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Publisher’s Deposition: The Famished Dick and the Wicked of the Earth

I quite understand that it is unusual for a publisher to write an introductory preface to a novel. But the circumstances of this novel are so unusual that I am compelled to author this note to the reader. There are two things that I would like to state at the beginning. First, this is not a novel as such though to make it believable to the reader we are selling it as such. It is a meeting between a journal kept at a time of great hardship and hope by Kamau Wa Mwangi and a fictionalized biography of him written by his best friend, Odhiambo.[1] Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi kept a journal record of his last year of exile in the United States and the first month of his return. The journal captures his thoughts and actions at a time of great transition for him and our country as well. You see, after ten years of exile he could return. Democratic elections had taken place the December before his return. His journal by itself is a document that will prove invaluable to future students of history and poets who sing the human spirit!

It is not clear to me why Odhiambo decided to write his fiction based on his friend’s life—if we can in fact call it fiction. My suspicion is that it is not fiction much as Kamau’s journal is not fiction. Perhaps a fictionalized memoir might just do the trick of naming this work(s). But whether you call it fiction or a biography, the fact that he was writing it at the same time Kamau was writing in his journal is eerie. And whatever you as the reader decide to call it, one thing is clear; there is an intentional distance between the writer’s (Odhiambo) and the narrator’s (also Odhiambo) account of Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi. In short, in telling the story, Odhiambo distances himself from himself. My suspicion is that it was the only way he could deal with the terrible things that he knew were going to happen once Kamau returned. The fact that Odhiambo foretells what is going to happen to his friend almost to the detail is chilling to say the least.

On the day of the riots from which neither Kamau nor Odhiambo would emerge alive, the police, who even after the dictator’s fall continued to receive military training, had been told to shoot in the air or to use tear gas and water hoses—but under no circumstances were there to be fatalities in dispersing the mob. Odhiambo would have known of this order since the new government was composed of newly elected former political activists—his fellow activists. What he wouldn’t have known is that just a few minutes before the shooting began, the order was changed to shoot-to-kill. The new government had decided to toughen up. Perhaps someone tried reaching him by his cell phone but the ringing couldn’t be heard over the din of the noise. The reader will see that Odhiambo maps Kamau’s death to the detail except that, as it happened, something goes terribly wrong for Odhiambo. But outside the discrepancy of how they meet their end in real life and in this account, there are many instances where Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi’s journal validates Odhiambo’s account in the form of incidences, letters, phone calls, poems, and money sent via Western Union.

Was Odhiambo writing fiction based on his friend’s life? I will let you be the judge since at the end of the day I can only guess. What might be of more curiosity and use to you is the story of how I ended up with the biography and Kamau’s journal. Some of the letters and paintings contained herein appear to be from a third party. They were all sent to me anonymously at different points, probably by someone who knew all the actors in this tragedy: Someone who had access to all of them at an intimate level. Considering the possibility of betrayal, it might have been a mutual girlfriend or a political comrade, or both.

For the novel and journal, sometimes I speculate that it was someone cleaning up after the riot and the massacre that followed. In this speculation I feel closer to the truth. On first glance, this seems improbable but I have heard cleaning up after a riot is a lucrative business. There are always people who bring their valuables, jewelry, wedding rings, purses, wallets, and expensive jackets to political rallies. For those who are seasoned, the only thing they bring is an identification card and a few hundred shillings to bribe their way out of trouble. But there are many who attend rallies and riots as they do weddings and picnics, and put on their Sunday best. Anticipating beers or dates afterwards, they bring cash and valuables. For those who return to the bloody but deserted scene afterwards, there is money to be made. Perhaps the vultures found the diary and biography there. Some of the pages were soaked with blood. But this I cannot say for sure because one question disturbs me greatly: Why would they both be carrying their respective manuscripts to what was supposed to be a political rally?

Let me try and make sense here. I am not who I thus far seem to be. You see this book from afar, its glossy cover beckoning you, or perhaps you have heard about it from a friend and you think it is published by a house with a good reputation like Heinemann, or perhaps by a radical house like Kimaathi Publishing. These are two publishing houses where this book would have found a good home. You might think that if you wrote a good novel or biography, you would send it to the publisher of The Broken Lives of Joseph Kamau. Depending on who you are, there is a good chance our relationship begins and ends with this book. Allow me to tell you why.

Does the name Sunny Side Up Publishing mean anything to you? How about the following titles from the “AFRICAN SERIAL LOVER CLASSICS?”

