We are currently reading and writing about the stories in the Africa39 anthology, as well as linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. (The previous review was of “Two Fragments of Love” by Cabo Verdean Eileen Almeida Barbosa.).
If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read along with us.
The next review will be of “Mama’s Future” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond.
This review is of “Sometime Before Maulidi” by 2014 Morland Scholar, Ndinda Kioko.
It should be noted at the outset that every single person this reviewer has asked about the most interesting stories in the Africa39 anthology cites Ndinda Kioko’s Sometime Before Maulidi as one of, if not the best story. Certainly, it demands and rewards multiple readings.
What is Maulidi about? Death and sex. That is, Loss: what loss makes of us and what loss does to how we desire. Ms. Kioko’s friend, Keguro Macharia, recently wrote that “death makes us horny. After a death, we want to fuck. A lot.”
In a number of films and narratives about women suffering loss and travelling to piece themselves back together, we see what Macharia has described, and what Maulidi illustrates, about “turtling into libido-maddened grief.” In Año Bisiesto (Lucia Carreras, Michael Rowe; 2010) Laura, a freelance journalist, crosses each day off the calendar after her father’s death. Each day she has sex with a stranger. The sex becomes increasingly violent as she demands to be beaten and used in various ways. On the last day of the month, she asks one of her lovers to slit her throat with a knife while they are having sex. In Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002), Morvern’s boyfriend commits suicide. She leaves and travels to Italy. While there, she wanders into an anonymous man’s hotel room where they have sex as he mourns his mother who has just died, then she leaves again and ends up at the coast. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (and particularly in her story, The Love of My Life), she describes being overcome with grief at the death of her mother, and drowning herself into an unending process of travel and anonymous sex.
Macharia writes that, “sex was loss, dissolution, being undone, falling into pieces, forgetting. Not the mystical union promised by saccharine romances, where you dissolve into someone else in some grotesque parody of two becoming one. Nothing that safe. It was more frantic, more desperate, more difficult. Each shattering produced a sliver of something I could use to build a post-mourning self. I needed many and more. How many pieces are enough to assemble a self one can inhabit?” In Maulidi we find a narrator self-shattering to find pieces of herself. It describes a single sexual encounter, but the ending of the story, with the narrator’s searching gaze, her unresolved tensions, her abiding restlessness, as intense as they were in the beginning while watching a man to whom she would later give herself, signals that something has been found in the process and repetition of travel and sexual encounter (“She wants another cigarette”) as she looks for her “post-mourning self”.
When she looks at the ocean, which is by turns “threatening”, a Proustian memory trigger, “ominous”, “not as seedy as the street”, something she has to “learn how to watch”, soft, “arrogant”, “took up all the space”, beautiful (always erotic, she finds herself “responding in a slight gasp each time the waves slap the land with force”), “threatening”, a site of intimacy and secrecy, “pompous”, and in which wants to see herself — we imagine the oceanic breadth and depth of her desire, her desire’s response to the uncertain and the threatening, and her confronting of it, learning to live with it, love it, watch it.
Crack open your Africa39 anthology and read Kioko’s story already; refresh your memory so we can get into an obsessive reading of Maulidi. Read also, Kioko’s other pieces (some from a blog dating back as joyously far as 2011!) from which we’ll feed in frankly quite reckless ways during this whole madcap critical extravaganza: The Lovers that Loved us, Let’s Flirt and Die Happy, I Need Balance!, In the Paintbrush of Alfonse, Death At The End Of The Bougainvillea.
Maulidi / Dust
The similarities between Ndinda Kioko’s Maulidi and Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s Dust are plenty:
- Kioko’s narrator, not-Anah, is compelled to travel by the brutal killing of her husband, Issa, at the hands of Kenya’s trigger-happy lawmen. / Ajany, the protagonist of Dust is compelled to travel upon the murder of her brother, Moses Odidi, by the Kenya police.
Kioko writes the headline from that day, ‘Suspected gangster killed, two guns and explosives recovered.’ / Owuor writes, “Gun battle; Odidi lost.”
not-Anah recalls the site of the murder and sees “the pool of blood that day on the street.” / Ajany finds the street where her brother fell and washes the blood away: “She has found the place. She scrapes fragments of her brother’s dried, rusted blood onto a small piece of paper.”
not-Anah leaves Nairobi after the death of her husband. / Odidi’s wife leaves Nairobi after his death.
The giving of the grieving woman’s body to a lover: not-Anah, having lost Issa, gives her body to an anonymous man (and takes his body in return). / Ajany gives her body to Isaiah, son of her mother’s first husband by another woman, and takes his, ferociously, in return.
not-Anah is estranged from her father. / Ajany has been estranged from her father, Nyipir.
not-Anah has a friend, Boni, who physically tries to restrain her from impulsively leaving the city. / Ajany has a boyfriend, Bernado, whose violence prevents her from leaving then whose infidelity gives her another reason to do so.
There are many more similarities and parallels between Kioko’s text and Owuor’s. But why spoil the fun? These two are having a conversation! Readers can and should find the rest of the links for themselves.
The world in which Maulidi occurs is similar to that described by Kioko in In Memory of Whispers Son of Soil, where she wrote:
[T]here were too many reckless bullets flying around. You couldn’t trust anyone, not even policemen for they tended to have enough bullets to shoot stray ones.
