A review by Radiyah Manjoo
We are back at it.
Again, I will be reviewing books from a specific African country. This time, if you would’ve guessed from my greeting – Kenya (I know I’m corny).
I have had the absolute pleasure of having visited this beautiful country and, along with advising you to read their literature, I would most definitely recommend visiting, if by the means ever.
It might be that I do a lot of research before selecting the books I read or maybe just by pure chance, but the books that I have thus read for this piece in general have all been enjoyable and the Kenyan ones are no exception. All the books are different – in style, in subject and in genre. They are each their own entity and all give you different elements with which to build up an idea of Kenya. I will be officially adding “books” to my list of favourite things from Kenya, right next to tea and clay.
What I loved was that I learnt so much about Kenya from these books. You might know of a country, know where it is geographically, you might know people from there, work with people from there and even visit it, but you will never know it as deeply as someone from the place itself. The presentation of someone’s own “place” is incomparable to anything else you would read. I feel that these books I have read were all blessings to us readers, pieces of Kenya given to us graciously. Kenya is not only rich in the literal sense, but also in its facets and complexities. I love how there is so much to tell and know with conviction that I have barely scratched the surface. As always happens, I so regret not having read more books before having visited, the books I have read have figuratively opened my eyes and literally given me more to look at. I guess I just have to go again!
A tree: Weep not, Child, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
I don’t think I could write of classic Kenyan literature without mentioning Mr Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Weep not, Child is the first English novel to be published by an East African (published in 1964- let us all be in shock together!). Being African, the story of dispossession and the coloniser is all too (painfully) familiar. The story also features the Mau Mau uprising, incorporating this into the story (look it up). Ashamedly, in South Africa (in my time at least) we learn barely anything about any of Africa’s (real) history. This book gave me knowledge on the going-ons in Kenya – a war I knew nothing of and also created in me realizations about South Africa as well (typical South African centering the story around themselves, I know). Seriously though, it is an interesting thing to be able to read another’s story and make it open your eyes to your own. The way this story is presented it is like when someone speaks of an issue in their life and it only later dawns upon you that you too may have an issue. You come to this realization admiring their self-actualisation and suddenly your deficiency is apparent. The details of our issues may be different but because they are able to so fully describe their situation, you come to realise your own mess you thought nothing of before. Or maybe it is simply that we are just so similar – even having had the same monster colonise us. I don’t know. I did enjoy this book though – not in the “it was so fun to read” way (it is quite sad) but rather in the way that it was written so robustly – it says here is reality, it is not pretty but look. This book forces you to observe what is real and feel and embrace it- what has happened isn’t going anywhere, but where will you go from here? Fortunately, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s books are relatively easy to get a hold of and there are many he has blessed us with, so definitely give them a read.
A bud: One Day I will Write about this Place, Binyavanga Wainaina
I usually cannot read non-fiction, especially not autobiographies but this, now this is something else. Biyavanga doesn’t share his life with the reader, he shares his thoughts- he puts ideas and imagining into words. Not only could I read this book, I enjoyed it and wanted to read it. Binyavanga is himself amazing, but just because you’re amazing does not mean you would be good at telling your story. I want to say that Binyavanga tells his story but he doesn’t – the best way to describe it would be, he took his life and gave it life once again by using words to create art from it. This book is an interpretive (contemporary) dance, telling a story in movement but this is done with words. This book is real and honest, and I appreciate that. Not only that, it is the story of a writer (in the truest sense) who is at first a reader. Someone who reads, who has read so much he can’t help but be bursting at the seams with words. All the books he has read have built him, piece by piece, into a formidable force, which I think gave him the ability to be able to see everything and be able to embody that in words. What a gift. I am so grateful we have this book. If I had one wish, I would wish that every country had a Binyavanga to write a book like this.
A flower: Land without Thunder, Grace Ogot
I had forgotten how much I enjoy short story collections and this book was a perfect reminder of all that I love about them – each an entire journey in a few pages. Ms Ogot writes so beautifully, with so much detail. Reading this book, I would describe the experience like eating a bag of your favourite candy – you tell yourself “one more” but you know you’re going to keep going because it’s so good. Each story is a new experience and in its own style that is presented simply, as itself. Every one of them an embodiment of what I love about short stories – a quick introduction, next you’re drawn into the heart of a compelling story, and finally an end you wouldn’t have seen coming. I know for certain Ms Grace Ogot put a whole lot of thought into each one of these stories. They were “crafted” and not simply written. If you’re a short story fan, and even if you’re not, I would definitely recommend this book.
*** A disclaimer: I am most definitely not and do not consider myself an authority on African Literature – not in the least bit. I am simply a girl who loves reading books, and telling you what I feel about them. Forgive me for my errors – in advance. I just happened to be the person who talks about books a lot. I am very much open to any suggestions and would love to know your trees, buds and flowers. If you have books from the continent that you feel need to feature, do let me know. Make a girl happy, talk to me about books!