Say the words ‘Kenyan writer’ to most world literature fans and they will come back with one name: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Imprisoned for speaking out against injustice and corruption, the author of such landmark books as A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow abandoned English to write in his first language Gikuyu in the late seventies. He is revered around the world for his work and his passionate advocacy and has been given many awards, seven honorary doctorates and held numerous visiting professorships.
It seemed a no-brainer that I would read one of this literary giant’s novels as my Kenyan choice. But then I heard about Philo Ikonya. Arrested repeatedly for her human rights activism and living in exile in Norway since 2009, the poet and novelist is an avid blogger and journalist, as well as a keen linguist. She is also president of PEN Kenya.
Intrigued though I was to read the work of Kenya’s great man of letters, Ikonya and her oddly titled novel Kenya, Will You Marry Me? piqued my interest. I decided to give it a go.
In a nutshell, the novel is a love story. It gives an account of a life-long passion for and relationship with the country Kenya in all its exuberance and raw pain. Growing up in a village near Nairobi, the young narrator uses dolls to act out and embody some of the conflicts she sees around her, while flashes forward and backward in time and stories from other relatives and friends bring home the personal consequences of such traumatic events as the attempted coup of 1982 and the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the rigged election of 2007, as well as the long shadow of colonialism. Hurt but not discouraged by all that she has seen, the young woman transforms herself into the embodiment of Change during the course of the narrative, urging her fellow countrymen and women to get behind her and appealing to the nation she loves to unite itself with her.
Nationhood and what it means to belong to a country bind the narrative like the spine of the book. Frequently speaking about Kenya as a person, the narrator emphasises that ‘history and politics live in homes’, showing how events in parliament pervade even the bed sheets and the cooking pots of the most remote villages. This sense of the interconnectedness of national and domestic events is coupled with a great love and celebration of the beauty of the land and, as the narrator’s grandfather explains, a ‘greater love [which] is to realise that these are only ours for some time and that your children must find them still here’.
As a result of her intense connection with her country, the narrator feels every threat to its wellbeing as a personal attack. This leads to a barrage of righteous anger against the injustice of colonial rule, the heartlessness and corruption of politicians, the cruel rapes suffered by many of the country’s women and children, and the fact that ‘people gifted with melanin continued to be left out of the game’. Often, this takes the form of powerful, rhetorical addresses in which the narrator apostrophises various groups in her effort to galvanise them into positive action, taking in everyone from her dolls and her compatriots, to corrupt politicians and even Western readers:
‘You, most of you, in the West have the comfort of analyzing what you call deception, we are grateful for the small straws of hope we see near us. We cannot afford to shun all.’
Ikonya’s poetic sense comes through strongly in the narrative, adding subtle layers of meaning. Whether she’s playing with rhymes to make deeper points – ‘I have never been able to hear the word “bribe” without seeing “tribe”. Vice like lice lives in families too’ – or stripping back the etymology of place names and sexual terms to reveal the power struggles that lie beneath, she uses words richly, milking them for every last drop of significance.
Readers unfamiliar with Kenyan history and politics, as I was, will sometimes struggle to follow the narrative, which is often essentially a stream of consciousness ‘crisscross[ing] years, beating arrangements in books’. In addition, the novel’s fragmented and free-flowing nature means that there is often very little to drive it forward other than the narrator’s passion. The fingers begin to itch to flick in the last third where earlier polemics on corruption and women’s rights are reprised without much development.
Nevertheless the commitment and fervour of the narrator carry the day. As a portrait of patriotism, this stands in stark contrast to the rather anaemic if not downright cynical expressions of national pride we tend to hear in the UK. It is an urgent reminder of the importance of politics and the influence that individuals can have on events larger than themselves. No wonder the people in power felt threatened.
Kenya, Will You Marry Me? by Philo Ikonya (Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2011)