Maulidi is very much a story about haunting. The protagonist, not-Anah, is haunted by Issa, her dead husband. She is also most strongly haunted by “Anah”. Who is Anah? Or who does Anah represent? By calling her protagonist “not Anah”, an absence is overlaid on the traveller, or rather, the traveller is made into an absence. The negation is that of death which is what this whole story is about. If we read from Kioko’s Bougainvillea, and if we imagine these two stories as part of the novel on loss on which she’s working, then we find a narrator who is mourning her mother:
It has been like this for years. You find yourself resuscitating her existence in all possible impossible places and spaces, attempting to complete the fading image of her. She is the woman selling you shoes at Gikomba, or the one who stands on a heap of second-hand clothes, mixing, lifting, sorting. Buy from me! Buy from me! Everything is almost free! She is your Auntie Mary, tying and tucking her money into her bosom. She is the woman leading the praise and worship team, the way veins swell on her neck when she sings, as if her voice is coming right from her blood. She is in a book. She is in a dream. She is there one day when your friend turns to you and asks whether your mother was happy and you remember stained love letters hidden in a box somewhere in your father’s bedroom, no more. She is the woman walking away, dissolving into the busy street, the one whose face you never get to see. She is the reflection of you in the mirror. She is your best friend’s mother. She is everywhere, and you cannot find her.
Kioko did not hyphenate the name “not Anah” but we might choose to do so because of another link: The hyphen is a “dash”. For Kioko, the dash has especial significance. This is from Bougainvillea:
Each Sunday he sits by it [the grave], uprooting the twigs and the mould on your mother’s dash. But the dash is disappearing. It cannot handle the mould and the twigs and the uprooting.
But what on earth is this dash? On her now defunct blog, Kioko wrote The dash before the death:
I do not know what they will write on that epitaph. The only thing I know is that there will be a BORN 1934 – SOMEYEARTHERE (plus or minus). This dash in between the years is something I came to discover today. The dash is something that no one cares to discuss. It is just one of those unnoticeables. In between these years is my life. A symbol that can be well represented by a number of years which they will say I lived. But this dash my friend, is full: either of a life lived emptily or fully. Depends.
Hypothesis: “Not Anah” is properly not-Anah. The space between those two words (when unhyphenated) is the haunting hyphen, the spectral dash, the absent and unwritten “in between years” of the narrator’s mother’s life. The Morland Scholarship announcement says that Kioko’s novel is about a daughter trying to recover memories of her deceased mother. That is what not-Anah is doing on this journey. Her travelling might be her retracing imagined steps and a life lived by Anah. Maybe.
The hyphen or gap between “not” and “Anah” is also the line between the living and the dead, or the mythical Styx. The spectre comes moving across that gap. Quentin Meillassoux says this about the spectral dilemma: “[A] spectre is a dead person who has not been properly mourned, who haunts us, bothers us, refusing to pass over to the ‘other side’, where the dearly-departed can accompany us at a distance sufficient for us to live our own lives without forgetting them, but also without dying their death — without being the prisoner of the repetition of their final moments.” The traveller who is not Anah has only the distance of a space, a traversible or collapsible gap, from Anah. That distance is not sufficient to allow her to fully live her own life. (We recall that Virginia Woolf, whose mother died when her daughter was 13, said that her mother’s death left her prone to nervous breakdowns all her life.) That dash is the years of a generation between not-Anah and the mother figured by Anah.
In Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick says that “[w]hen you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.” If, as Yvonne Owuor writes, “to name something is to bring it to life,” then Kioko’s narrator declares her un-existence:
The traveller’s name is not Anah. […] She is here to switch off her mind.
Anah has a physical body she inhabits or shadows, that of not-Anah. Anah has not yet been properly mourned and moves in the realm of the living. By calling her traveller not-Anah, Kioko’s negative embodiment and identifying of the traveller turns the traveller, in turn, into a spectre haunting Anah. The restless living will not let the dead rest. Meillassoux adds that, “[e]ssential spectres are those of terrible deaths: premature deaths, odious deaths, the death of a child, the death of parents knowing their children are destined to the same end — and yet others.” In Maulidi Anah might be an essential spectre. For such spectres, mourning can never be finalised. In Inventing Memory: A novel of mothers and daughters, Erica Jong reminded us of the Jewish proverb that “the only truly dead are those who have been forgotten.” not-Anah brings Anah to life.
Any thinking about haunting as written by a black or African woman is itself necessarily haunted by that canonical text of black female haunting, namely Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Sharon Patricia-Holland, paraphrasing Morrison, says that Beloved is about a violent death “that refuses to remain in the past and imbues the present with a haunting so profound that memory is jolted from its moorings in forgetfulness.” We already have a jump-off point into Kioko’s forthcoming novel: when the various moorings of forgetfulness in Maulidi are jolted and profound memories surface.
We read Maulidi itself from within a textual haunting, and the digital spectre-text that haunts Maulidi also haunts this essay about Maulidi. To wit: Large parts of Maulidi and Kioko’s previous story, Bougainvillea, could be found in fragments from her old blog,
inkdrops.me (for example, No Table for One and Nature Moves On). That blog is no longer online. The blog’s domain expired in 2014 and all that excellent writing was lost. In order to obtain material for a profile of the author, this reviewer spent several months contacting the domain registrars, web hosts, and web administrators who were responsible for providing the infrastructure on which that blog relied. The goal was to highlight much of her writing from that blog interwoven with stuff like her reading lists and her astute commentary on film and literature from her Twitter archive. Anyway, those recovery efforts all failed and the profile had to be cancelled (though there was some dope material in the draft). Kioko’s blog is well and truly lost. Thankfully, some of her writing was saved by
archive.org’s wayback machine.
