Finding a country's truth in fiction
Kenyan writer seeks to tell country's history through his writing
Author Peter Kimani began writing fiction to right a wrong.
The Kenyan writer’s first novel, “Before the Rooster Crows,” is set in the 1980s and inspired by the true story of an American Marine brutally assaulting and robbing a Kenyan woman, then being set free after returning the money he stole.
“She was a prostitute in Mombassa,” Kimani, 45, explained in a recent Skype interview. “He picked her up, they had an argument, and he hit her over the head with a bottle and mutilated her.” The man then took back the $5 he had paid her for services.
“Amazingly, when this matter went to court, the Marine was set free after paying back the five dollars.”
When Kimani read about this, he became very distressed and decided to write about it.
“I’m not rewriting history,” he explains. “But I am using my imagination to make amends for the wrongs committed against the weak.”
In “Dance of the Jakaranda,” Kimani’s third novel and first to be released in the United States, he once again looks to history for inspiration, this time the story of the construction of Kenya’s first railroad.
The railroad, instigated by the British, stretched from the coastal town of Mombassa over 500 miles inland to Lake Victoria.
“If you look at the premise of this story, we have been reading colonial history about our people. So my unstated mission is to show the discrepancies in that history and that the truth might reside somewhere other than the museums.”
“The story of history is told by the victors, not the victims. What is their story?”
Kimani, who holds a doctorate in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston, uncovers this truth by weaving together plotlines from black, white and brown men, both at the turn of the century and in 1963, when Kenya became an independent nation.
Moving back and forth between different perspectives and time periods could be potentially confusing for readers, so Kimani was methodical in how he structured the novel.
“I thought of those different storylines as parallel railroad lines,” he says. “I structured the novel along that motif, shifting from the past to the present until when they finally converge.”
Before writing fiction, Kimani spent 20 years working for national newspapers in Kenya, including as a senior editor for The Standard, the oldest newspaper in Kenya, and as a writer and columnist for The Daily Nation.
He toured Kenya and the region extensively, covering reconstruction efforts in South Sudan and conflicts in Somalia, and had his reports appear in The Guardian, The New African, Sky News and other international outlets.
But Kimani began to feel restrained by the constrictions of journalism.
“In places where truth should be spoken, in journalism and non-fiction, you have so many restrictions that the truth isn’t always told. In a sense, literature is just about the only free thing left in the world.”
Still, he found his training as a journalist helped him as a creative writer, as it gave him the tools to write effective historical fiction: how to conduct research, be steadfastly observant, and transform a large, complex story into something personal and approachable.
“‘Dance of the Jakaranda’ is a political story, and I used all aspects of human love to tell the story,” such as the secret family story of Rajan, a railway technician, as well as the love story between Rajan’s grandson and a mysterious stranger. These narratives put a personal face to the larger story of a nation struggling against, then breaking from, colonial rule.
While Kimani no longer works as a journalist, he is a founding faculty member at Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi, where he currently teaches long-form prose and feature writing to journalists from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia.
“Journalism has changed over the past decade, so we teach how to utilize multi-media platforms,” he says.
“We are looking at storytelling for different times. And what might save us is telling our stories in unique ways.”
TIME IN IOWA
In 2007, Kimani was one of 30 writers selected to participate in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
“The first lines of “Dance of the Jakaranda” were actually written in Iowa,” he said.
During this time, Kimani participated in readings, discussions, and lectures with writers from around the world.
“It was a very creative period. You bounce ideas off other writers, and that’s how stories begin.”
“In that petri dish of cultures, I saw with clarity the contradictions that have beset my country since its founding: our multiracial and multicultural society remains restive,” Kimani explains in a statement provided with the book’s press kit.
“Weeks after returning home, Kenya exploded in political violence in which 1,000 people were killed. The novel fomenting in my mind was frozen.”
He set the novel down for four years to focus on writing for young adults, then returned to the project while enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Houston.
Here he was able to work with one of his heroes, world-renowned author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who is frequently named as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ngugi served on Kimani’s dissertation committee, and the two will partner once again for Kimani’s upcoming book launch event at the Public Library in Brooklyn, New York.
“Writing is very solitary. You have to sit and write. But you have to rely on so many others.”
Kimani is grateful to the many people and programs that have supported him, from Ngugi and his mentors at Houston, to his publishing team and his wife and sons.
This fall he will return to Iowa, the place where it all started, and give a reading.
“Iowa,” he said, “has been very special to me.”