Q&A: Peter Kimani, author of Dance of the Jakaranda, talks with Maëline Le Lay

AiW Guest: Maëline Le Lay

Peter Kimani is an award-winning author. He was 1 of 3 poets commissioned to compose and present a poem marking Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Born in 1971 in Kenya, he has won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature, Kenya’s highest literary honourDance of the Jakaranda is his UK debut novel.

“History has strange ways of announcing itself to the present, whether conceived in comforting darkness or blinding light. It can manifest with the gentleness of a bean cracking out of its pod, making music in its fall. Even when such seed falls into fertile soil, it still wriggles from the tug of the earth, stretching a green hand for uplift. The seed of wonderment that germinated from the flicker of a kiss in that darkened night had, in a few months, grown by leaps and bounds”. (p. 63)

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Le Lay: Dance of the Jakaranda relates the entangled story of families in Kenya, all along the colonization era up to the first years of the independent state. The novel hence provides an interesting and deep insight on the colonization process but also, more broadly, on the political situation in Africa in the 50’s and 60’s at the dawn of independence. Why is it important to write a historical novel on this era today in Kenya?

Kimani: My understanding of history is that it is a collection of events that happened in the past. But those past events have a direct bearing on the present and on the future. So, I see a continuation of one state and the next. In 1900, we become a colonial construct, British Protectorate of East Africa, or Kenia, as the Brits called my country. And 1963 marked our birth as an independent state. As I wrote my novel, fifty years later, in contemporary times, I see our country in the same prism: a post-colony, as one form of British domination was succeeded by another. I find it particularly perplexing that we have collectively as Kenyans dealt with one single issue for over 100 years: land. The land that was stolen by the British settlers, from the shores of the Indian Ocean, where Mekatilili wa Menza led the Giriama people to resist the British in 1920’s to the highlands of the Rift Valley where Koitalel Arap Samoei led the Nandi to resist an excision of their land, or even Central Kenya where yet another hero, Waiyaki wa Wahinga, led the revolt against the British, remains unaddressed.

Peter Kimani.jpg

Peter Kimani, photo credit: Yusuf Wachira

 

All those moments in history remain unchanged, that the land was stolen remains still in British hands. In that sense, that continuous thread remains unbroken. Landlessness remains a national challenge. So, history, in other words, is not the past. As Faulkner put it: History is not dead. It’s not even past.

Le Lay: What I like in your approach of colonization is how you portray it first and foremost as the adventure of this time for many men, no matter where they come from, either from Great Britain, standing on the side of the ruling power, or from India, as coolies. Colonization was not only a political conquest of nations over others, it was also the avenue of self-accomplishment and manhood, a big step forward in one’s life :

“McDonald then resolved to do what he knew best: work hard and earn decoration for his service to GB. Sally would be proud of him, he mused to himself, perhaps she’d even harken his word. If he was knighted, he would be a man of title, just like her father. That’s what motivated him to go to East Africa – to head the project that even his bosses in London admitted was a little insane. Its London architects called it the Lunatic Express, wondering where the rail would start and where it would end, for nothing of value was to be found in the African wilds. But it had to be done, and McDonald had fully committed himself to the idea that the construction of a railroad across the African hinterland was his route to self-affirmation and validation.” (p. 52).

Reversely, you briefly mention another side of colonization, far less romantic than the pioneering style of settlers like McDonald and even Babu: the European decadent community living in Happy Valley in the 1930-1960, very well described by James Fox in White Mischief, and mentioned a couple of times in Dance of the Jakaranda. There is a significant contrast between these two types of colonizers. Was it done on purpose? What was your intention when you chose to stage characters such as McDonald, Babu and  Reverend Turnbull as well rather than Happy Valley’s decadent style characters?

Kimani: I think I was first and foremost interested in the humanity of these individuals. When you talk of colonialism as an abstract idea, we forget it is driven by individuals. Humans, who have private aspirations, inner fears… So what I was interested in wasn’t just McDonald’s flawed masculinity—here’s a man who has no control over one woman, although he’s going to try to control a whole colony. I’m not suggesting here that women should be controlled! But Sally is the one who causes the shots. You might even say the same of Babu. Babu’s becomes a successful businessman in future, but the foundation of his business empire is his estranged wife Fatima. So I was interested in first understanding the humanity of all these individuals, to examine their own inner struggles, their fears, their motivations. One compliment that I have received from critics is that my characters, whether black or white or brown, are judged by their actions, not by their skin colour.