She comes back to a restaurant and looks for somewhere to sit. She asks the waitress if she can get a table for one. They offer her a table for two. The binaries of the world refuse to leave her alone.
Kioko’s traveller claims that the binaries of the world refuse to leave her alone, primarily the binary of gender that demands heterosexual coupling, that men protect women, that women be seen to encourage and welcome the attention and company of men, that a woman never be alone but with a man accompanying her, that a woman not travel of her own accord but stay in place or at home, that a woman choose safety and avoid danger, that a woman abrogate her autonomy in favour of dependency, that she choose attachment instead of detachment, that her body be available to men and not inaccessible.
That claim occurs within a story where the protagonist does not lavish any kind of descriptive attention on women. Other women in the story seem to disappear, if at all they materialise. It is as though she does not look at women or is incapable of seeing them. The traveller is angry that the binaries of the world won’t leave her alone but the very shape and rhythms of the story create and enforce the binaries which she wants to escape. The traveller is trapped in the story, constrained by what it forces. Her imagination is locked within a world of men. Reading the story, one feels that if she met a woman or talked to a woman while travelling, her anger at the world’s binaries would simply dissolve, having found no purchase and been obviated.
Is it possible that in the region of the country described, women do not appear in public? If so, the problem remains that the traveller has chosen to travel to a place where there are no women. Why would she be surprised that “the binaries” take their place?
This is actually similar to what happens in Lucía y el sexo (Julio Medém, 2001). Lucia’s boyfriend commits suicide and immediately she leaves, heads for the Coast. At a restaurant on the beach, she sits down alone for a meal. Around her in this romantic idyll there are only couples canoodling. The waiter arrives and as she attempts to place her order, he tells her he’s sorry but the minimum quantity of anything on the menu is for a couple; no singles can be served there. Later, as she bonds with her landlady, “the binaries” that constrain her dissolve within sisterhood and she can live more, see more, feel more, come into her own, recover her self.
Not even at the end of the story, during a wedding procession, does not-Anah lend her attentive gaze to any woman. There’s a moment when she walks to “where schoolgirls seem to be coming from.” Her grandmother occurs briefly only as a memory in some unspecified place outside of time. Of the man, “she wants to know how old his daughter is,” (and it’s unclear if he actually has a daughter; by asking this anonymous man-father the age of his hypothetical daughter, not-Anah inverts, as reflection, her asking her own father about his uncertain age) but even that thought dwindles into a banal abstractedness about rearranging furniture. The only real women she sees are the ones she remembers, “mothers she had seen on television, clutching old photographs, speaking of sons who never made it home.” Of the wedding, she only mentions “the groom” as a relation to the man. The people who speak to her and to whom she speaks are all men. The world she inhabits seems surreal, one entirely populated by men except for her, a single, solitary woman travelling, unable to see other women.
The structure of the story traps the traveller in a world of men but the traveller, passive as she is, is at ease within this world. There’s a certain pleasure she takes in moving within a world of men.
Circuits of desire
not-Anah moves between two opposed objects of desire, Issa, her deceased husband, and her father.
The narrator has buried her husband, Issa, but she does not speak of her life with him or of him in any substantial way. We get a few tentative memories of him, slight bits of memorial scaffolding, a faint ghost of his image in her mind, whispered into the text.
From the beginning of the story, she appears attracted to a stranger; we find her man-watching; gazing at a man who is more similar to her father than he is to Issa.
He is bald, with just small bushes of curly white hair at the back of his head. Without his hat, he looks thirty years older.
Earlier in the story she recalls that on that day is her father’s birthday:
She might have forgotten, but she remembers one thing; that today is her father’s birthday. He chose it one day many years ago when she asked him about his birthday and, unable to remember, he decided it was the expiry date on the insecticide tin he was holding.
As a father figure, “the man in the hat” embodies an authoritative source of knowledge: The traveller wants to ask him if he knows Issa, as though him knowing Issa might conclusively affirm that Issa existed. When he leads her along she does not question him. If the father is imagined as a protector, then that might explain her lack of fear or hesitation around him, the ease with which she comes out of her shell around him:
At some point, when the bar is full and everyone is drunk except her, the man in the embroidered hat invites her for a dance. Even though she is shy at first, she puts down her drink and joins him. Together, they are lost in the slow Taarab dance.
The story begins at the oceanfront where,
[A] man in an embroidered hat stands with his donkey, watching the ocean hit the banks […] Above him, a traveller watches the morning arrive.
A symmetry of her desire is marked at the end of the story when she says, “Maybe I should call my father.” In her family, love is “such incoherence” that isn’t uttered. “She wants to tell him [her father] that she loves him.” Had she desired Issa, she might recount her life with him in detail, her memories of him, or have sex with someone like him, but she is drawn to a man who is an image of her father.
not-Anah is a bride who lost her husband; the man with whom she sleeps is the father of the groom who is getting married the next day (this concluding marriage the obverse of the traveller’s marriage to Issa approximately a year before). The man in the embroidered hat is a physical echo of or a psychic stand-in for her father. If we wanted to feign being Freudian we could simply profane the associations and call the sex that takes place a transference and thus, birthday sex.
