AiW Guest: Amanda Anderson
Stanley Gazemba’s 2002 novel Forbidden Fruit, previously published in Kenya as The Stone Hills of Maragoli, presents a tightly woven tapestry of human experience. The narrative follows Ombima, a poor man from the small village of Ivona, Kenya struggling to meet his basic needs. In fact, it is his desire and need to feed himself and his family that sets him on a path that will lead to his family’s destruction. Ombima faces loss, betrayal, joy, and suffering. The threads of Ombima’s life begin to unravel as he becomes part of something that he cannot control—a love affair that will pull the tightly knit community of Ivona apart. His lover, his employer, his wife, his friends, and even his children suffer as a result of his choice. Finally, at the end of the novel, Ombima is offered a fine filament of hope that brings the entire tapestry into focus, and it becomes clear that this novel is not just about one man; it is a novel about being human in an inhumane world.
What Gazemba does masterfully and naturally is draw upon the language and the landscape of Kenya. From Ivona to Kekamega, Gazemba draws the reader into a world that is beautiful and raw. To do this, Gazemba weaves his narrative in lights and darks, a delicate balance between joy and pain, the past and progress, morality and sin, and life and death.
His descriptions of life in the village, and its contrast with Ombima’s experience in the city shows the juxtaposition of rural agrarianism and industrial urban life. It seems that leaving the village transports Ombima and his family in time, for the hardships of the agrarian village life seem out of time with a postindustrial world.
Gazemba’s descriptions of Kenyan folklife are rich and moving. In such scenes, the prose is soft and delicate, like fine silk threads that warp into a rich tapestry of humanity. In particular, when Gazemba describes the village’s celebrations, the reader is immersed in the majesty of Kenyan culture. Gazemba uses song, ritual, and traditional storytelling to present this image of Kenya. Two scenes are particularly vividly rendered: the festival in Kekamega, and the funeral of Ombima’s daughter, Saliku.
The festival is described in contrasts: the hot dryness of the day contrasted with cold soda; his wife’s face, burnt and wrinkled and cracked by work in the sun, softened and smoothed by a day of frivolous joy; Ombima’s own scarred face, contrasted with a scar on his wife’s face. The parallels that Gazemba draws pull the reader into a dizzying and exuberant day of pleasure that, in itself, contrasts the life that Ombima and his family live.
Yet, there is a coarseness to Gazemba’s writing that exposes the harshness of agrarian life, specifically for a man who must farm another’s land. Just when Gazemba weaves joy into the narrative, he rends it. Saliku suddenly falls ill, her illness appearing only moments after Ombima consummates his illicit affair with his employer’s wife. The child’s sudden death contrasts with the joy the entire family had experienced only days earlier. Her mortality contrasts with her youth and potential. And yet, though the funeral is somber, there is a living pulse to it, created by the vivid drumbeats of the village’s young men, and the mourning songs and wails of the women. The result is stark, but not unbeautiful. It is a day that honors both life and death.
In a passage that foreshadows Ombima’s own future, Ombima’s son meets a blind man and his grandson at the hospital. As the novel concludes, Ombima meets the same blind man, and there is a sort of homecoming in their shared blindness. It is a bleak conclusion, but one that promises a tomorrow for both Ombima and his son.
Ultimately, Gazemba’s narrative reveals the sting of the past, the joys of the moment, and the promise of tomorrow. Through his judicious use of contrast, Gazemba presents pleasure and pain in stark relief—each one illuminating and enriching the other. There is no doubt that Ombima’s life is tragic; however, there is also no doubt that it is beautiful. And, it is this tragic beauty that makes Forbidden Fruit such a moving work of literature. It feeds the mind and the soul. A powerful, provocative novel, Forbidden Fruit is a must read for those who enjoy strong characters and bold narratives, and followers of African literature will rejoice that Gazemba’s novel has been published in the United States.
Stanley Gazemba is an award-winning author and his breakthrough novel, ‘The Stone Hills of Maragoli’, published by Kwani? won the Jomo Kenyatta prize for Kenyan Literature in 2003. He is also the author of two other novels: ‘Callused Hands’ and ‘Khama’, he has written eight children’s books. A prolific writer, Stanley’s articles and stories have appeared in several international publications including the New York Times, ‘A’ is for Ancestors, the Caine Prize Anthology and the East African magazine. Stanley lives in Nairobi and his short story ‘Talking Money’ was recently published in ‘Africa 39’, a Hay Festival publication which was released in 2014. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, ‘Africa 39’ features a collection of 39 short stories by some of Africa’s leading contemporary authors. Stanley is also in the process of working on an array of creative literary projects.
Amanda L. Anderson is an Assistant Professor of English at Delaware State University, where teaches literature, writing, and theater courses. She also directs student theatrical productions. Her theatrical interests include acting, directing, African-American theater, non-traditional theatre, and children’s theatre. Her scholarly interests include folklore and fairy tales, performance theory, children’s and young adult literature, and popular culture. Most recently, she staged and adapted a hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.