When I attended this party, the aim was not to write about it. The aim was to go and chill and talk to people and be happy and crash on Frank’s couch and leave the next day. However, around a month later, having read Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic I started writing, and writing, and writing and writing and I discovered that I had x thousand words. Truman Capote claimed to have a perfect memory, that he could write about something without having notes or recordings of any sort. I, however, have no such gifts, and so, I am aware that some of the things I am writing about may not have happened in the exact way I am describing them. For instance, while the conversation between Greenman and Neo retains the spirit of what they were talking about, it has been condensed, partly for the sake of clarity, but mostly because I am unable to remember with perfection the words they used as they talked. Therefore, this essay (?) is not an anthropological diatribe about the Kenyan literary party (if there is such a thing), does not attempt to be one, and should not be treated as such. It is just the recollection of one person (but also a few others) of what happened at this particular party.
That being said, there are a few things that ought to be explained.
First, you may notice that I don’t appear at the party in any form. I was, of course, present at the party, but the decision to absent myself from the record of the party (apart from one or two occasions where I present myself in a disguised form) is informed by the feeling that my presence in the essay (?) may be intrusive rather than helpful. There are many precedents I could have gone with regards to how I place myself, the writer, in this piece of writing. The ‘I’ comes to mind first, but also Truman Capote’s ‘TC’, Gay Talese’s ‘Gay Talese’ and DFW’s ‘Rolling Stone’. However, the model that I consider as I attempt an explanation is the one Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah uses in her 2017 GQ Profile of Dylann Roof, A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof. Ghansah makes herself a character in this essay, I feel, because she is black, and Dylann Roof is white, and the people he murdered were black. Race is one of the central focuses of this essay, and so Ghansah introduces a new, important tilt to her writing as she describes how she, a black woman, moves through a mostly white community interviewing people. I don’t think my presence in this particular item of writing is any way as important as Ghansah’s presence in her essay, and so, I choose to absent myself.
Secondly, I decided to publish this in a blog that has been created solely for this purpose. There are things that different editors desire from this essay, and I am unwilling to do the things they want. For instance, one editor says, “The segueways are interesting but it doesn’t really nail down a formal story that would be a fit for us.” This is a sentiment that is shared by other editors, as one, liking the ideas I am having, asks me to write something else for her, a sort of reflection on the state of the Kenyan literary scene. All these months, hata one word, wapi? Another asks for a ‘direct essay’. Others ask for other things. My refusal to change the model to one that is suitable for publishing is mostly due to my stubbornness, and nothing else. I am not trying to prove any point by publishing it in this way. Just like the story I am writing which, always remember, is not trying to prove any point. It’s just about a group of people at a party.
Halafu, Frank, asante always, for your hospitality, and for all the conversations. Michelle A. too, with whom nimeongea naye sana about this. Wairimũ, who is the first editor for a lot of the things I write. One advantage of publishing it in this way is that I can suddenly switch to Kiswahili and not have to translate. Na that naweza amua ma shout outs nikitaka. Idza. Alex. Izo, hizo supper zote pale Yaya. BM, Clif, Rose. Everybody kwa hii essay. Kila mtu.
Lastly, Dr. Thompson.
At 7.30 or 8 or 8.30 p.m., somewhere along in there, on June 30th, 2018, the last day of the first half of the year, Frankline Sunday, 2016 David Astor Fellow, is not in his house. The latest installment of the raging parties Frank throws in his apartment in Umoja, Nairobi, is on. This particular soiree is in honour of the team behind Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic, an exhibition about music, that has just closed at the British Institute of East Africa, though with Frank, as with the people who attend his Saturday all-nighters, one doesn’t need an excuse to throw one of these things. Call a couple of people, Are you coming to Umoja? Kuna form, and word gets round that one needs to go to Umoja, and one goes to Umoja. Tonight, however, the party has a purpose.