While the memory of Issa haunts the story, he is, in fact, not embodied in or by remembrance. He remains as a ghostly MacGuffin, a clutch of “the things he loved that she didn’t,” and he is completely erased (unremembered or disremembered) by the end of the story, the desire for him obliterated by the intimacy with a stranger and subordinated to a larger, depersonalised memory, that of the previous year’s Maulidi festival, as well as the immediate, somewhat pat, need for something as simple as a cigarette (repeated several times in the story, the cigarette is both a phallic symbol and a habit that might have belonged to Issa, or her father, and that belongs to “the man in the hat”; she appropriates the habit — a traumatic repetition, a habit mirroring, and a performance of her desire).
The entire story is itself bracketed between two visions of “the man in an embroidered hat,” with whom she has desultory or merely adequate sex. What then are we to make of the traveller’s detachment, as in this final list of residual desires which ends with the desire for the father entirely displacing any lingering or projected or fantasised desire for Issa? Is this all that the death of a husband amounts to?
She thinks about the previous year’s Maulidi festival.
She wants another cigarette.
She should call her father.
Issa is initially removed from life by death on “the day her husband was murdered on the street”. Matching it is his removal from memory at the end of the story. If this latter removal of him as an object of desire is rather startling, then what do we further make of the actual story itself whose body is a literalisation of the displacement of Issa (the object of grief) with “the man in the embroidered hat” who is the true object of desire, who is simultaneously the image of the father from whom she is estranged, now obtained?
The traveller isn’t mourning him as such; she is mourning her vision of herself with him. Kioko’s traveller gives us a particular insight into how mourning works.
Strange hygienic intimacies
The man tries to kiss her, but her lips are cold, too cold to kiss. He then removes a handful of leaves from his pockets. He smiles at her. She smiles back. He places a pinch of the leaves on a piece of paper and rolls them into a stick. Then he lights it and puffs. He hands her the roll and she smokes it, without a question. From the rooftop, they watch the old town orbit around the building. The more they smoke, the faster the town revolves. They laugh at nothing in particular and at such things as the wind.
He comes to stand next to her, and when he touches her, it is as if thousands of hands have touched her face. She wants to ask him if he knows Issa. He pushes her to the wall and kisses her, without removing his hat and he begins to walk back to the building. She follows him down the stairs, and when they get to the room, she demands that they take a shower first.
This particular moment, when “she demands that they take a shower first,” is the kind of telling detail that anchors the reader in the realism of the story. But minutes later, when the traveller and the man are having sex, a particular, albeit minor, though no less telling detail goes missing: no mention is made of a condom. The bureaucratic mechanics of sex are elided. If we are to imagine that the narrator was so concerned with hygiene as to demand that they take a shower, how do we then accept as realistic anonymous sex occurring without her demanding that the man find and use a condom? Sure, South Africa president, Jacob Zuma, may have claimed that showers can prevent or even cure AIDS but, if statistics are to be believed, we try not to take him seriously at least 20% of the time!
It might be that this telling omission, contrasted with the telling hygienic detail before it, signals several things: within the narrative it reveals the traveller’s carefree desire for unlimited intimacy (that is, bareback) with her chosen partners. Within the metanarrative, it marks a departure from realism or even the subversion of the realism of the entire story.
In Philip Roth’s debut novel, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), for instance, the mechanics and negotiations around procuring and using a diaphragm are agonisingly detailed. In Marie Calloway’s debut novel, what purpose did I serve in your life (2013), the fumbling usage and the hesitant abandonment of clumsy condoms choreographs the entire sex scene before short-circuiting it entirely. In Carmen Maria Machado’s recent short-story, The Husband Stitch (Granta 2014), the messy, inconvenient craziness of having to fiddle with prophylactics is codified away: “There are two rules: he cannot finish inside me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon.”
Condoms: A contemporary detail (and a necessary piece of every traveller’s luggage), germane to any plot that has sex at the centre of it. When it’s omitted, the omission has meaning. The entire story takes on a slightly romanticised aspect when a shower is all that the strangers need to forestall any concern about disease, death, pregnancy, or any of the other tedious consequences of putting one’s body on the line. not-Anah says “there is a way he fucks” which becomes him “masturbating inside her.” (In Calloway’s book of travel, sexual adventure, and self-discovery; also of a woman in a world without any other visible women except herself, condoms are mentioned in practically every chapter!) In this brief moment, Maulidi’s slide away from the realism by which the murder of the narrator’s husband and her resulting grief are asserted further suggests that that death, while a useful plot device, is not actually where the emotional substance of this story lies: that can be found elsewhere, in the narrator’s adventure into self-discovery.
Here is Jeanette Winterson in Art and Lies, working sex and surgery into metaphors for each other, and the emotional, psychological, and physical risks that entails: “We had to protect ourselves. We had to be careful of the body beneath. Protection always involves some sort of loss. Hold back, watch yourself, wrap up, look for cuts, mind blood, don’t exchange fluid, Now Wash Your Hands Please. The riskiest thing you can do is to be naked with another human being.” As Kioko’s narrator flings herself into the world on her own terms, trusting fate as well as the intentions, hands, and bodies of strangers, like a punk-rocker diving into a mosh pit, she is pushing past that “riskiest thing”, willing herself into a deeper intimacy with the entire world and thus, with her deepest, truest self.
The traveller has suffered loss. She abandons protection during sex, protection which would mean “some sort of loss” of intimacy. For if protection is eschewed during sex then the story itself is also one about a woman who entirely refuses to protect herself from the world. And this world, then one she sees, is one filled with men. A man tells her that,
‘A woman was killed there, and then the others started to leave. No one lives there now.’
