On reading Billy Kahora’s Caine-nominated short story, ‘Urban Zoning,’ by Stephen Derwent Partington

by zunguzungu

(another guest post, by the the author of How to Euthanize a Cactus, on Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning”)  

One of the grandest discussions in Kenyan literature at the moment is the nature of the relationship between the writings of the New Generation of authors and earlier generations of post-independence writers. Of course, every society has such a debate, sometimes seemingly for the mere sake of it, and yet in contemporary Kenya the debate is particularly animated because generational change has overlapped very neatly with political change: the New Generation that emerged partly from the creative writing journal, Kwani?, began its most prolific period of production around 2002, when the government of President Moi was voted out in what appeared to be, as the Americans call them, ‘free and fair’ elections. This is well-known, and yet what is less familiar is the ferociousness of exchanges in the Kenyan national press between old-skool academics and members of this New Generation of writers – in the years following 2002, vast insults have been hurled across the apparent divide, from younger writers who criticize the antiquarian ‘Moi’ scholars, and from those scholars who have frequently dismissed the younger writers as producers of a sort of sub-literature not fit for study – or even for reading – by Kenyans.

As the fine editor of Kwani?, which was initially the only national outlet for the younger generation, it might be assumed that the writer Billy Kahora would be a Young Turk, plain and simple. But this is not quite the case. While loud-mouths such as myself have frequently argued the NewGen position with a broadsword fervour bordering on outright rejection of older scholars, Kahora has always been a far more subtle critic, wielding his literary rather than his journalistic pen as his delicate scimitar, making distinctions between a certain type of gerontocratic academic gatekeeping (which he deplores) and, on the other hand, the work of earlier literary producers whose contributions to Kenyan literature can not be so readily belittled, and whose influence remains potentially liberationist and worthy of respect. Yes, yes, I mean Ngugi, but more importantly so many others of those unseen Kenyan writers who Kahora has read, absorbed, emulated, adapted and (dare we say it in these times of skepticism regarding value?) bettered.

That Kahora has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize is thrilling, not only because he is a great young writer, or because he happens to be Kenyan – chauvinistic forms of nationalism have little place in the increasingly Africa-wide networks of literary culture. Rather, it is exciting because instead of being a writer who in his texts creates the stereotypically metonymic hero of ‘the African short story’ – or a writer who might be celebrated by Western critics as such – Kahora is himself something of a metonym, and his whole texts metonymic; that is, he is a generous writer whose work, due to its innovative intertextuality, its willingness to creatively refer to earlier writings, brings to wider critical attention the not only the wider NewGen that he seems to belong to, but also the ghosts of fine Kenyan and wider African writers who went before him, whose texts resonate inside his texts. His texts are invariably generous enough to refer to what has gone before. Kahora’s Caine-nominated short story, ‘Urban Zoning’, is a case in point – a very special case in point.

The main character is ‘Kandle’, that interpolated ‘K’ seeming to Kenyanise ‘candle’. But what do candles have to do with urban Kenya? Oddly, quite a lot. For example, just last week in Kenya a leading TV station hosted an interview with one of the heads ofKenya Power (KP), the country’s ‘electricity provider’. The context of the discussion was the appalling power cuts that have swept across the country every day since the long-delayed rains started – parts of the capital, Nairobi, have been in complete darkness for an age. When asked whether KP is failing because it remains a monopoly without competition, the suit answered that KP does in fact have competition – from ‘candles, paraffin’, and so on. Of course, the cartoonists had a field day.

That candles should not realistically be accepted as an alternative to electricity in 21st-century Kenya, is relevant to Kandle. That individual candles can not compete against State ‘power’, is also relevant to Kandle. That a suit might utter such nonsense, is further relevant to Kandle, being a reminder that those with wealth and power persist in patronizing the African poor. For Kandle, as a character, is one of the small and the low. He is not one of the only-pitiable ‘cockroaches’ that symbolize the small urban dweller in the novels of Meja Mwangi, for example, for the subtle Kahora is not so harshly attached to stock characters; rather, Kandle, being a bank teller, is one of those members of the small urban middle class in Kenya. A drunk, an absconder from work, a seedy playboy, and a general wheeler-dealer beyond his formal employment, Kandle does have certain stock features of what since independence has become the degenerate urban dweller in Kenyan fiction. And yet, while in such previous fiction the urban dweller is exclusively a manipulated victim of the city – as if all the culture of modernity were a treacherous corruption of the ‘naturalness’ of African rural living, that Edenic nativist myth – in ‘Urban Zoning’ the anti-hero, Kandle, is also a survivor, a cunning player of the system. Consequently, unlike earlier moralistic fiction, Kahora’s is more sensitively ambivalent: Kandle is not merely to be despised for his dissolution or pitied for his state, but also in some sense admired for his creative (if often unpleasant) ability to adapt and cope and move and live within urban spaces that might otherwise engulf him and the spirit of all those Kenyans who now, increasingly, are in the majority in our cities, as they are across the postcolonial world.

