An interview with Peter Kimani: ‘I want to tease out the absurdity of colonial writings about Kenya’
Photo by Yusuf Wachira
Peter Kimani is a Kenyan writer of fiction and poetry, whose most recent novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, is now published in the UK. Set between the turn of the 20th century and 1960s Kenya, the novel spans the lives and legacies of three men, a preacher, a colonial administrator, and an Indian technician, whose lives are entangled after the laying of a railroad births a new township. First published in the US in 2017, we spoke to Peter Kimani about how the book may be relevant to a British audience.
Wasafiri: Dance of the Jakaranda has been out for about a year in the US but has now been published in the UK. Do you have any predictions about how a UK audience might receive this book?
Peter Kimani: The story is a British story as much as it is a Kenyan story, because it’s about British occupation of Kenya. I was expecting that there would be more immediacy and more connection with a British reader than the American. My initial prediction was that this would be an actual home for the story, and, in a way, that’s been confirmed from the attention that the book is receiving.
The novel is set in Africa, telling an ‘African’ story, but none of the main characters are African. Why was it your desire to tell the story of those characters in that setting?
There are multiple reasons, all deliberate. I wanted to tease out the absurdity of the colonial writings about Kenya. Out Of Africa, a book which has a cult following in Europe, has no African characters to talk about. All are reduced to this terrain, almost part of the landscape. We don’t see the humanity expressed at any substantial depth. So, in a way, a story about Africa without Africans is an allegory of what you’ve been accustomed to if you think about how Europe views Kenya and Africa.
My other choice in settling on an Indian character was to explore the complexity of the cultural mosaic that forms or informs a Kenyan society. There is a well-entrenched notion about literature in post-colonial Kenya as being driven by what they call ‘Manichean aesthetics’, where blacks write to recover the memory of their people who have been subjugated by white writers who denigrate African characters. But my work straddles this divide, because it’s addressing an entity who is almost like a browner shade of grey, to illustrate the complexity of representing others. I wanted to inhabit a universe that’s outside my own experience to defy these set rigid descriptions of African writing as being informed by set ideas about identity.
What kind of research process did you undertake?
It was an enormous amount of research. Years of research. I had archival research, I went to the museums, I spoke to individuals that I knew from these different cultures, and then my own observations of a time. I shall say, I went to a school that was established for Indian boys and that was probably the genesis of my own curiousity about this community. They’re part of the Kenyan collective but then I, as a Kenyan from another community, had no experience about their life. So, I had to research to understand the ethos of their community, their rituals, their social organising principles, because if you want to write with competence you have to understand where your characters are situated.
By the same token I had to do research to authenticate my story to understand what it felt to be around in the 1890s or 1900s. One of my characters, when the wind blows and her dress is lifted, I was told she has to be wearing what they call ‘drawers’. She can’t just be naked because at that time those values meant that women just wouldn’t walk partially dressed. Those were the kind of sensibilities I had to be faithful to in order to understand that if my character is plausible and believable they had to reflect the attitudes of the time.
It’s interesting that you mention that character, Sarah, because from a historical perspective I found her interesting. She has this mindset of being ashamed to find out her grandfather was part of the slave trade legacy, and then engages in this twisted repentance for it by going after all the African men that she encounters. I was wondering if that came out of any specific research about how common British people were feeling about the slave trade at the turn of the century?
Now, the other recognition about my research was that it was supposed to offer a guideline for me to understand the issues of the day, but I wasn’t going to be enslaved by history because I wasn’t writing a historical text. It’s a creative work, and I have the poetic license to envision my characters reacting to the elements in specific ways. The attitudes of the time and that form of liberalism, or whatever you call it, was my own creation. I wasn’t drawn to any specific research suggestion, but then racial miscegenation was a practice since the days of slavery.
I reimagined the story unfolding in specific ways and my characters are not necessarily a reflection of specific individuals or incidents of history, but they develop their own narratives that are convincing enough, according to some of my readers, that they read the book as a history text. In fact, a BBC journalist told me this reads like a history book. I said, well, it’s drawn from history but the story is imagined. Which leads me to the point that we have a lot of fiction in history. I have two examples to give. One of them being a compilation of a book called The Myth of Africa, edited by Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, which illustrates that a lot of what has been in circulation in this country for 400 years [about Africa] was fictional. Yet it was to be the premise on which slavery and later colonialism were orchestrated. Or, take contemporary politics. Donald Trump, the US president, is in office on account of a fiction that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. That is a fiction that was created five years ago and it was repeated long enough and deep enough and widely enough for people to believe that this guy was speaking the truth. And that’s become history when it used to be a fiction.