The ambiguity of that statement makes it seem that all the women have left the area out of fear. The traveller stays. More than that, she lets an anonymous man entertain her and lead her to a hotel room!
And in such a world, a town apparently without other women interesting enough for her to describe uniquely, she abandons herself to fate, refusing the protection of the familiar or of friendship. She goes along with whatever and follows “without question.” It reminds one of Kit, the wife of the man who dies unexpectedly in Paul Bowles’ north-African travel novel, The Sheltering Sky. After he dies, a disconsolate Kit wanders and sees a caravan of camels in the desert: “Even as she saw these two men she knew that she would accompany them, and the certainty gave her an unexpected sense of power: instead of feeling the omens, she now would make them, be them herself. But she was only faintly astonished at her discovery of this further possibility in existence.” Lost in grief, like Kit, Kioko’s narrator finds herself alone. She embarks to “learn the world again, alone” wholeheartedly facing fear, not cowed by Issa’s “fear of guns.”
The anonymous man finds her:
[T]hat same evening, the man in the hat invites her outside for a smoke. She follows him.
Like Kit, she knows she will follow the man whom she will give her body and does so without hesitation. But, in Maulidi, it is never clear where the moment of consent actually happens. In this era of “enthusiastic consent”, a woman passively going with the flow of all things sexual as initiated by a man is not considered consent. An enthusiastic “YES!” is necessary. In Sheltering Sky, the lack of consent is explicit: Kit is raped. In Bowles’ novel, the rape is grotesquely romanticised: Bowles makes Kit enjoy it, even desire it. Later her feelings about being subjugated and used are ambivalent and ultimately very complex due to the trauma she has suffered, the care she later receives, the featureless landscape in which she loses and looses herself. In Maulidi, the traveller detaches herself from the sex act, disembodying herself in a trauma-like response: Kioko writes, “she drifts off again.”
The pleasures of diving at life
He seems to have forgotten that she is there with him, and as she watches him in the dim light she feels like she is watching a man masturbate inside her. She drifts off again and begins to think about the man she once dated – and how her dreams were as big as the space between the four walls he paid rent for.
When he is done, he collapses next to her. A few minutes later, he lights a cigarette and offers her one. Then he kisses her. There is a way his kiss tastes; one can tell that it is the last one.
This moment of intimacy with a stranger has an unfortunate pallor, that of an intimacy that penetrates the body but does not come close to touching the soul. Imagine what it would mean if every instance of sex between a stranger and a traveller was orgasmic for the woman! What would it mean if the sex in this story wasn’t anorgasmic for the traveller?
In Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a drugged-out book of loss and mourning, she writes: “Once the orgasm is over we can just lie back, close our eyes, and relax, though we are neither liberated nor fulfilled. They are dead, finished, no […] fantasy can help them now.”
In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, sexual and romantic intimacy is always complicated, layered, elusive even when attained, especially after it is obtained, especially with a stranger. Lessing’s narrator is named Anna. After Anna has sex with Saul, a new tenant in her apartment above hers, she writes, “I lay on the bed, happy. Being happy, the joy that filled me then was stronger than all the misery and the madness in the world, or so I felt it. But then happiness began to leak away, and I lay and I thought: What is this thing we need so much? (By we, meaning women.) And what is it worth? I had it with Michael, but it meant nothing to him, for if it did, he wouldn’t have left me. And now I have it with Saul, grabbing at it as if it were a glass of water and I were thirsty. But think about it, and it vanishes.”
For the traveller in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love “great-looking men are platooned at her” — as one reviewer described it — though for some unbelievable, albeit well-articulated reason, Gilbert’s narrator chooses celibacy. Still, for Gilbert’s narrator sensual pleasures remain available and possible, even abundant.
What is it that Kioko’s narrator needs so much? And what is it worth? What promise of pleasure does anonymous sex offer Maulidi’s traveller? What are the sources of sensual pleasure as she travels?
In Julio Médem’s romantic epic, Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998), a boy named Otto falls in love with a girl named Ana. The first time he sees her, she is running like hell into the woods. Otto asks, “What is it that girls run from?” What is not-Anah running from? Later on, Ana, having travelled a great distance to mourn, grieve, and rediscover self, finds herself in Finland, in the Arctic Circle. She says, “I felt I had reached the end of everywhere.” Isn’t this the kind of force by which not-Anah seems impelled, to reach the end of everywhere, as far as possible from where she was? Because staying in place only deepens the chasm in which one’s self is trapped. To reach the end of everywhere is to finally encounter…what? Or who? Kioko writes,
But the traveller whose name is not Anah knows why she is here. She is here because she has just buried her husband. It is where she first met him, during the previous year’s Maulidi festival.
She is also here because it is the last place the bus stopped.
By contrast, in Paradies: Glaube (Ulrich Seidl, 2012), Anna (played by the understated, flawless Maria Hofstätter) is trapped, or rather stuck. When she takes leave from her job she is asked if she is going to travel. She demurs and stays at home. Upon making the decision, her home is suddenly occupied by her paraplegic husband who proceeds to torment and sexually abuse her, startled as he is by her sudden “rediscovery of chastity” after years of her being an utter freak. It is as though, by choosing not to travel, Anna makes herself vulnerable to torture of all kinds. By staying in her city, she has to stifle and contort her sexual desire. She mortifies her flesh daily and practices a brutal asceticism. She is tormented and in tears almost every night. She stifles her urge to explore and travel, to escape the aftermath of the tragic accident that has befallen her and her husband. By refusing her own wild and free desire, which then has to be shut up into the nested box of her town and home, she destroys herself and the world colludes in her destruction.
