The bridge between truth and imagination has always existed in literature but the distinction between the two does not exist in some languages. Fiction and Nonfiction. Real and unreal. For instance, in Swahili, there is no word set aside to differentiate the two. They are all summed up as stories “hadithi” and even in my mother tongue Kikuyu where they are all referred to as “rῦgano”. These are the words that come closest to fiction. What distinguishes the real from the made up stories are just the words added to them “rũgano rwa gwĩtungĩra” (made-up story). So why is it that the distinction of the two has become something that’s contested over today?
The other day I was with a friend and she asked me why I read fiction books. Apparently at our age we should be reading nonfiction books set to help you build your lives rather than getting lost in something that is not real. The rave has been self-help books in Kenya for the last couple of years. I believe it’s a worldwide thing. Everyone is looking for that guide to make a better life for themselves and so the book stores are full of books on the guidelines to become a successful business person. The spiritual books are also there shelf after shelf, it’s a common factor in many of the book stores I have been to in Nairobi.
I heard someone once say how fiction is such a waste of time and they would never be found reading such books. I was getting lost in The Book of Negroes when I got to a particularly sad part and my boyfriend looked at me and asked “You know that’s not real, right?” So many people prefer the “smarter” choice which is Nonfiction with actual facts and events that happened. They cannot imagine departing from reality to a world of make believe. What most people fail to understand, as much as a work of fiction is made-up, a lot of research goes into it. The character building takes a lot of time and they incorporate things from the real world into the book well except for fantasy and science fiction.
There is also the fact that fiction does not necessarily mean unreal. There are many books that fall under realistic fiction for instance My Sister’s Keeper, The Fault in Our Stars, To Kill a Mockingbird to mention a few. The stories might not be focused on real life people but the situations can actually happen in real life. The settings are believable in these books as they resemble real life but portrayed by fictional characters. I love the fact that these books highlight certain problems in the society in a creative way. They get you to think! The events could be social or personal issues in everyday life.
Take a look at The Fault in Our Stars by John Green which is a Young Adult novel that tells a story of a teenager called Hazel. She has terminal cancer and meets Augustus when attending a cancer support group. This is realistic in the sense that it is a modern setting and follows characters going through events that actually happen in real life. Their reality is faced by some people in today’s society, sadly. The whole story exists in a place that is real with trips to Amsterdam which is a reality. The characters are very believable and people can relate to them as they tackle the issue of terminal illness, teenage struggles and death.
But why do I love fiction? The ability to see through someone else’s eyes is something you get form the hundreds of books you read. When it comes to reality, I find it easier to empathize with someone else and this has become so normal for me. Before I got back into reading, the world was black and white to me. There was no time to try and understand somebody else’s situation but now I find myself trying to put myself in someone else’s shoe. It cultivates an understanding nature, I can attest to that.
So when that question was thrown at me, I understood. Our society focuses more on Nonfiction books and that’s what will mostly be displayed in every book store. Having been to a Barnes & Nobles, I always find our bookstores to be lacking. The thing is, the self-help books will sell more than books of fiction. The big sales come from them unless you are J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. Publishers also tend to favor the nonfiction writers more than the fiction writers. The focus has shifted elsewhere and that is just a fact.
The reading culture in Kenya from an early age is all about text books. The priority has always been that and it gets to the point some teachers can punish a student for wasting time on novels when they could be digging into their text books. The set books are the only novels you could read freely. Books like The River Between, Animal Farm, A Man of the People, An Enemy of the People and Kidagaa Kimemwozea are the ones you could freely read without feeling like you were doing something wrong. I don’t blame many Kenyans for getting tired of them as they were never encouraged to read other works of fiction. Most of the school libraries have a limited number of novels because they don’t have funds to splurge on such a luxury.
I personally love and have always loved reading. It doesn’t matter what book, if it has a premise that catches my attention I will likely get the book. A good self-help book is always something handy, any political nonfiction books also get my vote. I can jump from a sappy romance novel to a serious historical nonfiction book, I cannot pick one over the other because they all provide something in their distinct field. Fiction is a great way to travel and discover new things but Nonfiction is where the money is in Kenya.
The question on which one is better is very subjective and that is why I never get offended when someone asks me the question. Different strokes for different folks. Which one does it for you?