AiW Guest: Maëline Le Lay.
Initially published by Akashic Books, the New York publisher of Kenyan novelist and journalist Peter Kimani (author of the highly regarded Dance of the Jakaranda), this collection of short stories complements the rich collection of “noir” short stories associated with dozens of cities of the world (Los Angeles Noir, Havana Noir, Tel Aviv Noir…), even neighborhoods (Brooklyn Noir, Bronx Noir…), and occasionally countries (Haiti Noir). It’s a prolific collection of more than 100 titles in which Africa is hardly represented; this volume inaugurates the third entry to the continent (after Lagos and Marrakech).
Yet the noir novel is now an established genre in African literature, even if the trend has taken some time to gain legitimacy. Kenya is no exception, as evidenced by, among others, two novels published locally by East African Publishers – the first novel by Peter Kimani, Before the Rooster Crows (2002) and especially My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti (1984), an emblematic Kenyan novel of the 1980-1990 generation – or even the thrillers of Mukoma wa Ngugi published in the United States where the author is established (Black Star Nairobi and Nairobi Heat, the latter translated into French under the title Là où meurent les rêves).
Nairobi Noir is therefore resolutely in the wake of the noir novel and the works cited above have in a way prepared the ground for a good reception of the thriller by the Nairobian readership, judging by the incredible success of the book in the city that is both its setting and its subject. The two main bookstores in Nairobi, Prestige Bookshop and The BookStop, are delighted with the number of copies sold. The extraordinary enthusiasm for this collection at the launch ceremony augured such success. On the evening of January 30, 2020, the auditorium of the Alliance Française in Nairobi was packed to the folding seats, all occupied, and the public rushed to grab the thirty or so copies offered for sale as they left . The excitement continued until the cocktail party: the public lined up to have the work signed by the authors – all present, except for Ngugi wa Thiong’o – and jostled to talk with them.
The editor of the publication, Peter Kimani, has taken care to bring together texts by Kenyan authors with varied literary trajectories: from the Nobel-worthy Ngugi wa Thiong’o to more emergent writers, such as Winfred Kiunga, the authors occupy a place that could be described as an intermediary in the Kenyan and English-speaking literary world. Many are already award-winners: the Caine Prize for African Writing by Makena Onjerika for his short story “Fanta Blackcurrant”, the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature by Stanley Gazemba for his novel, The Stone Hills of Maragoli, and Ngumi Kibera in 1997 for his collection of short stories, The Grapevine Stories, the Fiction Prize of the Nyanza Literary Festival by Troy Onyango for his short story “For What are Butterflies without Their Wings?”. Some are better known for their journalistic work (Faith Oneya, Rasna Warah); others for their theatre writing (John Sibi-Okumu, Kevin Mwachiro); and most of them have already published short stories and essays in collective works as well as in trade magazines and newspapers (New York Times for Stanley Gazemba, Wasafiri Magazine for Wanjiku wa Ngugi and Makena Onjerika…).
After briefly recalling the history of “The Green City in the Sun” as the first settlers who built its foundations called Nairobi, in his introduction to the collection Peter Kimani presents Nairobi Noir as an act of “excavation” which aims to “rediscover the city’s ossified past” (p. 15). If the somewhat macabre metaphor lends itself well to the noir theme, it seems to me that this collection presents itself rather as a stripping of the different social strata that make up the city, constituted and densified by history, so many superimposed, or rather juxtaposed, but hermetic layers (without which the interactions prove to be compromising for the characters, as several of the stories illustrate). Lydie Moudileno considers that the noir genre lends itself particularly well to the writing of the postcolony in that it allows us to glimpse “the universe of chaos without virtue” by allowing us to enter underworld circles that are by far the most represented “social layer” of the collection.
Nairobi Noir presents itself in this regard as an anti-postcard that reveals the other side of the story, or an anti-travel guide that can only be sold to tourists in search of social realism and a narrative of bruised humanity of the Dark Tourism type. All the stories gathered cultivate a pronounced taste for sordidness, the despair born of social injustice and deep poverty, the scandal of corruption.
In this “Nairobi shamba la mawe”, which Kimani translates as “Nairobi the stone garden” (p.13), so nicknamed by its inhabitants to designate a place of both “pleasures and perils”, evolves a gallery of characters found in these short stories that the editor has chosen to categorize into three types to form the framework of the book: “The Hunters”, “The Hunted”, “The Herders”.
We could discuss the relevance of classifying a given short story in this way, since the categorisations appear to be complementary or even dialectical — the hunter does not exist without the prey he hunts, and vice versa — and that in reality, across the categories, from one character type to another, the stories are characterized by a common theme of quest among the protagonists and a conflict between those who have power, and those who those who do not.
Thus, in the streets of the many neighborhoods of Nairobi covered by these stories (Kibera, Kan-gemi, Kilimani, Kawangware, CBD, Mathare, Eastleigh, Dandora, Westlands, Parklands, Kariobangi, Karen, Mukuru kwa Njenga), the reader is taken from street corners to hideouts in backyards, from chaotic slums to opulent villas, from wandering to traveling around in stolen pick-ups. We mainly meet corrupt police officers and criminals, gangs of young men trying to escape them, honest women slaving to sell their goods (their bodies also on occasion), or even young traffickers disguised as devotees — Muslim women looting a bank for their mothers but also servants, or askari (guards or watchmen), matatu drivers and mama mboga (itinerant vegetable vendors).