Interesting. I’d like to ask you more about Obama later but first I wanted to talk about the railway motif. There’s multiple ways that you’ve used it as a metaphor, and also it serves a practical purpose for your scene setting too. Why was that something you settled on as having such a big role in how the novel takes shape?
The train is a very useful device, both as a literary device and both as a metaphorical and literal device. It is what allows access for the British to the nation called the hinterland, from the coast to the headwater of the Nile. By driving through that terrain, you’re experiencing the county’s history, its cultures, and how they’re disrupted or reconfigured because townships emerge out of stations. Every small station becomes a township, ultimately. So, there is an argument to be made that it is the rail that makes the nation. But then it is also a site of contestations. You have communities that are resisting an annexation of their land, and you see the destruction and the sheer violence that’s committed against communities that are opposed to its construction.
The train also becomes an interesting metaphor because you have different compartments, third class, second class and first class, all that symbolise the divisions that colonialism unleashes on the nation. You have settlements set for whites, for blacks, for Indians, for Arabs. So it’s an interesting mechanism that allows my characters to assemble together to perform collective roles (but even those are assigned according to racial hierarchy). I found it a powerful device to look at this powerful force that destroys but also creates something new, both the renewal and destruction of a nation.
And when you were coming up with the plot, it feels to me like the railway was the thing that came first. Is that how that idea started?
Yeah, I think the construction of the railway was the backbone of the story, but then its characters drive the story. Any story has to be driven by characters, so it is the characters who build the railway, not the railway that creates characters. And out of their construction, or out of their collective efforts, their relationships are what drives the story because the tensions and the suspicions, the doubts, the betrayals, all end up being played out as they go about the performance of this construction.
Where was the novel written?
I saw my first few lines or the first few pages of the book in Iowa. And afterwards, I returned to Kenya. I did not touch it for five years until I went to Houston in 2012, so the rest of the book was written in Houston and Nairobi.
How did you find writing the novel in the US as opposed to writing it in Nairobi?
I think I have always been writing away from home. Dance of the Jakaranda was mainly written away, though partly in Kenya. But I was also distanced in terms of time. I wasn’t writing about the present moment, it was about the years gone by. Right now, I am working on a book that is set in Nairobi, my first book that is set in Nairobi. But I’m writing that from Amherst, Massachusetts. So, again, half across the world. It’s almost as though I need the physical distancing for me to remember with clarity about the history.
I do wonder about that a lot, because I think to envision a scene or a setting, it’s really hard to do that when that’s the setting you’re existing in.
I agree. For instance, in my current work which is set in Nairobi of the 1990s, I haven’t been to that specific locale where the story is set since the 1990s. And I have resisted the temptation to go back there because I don’t want that to distort my memory of the place or how I envision it. I think most writers require distancing to be able to see things clearly which is true because you cannot always see what are the challenges or the issues that affect a community if you’re immersed in the daily struggles. If I’m in the thick of things, I would say I would be encumbered in just finding the room and the presence of mind to be able to think and think from a distance. So I require physical distance. That’s why writers go into exile, perhaps.
There’s a lot of references to darkness and also Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this book. I’m interested in that idea of presenting an African story without Africans and how you’ve very deliberately placed that book within your own. What are you trying to say with those references?
What I’m saying is it’s time to tell my story. It’s been told for a hundred years on our behalf by others and they’ve distorted our story, they have misrepresented our story, they have offered innuendos and slander against our society. I am writing back to Empire. I am saying this is my view of what you did in our country.
Those two vistas, the binary of light and darkness are situated probably on every page or chapter. That’s a controlling metaphor of the book. Colonialism was supposed to be the light shining upon a dark continent, but see the brutality and the darkness of the actions. My book is speaking directly to two texts particularly, Out of Africa and Heart of Darkness. Even the positioning of animals within the story, you will see a lot of them both wild and domestic. Most insinuate that Africans did not have intellect, they had instinct like animals. My work is a direct response to those two texts that have been very entrenched in European imagination of Africa, so even the character of McDonald starting a dairy farm is an idea of domesticating the land and domesticating animals. It’s the same way colonialism is presented as an effort to civilise a community or society that’s seen as less organised or less cultured, and by the end of the reading I want the reader to understand, or to choose, who is more cultured or who is more animal like in the way they act. I’m presenting all these characters within a setting that’s deliberately situated to respond to a history that’s entrenched in the way others see my society, and how locals see their own circumstances.