The reason Frank is not in his house is that he has gone to buy food, beef, for the party goers. The thing has been on for a couple of hours already. The first people to arrive were the Maasai Mbili crew, though seeing as Frank does live in Frank’s house, he was probably there before them, and that Clifton Gachagua, inaugural winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and Frank’s best friend, semi-lives there, odds are that he was there before the Maasai Mbili folk. Maasai Mbili, an artiste collective based in Kibera who were collaborators on Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic, are represented at today’s festivities by Jepkorir Rose and Bethuel Muthee, also two of the three members of the curatorial collective, Naijographia, and Anita Kavochy, Kevo Stero, he of the Jobless Corner Campus, patent waiting, Ronics, who has been known to offer such truisms as Happiness ni Ajali, and Greenman, armchair philosopher and storyteller, about whom the most accurate description is one offered by Neo Musangi, who will also be at this party, that with Greenman, the stories he tells you couldn’t possibly be true, but because it is Greenman, you never really know.
By the time Frank goes off to get the eats, a couple of things will have happened. First, seven months before today, on the thirty-first occasion of Frank’s birthday, Clifton will have described him as the kindest man i have ever seen. he has in him in devils, but they do not compare/he has the care of the devil. he plans, he transcends. Then, Frank will have planned and transcended by making sure that there were bottles of Heineken and Teachers Whiskey and Konyagi and Gilbeys and Smirnoff and Kibao and Blue Moon available. Ni Sato and we are going all night.
Earlier that day, we were somewhere on Ronald Ngala Street waiting for the Umoja matatu to fill up when the drugs began to take effect. Alexis Teyie, whose chapbook was published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund as part of New Generation Poets: Tano, said something like, “How far is Frank’s? Can we just take a cab and go?” So we alighted from the matatu, hailed a cab, and off we zoom zoomed. Frank lives on the top floor of five-storey apartment building, which like every other apartment building in this side of Nairobi, does not have an elevator. Alexis Teyie, excellent poet though she is, is not an excellent stair-climber, and so, as she struggled up those stairs, she said, “Hizi stairs jameni, I hope we are not coming down soon,” a mostly unnecessary statement since one does not go to Frank’s so that they can come down soon, a truism Alexis did not know, since this is her first time at Frank’s.
Upstairs, the drinking has started, and the talking and the chilling. BM, true to his element, calls everyone to read together. Idza L., a founder member of Jalada Africa, is present, and shouts across the room at Frank, declaring her love for his essay, Asiyefunzwa na Mamaye, in Enkare Review’s second issue. A few Enkare Review members are present, and the editor who commissioned that essay smirks at Idza L.’s statement. BM’s poetry just got published in the Johannesburg Review of Books and a few people are talking about those poems. In one corner of the room, Frank is rigging one of his screens to stream football, France versus Argentina in the second round of the World Cup, a match Clifton, for one, is excited about. “I was going out with someone, and she is in love with Kylian Mbappe, and so I have to watch this game.” The football commentary is muted; instead there is music playing from Frank’s stereo system. Right next to the speakers, as BM leads the room in a reading of people’s respective works, Alexis is squatted on the floor, back arched over her laptop screen, doing her taxes, and it is unclear whether this is more an indicator of Alexis’s boringness at parties or more a looming KRA deadline.
Wherever writers and poets and artistes are gathered, a party is never far off. This was certainly true of the Harlem Renaissance, where in 1920s New York, A’Leila Walker threw party after party in her lavish house on 136th Street, parties that lasted from “nine at eve ‘till two in the morn,” parties at which, though she rarely drank, whenever she was present Zora Neale Hurston was the life of the party. During the same period of time, the Paris crowd had their share of parties, with Zelda and F. Scott getting a reputation as the party-loving hub of Paris. F Scott’s magmus opus, The Great Gatsby, can, in certain quarters, be described as a long continuous party that only ended with the host’s death. A few decades later, in the same city, The Beats dropped into town. William S. Burroughs, who shot and killed his wife at a party. Jack Kerouac, who, though never in Paris with his fellow Beatniks, had a party on the road with another Beatnik, Neal Cassady, and wrote a book about it, a book that is sometimes considered a piece of great writing, and at other times considered a piece of great typing. Allen Ginsberg, who became a core part of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. The writer Ken Kesey was another psychedelic, and his parties, Acid Tests, were the subject of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe, considered one of the central purveyors of New Journalism, is also famous for writing about a party thrown in Leonard Bernstein’s house in honour of the Black Panthers, Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s. Fellow New Journalism writer, Truman Capote was also an avid partier, with the party he threw on November 28th, 1966 at the Plaza Hotel in honour of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, the Black and White Ball of 1966, the best-known of his soirees.
