This post is about 2023 International Literary Seminars in Kenya – but first, let me tell you a story.
Not too long ago, I – Gloriah — spent about two weeks in a Maasai Land savanna with one of the most eccentric, blasphemous, brilliant and accomplished writers’ group I have met so far. The twelve writers were part of a writers’ retreat organized by Professor Mikhail Iossel, a professor of English/Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
The retreat, Professor Mikhail Iossel says, was the realization of the ultimate literary dream of existing within a small community of like-minded writers sharing for a spell of time a secluded space far removed from the routine context of their separate daily lives. Writers write, share their work with other writers, walk around an unfamiliar terrain, see the previously unseen, get to know and become immersed in the beautiful ancient world of the local people, learn their way of life.
Amidst these cool people (there were, again, twelve of them) there was Josip Novakovich, a brilliant, clever-mouthed (where I come from, this can also mean loose-mouthed) but still eccentric and charming in the way old men can be, famous Croatian-Canadian writer and author of many books including his latest ‘Rubble of Rubles’.
One of those days, I bumped into him – Josip — coming from a walk, sweaty, slightly out of breath. He said to me casually, the way you would talk about a running T.V program whose opening credentials you may have missed but which you don’t particularly regret: “I don’t know what that was. I didn’t wait to see.”
Later, I heard from the local guides that an old lioness was spotted around.
Other than Josip, there was Lisa Teasley (former fiction editor of the venerable LA Review of Books and Aminatta Forna (a renowned Sierra Leone-Scottish writer and author of “The Window Seat” and five other books. Aminatta Forna is also one of the guest writers invited to the Macondo Literary Festival in Nairobi this year).
Shane Hinton (writer and teaches creative writing at University of Tampa), Joe Crescente (a writer and media literacy specialist), Erika Schickel (author of the best seller- ‘The Big Hurt’) and Stephanie Sellars.
There was also Dean Ellis (a poet who lives in New Orleans and is the curator and host of a Brazilian music-themed radio show called “Dean’s List”), Amarilis Ortiz (a lecturer in Spanish Literature at Vandeerbilt University in Tennessee), Ashley Mayne (fiction editor at Fence Magazine and a farmer), Carrie Hatland (a writer and educator from Canada), Curtis McRae (editor at Yolk Literary Journal), and the Tennessee-based writer and poet Gaylord Brewer.
The nights were spent on readings, participating in local cultures (such as dancing and fire-making using wood and grass only) and others such, in late-night conversations while drinking wine or, more truthfully, trying to beat to access to wine glasses the fat, alcoholic moths bent on ending their short lives by drowning in wine.
Those were exciting, inspiring, thought-provoking nights and days.
On the first night of reading, the writers read largely from previous works. As the days progressed and more reading nights were held, they encouraged each other to read from the projects each of them had been working on since they arrived at the retreat.
The most remarkable aspect of the retreat was how it brought together writers who would normally not be easily accessible — because of their high statuses or busy schedules – and, naturally, geographical constraints — to share a foreign world somewhere deep in the Mara.
So, why am I telling you all this?
Let me get back to the beginning. Last year, for the first time, Kenya hosted International Literary Seminar (ILS), a two-week program divided into two phases, with the first (shorter one) taking place in Nairobi and the second, the main one, on Lamu.
This writing program emerged from a parent program called Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) that had been operating from 1998 until it was disrupted by Covid in 2019. Founded by Professor Mikhail Iossel, that summer program was well-known not only internationally but also in Kenya for creating networks of writers through workshops and seminars across America, Canada, Lithuania, Georgia (the country, not the American state), and St. Petersburg, Russia, where it was inaugurated and ran for 10 years. 1998-2019: 30 programs, almost 1500 attendees, writers of all ages and levels of literary experience, and about one hundred of some of the world’s greatest writers on the faculty. Among the Kenyan beneficiaries of the-then summer program were Billy Kahora, Tony Mochama, and the late great Binyavanga Wainaina, among other attendees of those these SLS-St. Petersburg programs.
And now, ILS. Last year, the East-African winners of the International Literary Seminar East-African Contest included Dennis Mugaa — a 2021/2022 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship recipient; Munira Hussein — author of “Highland Cactus”; and the Jahazi-Saseni 2022 Masterclass participant Gladwell Pamba. As participants of the program, these three received free tuition, accommodation and travel for a literary experience spanning across Nairobi and Lamu.
In Lamu, the participants (other than the three East African fellows, the program had attracted interest and participation of many other local and foreign writers, mainly from North America) took part in in-person workshops, seminars and literary talks facilitated by the internationally-renowned writers Laia Jufresa, Valeria Luiselli, Josip Novakovich, Dawn Raffel, Billy Kahora – and, via Zoom, with the great George Saunders, Deborah Treisman (fiction editor of the New Yorker), Annie Dewitt (literary agent at the famous Shipman Agency), and Fiona McCrae (former publisher and editor-in-chief of the famed Graywolf Press).
At the end of the program, the local participants had built a new network of writers from across the globe with whom they are able to continue to exchange work and share feedback. They also gained access to renowned agents, editors, and publishers in North America to whom they can send their work. For instance, Munira got a literary agent while Gladwell got a scholarship to study creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.
ILS is coming to Kenya again this year.
Like the previous year, it promises a list of workshops and other activities with brilliant literati — writers, poets, craft instructors, editors, literary agents and publishers. It will be a larger program this year, since the organizers have added poetry classes to its roster of offerings.
Plus, you’ll get to hang out with all these cool people, albeit with the little inconvenience of sometimes blankly cruising through conversations because it’s like having George from “Seinfeld,” Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Eminem in the same room, talking over each other.
But, if none of the above reasons entice you, consider signing up because you might hang out with (and be trained by) Biko – yes, him — if that’s your sort of kink.
Visit the ILS website.