Italian Institute of Culture’s director Francesca Chiesa will be leaving Kenya at the year’s end. But as her parting gift to the country, she just organised a Kenyan writers’ workshop on the historical novel.
Aiming to encourage young Kenyans not just to write their own historical novels but also to learn more about Kenyan history, Dr Chiesa opened the four-day workshop last Monday at the Stanley Hotel (Nairobi) by underscoring the importance of writers, especially those who can tell captivating stories against the backdrop of their country’s history.
“The function of the writer is to preserve a people’s memory,” she said.
To make her perspective practical, she’d invited three Italian intellectuals to share ideas about their experience with the historical novel and history generally.
Carlo A. Martigli was a banker before becoming a best-selling historical novelist whose book 999, The Last Guardian sold more than a million copies and was translated into several languages.
His role in the workshop was to offer clear simple tips on how to structure one’s historical novel and create compelling characters within the context of a major historical moment.
Matteo Ogliari is a historian who shared his experience using Kenya’s National Archives and MacMillan Library to research his doctoral dissertation and showed participants how useful archives and libraries can be in constructing historical novels.
Finally, Giacomo Brunoro, with former classmates from University of Padua, organised a cultural festival around the historical novel. Their Chronicae Festival Internationale del Romanzo Storico is actually the second cultural festival that Giacomo co-founded with friends. The first was the Sugar Pulp Festival.
In both cases, their ambition has been to promote their home region in and around Padua as well as to create vibrant multi-faceted and multi-media festivals that amplify various aspects of literature and culture.
Sugar Pulp’s focus is contemporary pop culture while Chronicae’s is historical fiction.
Sugar Pulp itself is the name of Giacomo’s brand, with the “sugar” deriving from the beetroot that’s plentiful in their semi-rural region and the “pulp” alluding to popular culture, such as the film pulp fiction.
Launched humbly in 2011 once he’d returned to Padua after years working in broadcast, print and online media in Milan, Giacomo’s vision for the Sugar Pulp Festival is for it to one day become as big, multicultural and global as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
He’s got a similar dream for the Chronicae Festival even though it’s more specialised than Sugar Pulp which covers all facets of pop culture.
Super Pulp explores everything from comic books, paperback books, audiobooks and ebooks to video games, films TV, live performance and virtual reality. Sugar Pulp only launched its Historical Novel “Chronicae” Festival in 2014. But it’s already drawn internationally-acclaimed novelists from around Italy, elsewhere in Europe and the United States to take part in the festival. They are all writers who believe, like Francesca, that knowing one’s history is of vital importance but the most enjoyable way to imbibe that history is through the fictional form.
One reason Giacomo agreed with his friends to establish Chronicae was because Italians have a large appetite for cultural festivals. “But we saw there was a gap to be filled among the literary festivals. There was none before ours that focused solely on the historical novel,” he said.
Another reason Sugar Pulp was bound to create a Chronicae platform was because one of its co-founders, Matteo Strukul, is himself a writer of historical novels.
His trilogy on the Medici family of Florence is award-winning and is already being translated into English, Spanish, and German.
Both Sugar Pulp and Chronicae have a vibrant online presence. And while their presence on social media is virtually all in Italian, the example that Giacomo sets for promoting culture and the historical novel is inspirational. So is his passion, specifically for Italian culture.
As her last parting project to Kenyans, Francesca created a literary competition during the workshop. The participants were given the challenge of writing an historical novelette which will be judged by her and her three guests.
“The winner will receive a round-trip ticket, including accommodation, to Italy where he or she will be guest of honour during the next Chronicae Festival in April 2018,” she said. At the time of our going to press, the winner had not yet been named. But clearly, Francesca leaves Kenya having made a powerful mark on the minds of a score of young writers, which is no small feat.