The Famished Dick,
Maps: Tracing Your Lover’s Body
Redemption Thong
Stirring Love in an African Pot
Things Fall Inside
No Longer with Ease: Viagra and Old Age in Africa
Petals of Honey
The Honey Between
The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born: Let’s Get It On
Nervous Conditions: Fifty Ways to Get It On for the First Time
The Wicked of the Earth
Black Skin and White Masks: Art of Seduction and Role Play
Decolonizing the Vagina
The Palm Wine Drinkard Does it Again and Again and Again
The Telephone Conversation: Call Me Darling
One Hundred Years of Solitude: Don’t Let It Happen to You
Going Up and Down 42 Avenues: The Art of Pleasing Your Woman
The Invention of Fucking: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of This Knowledge
A Dance in the Forest [2]
Ways of Dying and Coming Back Again and Again
So Long a Dick
Hurling Nuts at Concubines: Erotic Poetry
Nairobi Heat: Hit and Run

EUROPEAN CANON/SHAKESPEARE’S SWORD SERIES

Out of Africa: Safe Sex for the Curious Explorer
Jane and Dick…and Tom and Harry
Throbbing Hearts of Darkness
Robbin’ Son Pussy
With Eve in Paradise Lost
King Lear and I for Women
A Midsummer Wet Dream
The Merchant of Penis
As You Lick It
A Comedy of Erotica
The Temptress
Houseboy and Lonely Housewife
Sons and Lovers
Man Eaters of Tsavo
Robbing Under the Hood

Yes, I have been busy. I have been accused of committing heresy, all for having an imagination.

I am not ashamed of what I do. Name any of the Heinemann classics, or the top one hundred African books. Chances are, I will have outsold it ten to one. What I produce is widely read. It is entertaining and provides a much needed service. And it is as creative as you can get. Try writing The Palm Wine Drinkard Does it Again and Again and Again using Amos Tutola’s broken English, and you will see what I mean. Consider Soyinka’s choppy and ironic, even heavy-handed style employed in The Telephone Conversation: Call Me Darling. I cannot even begin to tell thee the craft it takes to turn Shakespeare into an artisan of earthly, fleshy pleasures. Who is the real writer? One who writes for a handful of stale intellects, or one who writes for thousands of lonely workers in their hostels, the lonely housewife, the lumpenproletariat, the Wretched of the Earth?

If marijuana is the gateway drug into heavier drugs, my literature is the gateway to what African literary critics call High Literature. But suffice it to say, I disdain the distinction between low and high literatures. I once received a letter from someone who first read Nervous Conditions: Fifty Ways to Get It On for the First Time, and then came across Tsitsi’s Nervous Conditions. Thinking this was the really heavy stuff, she bought it in the usual fashion (hurriedly and without looking at the back cover and then quickly folding it into a newspaper), read it, and loved it. This particular character has read all my titles and their original inspirations.

The government does not know about this particular book. It is a time bomb, and it will pass through the same underground channels that my other titles have passed through word of mouth, dog-eared copies passing from friend to friend, hidden in hollowed-out church bibles and covered in government newspapers, in morgues and illicit changaa sheebens. This is an act of my will, my legacy; but first it was because I was moved by what I read. The government is already talking about textbooks, statues, comic books, poems, songs, plays, and folklores to mythologize the two friends. From “Heroes of the Second Liberation” to the more clichéd “A Friend in Need is a Friend in Deed,” to my personal favorite “From Friends to Brothers to Comrades”—all have been suggested as possible slogans. But let them be built above ground as I destroy under the ground.

I have often wondered if this is my last redemptive act. I am about to turn sixty. I have a wife and three children. Perhaps it is, but then again maybe not—what matters besides the act itself? My children are all abroad (in Britain and the U.S.) studying to become doctors of this and that. My daughter, a student of the other kind of high literature, wrote me to say that an industrious white PhD student was writing his dissertation on my work. It is called: Fellatio of the Mind and Sunny Side Up Publishing: Blurring the Line Between High and Low Cultures. She was amused, as were my other children when she told them about it.

My wife and I, we are happy enough. Strange as it may sound, while we still find the literature I produce useful in bed, I am not really a man of action, which is to say I do not stray outside my home (though in the preface to The Famished Dick I imply I am well sought after by the ladies, and I always oblige). I have a happy wife and three well-adjusted children who will do solid but not great things with their lives. And they will bring up their children to do the same. They will produce citizens. They will become doctors, lawyers, or professors of English. They will treat and teach the poor for free and donate money to worthy causes. They will not live extravagantly, though they will demand the best. This is what I mean by good, solid citizens. It is the way I have tried to live. In spite of what people might expect, I have had no excesses except in my imagination.

But after reading Kamau Wa Mwangi’s journal, and his friend’s biography of him, I thought that under different circumstances, they would not only have done solid things, but great things as well. We need to find ways even at the most difficult and violent times of protecting our young. These two did not demand the best out of life, they demanded the best out of themselves; or rather, they demanded the best out of life by demanding the best out of themselves. Tragic figures! Somehow I feel that I, too, betrayed Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi and Odhiambo. I should have demanded the best out of myself. I should have answered my conscience. You see, on that very same day of riots, some people trying to escape knocked on my office door. They would not have known I was in. They were pounding on all the doors on the street. What does that matter though? I was in my office and they might as well have been guests that I turned away. Perhaps Odhiambo or Kamau were among them, but then again, if my theory is right about how they died, it could not have been them.

But at any rate, I could have opened up and saved the lives of the two, three, or ten young people whose only crime was to demand that the new government live up to its promises. But I reasoned that I do enough, that I do my duty. I give contributions to churches and self-help groups, that in fact if I looked closely enough, I probably donated money to this same rally. Somebody else can pick up the baton from where I left it, I reasoned. Was I right? Yes and no. It is true that I have done more for my society than most people, yet by what I failed to do I contributed to the murder of a number of young people. No court in this world will convict me, not with my money and track record of good will…in fact, if I wanted to I could claim victimhood with no problem—a radio and TV interview would take care of it—yet still I feel responsible. So yes, I acknowledge to myself—this might be a redemptive act.

But there is more. Instead of creating good citizens out of my children, I wish I had let them go on to become what they would have become. My daughter wrote to me:

“Father, you ask me if I’ve ever heard of a Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi in the United States? Yes, I have heard of him, much to my shame. Not that I feel responsible, or representative of all Africans. I am aware of my own self as an individual who also deeply loves Africa. Oh father, I felt so much shame because I heard what an accomplished scholar he was, how he dropped out of his program and ran with a group of African exiles that were slowly killing themselves doing hard jobs during the day and drinking hard at night. It is the plight of exiles it seems. I, for one, I am grateful I have always done my duty without expecting too much from others and from this life. Having no excesses, political or otherwise, my kind of quiet pragmatism makes it to the finishing line. Don’t you think? But I would like to write about him someday and who better to do it than me? Why do you ask?”

It is the last three or four lines that got me thinking. I did not write back to tell her that Kamau was dead. How could I without shedding some of my feelings of shame, a different kind of shame from hers, onto her? But it is true that she has always done her duty and perhaps she will write a better biography about Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi than his friend. And perhaps it will be bought by a big house and maybe even knock off one of the titles in the top 100. Yet, I felt shame that she could be so cavalier and even self righteous. I should have been proud. As a father that is exactly what I taught her.

I do not ask to be judged or forgiven; I do not even hope to forgive myself. I know too much about the hunger for life that I am possessed with not to move on. My sleepless nights will not keep me awake during the day. In a week or so—maybe more, maybe less—I will be back. I will not be going through half of what Joseph Kamau Wa Mwangi went through. I am not him. I remain luckier. I do not share his deep and fragile conscience.

Now for the million-dollar question, which by now you are asking yourself: Aren’t I doing harm to this biography and journal by publishing it alongside The Honey Between or The Famished Dick? Probably. Chances are those from the high culture will not come into bookstores where instead of glass windows that stare into a manicured street, there are steel bars, urine stained walls, and crumbling concrete. But that is fine. The wretched of the earth will be reading it alongside The Wicked of the Earth. So—and excuse the half revamped cliché—harm is in the eyes of the beholder. And when the higher culture comes a-slumming, it will find a revolution brewing.

This is what I can promise, and I hope you believe me; each penny will go towards educating the children of those who fell in this riot. Again I will be doing just enough, just what duty calls for, and when these hoards of orphans come asking why I didn’t open that door when their fathers and mothers knocked, I will tell them, My duty has been fulfilled. My work has been done. I will ask them to show me others of my stature and wealth who have done the same.

Now brace yourself for some housekeeping issues. At the end of the book, there are some letters exchanged between Kamau, Odhiambo, Wambui, and Melissa. I do believe they will prove useful, but only to an extent. Just as many questions remain unanswered. The letters came to me quite mysteriously—by post with no return address. How the sender found out I had the manuscripts I do not know. Is there any use in speculating how I received the letters or the book, or why I published it? It is now in your hands. That is all that should matter to you.

Before I leave you with the words of these friends, there is the question of whether I have interfered with the works at all. I have to say no, save for some translations of the poems and letters from Gikuyu to English that I had to do myself. No other alterations have been made except for minor editing (and I didn’t do it myself; I engaged an editor from one of the more reputable houses who, as you can expect, has refused to be identified by name). I chose to start with a chapter from Odhiambo’s biography or novel first, followed by select entries from Kamau’s journal. The journal entries that divide each chapter follow no other logic than to provide symmetry to the book; therefore, they are distributed almost evenly in terms of page numbers. Otherwise, they follow a chronological order from January 1st to when Kamau ends his exile and returns to Kenya. I do not have all the entries. They could be lost, or torn up or simply unwritten. There is much to be said, but I will leave you here with the understanding that Sunny Side Up Publishing, when called upon by History, rose to the occasion!

The Editor—Amandla Wa Kawethu


1. Odhiambo does not give us his first or last name. After some investigation, I found out what it was but decided not to release it in order to respect his privacy.

2. This particular title I used as is—my readers would know what forest means.

 

 

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and the author of the novels Mrs. Shaw (2015), Black Star Nairobi (2013), and Nairobi Heat (2011) and two books of poetry, Hurling Words at Consciousness (2006) and Logotherapy (2016). He is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and co-director of the Global South Project-Cornell. The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Politics and Ownership is forthcoming (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

 

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