Mukoma wa Ngugi, son of world renowned African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, is currently in London with his father for a public conversation at the Africa Writes festival, and the launch of his new crime fiction novel Black Star Nairobi.
Novelist, poet and literary scholar, Mukoma is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and in 2006 published an anthology of poetry Hurling Words at Consciousness (Africa World Press).
His novel Nairobi Heat was published in 2009, and follows detective Ishmael’s journey from Madison to Nairobi in search of the killer of a young girl found murdered on the doorstep of a prominent Rwandan peace activist.
Melville International Crime, a crime library from Melville House, publishing intelligent crime writing by global writers from Wolf Haas to Andrey Kurkov, have just launched sequel Black Star Nairobi. Detective Ishmael and O return, this time investigating a mysterious death in the Ngong Forest and its links to the bombing of a prominent Nairobi hotel.
I was lucky enough to have a chance to sit down with Mukoma on Tuesday at the London Review Bookshop to talk about Black Star Nairobi, his concerns and preoccupations as a writer, and the ways in which his writing enters into dialogue with his father’s.
Mukoma wa Ngugi: I like to begin with a question I don’t have an answer for. For Nairobi Heat it was – ‘what would happen if I took an African American character and immersed him in Kenya?’ In Black Star Nairobi it was – ‘if I was to create ‘absolute evil’ what would it look like?’
To me, the character Sahara encompasses that. ‘Absolute evil’ would not be spontaneous, would be very calculating, would be very confident in itself and in its mission, and would plan something years ahead. I wanted to go underneath the war on terror and give it the face of Sahara – this nice guy, charming even, a guy you’d like to have tea with.
At the same time, I was interested in the question of the 2007 general election and the violence that broke out. What makes one neighbour turn against another? These were people who had lived together for years. What would that kind of intimate violence look like?
The dedication in Nairobi Heat is to Meja Mwangi and David Maillu. Can you talk about those writers as points of reference and inspiration for your writing?
With David Maillu, the books we enjoyed the most were also very pornographic – maybe that is why we read them? They were not taught in class, but what we really wanted to talk about during break was David Maillu. When people like my dad and Micere Mugo were sent into exile, it was actually the popular writers who kept the literature alive. On reading some of those books later in life, like John Kiriamiti, Meja Mwangi, I realised that they were also very political. Mwangi Ruheni and his series of books What a Life!, What a Husband! – you read it and you find he is talking about the Mau Mau, the joblessness, the search for work – it is an indictment of neo-colonial Kenya. I was fascinated by that and so I wanted to pay homage to them.
Most immediately Walter Mosley. I’m fascinated by the way he is able to use the form of detective fiction to bring out issues of race and class in the US. Sara Paretsky, in her series V I Warshawski, in a way her books are a critique of people like Raymond Chandler – the white male detective.
I just taught a class on ‘Detective Fiction’, that included fiction from writers like Sara Paretsky, Kwei Quartey from Ghana. These are writers who are trying to do all sorts of interesting things with the detective form; make it more insurgent.
There seems to be quite a lot of excitement at the moment about genre fiction from Africa – from chicklit to science fiction to crime fiction – whether it be Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City or Helon Habila’s Oil on Water or Jamal Mahjoub writing as Parker Bilal. Do you feel like there is a renaissance of crime fiction or genre fiction from Africa that you identify with and are part of?
There is definitely that energy. Ellah Allfrey wrote a piece talking about Nairobi Heat and recognizing this as a form. I know there have been panels on African detective fiction. But not much has been produced as yet to actually say there is a movement. I think from people like Helon Habila there is a recognition that you can do a lot more with this form and that it is accessible to people.
I also have a very hard time with the divide of high and low culture. There are questions of who decides what is low, what is high? And at the same time, who is defining the African aesthetic? African writers of course have been largely responsible for defining the novel as realist or political. I wanted to play around with those things. I know for example the writer Nnedi Okorafor has had people tell her point blank she is not producing African fiction, because she is writing science fiction. So there is a part of me that wanted to say, African literature doesn’t have to be one thing; allow it to flourish in many different forms.
How did you develop the distinctive voices of Ishmael and O?
I don’t think me and Ishmael would get along politically. I wrote a character that is far away from me – he is not a Malcolm X kind of guy. He believes in what he is doing and he thinks about it, but he is still working within a system. He mentions broader social issues in passing, but not as a way of overturning society; he can comment. So as long as I save him from myself, I think he will be okay! The person who is closer to me politically is Muddy, because she is a poet, she is very radical.
