By Lewis-Miller Kaphira
Affable, mellow-mannered with a radiant and inviting smile are some of the adjectives that would best fit to describe her. It is therefore hard to believe her when she says she is an activist because the word ‘activist’ most often suggests an angry, agitative and fierce mien. She is not your average day activist though. Hers is a type of activism you’ve probably never heard of before. She is a literary activist. I present to you, (drum rolls please) Lexa Lubanga!
Lexa Lubanga is a Kenyan literature enthusiast and activist who loves involving herself in the Kenyan book space by promoting and advocating for the readership of local works as well as writing. She hosts an annual reading marathon dubbed the Kenyan readathon every September aimed at promoting Kenyan literary works. During the readathon, participants are encouraged to read only Kenyan-authored books for the month of September and share their reading progress with fellow participants. Debuting in 2020, the Kenyan readathon held its third edition in September this year at the Alliance Francaise.
Lexa also runs a book subscription box curated for Kenyan-authored books accompanied by other bookish essentials/ gifts.
I was privileged to have a conversation with her on everything Kenyan literature.
How would you describe Kenya’s literary scene as it is presently? Do you think it is in a better position than it was say, 10 years ago?
Kenya’s literary scene is presently a flurry of activities if the innumerable book launches and literary events are anything to go by. As someone who reviews Kenyan-authored books, I have had a really hard time this year keeping up with the number of releases. It is almost as if a new book enters the market before I am even done reviewing the previous new release- which I think is a good thing. Our literary scene has certainly grown from where it was 10 years ago. More books are getting published and authors and readers are starting to congregate more. However, there seems to be an inexplicable rush by authors to churn out books, most of them self-published and this has sometimes compromised the quality of books getting into the market since the rigorous editing process that is characteristic of publishing houses is bypassed.
What would you say is the Kenyan readathon’s biggest success in the three years of its existence? What is your larger vision for the Kenyan readathon?
Initially, I started my advocacy on my YouTube channel where I reviewed and talked about books by Kenyan authors that I had read. With time, I thought to myself, why not start a community of like-minded people where we could share our reading experiences instead of me only talking about the books on the channel? And that gave birth to the Kenyan readathon. I would base its success on the wide and warm reception it has received all around. What I initially thought was a ‘small project’ is beyond the crawling stages and has finally started to find its feet. This year’s readathon held at Alliance Franchise in September had a remarkable turnout and it was also quite heart-warming and invigorating to see lots of new faces different from those I’d seen in the previous year’s edition. Presently, the Kenyan readathon is held annually. It is my goal to hold the readathon at least quarterly and partner with NGO’s and other literary enthusiasts to expand to other towns and counties beyond Nairobi. I also intend to take the readathon to schools and communities.
What do you think is the reason for the gap between the readership of books by Kenyan authors and those from American and European authors? And how can this gap be bridged?
Firstly, I would like to disband the myth that books from America and Europe or even those from other parts of the African continent are superior to those authored by our own as far as quality is concerned. We have some of our local authors who enjoy a wide readership in those countries; the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot and so on. So is it really a question of quality? I certainly think that there exists a gap in marketing by our authors and publishers. They are simply not doing enough on that front. Kenyan bookstores should also walk the talk as far as promoting Kenyan-authored books is concerned. I find it quite out of place that even with books by Kenyan authors in stock you will still find that American best sellers largely dominate their display sections. I would like to especially thank Nuria bookstore for being at the forefront of championing Kenyan-authored books.
When did your love affair with Kenyan-authored books begin? Speaking of which, what’s the most memorable book by a Kenyan author that you have read so far?
This has got to be way back in primary school when I first read “Go For It” by Moses Auta. I was enamoured with how the book told our own stories in a very Kenyan way. It is that book that ushered me into the world of Kenyan-authored books. For the most memorable book, I’ve read, I’ll pick any of Grace Ogot’s books. Grace Ogot writes very effortlessly and gracefully.
What three books released by Kenyan authors this year really stood out for you?
This year has been really busy for me. As such, I have not had the chance to read enough Kenyan-authored books released this year to have a definite top three. However, I’d love to name “Place of Cool Waters” by Ndirangu Githaiga and “There Is No Useless Experience” by Levi Kones both released this year as standouts for me. There’s also “Ten Thousand Rocks” by Ndirangu Githaiga released in 2021 but which I read and reviewed this year that I think would make it to my top three.
Would you be kind enough to give a sneak preview of your current read?
My current read is a book titled “The Secret Reign of Pope Christine” by Shilaho Wa Muteshi. It is a story about a fictional character named Sister Christine, a nun from Kenya at the Vatican on a scholarship to study Psychology who marshals student leaders in an attempt to block Cardinal Aurelio from succeeding Pope Paul John whose death seems imminent. A fierce battle between cardinals allied to Cardinal Aurelio and those allied to Sister Christine who knows his secrets, having been in an enforced sexual relationship with him for two years. That’s as much as I can tell lest I am labelled a spoiler.
You are an ‘almost cultic’ fan of Meja Mwangi’s works. When did it all begin and why Meja Mwangi?
I first came across Meja Mwangi’s works while in my first year of campus where his book “The Big Chiefs” was a set text. Why Meja Mwangi? I haven’t got any exact answer to this question. I think my love for his works is like a copied assignment. I just can’t explain it. But it has something to do with him telling Kenyan stories in an authentically Kenyan way. He does it most profoundly. He also paints the picture quite simply, clearly and vividly for his readers. You could say that he is a writer of the people by the people. I also think that he is such an honest and humorous writer. He is turning 74 on 27 th December and I have this challenge to get 74 people reading him before he clocks 74. 74 before 74. Last year I had 73 before 73. I am also planning to hold an event entirely dedicated to him and his works next year inshallah.