Kenyan writer Peter Kimani talks to us about how he tackled the past in his latest novel, representing otherness, and freedom of speech in Kenya.
Dance of the Jakaranda is a complex book of interwoven stories that spans generations. How did it come into being?
In 2007 I went to a writing programme in Iowa. Writers from different parts of the world spend a semester writing, giving readings and community engagement activities. I lived in an Iowan hotel for three months, and that was the genesis of the idea, of a hotel being the setting for a story.
I returned to Kenya at the end of that year just as there was another disputed election. There was violence, people were killed. That challenged our presumptions as Kenyans: Who are we collectively? Who are we individually? And why are we still wrestling with those simple questions? This gave impetus to the direction of my story. I had sought to write something simple, but it inadvertently evolved into something complex.
I found that writing about Indians living in Kenya was a useful group to write about when exploring the Kenyan identity. They were imported into the country by the British as part of the indentured labour, and have now inhabited that place for over five generations.
The structure of the story was also something that evolved gradually. The book imitates the railroad: with two parallel stories, the past of the 1890s and the present of the 1960s, side by side. I was examining those two perspectives – not just black and white, but the brown in between.
I also incorporated African oral storytelling tropes into the book. These tend to dance around a topic, with repetition and cyclical motions to the narrative, all deliberately so. You even have specific echoes of African storytelling, like when somebody says hadithi hadithi and there is a call and response hadithin jo, and I occasionally tease out such a device.
And both timelines have unreliable narrators…
The character of Nyundo the drummer powerfully reclaimed a place for himself in the story. Traditional communities used to communicate through drums, and he is the folk historian who witnesses history as it happens. Meanwhile, the colonial administrator who records the same events has another version of the history. So through Nyundo, I contest the validity of history as we know it, because what is recorded officially is never told from the perspective of the victim, it is always from the perspective of the victor. In other words I am teasing out the absurdity of a continent whose story has been told through the outside view and hardly their own. In the earlier drafts, Nyundo was dead for many years, but then he insisted on living in the text! To me, this symbolises the resurrection of African memory. He shifts the reader’s perspective because he is saying, ‘I saw it happen, I am the witness who experienced it, this is my story I am telling’ … and so challenging presumptions about Africa’s own story.
The main characters in this story are Indian, not from an indigenous East African group. How did you approach writing them, and ensure that you did justice to the characters and not slip into ’cultural appropriation’?
Actually I am currently teaching a course called ‘representing otherness’, examining how Africa’s colonial past has been exploited by white writers, and how black writers in the same space are writing about white characters. With regards to the Indians in Dance of the Jakaranda, people ask, ‘Why are you writing about what is not your story?’ My simple response is that Indians are part of the collective of what makes Kenya. So they are as Kenyan as I am and their story is my story to that extent.
When trying to give voice to another person, one is challenged to do it with integrity and faithfulness. My fidelity to my characters is to have no set notions of what their story is, because I am writing partly to discover. In my current book, I am exploring the life of a deaf and a mute person, and that will be a revelation. If it helps examine that community and the challenges they navigate through, I would have empowered somebody who doesn’t have the skills to state it as I do. So I will state that story and let others respond to it.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o now writes in his mother tongue of Giyuku. What do you think of that and would you consider writing novels in your own mother tongue?
I started my writing in Swahili as a journalist for Taifa Leo (the sister publication to English-language Daily Nation). I did that for a year and a half and I’m very proud of my contributions to that publication. So I do sympathise with Ngũgĩ’s cause and the concern that we should not keep all this knowledge in ‘foreign granaries’, where it can only be accessed by those who speak those languages. What does it mean for those populations that cannot access the material in those languages, coded in a foreign tongue?
I partly addressed this in Dance of the Jakaranda. I deliberately deployed literary ‘indigenisation’. The book signals that it is being told in a colonial language. English is delivering the story, but the characters were originally speaking something different.
Kenya needs to invest in an infrastructure that can promote development of its own languages. Tanzania adopted Swahili as its official language in 1961 and there is now a thriving publishing scene there that we do not have in Kenya. The government should be doing more. Look at Hebrew – it is spoken by around 5 million people, about the same as the number of Gikuyu speakers. But look at the number of texts that are in Hebrew, because of the investment in the language.
How difficult is it to make these criticisms of Kenya? As a former journalist, what is your view on the state of freedom of expression?
I should say expressly that I think the current state of affairs in Kenya as far as press freedom is concerned is probably one of the worst in 25 years.
They propose to be a ‘digital’ government – meaning young and modern and sophisticated. But they are more repressive than the stone age politicians like Moi, who did not deal with the internet. The absurdity of this is that when one tries to muzzle voices in the age of the internet, then your mentality must be from the stone age, because you cannot stop me and other writers from expressing ourselves! They have displayed a twentieth century mentality of information.
What we are seeing now in Kenya is the systematic shutdown of different voices, journalists being sacked at the Daily Nation and the Standard. Daniel Arap Moi, by virtue of his longevity, was more relaxed towards the final years of his rule, especially when he witnessed the inevitable shift of global politics, which has implications on the conduct of politics in Kenya. But the younger people have more energies and are very thin skinned, more so than the older generation, which is an irony.
Literature to me seems to be the only free thing left in the world. Journalism has been complicated by the shift in technology, both the way we consume and disperse information, and the growing anxieties funding for a lot of media ventures. Literature to me seems to be the only free thing left.
Peter Kimani is an award-winning Kenyan novelist and journalist. In 2011 he received the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature, Kenya’s highest literary honour, for his children’s book Upside Down. Kimani was one of three international poets to compose and present a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. A prominent journalist on Kenya’s national news circuit, Kimani’s work has also appeared in the Guardian, New African and Sky News. His latest novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, was published by Telegram.
Interview by Robert Sharp.