Yes, there is there is a well-entrenched narrative of British colonization as the Happy Valley set, where white folks did nothing other than eat, drink and sleep around… That’s another version of British history in Kenya and there are elements of truth in it. But I think the situation was a lot more complex.

One might argue Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, not so much her memoir, but the Hollywood film that’s based on the text, perpetuates this misleading narrative, where white are positioned as overlords of Africans. Of course, there is huge fiction in the film although it is supposedly based on a memoir. It is this kind of intersection that I am curious about: how history is fictionalized, or how fiction becomes history. So that is the idea that I am teasing out in Dance of the Jakaranda. That even the recorded history that is read in libraries and archives, as recorded by the Brits, was a distortion of what truly happened.

So, Nyundo the drummer offers another version of history. And he is saying “I was witness to this history, I was there, I saw it with my own eyes.” Ironically, even when McDonald is recording some of those events, he deliberately misinterprets them to cover his own tracks because he doesn’t want to be seen to have failed in managing the locals. So he distorts some of those facts that Nyundo disputes. As a folk historian, Nyundo and other people who witness those events contest the privileging of the written word over oral narratives.  Oral histories have carried the history of the African continent for generations, so Nyundo is restoring the spoken word to its rightful place in history.

Le Lay: Talking about different coexisting perspectives on Kenyan history, Dance of the Jakaranda is a polyphonic novel telling Kenyan history via a mix of genres among which African storytelling embodied by Nyundo but also via the use of archives (I am notably referring here to the piece of newspaper which you wrote, had probably never been read by the majority of the people).

First of all, is it an authentic archive or a reconstructed one? Secondly, did you intend to write the history of those who were taught about their own history, those whose perspective about Kenya has been silenced in order to restore the prejudice caused by what you call “a very misleading colonial history”?

Kimani: I was interested in contesting the veracity of those records. I am in a way doing what Achebe calls “re-storying”,or “retelling”. I am retelling the story of Kenya because the story that is recorded in our archives, the British archives, the British Museums in London, is an amalgamation of deliberate misinterpretations of our past and sheer fiction. There is an insightful book, The Africa That Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing About Africa edited by Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow. This survey assessed books that were written by early British missionaries, explorers and colonial administrators and their accounts were found to be deliberately misleading. The individuals who inhabit Africa at that time are as depicted as having multiple heads, multiple mouths, limbs sprouting from different parts of their bodies, etc., to illustrate their abnormalities. The whole idea is to spread propaganda that diminishes their humanity. That happens to this day. So when such weird people are enslaved or colonized, they are unlikely to enjoy empathy from the rest of the humanity as they are seen as sub-humans.

We read similar distortions about Africans, and Kenyans specifically, from the early missionaries and early colonial writers. Karen Blixen does a very good job of it in Out of Africa where she purports that it helps her to understand the African by understanding animals, so suggesting that animals and Africans are close relatives. Africans use instinct, just as animals, not intellect. I find echoes of such prejudice in the fictions of Ernest Hemingway, especially the texts set in East Africa—The Green Hills of Africa and True at First Light. My novel attempts to retell the story of Africans with intelligence and integrity so they are presented as people with full humanity. What I was interested in was to restore the other version of history that is not recorded, but also to clarify the distortions that are presented in colonial writings of Kenya.

Le Lay: Would you say that this project was subversive to Kenyan politics? Or would you say that this would be one of the reasons why your book has not been published yet in Kenya?

Kimani: Dance of the Jakaranda is subversive at different levels. Maybe the Kenyan publishers haven’t seen those deep elements, but the structure of the novel, to start with imitates traditional oral storytelling traditions, where multiple characters share their stories, to evoke the fireside experience of storytelling. This subverts the conventional bildungsroman novel that’s largely driven by a single character.

Then I also subverted English language by using literary indigenization. This entails deliberate importation of cultural expressions and sensibilities that are alien to the English language.

