I am enjoying sharing my thoughts on the stories on the Caine Prize’s shortlist as part of a collaborative effort with the blogger Aaron Bady. Last week, I offered my thoughts on Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic. So, what do I think of Billy Kahora’s Urban Zoning? I can understand why it made the shortlist; it tries to be different, and features some good writing and a lot of promise. Indeed, this story speaks to the vision articulated by Bernadine Evaristo, outspoken chair of the prize’s judges, in her essay on the Caine Prize. Evaristo’s essay astutely acknowledges the reality – that Africa faces new wars, and, yes, triumphs, issues that should be addressed in addition to the conventional anxieties and trauma that seem to define Africa as a sad cliché:
“I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?”
In Urban Zoning Kahora explores urban life in Nairobi, Kenya through the drunken eyes of a protagonist called Kandle. Kahora throws a lot of issues into the stewpot – dysfunctions birthed by little people in ill-fitting suits living furtive lives in dusty nightmares. There is petty corruption, alcoholism, rape, misogyny, same-sex sexual abuse, etc. It is ugly, Nairobi is a haven of depravity, fueled by Africa’s new wars, he documents the emptiness of a displaced generation and the reader detects whiffs of sweaty incompetence, day-old used tea bags, sex and shit.
When Kahora is good, prose poetry trots jauntily with the ease of a good rapper’s rhythm:
“A philosopher of the Kenyan calendar, Kandle associated all months of the year with different colors and hues in his head. August he saw as bright yellow, a time when the year had turned a corner; responsibilities would be left behind or pushed to the next January, a white month. March was purple-blue. December was red.”
Kahora can be funny – and dark as sin:
“After completing third form he had dropped rugby and effaced the memory of those clutching hands on his balls with a concentrated horniness. He became a regular visitor to Riruta, looking for peri-urban pussy. One day, during the school holidays when he was still in form three, he had walked into his room and found Atieno, the maid, trying on his jeans. They were only halfway up, her dress lifted and exposing her thighs. The rest of those holidays were spent on top of Atieno. He would never forget her cries of “Maiyo! Maiyo! Maiyo!” carrying throughout the house. God! God! God! After that he approached sex with a manic single-mindedness. It wasn’t hard. Girls considered him cute. When he came back home again in December, Atieno wasn’t there; instead there was an older, motherly Kikuyu woman, ugly as sin.”
Sadly, it is not only the protagonist that has alcohol abuse issues, Kahora’s sentences are all drunk, staggering in the streets, drunken lisping sentences drained of spirit, waving at strangers:
“In a city–village rumor circuit full of outlandish tales of ministers’ sons who drove Benzes with trunks full of cash, of a character called Jimmy X who was unbeaten in about five hundred bar fights going back to the late ’80s; in a place where sixty-year-old tycoons bedded teenagers and kept their panties as souvenirs; in a town where the daughter of one of Kenya’s richest businessmen held parties that were so exclusive that Janet Jackson had flown down for her birthday—Kandle, self-styled master of The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking, had achieved a footnote.”
My pet peeve: Kahora carefully italicizes and explains indigenous words – murram, mjengo, nundu. Word to the African writer, do not italicize our way of life, and stop explaining us to the world, that is what Google is for!
I must say that it is hard to date the era in this flat one-dimensional plot – to use the term loosely. This makes the setting incomplete. The writing is supercilious, cynical to the hilt. There is no joy in this droning semi-autobiographical, self-absorbed piece. It is slathered with rank cynicism which mushrooms into self-loathing, mocking an existence already bereft of purpose, defined by dark drunken labels: Smirnoff. Red label. Vodka.
Reading Urban Zoning is like walking into a cavernous hall only to be entertained by the sleepy insistent drone of indifferent echoes. Cute at first, it gets old soon enough. The reader wants to bang the head on a mjengo truck. There are all these inchoate character sketches of human beings who never rise above the indignity of caricatures or cartoon characters: “Mr. Koigi, a rounded youth with a round belly and hips that belied his industry. He had had an accident as a child, and was given to tilting his head to the right like a small bird at the most unlikely moments.”
Kahora showcases a lot of talent here, most of it misdirected. For once, I wished he’d gone to an MFA diploma mill to learn the elements of a conventional short story; setting, plot, conflict, etc. The good thing about Urban Zoning is that the story makes me pine for Binyavanga Wainaina’s genius. Kahora is no Wainaina. Wainaina’s book, One Day I Will Write About This Place features lush undisciplined prose, Nairobi comes alive, and the reader falls in love with Nairobi, sex, shit and all (read my review here).
My best lines are at the end but first you will have to wade through thickets of self-absorption to enjoy them:
“They both laughed from deep within their bellies, that laughter of Kenyan men that comes from a special knowledge. The laughter was a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation.”
What did I learn from this story? Well, Kahora is a good writer, he is going places, but not with this story.
Related blogs and resources:
Interview with Billy Kahora on his nomination for the Caine Prize
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life