One character who does that quite well is Nyundo, the drummer, who is a folk historian. He’s witnessed his history being enacted in his own lifetime, but what is being secretly recorded by the British authorities are distortions of the same. Here we have two contesting views of the same space and the same circumstances. The institutionalised memory of the society and the eye witness account are at war, they’re not tallying. Which is to say, we haven’t had the opportunity to tell the story of our people and here is an opportunity to say the Brits were here for seventy years, it’s been almost sixty since they left, but see what they did and we’re not quite able to undo it. But then, are we able to get our story heard at the same time? That’s the larger vision of the story.
I was really intrigued by the last line – in the epilogue. Because you’re talking about how these legacies have been remembered, and you write ‘interestingly nobody remembers the women behind the pioneers or their children’, but I also felt that throughout the novel a lot of the significance of the women turns out to be related to their relationships with men. So that was a really interesting note to see that you’d ended on, as well as this phallic image of the train going through the terrain. Why was that your final note?
Because it’s about burial and resurrection of memory, that’s what partly Nyundo salves to emphasise in the story. He disappears for a long, long time, and there is a presumption that he’s dead, and then he rises. Such is the story of women in Kenya. Their role hasn’t been fully documented, for instance. How did they support the struggle, how did they participate in specific actions. My suggestion is to say that we are remembering selectively, because even Babu, who is always at the forefront of the struggle, is being forgotten completely. But Babu says something which to me sums up the story; not being seen is not the same as not being there. So, the fact that that history is not properly documented or remembered doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
We touched on Obama earlier – you were commissioned by NPR to write a poem for Obama’s inauguration. How did the significance of that event feel at the time?
It was a great honour. I was probably lucky because Obama is Kenyan or has Kenyan roots, and I think I wrote it in a few days. It was a great moment of hope and optimism. Not just for the US but for Kenya, for Africans. On the brink of independence, which is where my book is set, there seemed to be this great promise of the future. Now look where we are. One moment you are taking a step forward and then we are taking a few back, and such is our circumstances in Kenya. I think, back in 2002, there was this great optimism. One party ruling for 40 years is finally out of power, one step, and then you have a new regime and before you know it you’re back to yet another regime who seems to take us even farther back than where we were forty years ago. But the poem was a great honour and I wrote it very quickly. My poetry tends to come quickly, but then I might go for long spells unable to write one. When I do they come quickly and I can write a few in a few weeks but I can fail to write for years. I don’t worry, because when the muse allows it I write and compensate for what I haven’t done in the years passed.
Often writers, especially writers looking at historical fiction or political periods, will adopt an omnipotent voice that sees how an event is going to inevitably play out. Did you think at the time, at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, could you have predicted what was to follow?
I had no idea that American society was going to regress in the way it has. Also, a direct reference to my book is that although it is set in our history, I have been struck by the coincidences that seem to be echoing what the book is saying or doing in the present. Just a few weeks ago there was a Kenyan who was taken out of the country and deported, an opposition politician, exactly what my book suggests is a fate or a trope that has been applied by colonialists to remove people from their support bases. This happens as we watch as witness, and this is something predicted in the book.
The other events, my book first came out in February last year, and in June they inaugurated the new rail. I am talking about the construction of a rail road and there is an actual one that has been inaugurated. Then we had a dispute out of last year’s elections, and we had two individuals contesting to be the legitimate father of the nation, so there was a time there were two presidents sworn in. We have a paternity dispute that almost teases out this idea of fatherhood. And I would say another coincidence is that Indians were recognised as the 44th tribe of Kenya last year, so my book is coming out at the same period as all these coincidences which the book addresses. I’m not claiming to be a prophet, but when you write with some consciousness of your history, you might sometimes project the future even without your knowledge.
Dance of the Jakaranda is out now from Saqi Books and will be reviewed in Issue 96 of Wasafiri.
Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani
Saqi Books, London, 2018, pp
352pp, ISBN 9781846592096, £8.99