A Beautiful Blonde is Dead. This image is the spark that ignites the international crime drama Nairobi Heat, the debut novel by acclaimed Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi. From the evocative title of the first chapter to the last line readers are forced to grapple with the touchy subjects of race, class, and the sometimes relative concept of justice. Jennifer Bryant spoke with Mukoma about his first novel, his thoughts on writing, and his plans for the future.
1. You’ve already established yourself as a poet, essayist, and political theorist. What pushed you to write your first novel?
I have actually written another novel (unpublished and from which I culled my Caine Prize shortlisted story), but Nairobi Heat won the race to publication. With that said though, I have always admired musicians who can play multiple instruments – certain emotions are better carried by the harmonica or saxophone than by a guitar for example. There is a relationship between form and content, and thus there are things that only poetry can carry, or direct political commentary, or fiction. So I want to be able to express myself in multiple genres.
2. In Nairobi Heat a dead white girl is found on the doorstep of a prominent African professor’s home. Can you talk a little about the interracial and intraracial dynamics that are at the core of the novel?
It’s important to note that the white girl is American, found on the doorstep of an African living in the US, but that the investigation is carried out primarily in Kenya, by an African American and a Kenyan detective working together. The case gets so much national and international attention because the victim is white and the suspect is an African. We see this in the US in instances where violent crimes against whites get more publicity than violent crimes against blacks, but we also see it in Kenya. The murder of a white tourist will move the government into action, whereas the murders of Kenyans do not. So there is a high premium on whiteness. This is the contradiction for Ishmael, the African American detective, and the only way he can evade the racial minefields is to single-mindedly pursue the killer, so to him, her race does not matter. In this sense, a crime has been committed, and the only thing that matters to the detectives is bringing the perpetrator to justice. But since race matters to everyone else, including the people in Madison Wisconsin where black and white people each have their version of what justice demands, it does in the end affect his case. But there is also Ishmael in Africa, where the Africans, instead of seeing Ishmael as a fellow black person as he would have expected, see a foreigner whom they call a Mzungu – a white person – which eventually leads him to explode violently.
3. What type of research did you have to do to come up with such realistic accounts of the Rwandan genocide?
I did not have to do a lot of research for the novel as such – the genocide is something I have explored in my other writing, in poetry and political commentary. However, I can recall some books that have stayed with me – Mahmood Mandani’s When Victims Become Killers, and Phillip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow… There is a very startling line from Gourevitch’s account that has stayed with me, “The dead looked like pictures of the dead.” There is of course the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and Hollywood’s lionizing of Paul Rusesabagina. One movie that is useful in terms of carrying the history surrounding the genocide and the human cost is “Sometimes in April” by Raoul Peck.
4. What, if anything, do you want readers to take away from this novel?
I wanted to tell a good story. My hope is that the reader is left with the same feeling one gets after watching a really good movie – the kind where we yell at the characters to watch out and clap at the end. But beyond that, we need to create a debate around popular fiction, popular culture in general. For example, in Kenya, as teenagers we all read David Mailu – He wrote short, pornographic novels. In class we would be talking about Shakespeare, or the African Writers Series novels, but during our lunch breaks we would be talking about the latest from David Mailu. Or we would be talking about John Kariamiti’s My Life in Crime. Why couldn’t we discuss these texts in class since that is what we were reading? So we ended up living a sort of intellectual double life. And we see the same sort of divide in the US – you have brilliant novels from Walter Mosley – he wrote Devil in a Blue Dress, subsequently turned into a movie – where you have an African American detective who has to contend with racism and issues of class, or science fiction from the late African American author Judith Butler. Her science fiction is brilliant. Surely these two “genre” authors ought to be read alongside Toni Morrison.
5. You mentioned in a previous interview that growing up in Kenya helped to shape your political thinking. How did being born in the United States affect your worldview?
I have lived half my life now in the United States. I feel rooted in both places now – or rather, I have had no choice but to be rooted in both places. Being away from Kenya has made me conscious of other people’s struggles. Sometimes I feel that African political activists are a bit selfish, that we feel we have the monopoly over suffering and consequently we cannot be in solidarity with others. So we have yet to make common cause with African American activists – surely we should be campaigning for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, or calling for the US government to end the exiling of Assata Shakur, so that she can return home from Cuba, or working to end the criminalization of black youth in America. Africans do not even see Obama as an African American, or as a gateway for us to connect with the African American struggle. So I have slowly learned to also think and talk about other peoples’ struggles.
6. You said once that “[Kenya] is my home but I am always careful that my home does not become my prison.” Do you think being labeled a Kenyan writer or an African writer is limiting?
No, I do not think it’s limiting. One cannot be everything, or nothing. We have to have a starting point, something that makes it possible for us to be in conversation with others. So I disagree with those writers, such as Marechera, who wanted to be universal without being rooted somewhere. Now, I understand that for the Western critic there is the temptation to anthropologize African Literature, but I do not see how saying I am just a writer is a solution – it strikes me as just being too defensive. To this same question in relation to whether one should be an American author or black author, Langston Hughes responded, “An artist must be free to choose what he does certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” One has to start from somewhere.
7. Leopold Senghor once argued that “in Black Africa, ‘art for art’s sake’ does not exist.” Do you think African writers have a responsibility to produce work that has both meaning and function?
Does art for art’s sake exist in Africa? If it doesn’t it certainly should. I should be able to write a poem just because I can, or because the poem itself will be its own function, or for its beauty alone. I think we have to run away from the idea that African art has to be functional, that it must fulfill a ceremonial role, be it political or cultural. We have to be able to see the artist at work – creating something that is beautiful. Still, when I write, I am trying to do a minimum of two things – “Make the ordinary extra-ordinary” and “give voice” to things or issues that are under threat of being silenced. And often, culture will silence as much as political dictatorships. But in the end, political writing – fiction or non-fiction – that does not manipulate language or form will more often than not also reveal nothing new.
8. Who has influenced your writing and who are you reading right now?
Writers such as Sembene Ousmane and Bessie Head, the African American poet Gerald Barrax – I recommend his collection of poems An Audience of One, Native American writer James Welch – I admire his use language as almost a physical instrument in Fool’s Crow – and of course Can Themba and Marechera, and Walter Mosley. My father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has also been a huge influence – whether it’s in the ambition of becoming a writer itself, discussions about literature and theory, or just reading his works.
Right now, I am almost done with K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams. It’s a very brave book in the issues it tackles, from post apartheid racial politics to sexuality to madness.
9. Now that you’re finished with your first novel, what other projects are you working on?
Well, a multi-generational African tale is slowly cooking. I am also writing my long overdue dissertation on Amos Tutuola and John Clare – their ‘innovative’ use of English.
10. When you’re gone from this world, what legacy would you like to have left behind?
Though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, I am only 38. It’s very hard to contemplate legacy when I am just at the beginning of my journey. For now, all I am trying to do is tell a good story.
Nairobi Heat is available now from Penguin Books (penguinbooks.co.za).