In Lessing’s Golden Notebook women who stay in place, who are trapped at home without the possibility of escape or travel; such women simply go insane. While doing social work, Ella, “is haunted by the letters she receives from women whose lives seem to have stopped dead in their tracks.” Doris Lessing says that this was an actual memory of hers from the 1950s: “I was out canvassing for the Communist Party in a big block of flats near Somers Town, going from door to door, and behind every one I found a woman going crazy […]”.
In Outside Belongings, Elspeth Probyn writes of travel, a woman discovering her identity, and the “places and spaces” (as Kioko calls them in both Maulidi and Bougainvillea) where she belongs: “A fully and wildly desiring being […] may just take her pleasures elsewhere, anywhere.” Kioko writes:
Then she remembers the overwhelming urge to be in a moving bus – the hankering to enjoy solitude in motion, and then suddenly asking her friend to take her to the bus station. […] She remembers the potent pride of a lone traveller.
(Fun note: in Paradies: Liebe (Ulrich Seidi, 2013), an Austrian woman who has lost her husband visits the Kenya coast in order to rediscover herself and her sexuality. She discovers that on the Kenyan coast “love is a business” and each sexual encounter ends in disappointment. Like not-Anah who is continuously disappointed that she does not call her father, Seidi’s Teresa is continuously disappointed that she does not call her daughter. In this context I am less interested in how Seidi depicts racial difference and more fascinated by how both Seidi’s white foreigner and Kioko’s African local romanticise and exoticise the Coast as a site of personal renewal through sexual adventurism. In this sense, Maulidi becomes part of the well-known genre of “Mombasa raha” (Coastal fun/pleasure).)
In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the traveller’s mother has died and in the traveller’s grief, she throws herself into a whole lot of wild, unsafe sex, miraculously survives, and gets at least some pleasure out of drowning her grief by sifting through the bodies of strangers. Like Kioko’s traveller, Strayed’s narrator is out to discover herself in the world on her own, by herself. When she meets three men — one of whom will give her food and a place to rest and drive her to her next destination — after a week of not encountering any humans during her hike, “they lived perhaps twenty miles from the Pacific Crest Trail and yet none of them had ever heard of it. None could fathom what business a woman had hiking it by herself.”
Yvonne Owuor wrote that, “Fear is a presence. It penetrates beauty to deform it.” not-Anah “remembers his [Issa’s] fear of guns,” but she won’t let fear penetrate or deform her own beauty or desire.
Stay? Pourquoi? Pour qui?
On women staying and leaving, Keguro Macharia, observed that, “[m]yths, legends, fiction, poetry, travel narratives, biographies, autobiographies — the genres that shape our worlds have tended to focus on men who move. The quest narrative focuses on men. With few exceptions, stories of migration focus on men. Stories of adventure focus on men.” He then declared, in what might simultaneously read like an injunction, that “Men leave. Women stay.”
Well, Maulidi is decidedly, aggressively, a story about a woman who refuses to stay, who, in fact, will not and will likely never stay. Her adventure is barely begun and already Kioko’s traveller is away, not stifled or stuck in the work of “care and repair” — “This work of staying and staying with” — for others, but is on her adventures for herself alone. Like Toni Morrison’s Sula Peace, Kioko’s narrator is “woman-for-self.”
When read against Maulidi, Macharia’s essay strikes a jarring moralising tone. He writes about “this [gendered] work of staying and staying with [..] about women who arrive early and stay late. Women who set up and clean up. The untime they occupy — the time before the event, whatever it is, and the time after the event. Multiply that untime. Stretch it from then to forever. And then stretch it again..” He cites Ajany from Dust, where “Yvonne Owuor writes about women who return to care and repair.”
The contrast between Ajany and not-Anah is striking: Ajany returns to Kenya upon the death of her brother. Much of her story is devoted to retracing his steps, searching for the truth about his life and death, attempting to heal herself and her family, and in that way, memorialising him in the grand, albeit tragic, adventure of her return. not-Anah, however, bails out promptly. She estranges herself from family and friends, from home and hearth. There is no business of staying and staying-with of which she is concerned. Women, after all, have been taught that self-sacrifice is a virtue, that sacrificing oneself in order to “care and repair” is a very good thing that women just naturally should do.
Consider one of the decisive voices in Jeanette Winterson’s Art and Lies. Winterson writes: “Saddest of all are the women who were brought up to believe that self-sacrifice is the highest female virtue. They made the sacrifice, often willingly, and they are still waiting for the blessing. While they wait their cancer does not. It’s awkward, in a society where the cult of the individual has never been preached with greater force, and where many of our collective ills are a result of that force, to say that it is to the Self to which one must attend. But the Self is not a random collection of stray desires striving to be satisfied, nor is it only by suppressing such desires, as women are encouraged to do, that any social cohesion is possible. Our broken society is not born out of the triumph of the individual, but out of her effacement. He vanishes, she vanishes, ask them who they are and they will offer you a wallet or a child. ‘What do you do?’ is the party line, where doing is a substitute for being, and where the shame of not doing wipes away the thin chalk outline that sketches Husband Wife Banker Actor even Thief. It’s comforting, my busy life, left alone with my own thoughts I might find I have none. And left to my own emotions? Is there much beyond a childish rage and the sentimentality that passes for love?” Later, Winterson’s narrator declares, “I’m about to quit my city, never to return.”
not-Anah, a figure of wilful female displacement, is riven with desires but she is more than the sum of them. Simultaneously, she is living out these illicit desires, desires not sanctioned by conceptualisations of womanly virtue; suppressed desires, desires that women are compelled to suppress in themselves. When she sits down alone at a cafe to order masala chai, the waiters merely watch her. Asking about the holdup she is told,
‘Most girls who come here do not buy. They smoke cigarettes and wait.’