So, while Kandle rarely does what polite ‘mainstream’ society might believe is the socially correct thing – he steals from his employer, he lies, he cheats, he uses other people – he is at least given some agency by Kahora, an agency that is all too rare in post-independence writing about and from Africa, where the subject is passivised. Indeed, it may well be that Kahora is cheekily presenting the real, unspoken ‘mainstream’, the way we really live – by ours wits alone – in Nairobi and other postcolonial cities. We might argue, then, that although a candle can not challenge the repressive State and the increasingly formalized capitalism that suffuses African towns such as Nairobi, a flicker of the possibility of subversion (playing and cheating the system) is allowed by Kahora. The ‘realism’ of ‘Urban Zoning’ is Kahora’s seeming awareness that this is presently insufficient reason to celebrate or shout ‘revolution’ – too many contemporary writers these days claim that all minor acts of infrapolitics are tantamount to a carnivalesque overthrowing of the State machine, which or course they are not – and yet the enduring ‘idealism’ of ‘Urban Zoning’ remains: that is, Kahora’s ability to show how the spark, the flicker, the little un-snuffable flame of subversion remains in the members of contemporary Kenyan society, despite the superficial veneer of stable-capitalism that the elite would wish to portray to the world. Again, this is an ambivalence: the grit and the great hope of those who dwell in the African city. In Kahora’s story, then, the urbanite has joined forces with the radical rural peasant of earlier fiction, has begun to hold her hand in what might be the quickening walk to freedom as the oppressed from all areas, all zones, work together across the country and the continent. In this regard, Kahora’s short fiction taps very powerfully, if delicately, into the present moment of political awakening across Africa from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Cameroon, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Swaziland, and many other countries where open street-protests have increasingly occurred.

But Kahora’s implicit criticism is not of the State as such, for the African State, when organized for the social good, remains a promising route towards improving the lot of the poor. Rather, we may read him as being critical specifically of that global capitalism that has chipped away at the African State since the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1980s, or the avowedly capitalist-aligned African regimes that willingly capitulated to neoliberal forms of globalization. After all, the organization that is pilfered from and partially subverted by the thieving Kandle is not the government or the wider State machine, but a Kenyan bank run by a manager who, in his fondness for quoting American and British sayings, appears to be covertly in league with international corporations. Kandle’s small theft of bank money then becomes, even if pifflingly small, a very complex act, and metonymic. It is not merely theft from a bad individual employer – the bank and its manager – but also a small act of resistance against neoliberal globalization; as such, Kandle’s pilfering is utterly unlike that elite government corruption that plagues much of the continent and which preys upon the poor, but rather is a sapping of the power of an apparently overwhelmingly powerful economic system that prides itself on its insuperability. Elite corruption is greed; the pilfering of the poor is, on the other hand, an act (even if an inadequate one) of transgression against capitalism and its elites – or so we may read. While not a debased cockroach, Kandle is a tick, and many ticks can kill the capitalist cow, as some proverb probably avers.

So, Kahora’s short fiction feeds intertextually upon (East) African literature that has gone before, while at the same time performing very new acts of urban radicalism, and its mature and rounded appreciation of ambivalence and hybridity are everywhere apparent. We observe Kandle suffering from that self-loathing identified by theorists such as Fanon – in quotidian acts of loathing, Kandle refers to a colleague as a ‘fucking African’, and elsewhere admires Friesian cows over ‘goddam Zebu’, or nostalgically recalls his former colonial school regime. And yet, as he recalls that school with fondness, he also performs the near homophone and recoils from it in horror as he remembers certain abuses that he suffered while there. Or, much as he dismisses ‘fucking Africans’, he lusts after the darkest of ‘black’ women, desiring as he loathes – a paradox that is apparent in his sexual liaisons, which always seem powerful and yearning, but ultimately unrewarding. The give-and-take spreads further: just as he experienced sexual abuse at school, he too seems in his young adulthood to treat women with a disregard, and even to downright exploit them, for instance when he sleeps with his maid – and yet again, Kahora does not condone, even while he explains that Kandle’s sexual licentiousness was encouraged by his father and partially occasioned by abuse. Everything ebbs and flows, swashes and backwashes in this clever piece of short fiction.