However, this was the 60s, and now, in the 21st Century, the literary party has become serious business. Relaying something she had heard at a memorial service, Nan Graham, the senior vice president of Scribner, said, “In the olden days you could never buy dinner from Labor Day until Memorial Day, because there were so many publishing parties.” In this way, literary parties stopped being fun brouhaha crusades and became fundraising events ala The Paris Review or, at the very least, networking events. In Nairobi, Kwani?’s parties straddled the gray zone between networking events and a-bit-of-fun occasions, but then Kwani? went broke, moved away from the Kwani? gardens and the Kwani? party died. One would have hoped that other literary journals would have stepped into this space and created their own party cultures, but the two most visible, Jalada Africa and Enkare Review have been unable to, at least thus far, and so the result was that on this night, the last night of the first half of 2018, founder members of both Jalada Africa and Enkare Review were in Frank’s house in Umoja.
“Standing up, because I’m sitting down on the couch, and then I say, ‘Do you know the song with the man with the body?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah!’ She actually knows the guy. So, she played the song, and it was great, it was perfect. And I was like, ‘Yeah, she’s exactly as I imagined her all along.’” — Alexis Teyie.
Idza L. is on deejaying duty tonight. Frank has stepped out to get the meat and Clifton is asleep on Frank’s bed, the football game abandoned, but the party must go on. At first glance, deejaying at this party seems an easy task, since all it involves is either choosing the records to play on the record player as Alexis will do later, when she steps up to deejay, or playing songs off Youtube, as Idza L. is doing now. Idza L.’s modus operandi is that she will ask the people at the party for their favorite songs and then play them. Alexis requests some Franco and Idza L. plays it. Someone else requests choir music, Muungano National Choir’s Kaunga Yachee, and Idza L. plays it. Every time a request is made, Idza L. will open a new tab with the song. The trick is to shift from the previous song tab to the new tab in such a way that not only do the two songs not overlap, but there should also not be silence in the room at any point. This can’t be the first time Idza L. is attending one of Frank’s parties, at least not with how adroitly she is shifting from one song to the next. She has hang out at Frank’s before, several times, because someone told her, “Hey, we’ll be at Frank’s, please come?” And she went, because there are usually writers there, and there’s usually music, and something to drink, and, eventually, people will start dancing. BM usually kicks off the dancing, but, tonight, even though she is also the deejay, Idza L. goes for it first. Alexis requests some Tracy Chapman, Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution, and she starts swaying and singing along to the music. Don’t you know, they’re talkin’ ‘bout a revolution, it sounds like a whisper. Idza L. gets up from the computer and joins Alexis on the dancefloor. This is the first time the two of them are hanging out, and despite the fact that Idza’s personal blog is one of only two Alexis has bookmarked (the other being Michelle Angwenyi’s, one of Kenya’s most exciting new poets, and who would surely have been at the party but for being in England), and that, sometime in 2016, Idza L. heard Alexis read her poetry, the two of them are strangers to each other. Still, they dance together in the manner of two sisters who grew up in the same house and are re-enacting their Saturday night getups. Wasting time in the unemployment lines, Sitting around waiting for a promotion, Tracy Chapman sings, and the two of them dance, oblivious to everyone else around them. Greenman and Neo Musangi are deep in conversation somewhere, as are Anita Kavochy and Jepkorir Rose. Isaac Otidi Amuke, a 2016 CNN Multichoice African Journalist finalist, who came in at some point, is talking about cricket with another writer, and Clifton Gachagua is asleep on Frank’s bed. Don’t you know, you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Alexis and Idza L. fling their hands in the air and run, run run, run, run, run. Then they hold hands, and, still running on the same spot, peer into each other’s eyes and go, Oh I said you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Alexis could barely climb the stairs up to Frank’s and Idza has to be supported to get up, but none of that is important in this moment of running, in this moment of Tracy Chapmaning, in this moment of talkin’ ‘bout a revolution. This moment, moments like these, are why Idza L., whose story in the Bonus edition of Jalada Africa’s Language Issue went viral, goes to Frank’s. “The lit scene. What’s happening, yeah? Sometimes you want to be in the company of people who are writers. Or just get lifted. I know I do.” On this night of the last day of the first half of 2018, Idza L. is lifted and she knows it.