Further, I drew from multiple traditions and influences; from Latin America, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chekovian comedy, Kafka’s caricatures, echoes of Achebe and Ngugi… From these traditions, I attempt to create something new. I draw on Franz Fanon’s idea of nation building by illustrating how colonization has been reconstructed by indigenous Kenyans who take power in 1963. It is local politicians who rebuild colonial monuments. This is a powerful gesture of how colonialism is constructed and reconstructed in contemporary Africa, and Africans’ complicity in the scheme. Put another way, Dance of the Jakaranda suggests that Kenya is still a colonial construct.

Le Lay: A recurring theme in the novel is that of difficult sexuality, especially for men. FMG is present, slightly implied, McDonald the cuckold is being cheated on twice by his very much beloved wife, and Babu condenses sexuality issues: the threat of Fatima’s infertility, his own impotence, his lack of interest in sexual matters, his lack of implication in his union with Fatima… They are all factors that lead him to this both dreadful and funny scene of the exhibition of the proof of virginity’s proof. Babu’s grandson, Rajan, has no problem living a free and casual sexuality until he falls in love with Mariam but their affair is quite soon threatened by the risk of incest. Only Fatima seems to fully enjoy sex with Ahmad (and vice versa), an intercourse that will reveal her fertility.

Would you say Dance of the Jakaranda offers a rather pessimistic view on relationships and/or sexuality? Is difficult sexuality a metaphor of difficult relationship?

Kimani: It is metaphorical. And it has been misread by many critics who think women are not in positions of power and authority. But I think this is a misreading of it, because if you think about Fatima, not only does she extract her revenge in a very powerful way, but she also sets up Babu’s future prosperity in business. And if you think about Sally, she is the one who motivates McDonald through those years into the wilderness, just to win her affection and affirmation. Mariam is the centerpiece of the book– the link between all those four men with prominent roles in the book: Rajann,  Babu, McDonald and Reverend Turnbull. I complicate use sex in this book by subverting masculinity: Babu cannot rise to the location, McDonald is cuckolded… But then the successful copulation between Ahmad and Fatima produces an illegitimate baby.

In the final analysis, the novel is asking: “Whose child is it?” and by extension: “whose country is this?” as I am interested in exploring the idea of birth of a nation. Who, then, are our fathers of the nation? well, One of the men honored as a founding father of the nation is Ahmad, a rascal who not only cheats on his friend by sleeping with his wife, he also steals his business. In other words, we have been led by people who are in those positions illegally. The true leaders, the true founding fathers, the true heroes of our history are yet to be recognized. That was the layer of meaning that I was hoping to illustrate in the story. So sexuality here intimates that the Ahmad-Fatima  union led to the birth of a metaphorical child, whose legitimacy is in question.

Le Lay: Some critics reported Dance of the Jakaranda as writing back to Conrad: do you agree with this reading? In Dance of the Jakaranda, one can find echoes of Ngugi’s cheeky smile and influences of African storytelling tradition (“Hadithi, hadithi?”), but coupled with an acute sense of mystery. It is almost as enticing as a thriller and one may also find a hint of magic realism in the narration (a bit like in Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow). Which writers would you take as writing models? And which of them would be your anti-models?

Kimani: Of course, I would say that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was very present in my mind as I wrote Dance of the Jakaranda, because my novel’s controlling motifs are light and darkness: Africa is the heart of darkness and the Western colonization is the supposed illumination. By the end of the book, the reader is invited to review if colonialism was a long, dark chapter of our history, or the much-needed light to illuminate the continent.

I am attempting not just to respond to what western writers have written about our continent, but also create something different, something new. I move away from the black-white divide to explore the metaphor of “brown.” After all, Kenya in 1963 is a fusion of Arabic, British, African, Indian influences. Even my characters are products of these interactions.

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Maëline Le Lay is a researcher at CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), posted at IFRA-Nairobi in 2018-2020 (French Institute for Research in Africa). She is specialised in African literatures. Her research deals with theatre, performing arts and literature in the Great Lakes Region (eastern DR-Congo, Rwanda, Burundi) today. She is a member of the editorial board of the journal Etudes Littéraires Africaines.

Her book, La Parole construit le pays’. Théâtre, langues et didactisme au Katanga (République démocratique du Congo) – the reworked version of her PhD dissertation – was published in 2014 by Honoré Champion (Paris). Together with Dominique Malaquais and Nadine Siegert, she co-edited in 2015, Archive (re)mix. Vues d’Afrique, a collective transdisciplinary book.



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