FIFTH DRAFT…A REVIEW

Fiction books published with NGO funds usually contain stories that push the agenda of the NGOs.

It is therefore a relief to find that Lesleigh Kenya’s newest anthology Fifth Draft, cannot be said to be pushing an NGO agenda. The collection was launched at the Goethe Institut in Nairobi on December 10.

Fifth Draft, a poetry and prose collection, was birthed at a workshop funded by the Italian NGO CEFA. Diverse in theme and content, the book contains vivid tales and poems. From uptown wives, night runners, lustful priests, slum dwellers and religious extremists, the collection tackles diverse aspects of life.

The stories and poems speak to all, despite the invisible social, religious and economic differences that are bound to divide.

If indeed it is true that the faculty we employ upon poetry at the first reading is sensual, then the poet Mwangi Gituro opens our minds’ eyes sensually with his poem Bless Me Father for I Have Seen. It is an innocent observation by a child of a lustful priest. The persona, a young Catholic faithful, confesses that he has seen the way the priest stares longingly at other little boys going naively about the Lord’s work.

The first two stanzas, reproduced below, aptly sum up the hypocrisy of some men of the cloth who forget that their flock are watching their actions more than listening to their words.

Bless me Father for I have seen/I have seen the way you look at John/ as he paces up and down the altar in the service of the Lord/The way you cup your hands around Charles  as he hands you the chalice/The way the sides of your mouth lasciviously twitch as you place the host on Peters’ luscious lips

The strength of this poem lies in its combination of childish innocence and religious deceit.

Mainouna Jallow’s short story The Bake Club of Tailorflower Lane is fresh and exciting. It unlocks the lives of the expatriates whose privileges give them time to fuss over extramarital affairs, personal trainers and failing marriages.

Jallow boldly lets us into the lives of this class of Kenyans who are very present but tend to be pushed to literary peripheries because of our fetish for “poverty porn.” The story follows the daily lives of three high society women and also shines a light on the lives of Nairobi’s rich.

Mwende Ngao’s Toilet Paper Thief is a coming-of-age tale that tells of the hurdles of city life for the young. Anxious to move away from home and be “independent,” Koki, grapples with delayed pay, joblessness and lack of money. Then, unable to cope with the numerous demands of the concrete labyrinth, the good girl turns bad, throws caution to the wind and gives into a friends-with-benefits relationship with a man in a blue Subaru.

And yet, this is not all the book offers. There are other stories. Some quite impressive, like Mtheto Kadoko Hara’s A Sentiment for Leyla, which beautifully tells of love, sacrifice and religious extremism from Malawi to Nairobi’s Westgate mall.

Others quite chilling, like Powell Omolo’s The Chosen, which talks about the life of a young man who has inherited night running powers from his Legio-Maria grandmother and is trying to come to terms with his newfound powers.

Less impressive stories dot the Fifth Draft as well. Stories which one feels require much more work. Stories which perhaps if the authors had kept revising, would have become better in their fifth drafts. These stories include the Fifth Draft by Eutycus Mola, which is simply a collection of beautiful phrases that the writer seems clueless what to do with. Stories like How To Snatch a Monkey by Atandi Anyona, which is meant to be humorous but fails and ends up putting off the reader.

Yet there is a lot to like in this book. Starting with its publisher, Lesleigh Kenya, which is a new outfit in the country. The firm proves that meticulous editing and good quality print are something we can hope for and should demand from our local publishers.

This article was first published in the East African.

 

Advertisements

THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE…A REVIEW

In her novella Kalasanda and its sequel Kalasanda Revisited, Ugandan writer Barbara Kimenye recounts humorous tales of country folks in a fictional Buganda village called Kalasanda. The tales focus on characters so eccentric they remain imprinted in the reader’s memory for ages.

Nigerian writer E.C. Osondu in his debut novel This House is Not for Sale, takes us to a place similar to Kalasanda. However, in Osondu’s case, the setting is a coastal town in West Africa. His characters are nonetheless as colourful and as eccentric as Kimenye’s Nantondos.

This House is Not for Sale tells the stories of the inhabitants of a huge mansion called the family house, which was passed down through generations. The owner, an elderly man, is the young narrator’s grandfather. He is a shrewd and enterprising patriarch, who is generous enough to play new LP records on his Sanyo stereo at full blast so that passers-by — and neighbours without stereos — can listen as well.

The family house swarms with activity and events there draw mixed feelings from those who live inside it and the neighbours around it. To its inhabitants, it is a blessing; a place of refuge from sins, poverty and despair.

“He knew that there was only one place on this earth where no arm, no matter how long, could reach him, and that was the family house,” we are told of a murderer who seeks refuge in the family house.

Much as neighbours dislike it for the patriarch’s exploitative nature and the misfits it harbours, they still show up whenever a chance to benefit from the house presents itself.

The stories, told through the eyes of a young narrator, are cleverly interwoven with humorous asides from anonymous voices. This enables the writer to slip in bits of information that would have otherwise been left out because of first person narration. Osondu, a seasoned storyteller, draws heavily from the African traditional oral storytelling — introducing other voices to fill in gaps left by the naïve narrator.

Some reviewers have argued that it is not a novel but a collection of short stories. This feels true as one reads it because each of the stories can stand alone and even sell separately. Osondu obviously draws from his strength as a short-story writer. (He won the Caine prize for African writing in 2009 for his short story, Waiting).

Each brisk chapter shines light on one of the many eccentric characters in the house. There is Ibe, the narrator’s cousin, who is a know-it all child. Ibe has a wild imagination and is stopped by nothing, not even death. Then there is Tata, a childless woman branded a “soul snatcher” before an encounter with the river goddess changes her life forever.

How does Osondu, himself a foreigner, remote from us in geographical distance, in culture and in local expressions, manage to talk about things that are important to us? The answer must lie, I suppose, in the fact that the writer is not merely a thinking brain; he is a feeling body, a sensitive heart, thus as we read This House is Not For Sale, we feel it draw upon the whole being, not merely a select part.

Some terms are Lagosian, the food too. There is jollof rice and fried akara and suya. Yet I do not think that the book is exclusively Nigerian. For in, say, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Kigali and Kampala, we witness reality and superstitions sit side by side.

The dusty streets of our childhood are laced with daredevil little cousins like Ibe, and faithful believers who sell their earthly belongings because they believe the end of the world is nigh. Our cities house jobless PhD holders, the mentally ill and abandoned husbands like Abule.

We, too, have witnessed city buildings marked with X because they lie on road reserves and we later witness their demolition as the owners throw curses at the authorities.

This House is Not for Sale tackles serious themes like alternative sexuality, patriarchy and corruption. Yet it does so beautifully, turning clichés on their heads. And the book is funny, very funny. It teems with yarns so ridiculously out of this world, humour so dark yet so real it lodges itself indelibly in the readers’ memory.

Nothing is more refreshing, nothing serves more to sting and revive a reader than the spray of fresh words, little colloquialisms and tart green words that spring from the pages of this book.

This article was first published in The East African.