That is, women alone, in this place, are considered to be sex workers. When she is later asked why she is alone, she thinks to herself that,
She wants to tell them that she is not alone. That she is here with Issa.
But there’s something else here beyond nostalgia for Issa, something canny: we know just how many times a woman alone, facing unwanted male attention says, no, actually she is here with her spouse. It’s a basic female survivalist technique. But not-Anah desires the attention, her passivity is precisely how she performs desire: she says the words, as a reflex, as “an excuse for her solitude” not as a demand that her aloneness be respected and she be left alone.
Issa’s death is merely incidental to her desires. Self-sacrifice is not at the heart of her ethics and could never be. There is her odyssey, there are strangers, there are encounters, there is sex, and there is the long trek away from the shores of self back to the hinterland of self. These are the vertices of her multi-dimensional and variform weltanschauung. It is a physical and emotional journey that never has to end, because, once commenced, how could it?
Consider Doris Lessing’s own restless Anna, temporarily domesticated and in a relationship with a man. She describes her grief and need for an intimacy that will make sense within her solitude, her need for Life in its fullness: “But I saw this not merely as denying Anna, but as denying life itself. I thought that somewhere here is a fearful trap for women, but I don’t yet understand what it is. For there is no doubt of the new note women strike, the note of being betrayed. It’s in the books they write, in how they speak, everywhere, all the time. It is a solemn, self-pitying organ note. It is in me, Anna betrayed, Anna unloved, Anna whose happiness is denied, and who says, not: Why do you deny me, but why do you deny life?”
not-Anah might not go in for this kind of introspection, but she does exemplify a form of “the new note women strike” (new at the time Golden Notebook (1962) was published, commonplace now as described in Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint (2008), that of betrayal by loss and having denied themselves Life), but that lack of a certain introspection, that particular muteness, is a choice to not say so much of what is felt: not-Anah frequently wants to say something but dithers then moves on. The question then, is: what does she feel? What does her reticence and passivity mean? How deep is her self-pity? How does she represent all that she has suffered to herself, for herself?
Judith Butler has this to say about loss and representation: “the past is irrecoverable and the past is not past; the past is the resource for the future and the future is the redemption of the past; loss must be marked and it cannot be represented; loss fractures representation itself and loss precipitates its own modes of expression.”
From Toni Morrison’s Sula: “Even the misery didn’t last. One day she wouldn’t even have that. This very grief that had twisted her into a curve on the floor and flayed her would be gone. She would lose that too.” Kioko writes,
As with everyone else she has met and is yet to meet, she wonders if they watched the news the day her husband was murdered on the street, and what they said if they did. She wonders if they clutched their husbands and their children close, and if they know loss by its first name. Then promptly, it hits her how arrogant it is for her to wonder about such things. She reminds herself that it is in the loyalty pledge. One pledges their loyalty, their readiness and duty to endure loss.
In Absence, Kioko wrote:
But what happens to those who prefer to stay away from absence, those who cannot deal with the removal of things that they have come to get used to? Is it possible to stay unfeeling, unavailable, unconnected, unsociable, so that they can avoid the horrifying realisation that a thing is absent?
That is the ethos of this woman traveller. She will reconstruct her identity around being unavailable, unconnected, and unattached. One cannot suffer absence if the presence of those who will abandon us is avoided altogether. In order to to so, she will see where the wind blows her. But loss only accumulates. Yvonne Owuor writes in Dust that “sorrow is a universe.” not-Anah has pledged her life to it.
New female being
Maulidi has a lot of the features Hortense Spiller’s describes in her writing on Toni Morrison’s Sula, that of “new female being”: not-Anah’s “nubile singleness and refusal of various acts and rites of [Afro]modernity,” such as prescriptions that African women stay in place and perform the rituals of care that are associated with place- and home- and nation-making. African women have not, until recently, had the freedom and wherewithal to wander the world unhindered, without the burden of outmoded gendered duties and demands. The promiscuous, footloose man is practically an archetype of world literature but writers like Kioko and Taiye Selasi give us an inkling that we might be about to finally read an almost entirely new emergence, that of the black African woman, brave, carefree, armed with a promiscuous imagination, a truckload of talent, and a penchant for the semi-autobiographical, straddling the globe, striding across the planet, disturbing the compass between its poles, with more stamps on her passport than she has pores on her skin.