Kahora’s primary way of presenting the ambivalence in his story is through Kandle’s experience of a binary, of two mental zones: the drunken ‘Good Zone’, where sepia-nice nostalgia reigns as he recalls his past and where he in the present seems invincible, even able to cheat death; the equally drunken ‘Bad Zone’, which he sometimes slips into when reminiscing. But these two zones can not be controlled or fully isolated and instead dream-sequence into each other, deconstructing the harsh binary, implying that the urban postcolonial world is both/and, not simplistically either/or, as is the case in so much other literature from the continent or, specifically, from Kenya’s literary history. It would seem that Kahora is cleverly, then, presenting the city as a deeply ambiguous, polyvalent space, neither wholly good (as certain flippant postmodernists might claim) nor wholly bad (as certain post-independence fiction has always claimed). The city, then, is monumentally diverse, a place of struggle and survival, or threat and opportunity, of death and of making a living and a life of sorts. One of Kenya’s leading cultural critics recently lamented that much Kenyan literature and literary criticism presents the city as a place where real people have no way of living except miserably, in suffering and angst. Gloriously, Kahora’s short story is one of the most impressive NewGen Kenyan texts that I’ve read that seriously, and with contemporary verve, seeks to offer alternatives, presenting a new postcolonial city while refusing to fully ridicule older interpretations of ‘the urban’, refusing to idealistically see the city only through rose-tinted spectacles as some of the less subtle members of the excellent NewGen are occasionally wont to do in our writing; the young writer who only celebrated the postcolonial city would, arguably, be irresponsibly failing to consider the experiences of the supposedly fifty-percent of city-dwellers who live in our peri-urban slums. Kahora, then, writes a schizophrenic city, with place affecting person and vice-versa as Kandle himself suffers the schizophrenia of his good and bad mental zones.

In skin colour, Kandle is, according to Kahora, comparatively ‘light’, a clever homophone that recurs in ‘Urban Zoning’ – clever, because he is also light-fingered and, as his name implies, a light of some hope. Yes, a mere candle in the face of the massive competition he faces from an oppressive global capitalism, and yet also a flash of hope. At the end of the story, Kandle and a co-conspirator in what I might term his ‘ethical corruption’, share a smile: ‘both laughed from deep within their bellies, that laughter of Kenyan men that comes from a special knowledge’, a knowledge, we might suggest, of how to play the system and survive. This ending places ‘Urban Zoning’ specifically within the locality of Kenya while the story has simultaneously, as we have seen, shown an awareness of wider globalization and the cross-cultural reach of international capitalism beyond Kenya’s borders. As such, the story ends hopefully, with this cheekily smiling reminder of how the new African radicalism may eventually succeed against the more pernicious forms of neoliberalism – not by the bland sloganeering of old, but by practically zoning-in on very local conditions of exploitation (say, in the Nairobi workplace) and networking outwards and across to neighbouring urban centres. Perhaps.

I write ‘perhaps’ for two reasons: a) because it is not yet clear whether this really is how change will come about on our continent, although recent events from the north and elsewhere suggest that it might be; b) because, wonderfully, Kahora’s writing enables mine to be one of what I assume are a number of different ways of reading ‘Urban Zoning’. I have chosen to read it as a culturally-aware, socialistic text, and yet others might not. This productive diversity of readings is possible because of the way in which Kahora’s story differs from much of what went before in Kenyan literature, even while it in other ways – as we have seen – pays homage to earlier writers. How it differs, is that it has broken fully out of the didactic mode that has characterized ‘committed’ Kenyan literature for decades; in the old parlance, it shows rather that tells. But, because it enables my socialist reading, it also reassures that older generation of Kenyan and wider African readers and writers, perhaps – our younger writers can still be responsibly socially engaged without being the author-as-sole-authority, as the voice that commands the reader how to read and act. Some readers will admire Kandle; some will loathe him; some will be ambivalent in our responses – but the point is that Kahora doesn’t impose upon us any one of these readings as the correct one. That’s for us to do. And so, we come full circle, to the NewGen’s cultural and age shift occurring at the same time as Kenya’s full political shift from one-partyism to a form of more hopeful choice. You see, I’d argue that while, say, Ngugi’s excellently-conscienced writing opposed the then policies of the man he understandably called ‘Dictator Moi’, his and his contemporaries’ literary aesthetic was ironically of a type with Moi’s politics – one-party-like, monologically ‘committed’, didactic. Kahora’s aesthetic is something fresh and different, for while it does not ally itself with any policies of the post-Moi governments (god-forbid that this should happen), it does nevertheless lead the way in suggesting how art might offer choices to the reader, democratically – in the radical sense of that word.