In this edition of our Spotlight Series, we talk to Kenyan author and poet, Peter Kimani, whose latest book, Dance of the Jakaranda was released in the United Kingdom this month by Telegram Books. Born in 1971 in Kenya, Kimani started his career as a journalist and has published several works of fiction and poetry. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, New African and Sky News. In 2011, Kimani received the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature, Kenya’s highest literary honor. He was one of only three international poets commissioned by National Public Radio to compose and present a poem to mark Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.
Today, Kimani teaches journalism at the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi, and is presently the Visiting Writer at Amherst College in the United States.
In this interview with Africa Book Club, Kimani talks about his latest book and shares memories from his childhood.
Tell us about your childhood. What was it like growing up in Kenya in the 1970s?
I grew up in a small village outside in Gatundu, about an hour north of Nairobi. It was a rather typical existence: school, church, play, tilling the land, fetching water from the stream, or firewood from the forest. I caught the last glimpses of egalitarian ideals of African socialism. We would assemble to harvest a relative’s crop, then on to the next farm until all the farmlands had been sorted. The labor was provided for free—save for a bowl of fermented porridge or a mound of irio. But the climax of this fellowship was huddling under a moonlight to exchange stories, as older boys and girls got into some mischief…
Over school breaks, I would be uprooted from this village idyll to visit the city, where my mother worked. Urban folks saw me as a village boy; fellow villagers looked at me with the suspicion of an urbanite. Consequently, I developed an “outsider’s” view from very early on, which is a natural positioning for writing. I am thankful for this opportunity to inhabit those two worlds. My fiction is certainly enriched by these experiences. One highlight from that period: I was the only kid who wore shoes to school—in a sea of some 700 children!
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
I was aged about 16 when I first entertained the idea of becoming a writer, but of course I had no idea what that meant.
Most writers are often keen readers from an early age. Was this the case for you, and is there a single book or piece of writing that left its mark as a child?
I first read Weep Not, Child, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, when I was 15, and it had a profound effect on me. The story is set in colonial Kenya, in the shadow of the Mau Mau war of liberation. It’s a modern-day Romeo and Juliet duel, as the main protagonist, Njoroge, is besotted with Mwihaki. Their parents are on the different sides of the struggle. By encountering characters with names and social contexts I could relate to, I was convinced that my future lay in writing or, as Ngugi would put it in later years, my future lay between the two hard covers.
Your new book, Dance of the Jakaranda, has received a lot of attention. In fact, I read one review that heralded you as a writer destined to become one of greats. Has the book changed your life? What has it been like for you to receive all this attention since the book came out?
It is affirming to write a story that finds favor with readers. Writing is a lonely affair, often replete with self-doubt. But I was fortunate to secure a publisher quite quickly, thanks my wonderful agent, Malaika Adero. This journey started in New York, now I’m heading to London. I would say I have been invited to some of the most important literary festivals in the US over the past year—and also landed an offer from Amherst College—a prestigious liberal arts college in the US, where I’m serving a Visiting Writer. All these are the fruits from Dance of the Jakaranda. Over summer, I will be heading to the Calabash lit fest in Jamaica, reputed as the best literary event in the world.
It’s held every two years on a beachfront, free and open to the public. And since it has only one platform, a performer has an audience of about 2,500 people! So, I have a chance to see the world on account of Dance of the Jakaranda. But I guess the novel is travelling much faster than I…
Your book is a work of historical fiction, centered around the Kenya-Uganda Railway. For people unfamiliar with the history, what is the significance of this particular railway for Kenya?
The railway was the avenue through which the British accessed the Kenyan hinterland for its economic exploitation. It is also a powerful force, disrupting local cultures and way of life, damaging the environment, etcetera. But it is also a transformational force, creating new townships where it courses through. Above all, the railway is a petri dish of sorts: its compartments are assigned according to racial hierarchy– with whites in First Class and Africans in Third Class –and becomes a metaphor of the segregated society that the colonialists build in Kenya.
In a certain sense, the railroad presages racial segregation as official policy in the colony. Different races lived separately, whether in urban or rural settlements. But the railroad also serves another important function. It starts by the ocean and ends at the headwaters of Lake Victoria, coursing through fertile territories. The Iron Snake, as locals call it, swallows all that the land can produce for shipping away to Europe. This finds traction with Walter Rodney’s seminal treatise, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa– the colonial architecture ensured Africa would continually feed European industries with raw materials to harness goods that were resold to Africa at far steeper prices than original value. That way, Europe created its wealth while impeding African industrialization. This continues to date.
The task of writing a historical fiction requires enormous amounts of research, if anything to understand the context of the period one is writing in. But it takes one’s own imagination to inject life into fossilized facts, to give them emotional heft.
It is striking that none of the central characters in your book are African. Given that the story is set in Africa and written by an African, was this a deliberate choice? Why so?
My novel is partly allegorical, teasing out the absurdity of established Western narratives such as Karen Blixen’s memoir, Out of Africa, now immortalized in a Hollywood film by the same title. Africans are passive witnesses to their own history. The same is true of contemporary journalistic practice. Whether reporting environmental disasters or conflicts in Africa, the cameras always zoom in on a white aid worker—perpetuating this mentality of “saving” Africa and denying Africans their own agency.
Has Kenya always been a multi-racial society? How is it possible that a novel set in 19thcentury Kenya would have two Englishmen and an Indian, as central characters? For readers unfamiliar with the history of Kenya, can you provide some context.
The main protagonist in my novel, Rajan, is a third-generation Indian. The Indian community has continuously lived in East Africa for more than 200 years. The Arabs, the Portuguese, the Chinese, interacted with communities on Kenyan coast for even longer periods. The British arrived in Kenya in late 19th century and encouraged British settlers to emigrate and build the empire—in what they claimed was free, no-man’s land. In fact, the initial title of my novel was No Man’s Land.
Indentured labor was secured from India as artisans from there had the experience of laying a rail in their own country, for Her Majesty the Queen of England!
Join Peter Kimani at one of his upcoming book events. Find out more here.