Kioko in particular, with her brazen, naked (sometimes vulgar, sometimes flirtatious, sometimes romantically lyrically sexual, always uncensored, ardently political, rigorously unapologetic, always incisive, by turns poetic and demotic) approach to writing and performing her womanhood on-line (on various social media platforms), seems both willing and well-placed to go along a parallel path to that taken by Morrison through Sula (again, as described Hortense Spillers): “in bringing to light dark impulses no longer contraband” in black African female’s cultural address. Her short story, In the Paintbrush of Alfonse, for instance, is essentially a beautiful one-thousand-one-hundred-and-eleven word excuse to describe a woman’s orgasm and spiritualise it in what Kioko describes as the “scalding passion between an artist and their work.” Bougainvillea is animated by a votive, macabre, fetishistic obsession with death and haunting (the dead haunting the living, the living who haunt the dead, the narrator who stalks funerals). To the Girl With Whom I Might Have Shared a Man recasts a man’s infidelity as a platform for two women to realise their shared intimacy, as though sharing each other’s naked bodies, minds, feelings, and love-making through the flimsy conduit of a duplicitous man.
Maulidi, painfully abbreviated as it is, does the partial work of “inscribing a new dimension of being, moving at last in contradistinction to the tide of virtue and pathos which tends to overwhelm black female characterisation in the monolith of terms and possibilities.” The female pathos is there in Maulidi but not-Anah assuredly turns away from female virtue. How we ache to read more about restless, renegade African women! In Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor gave us Ajany and a cast of other supremely restless women, including a fiercely un-virtuous maternal-figure (in Dust, every single woman performs the act of decisive leaving). But there must be more of these iconic sheroes and anti-heroines because there simply aren’t enough!
The African Flâneuse
The story of the wandering man has a long tradition in almost all world literary cannons. We know his movements and methods, his desires and depredations, his privations and perversions: he travels wherever he can, he goes where he is allowed and where he isn’t, he risk safety, seduces women, is seduced by women; when he is not heterosexual he loves men; often he enjoys prostitutes, forms tenuous friendships, has adventures. But African literature does not have such a well-established tradition for the wandering and wild or wanton, restless or merely adventurous black woman.
We might think of Taiye Selasi, another Africa39 woman author who seems to live eternally on the road or in the air, who describes herself as “a woman who travels,” who is hardly ever anywhere that might be considered “at home.” (In talking about the woman who travels and romantic/sexual intimacies, Selasi said, “We had a joke that in the life of a woman who travels, there are some men who are amuse-bouches. Palate cleansers, if you like…”) The wanderlust that animates Maulidi is also succinctly expressed by Kioko’s friend, Okwiri Oduor (the 2014 Caine Prize winning Africa39 author), in the dedication of her novella, The Dream Chasers, where she says: “The nomad’s true home lies in the changing of the seasons. […] Nomads perching in the shelter of a new sentence, dusting feet off on paragraphs, making love to characters. […] Who are both terrified and thrilled by the onset of a full stop because it means the end of one journey and the beginning of another.” As a life philosophy it seems apt in describing Kioko. Oduor too, is a woman travelling.
If Maulidi is a hint of the trajectory of Kioko’s future life and work in travel, then there is much that will be worldly and exciting to look forward to in her already impressive literary output. Her journey beginning, ends by beginning again, continues.
not-Anah, the inveterate traveller, says,
She is here to switch off her mind, to get rid of the stain of everyday noise, to shake off the dust that has accumulated over the years, to have a new conversation, to eat new foods, to swear in a different language, to litter another part of the world with pieces of herself, to think of nothing except wonder what it feels like to be a cloud, to dip her feet into the talcum-soft sand, to look at the sea and in the reflection, recognise herself.
In this she recalls Rebecca Solnit who writes in her Field Guide: “The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”
The Morland Scholarship announced in 2014 that Ndinda Kioko has received the scholarship in order to work on her great novel of loss. As all starving or stifled artists know, money makes everything possible. Perhaps, what we are about to have the honour of witnessing is what critic Lorna Sage (recounted by Ali Smith) described about that prodigious modernist (and Virginia Woolf’s great friend and collaborator) Katherine Mansfield: Maybe, for Africa, Kioko will be “one of the great [post]modernist writers of displacement, for whom in an average year she’ll habitually change residence or city several times,” such that, for Kioko, “the short-story and the novel form might be the only places she calls home, being so little at home anywhere else.”
If not-Anah’s energy manifests as real, the possibility is there. The success (as measured by the sheer size, influence, and mentorship of the Morland Scholarship and the Africa39) has already arrived. It is no surprise that one of the most exciting stories in this anthology should be from the hands of a writer whose potential is, quite literally, without bounds and will now not be limited by borders.
- bell hooks. “All About love: New visions.”
- Butler, Judith. “After Loss, What Then?” in Eng, David L. (Editor) Loss: The Politics of Mourning.
- Cervenak, Sarah Jane. “Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom”.
- Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Sleepless Nights”.
- Holland, Sharon Patricia. “Raising the dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity”.
- Jong, Erica. “Inventing Memory: A novel of mothers and daughters”.
- Lessing, Doris. “The Golden Notebook”.
- Macharia, Keguro. “Holding My Father’s Penis”.
- Macharia, Keguro. “On Care and Repair”.
- Meillassoux, Quentin. “Spectral Dilemma”. Collapse IV.
- Oduor, Okwiri. “The Dream Chasers.”
- Probyn, Elspeth. “Outside Belongings.”
- Smith, Ali. “Artful”
- Solnit, Rebecca. “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”.
- Solnit, Rebecca. “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”
- Spillers, Hortense J. “A Hateful Passion, a Lost Love”, in Toni Morrison’s Sula. Modern Critical Interpretations.
- Winterson, Jeanette. “Art and Lies”.
- Young, Kevin. “The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing”.
This must be the most elaborate review a Kenyan short story has ever received! Keep them coming.