When Frank comes back with the food, all conversation and dancing and Chapmaning stops. There is meat and there is ugali and there is a vegetable salad and there is avocado, food that he has gone off to buy for his party guests. There is always food at Frank’s, food and alcohol. Idza L. says, “Frank opens his doors to us, yeah? Yaani, the guy is so generous. So, so, generous.”
By eleven, Idza L. will have left the party. One would think that Alexis would have gotten forlorn and lost without her Chapmaning party, but she has grown into her role as the music connoisseur of the shendang. Alexis has discovered Frank’s cache of records, and she is in her zone, so deep, in fact, that every couple of minutes, Isaac Otidi Amuke, shouts from where he is seated on the floor, “Writer! Poet! Editor! DJ!” Isaac is at the party with a date, and she is complaining to an Enkare Review editor about Kenyan-based South African writer, Zukiswa Wanner. “Me after I saw what she did, I decided I can’t buy her books!” On the other end of the room, Greenman Mbilo is holding court, Neo Musangi and Jepkorir Rose and Anita Kavochy and everyone one else in the room who is not asleep (Clifton, asleep at eleven o’clock during a party) is listening to him. Greenman is explaining his life philosophy.
“You see, I am a fig tree. That is traditional philosophy. Everyone is a tree and I am a fig tree.”
“How are you a fig tree?” Neo asks.
Greenman leans back on the couch, folds his arms and smiles a half-smile. “You, what do you understand by fig tree?”
Neo thinks for a bit. “I don’t know, you tell me.”
“I am a fig tree. That’s what a fig tree is.”
“Ai, Greenman, wacha vako. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not true.”
“But I’ve just told you. Just because it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
And in this way the conversation between Greenman and Neo continues, Greenman not saying anything, and Neo not offering him any help, until Isaac points out that Greenman is not saying anything, that he is merely using Neo’s words to prop up his argument. “Huyu jamaa anatubeba ufala.” But Greenman is not carrying anyone ufala. This is the way all conversations with Greenman go, a dance in which the master swordsman never thrusts, using his opponent’s weaponry to build his attack instead. Neo is used to Greenman’s ways, and they dance away from the traps Greenman creates with his words. Later, they will have a conversation with Greenman about where he has been the past few months.
“Eh, Greenman, umelost. Where have you been?”
“I’ve been in my mother’s womb.”
An inexperienced adversary would have been lost, but Neo is wise to Greenman’s wiles. “What were you doing in your mother’s womb?”
The half-smile. “I was discovering what kind of tree I am.”
“And did you discover?”
“Have you not been listening to anything I’ve been saying tonight? I am a fig tree.”
Neo will turn to Anita and ask, “Huyu Greenman, is he from Kitui?”
Greenman will answer, “Yes.”
Neo: “I knew it! Us Kitui people we know each other.”
If one were to attempt to track the present of Kenyan writing, or, to be more particular, Nairobi writing, then Frank’s parties would be a good place to start. On this particular night, the last night of the first half of the year 2018, the three younger writer generations were all represented: Kwani?, Jalada Africa and Enkare Review. For the longest time, the established Kenyan canon was a clique of writers who had been active in the 70s and 80s: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot, Francis imbuga, Meja Mwangi, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, etc. In 2003, however, a group of writers decided that they were tired of having to bow down to the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing. This is the Kwani? generation, figures who are now in their late forties and fifties. Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Rasna Warah, Ann McReath (The idea for Kwani? was conceived in her house during a party she threw for Binyavanga in honour of his Caine Prize win), Parselelo Kantai, Ali Zaidi (in whose garden parties Kwani? evolved), and all the other writers who were part of this group. Billy Kahora, the current Managing Editor of Kwani? is also part of the Kwani? generation, though he joined Kwani? some time after its formation. And thus did Kwani? become one of the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing.
Ten years later, on the sidelines of a writing workshop organized by Kwani?, Granta and the British Council, the attendees of this workshop decided that they were tired of having to bow down to the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing, a group Kwani? was now part of. This is the Jalada Africa generation, figures who are now in their early thirties. Mehul Gohil, Okwiri Oduor, Moses Kilolo, Anne Moraa (who was managing editor of the first issue), Orem Ochiel, Clifton Gachagua, Ndinda Kioko, and all the other writers who were part of this group. The Jalada generation was different from Kwani? in that it didn’t advertise itself as Kenyan, but as Pan-African. Thus, non-Kenyan writers such as NoVuyo Rosa Tshuma and Nyana Kakoma were founder members of Jalada Africa. Furthermore, if we were to use age as the defining characteristic of the Jalada generation rather than presence at the workshop, then writers such as Isaac Otidi Amuke, Wanjeri Gakuru (who is the current Managing Editor of Jalada), Gloria Mwaniga and Makena Onjerika would be considered part of the Jalada generation, while Idza Luhumyo, despite being a founder member of Jalada Africa, would not.
Two and a half years later, another group of young writers, impatient with ambition, decided that they were tired of having to bow down to the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing, a group Jalada Africa was now part of. This is the Enkare Review generation, figures in their twenties. This group includes people who are part of the Enkare Review collective, figures such a Alexis Teyie, Bethuel Muthee, Sanya Noel and Dalle Abraham, people who were part of Enkare Review, folks like myself and Wairimũ Mũrĩithi and Troy Onyango, and writers who had been published in Enkare Review such as Michelle Angwenyi and Khadija Ali. However, since, as above, the key denominator is not an affiliation with Enkare Review, but the age of the writers, writers such as Ivy Nyayieka and Idza Luhumyo would be considered part of this group.
However, before seeking to place these writers into these generational groupings, one must ask what the point of such an enterprise would be. Or, who gives a fuck? Certainly not Frank, on this night he had invited all these groups of people to his house. Is this categorization important, or is it merely the folly of the bored observer of Kenyan writing who wishes to show off their knowledge base? Frank’s parties do not have this function, even though as he is a person who holds a wish to start a publishing firm of his own, his parties may not be as altruistic as they seem.
At this point, Carey Baraka suffered a series of episodes of nervousness in his house on Thika Road. It became obvious both by the bizarre quality of his first-draft work and his extremely disorganized lifestyle that the only way this tale could be completed was by means of compulsory verbal composition. Despite warnings from Carey B’s personal physician, we determined that for aesthetic, historical and contractual reasons, The Work would have to be finished at all costs.
What follows, then, is a transcription of the conversations we had as Carey B paced about his house, describing the final hours of the party at Frank’s house.
Ed.: Well, Carey B, if you could explain this last part…we just left you attempting a generational explanation of the trends of Kenyan writing, and on a very dark and ominous note which I don’t understand…you proceeded to rubbish the arguments you were making…
Ed.: Can you walk us through that? Why all the self-doubt?
CB: It’s not self-doubt. The thing you don’t understand about these organizations… movements… let’s call them movements is that they can exist in two spheres. On the one hand, these writers can be split evenly as either Kwani? or Jalada or Enkare, but at the same time the writers straddle more than one existence. Let’s talk about Clifton Gachagua, for instance. Clifton was asleep for a huge chunk of the party, and unless I’m mistaken he only woke up around midnight to eat and then he popped back to sleep. Mwanaume ni usingizi. But, yeah, Clifton, who was a founder member of Jalada Africa, but also worked at Kwani? for years. A lot of those Jalada folks were published in Kwani?, and a couple of Enkare folks were published on Jalada, and a lot of people across all three have been published on Enkare.
Ed.: So the splitting kind of makes sense, is what I’m getting…
CB: Only if you assume there is a point to it, that doing so carries a nascent epistemological ideology behind it. If there isn’t, you’re just saying that this writer was born in this year, and this one is that year, and this one is fifty years old, and that one is twenty-two years old. The point should be, I think, that these movements have been very important to the writing scene in Nairobi in the 21st Century.
Ed.: So, in a sense these movements are the building blocks of Nairobi writing in the 21st Century?
CB: That’s one way of looking at it. But it doesn’t mean that without these cliques of writers, there would have been no writing in Kenya? They helped a lot, definitely, but then so did Kikwetu and KUT and Wamathai and Storymoja’s blog and all those other writing spaces that died out. I’ve been reading this anthology put up by a group of queer Kenyan writers on Twitter, and these are writers you will never hear spoken about anywhere. Maybe there are people smarter than I am who will want to study why Kwani? and Jalada and Enkare have stood out above the rest. Me I just want to go to places like Frank’s and Maasai Mbili and chill and eat and sleep.
Ed.: Clifton did a lot of this, the sleeping.
CB: Yes! Listen, the morning after the party at Frank’s, a bunch of us went to Neo Musangi’s and we stayed there two days. And in these two days Clifton was awake maybe six hours in total. He sleeps like a madman. He is the Madman in Umoja. And if he is in Kilifi, he is the Madman at Kilifi. (laughs). When we were at Frank’s, the party died around three, four a.m., and everyone plopped down to sleep wherever they were. Clifton, who had just woken up from a very long sleep, slept again, right on the floor! I don’t know where he gets the time to write his poetry, with all the sleeping he does. If there was an Olympic event for sleeping, then Clifton would walk away with the gold year after year after year. So, he slept his long sleep, woke up for supper, slept up, woke up again, and when the rest of us were getting down to sleep like normal human beings, he slept again. But then that’s always part of Frank’s parties: all the sleeping people. Frank, Neo and BM and Anita and Rose and Alexis and Clifton and all these other writers and poets and artistes were asleep on the couches and couch pillows and on the floor and on mattresses. Michael Onsando, another Nairobi poet, came in around 5 am, or at least a ghost of his came, because I am unable to ascertain whether he was there or whether it was a dream i was having, seeing as people don’t come to parties at fucking five in the morning. Anyway, I wonder how this scene must have seemed to ghost-Michael, all these people just asleep in the room. Is this the present of Kenyan writing?
Ed: That must have been a sight! But let me take you back a bit. What was this exhibition, Wanakuboeka?
CB: Oh, yeah. So, awhile back the British Institute of East Africa started seeking artists to curate shows for them. Enter this curatorial collective, Naijographia. I am not sure how curatorial collectives work, so don’t ask me! Anyway, Naijographia who had done a show in Nairobi last year about the geographies of Nairobi, hence the name, were interested in music, and conversations around music. So they reached out to a few individual artistes, Michelle Angwenyi, Kamwangi Njue, Wairimu Muriithi, Neo Musnagi, and then a few collectives, Enkare Review and Maasai Mbili, and asked them to produce and collaborate work about music. Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic was the result of this.
Ed: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but I’m still not sure what this Maasai Mbili is.
CB: So, a couple of years ago, these two dudes used to do sign-writing in Kibera. They used to walk around swaddled in Maasai shukas, so people started calling them Maasai Mbili. Two Maasai. With time, they ventured into other forms of art, got a permanent space in which to perform and exhibit their art, and invited other artistes in Kibera to join their space. This collective of artistes is called Maasai Mbili, and their studio is also called Maasai Mbili. And it’s not just art, because every Saturday they have poetry readings, and I went for one of these readings in 2017, and that’s when I met Frank, in fact. Greenman too.
Ed: Who is this Greenman fellow?
Greenman & the Art of Conversation
Greenman: So once, I was walking past a police station and I saw my friend, Collins, inside masturbating. I continued walking and…
Neo: Wait…what? Ati he was doing what?
Greenman: Masturbating. Collins is always doing things like that, or having things like that happening to him. Like, this one time, he was walking in town when he stumbled upon some unexpected good news.
Neo: And what are unexpected good news?
Greenman: You know, when you are walking in town, and there’s a woman walking in front of you, and she’s wearing a short dress, and she falls down. That’s unexpected good news.
Neo: Ha. Okay. And where is this Collins nowadays?
Greenman: I swallowed him.
Neo: Greenman, are you okay? I know you are from Kitui and I understand that, but are you okay? (turning to Rose) This Greenman, where does he get his stories from?
Rose: You would think he makes them up, but, once, he told us about a friend of his and we didn’t think this friend was real, but now Greenman is living in his house in Imara Daima.
By 2 am, the party was on its last legs. Idza L. had left, Isaac Otidi Amuke and his date were almost leaving, and more than half the party goers were in various stages of sleep. Bethuel Muthee, however, was not. BM had been a rapper when younger, and he drew on that experience for this performance at Frank’s house early on the first morning of the second half of 2018. He was freestyling, using the books on Frank’s bookshelf as his inspiration. “Hiyo ni Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, na mimi nawaonyesha vumbi, “ he went, moving from bookshelf to bookshelf, Isaac and Frank chanting him along. And when he rapped, “Hiyo ni Brief History of the Southern Luo by Bethuel Ogot, na mimi ni Bethuel Muthee,” one got the feeling that this was the only way that party at Frank’s could have ended.
In the weeks and months and half year after this particular party I have been thinking about the literary party and its important to Kenyan writing. When Kwani? was being formed I was in nursery school, but I imagine that there would never have been a Kwani? without the parties and hangout sessions that were held in Ali Zaidi and Irene Wanjiru’s garden. In Kwani 01, Wanjiru Kinyanjui is credited with the original idea of Kwani?, but I like to believe that without the parties there would never been a group of writers and artists hanging out and thinking together, and there would never have been a Kwani?. Nevertheless, this is not what happens at Frank’s, wasn’t what was happening on the last night of the first half of 2018, and isn’t what happens at the other things that happen at Frank’s.
That being said, despite what the initial aspirations of the people who founded Kwani? were, Kwani? slowly grew into a gatekeeping elite. And Jalada Africa, formed to do away with this gatekeeping elite (the irony of who organized the workshop at which the group of people who formed Jalada Africa notwithstanding), in time also became a gatekeeping elite. And later, Enkare Review became a gatekeeping elite. A gatekeeping elite begat a gatekeeping elite begat a gatekeeping elite. And, while, the people who coalesce around chez Frank do so under the auspices of friendship, as do the people who coalesce around Zukiswa Wanner’s house in the other side of Nairobi, these groups are functionally elites or dangerously close to being one.
Jo Freeman writes, “Elites are not conspiracies. Very seldom does a group of people get together and deliberately try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any group and makes them so difficult to raise.”
In thinking about Frank’s parties, and Zukiswa’s lunches, all we have to do is substitute ‘political’ with ‘literary’ and we will be thinking about how these groups of people could easily become gatekeeping elites. Michelle Angwenyi says, “…which is how I guess the incestuousness happens. You find people with whom you share tastes and decide to make a thing of it.” Frank himself feels that the group of people at his house is an exclusionary group, because you could go to Frank’s and meet an editor of whichever platform and get published on whichever platform. While a lot of the people who have been published at Kenyan spaces, particularly Kwani? and Enkare Review, were not published merely because they were friendly with the editors of these spaces, the fact was, once some of them had written something that these editors liked, they could get them published easily. This is something that one could get by going to Frank’s parties, and Zukiswa’s lunches. You would get a text inviting you to come, or have someone who was going carry you along, but you would still have to be able to access these spaces.
Wambui Mwangi’s parties were, for a long time, the hub of Storymoja. They brought people together. People thought together, ate together, drunk together. And the other parties. The other communities. What is the value of a literary community? What is the value of a community granted, without the qualifier, literary? Alexis and Idza met for the first time that night at Frank’s and they danced and sang along to Tracy Chapman and it was good and beautiful. And everyone was lifted. And people knew each other. But what was the point of their being there together in that space? Just because they were both present, was it important? Does it have to have a point?
Nairobi literary communities. Kwani? Storymoja. Jalada Africa. Enkare Review. The Frank Group. The Zukiswa Group. Etc etc. When I was part of Enkare Review, it rankled me to hear it described as a Nairobi literary space, especially since very few of the people in it actually lived in Nairobi. But that is the reality of Kenya’s literary scene. That Nairobi is very often conflated to mean Kenya. What did it mean that Idza, who is from Mombasa, and Alexis, who lives in Kisumu, were dancing together at that party at Frank’s? Why not in Kisumu? Why not in Mombasa? Why always Nairobi?
But these my questions, maybe they are not even important. What is important is that the next time Frank’s texts, asks me if I am free on Sato, I will be free on Sato, and I will go to Frank’s and meet people and listen to people read and listen to music and eat and crash on his couch and not write about it.