AMKA Literature Forum
© Elisa Calvet via Unsplash Every writer has a moment in which they ‘become’ a writer; some seemingly innocuous moment that gives them a chance to see what possibilities could come from their desire to be the ‘next great African writer’. For some people, it happens in the still of the night when writing their umpteenth word in their ten thousandth hour of expertise. For others, it happens at the AMKA Literature Forum.
AMKA (‘wake up’ in Kiswahili) is an NGO, based and registered in Kenya, concerned with pushing and encouraging creativity, but also facilitating women to read, write and be published for wider readership. “One of AMKA’s core projects is to facilitate publication of women’s writing under our objective of Women and Creative Expression,” explains AMKA’s Executive Director, Lydia Gaitirira. “Our ultimate goal is to take budding women writers on a capacity building exercise that ultimately ensures that the woman’s voice is heard through creativity.” And they are very proud of the partnership that led to the AMKA Literature Forum. “It has defied the test of time and grown, not just many published writers, but many award-winning writers as well. AMKA also welcomes male writers and participants to this forum, as they not only benefit from the skills of our competent moderators, but also enrich the discourse and discussions in this forum. We do not publish their stories but we value male champions of gender equality. AMKA has also benefitted from choice prolific guest writers who graciously accepted our invites to this forum.”
I also spoke to Muthoni wa Gichuru, the current moderator of the forum, about how it works. The format, as she describes it, is people submitting stories and poems to firstname.lastname@example.org, and then she selects the ones that will be critiqued. The forum takes place every last Saturday of the month from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Goethe Institut library, and has done so for the past eight or so years, except, of course, during the pandemic, when AMKA is being conducted online. Pieces are read aloud and people give their opinions. The discussion is moderated in tandem with Tony Mochama, a writer, and Dr Tom Odhiambo, a teacher of literature and writer as well.
“It’s a small community, but it receives people warmly. The skills people get are not measurable, but it is important for the writer as an incubation space. Think of when you give a chicken ten eggs, and the chicken incubates them, and then three come out. And then those three will have more eggs. And have three more,” adds Dr Odhiambo.
Sometimes there are guests—AMKA and Goethe Institut have hosted the likes of Ng'ang'a Mbugua, Faith Oneya, Hawa Golokai, Abigail Arunga and Joan Thatiah. In 2020, AMKA hosted Oxford University Press Regional Director John Mwazemba. “It gives a space for writers to grow,” explains Muthoni. “Writers get honest feedback, and those who take it well really grow in their writing: [the likes of] Okwiri Odour, Makena Onjerika (both Caine Prize Winners), Faith Oneya (short story writer and journalist), Gloria Mwaniga (Miles Morland scholarship winner), Margaret Muthee (short story writer, children’s books writer), and Jerusha Kananu (poet).”
Faith Oneya, mentioned above, started attending AMKA for this reason. “This forum is what I considered to have broken my literary virginity,” she laughs. Faith was soon published in a major collection of vignettes by women authors, called Fresh Paint— a publication titled after the story she contributed. The alliance with AMKA has led to another short story collection, Fresh Paint Volume II, as well as many other representations and titles in multiple short story anthologies.
Gloria Mwaniga, another noted alumni of AMKA and a former moderator as well, didn’t even consider herself a writer when she started attending the forum—just someone who loved to read. But the conversations at AMKA stimulated her mind so much, she said, that she would go back to university and try to write poems and short stories. “I grew up loving the arts; reading, and listening to art and book programmes on the BBC, etc. So to find a physical space where book lovers actually met to discourse and critique writing meant so, so much to me. Those sessions used to energise me so much.”
“I believe that AMKA provided a structured way of discussing literature. In a country with no Master in Fine Arts (MFA) degree programmes in writing and very few literary workshops, I think it gave many of the attendees a peek into what literary workshops and schools look like. Like me, I imagine it helped other writers take their craft seriously.” Dr Odhiambo concurs with Gloria’s views, in that the relatively unstructured—or laissez-faire structure, as he calls it—is just as important as creative writing programmes, because AMKA is less formal, less demanding, but even more motivating.
Tony Mochama, one of the AMKA moderators as well as a multiple literary prize award winner, explains stories as time pieces of narrative, and the type of public critique they do at AMKA as “that of craftsmen disassembling the grand clocks that we call a tale”.
He expounds: “We read, then take apart the story very carefully, and thoroughly examine it under the hood, the engine that makes stories move, and makes successful narratives moving. Is the language adequate? Is the style sufficient? Are the words efficient? Is the plot logical? Is the voice believable? Is the author authentic? Are the characters credible, and do we care what happens to them?”
And yes, though the forum focuses on women, as Lydia said, men are allowed to attend and contribute as well. For Peter Ngila, his ‘writing moment’ happened at AMKA also. As he tells it, the story begins because he used to think he was a genius. “I thought I was a genius….and then I went to AMKA, sat at the back, and listened to a few people. I would listen to people being critiqued, and then, after a few Saturdays, I decided to send something in to be critiqued as well. It felt like the world to me. People discussing my writing! The story, though, was very much torn apart. I used to think I was very original…but I realised I was using cliches. I was curious to learn. And that was one of the most important ‘beginnings’ of my career. AMKA is a space for everyone, especially when someone is already curious to learn how words work, how this writing thing goes.” And the next story they read, he assures me, “was way better”. When Peter speaks about AMKA, you hear the passion in his voice about a forum that gave many writers a chance to hone their craft.
The results are clear: the moderator format is efficient, the immersion and experience of writing in the Kenyan industry is apparent, and the formula is working, too. The forum achieved its goal of producing better writers and collections of their work. AMKA itself is concerned with the elevation and creativity of women, and so the two publications that have come from the partnership with Goethe have all been contributed to by women: Fresh Paint Volume I, and Fresh Paint Volume II.
AMKA is a hopeful, productive space that strives, in the comfort of the Goethe Institut’s library, or on its online space, to grow the ever-changing literary landscape. Many writers have passed through the hands of the illustrious and discerning moderators and members seated every last Saturday of the month, waiting to dissect stories—and fortunately, many will continue to do so.