From a literary point of view, it is above all the language of these texts that calls the reader’s attention. If it does not present much poetry or particular stylistic effects, the frequent insertions of sentences in Swahili or Sheng enrich it singularly. Just like Sheng, the specific mixture of English, Swahili and a few other Kenyan languages (Dholuo, Kikamba, Gikuyu) particular to Nairobi that constitutes the specific linguistic musicality of the city, the heterolingual insertions are the hallmark of these stories. As such, a study of the different methods of using these insertions, that all the authors use only in their story’s dialogues (the most classic procedure), is revealing. Some of them strive to translate these insertions, either explicitly by the process of “markup” or “cushioning” (as defined by Shana Poplack and Chantal Zabus following her,) that is to say flanking the insertion of an explanatory “tag” such as parentheses; or with an English redundancy immediately succeeding the heterolingual insertion, which are varied in terms of the skill with which they are brought into the body of the story. Others, like Stanley Gazemba for example, do not go to this trouble, and the insertion then appears as “natural”, assumed and successful from a narrative point of view, but also potentially compromising the intelligibility of the story for a non-Swahiliphone reader.
In addition to the more or less stereotypical scenes, scenarios and sets of the genre of the thriller, three main themes seem to cross this collection: the role of women, the memory of colonization and the cosmopolitanism specific to Nairobi.
Women stand out in all the stories, but in distinct ways. They operate alone or with the complicity of other women, but are never the accomplices of men, even when they claim to be so, as in Peter Kimani’s short story, “Blood Sister,” whose tragic end is precipitated by the scheming of the narrator’s companion), and very rarely these men’s allies, with the exception of the character of Nana in Kevin Mwachiro’s “Number Sita”. In this regard the fact that Nana is a lesbian (the only one in the entire collection) is not coincidental She can then advantageously replace the friend, take on the role of accomplice. The other women are either prostitutes who have no existence of their own as characters (they are reduced to their activity and are part of the decor), or women struggling on their own to raise their children born to absent fathers. These recurring female portraits alternately present women as characters there for the pleasure of others, or “weak-strong” characters, that is to say, characters finding admirable resources to survive beyond their oppression, martyrs in the making. Another exception can be read in “Have Another Roti” by Rasna Warah. The narrator who tells her story to a psychoanalyst seems to have forged a real bond with her deceased partner, after having grown up in the Indian community of Nairobi where women and men live in completely partitioned worlds, women confined to the kitchen, their only Empire that overpowers any other conversation (hence the evocative title of the story).
What this collection highlights on almost every page is the depth of the sedimentation of colonial memory, both in the spatial and social organization of the city and in the human relationships formed there. This double dimension characterizes the colonial project that Ngugi wa Thiong’o summarizes in the opening of his magical realist tale translated from gikuyu, “The Hermit in the Helmet”: “This saga took place during colonial era, when whites owned our soil, water, air and, well, our bodies, and even tried to own our soul. Our soil and soul” (p. 195). Decades later, traces of colonial rule can still be seen in the segregated organization of the city and the difficult coexistence of different communities – African, white Kenyan and Indo-Kenyan. The stories by John Sibi-Okumu (“Belonging”) and Peter Kimani show that the weight of colonial oppression – at least its effects in the memories of colonizing and colonized families with intertwined destinies – still ballast the representations and therefore the effects of today’s generation. Rasna Warah’s short story also picks up this idea, relying, appropriately, on this historical oppression to further reveal the discriminations at work in contemporary Kenyan society, between the different Kenyan ethnic groups (she denounces in passing the identitarian conflicts that have torn Kenyan society apart on several occasions and underlines their postcolonial character), as well as between Kenyans and Somalis.
In doing so, like several of her fellow contributors to the collection, she recalls how Nairobi is a crossroads of cultures – not only of internal cultures in Kenya but also of cultures and influences of the countries of East Africa, from the Horn and from Central Africa: Somalia, through its refugees settled in Nairobi for several generations, the DR Congo through the Congolese rumba, for example, providing background music for several of these stories. By emphasizing the importance of regional cultural movements in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi Noir thus follows in the wake of the Kenyan prose of the last two decades, in particular of the Kwani? generation which the emblematic representative, the late Binyavanga Wainaina, made ample reference to in his news and stories.
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.
Nairobi Noir, a collection of short stories edited by Peter Kimani. Abuja/London : Cassava Republic Press, 2020, 246 p. With short stories by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Stanley Gazemba, Ngumi Kibera, Peter Kimani, Winfred Kiunga, Kinyanjui Kombani, Caroline Mose, Kevin Mwachiro, Wanjiku wa Ngugi, Faith Oneya, Makena Onjerika, Troy Onyango, J.E. Sibi-Okumu, and Rasna Warah.
The original French-language version of this review is available to read in Cahiers d’Afrique de l’Est / East African Review here. Copyright of the original review is owned by the French Institute For Research in Africa (IFRA).