been possible 10 years ago. A lot has changed where it matters the most; the ideology around African languages is shifting.

Do awards work and why are there so few major literary prizes in Africa?

Lizzy Attree: I think awards certainly work in raising the profile of writers and their work, but it is difficult to find funding for these kinds of projects.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: It is all about setting up a viable and thriving literary ecosystem for writing in African languages. Literary agents, publishers, readership, critics, literary prizes and so on. Prizes are just one aspect. We realised that from the onset so our winners, in addition to the monetary awards, have also been published by Mkuki na Nyota Press in Tanzania. We have been trying to get them translated into English but as Lizzy points out, funding is a huge problem. We were lucky to partner with Mabati Rolling Mills and the Safal Group. We have a de facto slogan: African philanthropy for African cultural development. But all the living parts of the African literary ecosystem have to be thriving. In this, we all have work to do.

Why is African language literature so important?

Lizzy Attree: It’s been clearly demonstrated that learning in one’s mother tongue brings huge advantages to students. And where else must we find ourselves reflected if not in our own literature, in our own languages?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: You can think of language as the sum total of a people’s history and knowledge. We store history and knowledge in language. To speak only English is to be alienated from your past, present and future. It is a pain we should all feel deeply. In my book, The Rise of the African Novel: Language, Identity and Ownership, I give the example of how early writing in South African languages remains outside our literary tradition. I talk about how that leads to truncated imaginations. We write within literary traditions, but what happens to your imagination when you cannot access your literary tradition?

The shortlist will be announced in October/November 2021, with the winners announced in Dar es Salaam in December 2021.The Conversation

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Associate Professor of literatures in English, Cornell University and Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to use therapeutic writing for empowerment without revisiting trauma

We can put boundaries in place as we write, while attending to our emerging and vulnerable feelings to ensure emotional safety.

Elizabeth Bolton Cartsonas, University of Toronto

Writing about trauma can affect us profoundly.

A 1986 study found that students asked to write about traumatic memories reduced the number of times they visited a health centre for illness, injury, a check-up, psychiatric or other reasons in six months following the study — but that writing about trauma consistently caused emotional and physical upset immediately afterwards.

Such unpleasant after-effects are now widely accepted as part of the healing process enacted through written emotional disclosure.

Amid a global pandemic, our moral distress persists, despite the success of virtual health-care systems. Writing can be a companion to a chaotic mind in ways that do not involve revisiting trauma.

Here are three evidence-based therapeutic applications of writing and three accompanying prompts.

1. Use writing to ground

Therapists advise a method known as grounding for people suffering from distressing thoughts. Grounding entails taking note of physical surroundings to calm the triggered body by rooting it in the present. The “5-4-3-2-1” technique asks you to note five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can feel, two you can smell and one you can taste.

The technique parallels a writing prompt for “re-embodiment” in the present, from poet and psychotherapist Ronna Bloom. Following the advice of Bloom and trauma therapists, use simple, focused writing to take poetic hold of the present by writing about an object from your immediate surroundings.

Prompt: Find something nearby that excites your senses, like a fruit from your kitchen. Take the object in your hands. Smell it. Rub it against your cheek. Beginning with “I hold” or “I smell,” or any words you like, write for eight minutes on what you have chosen.

A journal sitting on tile with a flower on top.
Writing can be a companion to a chaotic mind in ways that do not involve revisiting trauma.

2. Use writing to find ‘flow’

What does it mean to “live your best life”? Psychologist of optimal experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied where people were, and what they were doing, when they were living their best lives. Subjects reported living optimally while engaged in a fluid, creative state Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”

Characterized by the ordering of thoughts in service of fluid creation, flow tends to result in an enjoyably focused, resilient state known as “psychic negentropy.” Csikszentmihalyi found those who experienced psychic negentropy regularly, including creative writers, tended to be happier people.

Prompt: For entry into flow, it is wise to select a prompt that promotes guided expansion. The ideal is to increase ease with which we enter flow and decrease distractions that make flow harder to maintain. One way to do this is to revisit a personal memory. Choose something mundane yet fresh, something you do often, with many vivid details that will keep your hand moving and thoughts engaged in the telling. Write until you feel finished.

3. Use writing as a safe play space

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott stressed that play was crucial for child development. Developmental play occurs in a safe, bounded space. In play, children manipulate what Winnicott called “transitional objects” (usually toys, bottles or blankets).

As Winnicott noted, the space for developmental play opens for adults, too, where there is need of healing, often by way of artistic practice. For adults requiring self-understanding, transitional objects can be pen and paper, where writing is the location of bounded, safe, developmental play.

Prompt: Consider a playground for very young children with their caregivers, perhaps with a swing set and slide, within an open, grassy park. Though boundaries like a simple wooden fence surrounding the young children’s playground constitute limitations, these limitations are there to support their safety. In this bounded play space, a child explores, while their caregiver, at a slight distance, is engaged in what Winnicott described as the crucial caring act of creating a “holding” environment, or holding space, for a child — attending to and being present for them, while allowing their expression and exploration.

We can put boundaries in place for ourselves as we write, while attending to our emerging and vulnerable feelings, to ensure emotional safety in the space for developmental play.

Writing with compassionate limitation can be therapeutic and allow expansion in other directions. This means deliberately choosing to direct our focus, topics and energies.

For example, professor of psychology Laura King asked subjects to write about their “best possible future selves” and found these writers showed the same health improvement at six months as people who had written about their traumas did, minus the upset afterwards.

King prompted subjects as follows: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.” As King’s subjects did, write for 20 minutes per day over four consecutive days.

If none of the above engages you, write freely and intentionally, keeping in mind that an empowering writing experience will avoid rumination, sustain engagement and leave you with a sense you have spent time meaningfully. Writing-based wellness must meet you at your own points of interest and excitement. Writing that heals is writing that comes forth easily. Consider what topic renders writing therapeutic, for you.The Conversation

Elizabeth Bolton Cartsonas, Assistant researcher, Literacy Education, Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.