When our parents went back to Kenya in 2004 and they were attacked, we had to go for court cases. When we were there, our parents had to have police protection, so we spent a lot of time around the Kenyan CID. They were very very interesting guys! The guy who I modeled O after, he was this very quiet understated guy. I remember one day him telling us a story of how he was driving a friend’s car and they got car-jacked. He didn’t say ‘and then I took out my gun and shot…’. He said, ‘well of course, I had to speak for myself.’ In Kiswahili it is, he said ‘alafu nika jitetea’ and then he moved on. If I hadn’t met him I don’t think I would have ‘O’ – a guy who is able to deal with violence casually.
Black Star Nairobi is set against the backdrop of the 2007 Kenyan Presidential election, can you talk a bit about that decision and the relationship for you as a writer between storytelling, politics and history?
With Black Star Nairobi and Nairobi Heat, first I was just very interested in telling a story that would be entertaining. As much there is a lot of violence and tragedy, I wanted a story that people will just enjoy reading. I had the image of how people will watch a movie and at the end they will clap, because the movie has taken them on a journey.
At the same time, I don’t want to write fiction that doesn’t say anything. I don’t know if as an African writer I can write a story that doesn’t say anything. And I want to work with characters who are also concerned with questions of the world. For me it is more realist that people would talk about the politics of the day, even in a limited way. In Kenya in the matatus, in the bars, people always talk about politics. If you are cop in Kenya, you cannot just not be concerned with the politics. For me, I want to work with an aesthetics that is not afraid of the political.
Actually for Black Star Nairobi my favourite title was Killing Sahara! For Nairobi Heat the title I wanted was The African Connection. So this is the publishers doing really! For Killing Sahara they thought it gives away too much of what is coming. I do feel a bit torn. Nairobi Heat, the title grows on you, so I’m okay with it now. But Black Star Nairobi…. Killing Sahara sounds so much cooler! In South Africa it is coming out as Killing Sahara, so I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to the two different titles and hopefully being vindicated!
In The Standard two days ago, somebody wrote a fairly long and very negative write up of Nairobi Heat. Her argument was ‘it is one of those okay stories’, but that I misrepresent Nairobi and show it in a very negative light. I think it would have been an interesting critique if she had asked the question the other way around, which is ‘What is the role of the writer? What sort of responsibility do I have to perceived reality? Do I have a duty as a fiction writer to portray a Nairobi that the middle class can relate to? ‘
Of course I do feel a little bit of bitterness! But I think with the titles, those questions are questions people will be asking. Is this a Nairobi I know? Is Nairobi really that violent? Is it really that polarized? This also brings out something I’ve been finding very disturbing about African writers either being accused or feeling that they need to portray a positive view, as if we are on some sort of tourist board. There is this idea now that everybody should be an ‘Afro-optimist’ and that anyone who writes anything negative is pandering to the Caine Prize – I think somebody coined the phrase ‘the Caine prize aesthetic.’ For me, I’m finding that very disturbing because it is as if we are giving up on dealing with reality and the need to tackle the contradictions. I think as writers we have a serious role of bringing out those contradictions.
Nairobi Heat first came out in South Africa and that was when the book industry was in a crisis, I think 2008, so we couldn’t get a publisher in the US. So first we gave Africa rights to Penguin South Africa, and then after a little while we were like ‘well let’s give them world rights’ – I wanted to have a book in the US, so I could do a reading. But the reason the book took 3 or 4 years to get to Nairobi is precisely because we had given away the rights. Penguin South Africa held onto the rights, even when they knew they couldn’t do anything with the book. Now consequently, anything that happens with the book has to go through Penguin South Africa. The cautionary tale for African writers, or writers in general would be, just don’t give away your world rights – unless you get a really good deal!
So it first came out in South Africa, then it came out in the US in 2011 and now in Kenya in 2013 – so it has been 5 or 6 years. In Kenya it is coming out with East Africa Educational Publishers.
But I learned my lesson, so for Black Star Nairobi, it came out this year with Melville and then this month it is coming out in South Africa with Kwela Books, and then in Nigeria it is coming out with Cassava Republic and in Kenya with East Africa Educational Publishers. So it is having a much better time!
I’ve been thinking more and more about who is reading my books, and if you notice in Black Star Nairobi I thank bloggers specifically. With Nairobi Heat they are the ones that drove it. These are people who otherwise it doesn’t strike me that they would read African literature, but they like crime. I think with books that are not getting reviewed in major places it is as if it is some sort of, not necessarily ‘guerilla marketing’, but…I think it is going to the people it should be going to.
