Sunday, May 2

Considering "An Anthology of East African Short Stories"

One of my regrets following my five months in Munich was that I never really indulged in the culture. Okay, I did make it to all of the Pinakotheken (der Moderne thrice) and went to the opera (thrice), but the only music I listened to was the stuff Molly enjoyed enough at the pubs to find on YouTube, and I only went into bookstores long enough to buy texts for classes and Schiller for my grandparents. I didn't even take the literature class offered by Junior Year in Munich. Terrible, I know. I wanted to come back from Germany and be able to speak mildly intelligently about its culture and current. Had anyone asked me, the best I could have managed would have been, "The Englischer Garten was nice." It's a disappointment that I have never totally successfully purged from myself.

Coming in, I knew I would have more than twice that time in Kenya. I did not intend on making that mistake once again. Didn't really matter. Kenyan culture in the snobbish, highbrow sense, doesn't really exist. It doesn't even much exist in the pop sense. It's understandable, I guess. When money for discretionary spending is not exactly plentiful, and when your market is flooded with knock-offs and copies from the Western world and doing just fine, that isn't much of an incentive to start creating original work.

Sure, there is some Kenyan music. Mostly atrocious rap and gospel that makes me wince when I'm not doubled over in pain from it. There is benga, derived from Luo instruments and melodies. That's a Kenyan original. Strain yourself to the limit and imagine dumbed-down reggae. Benga is not exactly my favorite.

Thus the burden fell to literature to carry the torch of the Kenyan highbrow. I only picked up An Anthology of East African Short Stories, collected and edited by Valeria Kibera, on one of my last trips into Nairobi, and I didn't finish reading it until the week before I left. Now I know why Kenyan and East African literature is pretty well unknown in the States. It's not very good. Pretty terrible most of the time, in fact.

Consider this line from Jonathan Kariara's "Karoki." "He was a ridiculous little man, and Wahome, and the world, had a right to laught [sic] at him. A fit of laughter caught him, his neck muscles welled up with laughter and he spluttered as he saw himself for what he was." Clich├ęs and bizarre imagery are, sadly, not unique to this story. Bernard Mgui Wagacha writes in "Who Am I?" "Now to be compared to my mother in cowardice is a serious insult to me. I rush at that spittle and rub it off furiously - and thus throw down the gauntlet."

Neither is the dedicated march to the theme and urgent need to bring everyone else along and make sure that they do not deviate from the course. Leonard Kibera wants you to be clear that executions invite mobs of spectators at a loss of their own humanity. "We, the brave men, seemed to drop our heads down in chorus and pressed together. With shame? Even that I cannot tell. But I found myself moving away - backing out? - towards home, tail between my legs." The feeling of hand holding is only drawn further out the editor herself as follows every story with a series of exercises that question the symbolism of certain acts and characters and prompts you to imagine yourself in the narrator's position.

It's really quite unfortunate because there is some great potential in these stories. Take the first paragraph of "Karoki."

"He was losing his teeth. His two front ones had grown alarmingly long of late, narrowing down almost to a point where they emerged from the pale gum. Now one had dropped off; the other, still standing, distorted the face slightly to the left. Looking at him you felt as if he had received a vicious slap to across the left cheek, a terrible slap which had made him wince, contracting his facial muscles to one side, and that somehow the face had not relaxed from the blow."

Not to say there are no good stories at all. One of the best of the anthology is Sadrudin Kassam's "Kingi," where the young narrator is drawn into the home of a pied piper. Interestingly, Kassam and his narrator are ethnically Indian. It's a story of the outsider's fascination with his home and its people, his parents' fear of it, and the man's obscure intentions.

Straight up, though, the best stories in the collection are by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Not surprisingly, he is also the only Kenyan whose writing is known and published in the West. In a sense, his stories in this collection are stereotypes of what one would expect from Kenyan writers. "The Return" is about a young man returning to his tribal village, freed from a detention camp during Mau Mau. "A Mercedes Funeral" is a microcosm of the possibilities available to Kenya following independence and how it all was squandered and eventually forgotten. They are very Kenyan stories in the sense that writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall is very German and about Escobar is very Colombian. If you have any passing knowledge of these nations, you know of them.

It makes me uncomfortable in a way. I absolutely respect Thiong'o's skill with words. He knows how to pace a story as the narrator of "A Mercedes Funeral" pauses his story to order another round. He can weave words together. He can understate things and slow burn them. I also acknowledge that detention during Mau Mau and the trajectory of Kenya following Kenya are immensely important to Thiong'o, and that national events like these have a place in literature. War and Peace contains the Napoleonic Wars. What bothers me is that he is the most famous Kenyan author, if not all of East Africa, that may be in due in so small part to the fact that he writes about things you would expect an African to write. It's like the West is desperate to prove that they can appreciate a real African writer and that they're totally open minded toward his African stories. It's like having a token black friend and always reminding your other friends that he can speak in ebonics and is really black. Would Thiong'o be as famous if he had preferred to write domestic dramas? I fear not. As this quote I pulled from Wikipedia which had pulled it in turn from The East African Standard says, "... it is very difficult for writers like Meja Mwangi, Francis D. Imbuga and Jared Angira to enjoy Ngugi's prominence, because the paths they have chosen are smaller. They do not directly draw from history."

It's unfortunate that these three and maybe another two or three are the only stories I have any interest in returning to later out of some eighteen. I picked up two novels before I left: Thiong'o's Petals of Blood and Mwangi's The Cockroach Dance. Maybe Kenyans are better at the long form. I can only hope.

No comments: