In late August, Peter Kimani journeyed from Kenya to teach for the next year as a visiting professor at Amherst University in Massachusetts, USA. Tom Lansner caught up with him by phone.
“We’ve settled in quite well here, with my wife and two boys,” Kimani reports. “We’re taking care of immunisations, finding where to buy groceries. But to be sure, we brought enough unga to keep us on ugali for the year!
“Teaching at a US university, it is worlds apart from Kenya,” he observes. “Extensive resources are available, and profs have so much going for them. You can truly focus on your work. And students come to class very well prepared, which is also a challenge for their teacher, because they expect a very high level of instruction.
“I now have a two-minute commute, strolling to my office,” Kimani muses. “Thinking of all the time I spent stuck on Mombasa Road, I could have turned out four more novels!”
Dance of the Jakaranda has been praised by some reviewers as a distinctly “African” novel. Kimani says he is quite happy that it is read as such.
“Having studied in Texas and Iowa in the US, there is some expectation that I will take on western storytelling forms, distinct from the types of narrative that I grew up with at home in Kenya,” he observes. “But the African way of communication is not just getting to the point. The novel’s narrator is an important part of trying to bring oral sensibilities of African storytelling into the the western novel form. There are lots of parables, lots of proverbs, drawn from expressions in various African societies and languages. This is a stamp on the book that this is a Kenyan story, told in Kenyan terms.”
Kimani has been known to break into song during book “talks”, and affirms the important role of music in his novel: “In a country that is segregated, music breaks down barriers. Rajan draws a multi-ethnic crowd to his shows at the Jakaranda. But Nyundo the drummer is a symbol of traditional society. Communities were connected by drumming; it was a form of music that connected them. Nyundo is an oral historian of Kenya’s colonial struggle, recalling truths that reside with the people, with the memory of people. We must question the official history that was written by the coloniser, while our oral histories are disparaged because they were not formally recorded.”
Asked why an Indian immigrant, Babu, is at the centre of the novel, Kimani recalls, “In the 1980s, I attended a high school that was originally built for Indian boys in the 1950s, and there were still some Indian students. I became curious about why they were in Kenya, and their role in Kenya’s history.
A fourth generation of Indians in Kenya are coming to age among us in Kenya, and Indians have just been recognised as our country’s 44th
tribe. Yet while many Kenyans address our Indian community as a homogenous entity, it is an intricate mosaic.
“And when we have tensions, Indians are often targeted,” Kimani adds. “Beyond race, there are class issues as well.”
And of the extreme violence, against Kenyans, among Kenyans, that the novel depicts?
“The violence in the book mirrors realities we have to face every day. The end of colonialism was not the end of abuses. We say that ‘lighting strikes the tallest’, and we have too often killed off our best. Senseless bloodletting is entrenched and has become permissible in our society. Abuse of power is happening right now as we speak. Questions of nationhood and nation-building are today quite urgent. Our national project is in turmoil.
“Right now, I’m working on a new novel set among my boyhood haunts of Eastlands in the 1990s. It is a historical novel, but reflects the anxieties of youth, of coming of age at a time when Kenya was changing rapidly,” Kimani tells us, adding, “Writing about home from 10,000 miles away, perhaps I will have greater clarity.
“And I do have more time for reading as well,” he adds. “I am catching up on a few novels: Jesymn Ward’s Salvage the Bones; Beneath the
by Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste; and Miss Burma by Charmayne Craig; as well as Global Muckracking, a compendium of crusading journalism gathered by Columbia University’s Anya Schiffrin.”
And is a film in the works? Dance of the Jakaranda is certainly cinematic: geographically and generationally sweeping, an alluring love story and fine mystery at its heart — and great dance numbers, too. While in New York in September, Kimani met award-wining director, Mira Nair, whose most recent film is the acclaimed Kampala-set “Queen of Katwe”. “I offered her right of first refusal,” Kimani says, “and sent her a copy of the book.”