Were you involved in the cover designs for the Melville International Crime editions? Can you tell us a bit about that process?
No, but I think Christopher King, the designer, does a very good job. This is a very striking cover (pointing to the cover of Nairobi Heat)! I thought it would make the Afro-optimists very very unhappy to see Africa as a gun, which in turn made me happy.
The cover of Black Star Nairobi is the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. The designs coming out in Kenya are different
This interview is in the context of your appearance on Saturday night in conversation with your father Ngugi wa Thiong’o at the Africa Writes festival, so I wanted to ask you a few questions with that in mind.
I was at the 2010 Kwani? Litfest where you were also in conversation with your father, can you talk a bit about that?
Yes, that was a very emotionally satisfying thing to happen. When you live away from home, home can become a place of negative things – you go for funerals. Then in our case there is the political aspect, where we grew up under a dictatorship and it got difficult as a result of that – there was a time when our home was raided by the cops because they thought my dad had come back, there was a time when they froze his royalties, there was a time we had lost all our friends because nobody wanted to be associated with us. So for a very long time home had become a place of negativity – though of course home is always home. And then of course when my parents went back and got attacked, and then we had to go to the court cases, which really, if anything has ever come close to destroying home as a place I would like to be – it was that. So to now be able to go back as writers – we are not going back because of anything negative, we are going back to celebrate writing and to celebrate each other’s writing – that was very satisfying.
Is it different relating to your father ‘publicly’ instead of ‘privately’?
Well we spend a lot of time talking about writing anyway, so in a way what we are doing in public, talking about writing, is what we do in private. The things my dad will say in public, so he will say he’d like to see more and more younger writers writing in African languages, is also something he will say in private. So apart from normal familial discord, in terms of the intellectual work we do in a public setting, I think it is pretty much things we would talk about at home!
Do you know what topics you are going to be discussing?
No! No, we have no ideas yet. But there can only be so many, right?
The review that was done in The Standard spent a considerable amount of time comparing, well not even comparing, sort of wishing that I wrote more like my dad. And again, I do think there is a good question there and something that interests me as well. I wish I could go outside of myself and study both his work and mine, because of that concept – to go to Freud – of ‘mourning and melancholy’. So in his writing, the things he lost are immediate – language, our culture. He can point to where his home was before it was physically destroyed, whereas for me all those things are once removed. Language I haven’t lost, but that history, the history, that is still living. I would be interested to see then how that works in our writing. We both write about Limuru, how do we see it? What does it mean to him and to me? Or for example, one of his brothers, it is in one of the novels, was deaf and during the emergency there was an order for him to stop, but of course he couldn’t hear so he was shot. Or his brother who was in the Mau Mau who would come late at night and encourage him to study well. Somehow I know all these things are also in my writing – these traumas are somehow in there.
My favourite book and I teach it, is A Grain of Wheat. I like A Grain of Wheat, because certainly the political questions are there – betrayal, colonialism, violence – but I find it fascinating the way the questions are outside, so we get to see the characters still going about their lives. My favourite scene in that book is when all the kids – at that point they are still young, the betrayals and the deaths haven’t come yet – are competing against each other to see who will get to the train first. As it turns out, this is something they used to do as kids.
Going back to some of the differences, I feel that for him realist fiction works. For me, I feel I can’t do a straight-up realist book because there were so many ridiculous things that happened when I was growing up. For example you couldn’t dream of Kenyatta’s death or at some point you couldn’t gather more than 5 people – you had to get a permit. I started thinking of that when I taught Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, which is told in fragmented voices. I kept thinking ‘how can you capture that Nigeria in straight up realist fiction?’ For a generation that grows up with all kinds of ridiculous but iconic things – how do you capture that? When you look at Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, I think that is the reason why it is sort of fragmented. There are high levels of absurdity, but at the same time there are tragedies that are happening, people are dying and there is absolute poverty. You can’t deal with that in a straight memoir. Whereas my Dad’s memoir is a narrative that has a beginning, and follows that through. Thinking about my detective fiction, I don’t know if I could have these extreme characters in a realist novel.
Hear this father and son dialogue continue at Africa Writes tonight (6th July 2013) at the British Library Conference Centre. You can read more about the festival here and buy tickets for ‘TWO WRITERS, TWO GENERATIONS: NGUGI WA THIONG’O & MUKOMA WA NGUGI’ here.