Tuesday, January 30, 2018


by Alexander Nderitu
Vera Omwocha, an upcoming Kenyan writer has been unveiled as the winner of the Italian-sponsored Tito Livio Literary Award for a 'short story on a historical subject.' Ms Omwocha is a writer, editor and book reviewer. 
Vera Omwocha (Photo: Courtesy)
Announcing the winner on  January 29, 2018, the Italian ambassador to Kenya, His Excellency Mauro Massoni, had this to say:

'Tito Livio Award follows a five-day Creative Writing Seminar “History & Stories” for young writers aged between 18 and 30 organized by the Italian Cultural Institute in collaboration with the literary magazine SugarPulp and the Chronicae Literary Festival.

Twenty-six writers participated in the seminar which was held at the Sarova Stanley Hotel in November 2017.  Fourteen of these entered the competition and submitted their short stories.

Following the selection by the jury comprising Prof. Carlo A. Martigli, Prof. Giacomo Brunoro, Prof. Matteo Strukul, Prof. Paola Ranzato and Dr. Matteo Ogliari, it is my pleasure to congratulate Ms. Vera Omwocha on having been nominated as the winner.   The Tito Livio Award offers a return air-ticket to Italy, board and lodging for four days and the participation in the 4th edition of the prestigious Chronicae Literary Festival in Padua, Italy, in 2018.  An honour indeed for a young writer.'

The writing contest was dubbed 'Tito Livio Literary Contest' in honor of Roman historian Titus Livius (born in Padua) who died 2,000 years ago.

Italian historian Titus Livius
Francesca Chiesa, the then Director Italian Cultural Centre in Nairobi, opened the 5-day training exercise that preceded the contest by introducing the facilitators:  Angela Loi, Italian Deputy Ambassador; Carlo Martigli, writer/journalist; Giacomo Brunoro, SugarCon-Sugarpulp Convention and president of Chronicae International Festival of the Historical Novel; and Alexander Nderitu, Kenyan writer, poet and playwright. Francesca emphasized the importance of literature in chronicling historical events:

 ‘By writing (about our cultures) we can preserve this beauty.’

But she was also quick to point out that some forms of writing were more profitable than others:

‘If you are a poet, you don’t eat. If you write historical fiction, you eat – and drink!’

Francesca had recently returned from an archaeological mission to the Kenyan coast, where many Italians reside. Her particular area of interest is underwater archaeology. ‘Many Kenyans don’t know the ancient history of Kenya,’ she said, adding that the Roman Empire traded with Kenyan Coastarians in ‘the first century after Christ’. She went on to say that Kenyan history is much more than the liberation struggle and the way to bring it out was through stories: 

‘It is better to read a novel about history than read a book (about it) in the library.’

Francesca added that herself having been born in Padua, Italy, she was fascinated to learn that the Chronicae and SugarPulp, historical and pop culture festivals, were based in her hometown. However, prior to learning more about the SugarPulp fest (incorporating literature, comic books and entertainment), the main thing she related to ‘pulp’ culture was Quentin Tarantino (writer/director of the film Pulp Fiction).

From nearest to furthest on this row: Angela Loi, Carlo Martgli, Matteo Ogliari, Alex Nderitu and Gabriel Ndinda (Photo: Courtesy)
After some brief remarks by Angela Loi, Carlo Martigli talked about his background. ‘My passion since I was a boy was to write,’ he said. Until recently, however, he was a banker – and still had the demeanour. His first book sold only 2,000 copies but won a lot of awards. His most recent effort had reached a million in sales. He concurred with Francesca that, unlike poetry, the historical novel was doing well:

‘Everyone knows Dan Brown who writes historical fiction, some of it based in Italy...If you write a novel that get published and sells 10,000 copies you can earn a lot of euros at current prices.’

He gave a tip to the Titus Livos Award contestants:

‘Be original. When one presents workd to a publisher, the publisher should say, ‘‘Wow! Great idea.’’ ’ 

With the confidence of a Supreme Court judge delivering a ruling, he said that the five things one need to be successful in writing were (1) Heart/Passion (2) Mind/Brain (3) Competence – writing about something you know well (4) patience and (5) Luck.

Left to right: Matteo Ogliari,  Carlo Martgli and Giacomo Brunoro (Photo: Courtesy)
Giacomo Brunoro resembled American poet Allen Ginsberg. All the male Italians were bearded but he was the only dark-haired one. He said that SugarPulp, which includes a literary magazine in English and Italian, was ‘born’ in 2008, inspired by pulp fiction and noir. Chronicae, a festival dedicated to historical fiction, was ‘born’ in 2014. He said:

‘The mission of SugarPulp/Chronicae is simple but revolutionary. The content is entertaining and literary, unlike school material. There’s a lot of entertainment.’

He said that ‘pulp’ referenced several things one of which was the phenomenon of publishing low-cost novels on cheap paper which birthed the term ‘pulp literature/fiction’.  Like the pulp novels, SugarPulp is for ‘everyone.’

This was Matteo Ogliari’s second visit to Kenya, having been here two years ago to conduct research on the electrification of Nairobi city, as part of a thesis he was then working on:

‘I was investigating the cultural impact of electricity, like how electricity was used during the colonial period.’ 

He said that in the course of the workshop, he would give the attendees ‘a guided tour’ of the McMillan Library in order to teach them ‘how to use a historical research source’. He used the word 'source' a lot. Even the title of his session had it: ‘History, Memory, Representation: Sources For History In African Contexts’.

Event poster, showing key trainers
The participants of the Historical Writing Workshop were young Kenyan writers, below 30 years of age, some of them university students. They include Gabriel Ndinda, founder of The Writers Guild; Brian Gondosio, former editor of Campus Diary; Verah Omwocha, a writer and editor; Alexis Teyie, a poetry editor with Enkare Review; and Peter Ngila who had recently returned from writing residencies in Iceland and Nigeria. 

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About the author of this article:

Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan author, poet and playwright. A former official of PEN Kenya Centre, in 2017 Nderitu was named by Business Daily newspaper as one of Kenya's 'Top 40 Under 40 Men'. 
Website: http://www.alexandernderitu.com/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alexandernderitu 
Instagram:  @alexander_nderitu