KIE censors score a first by picking gay author’s novel
Posted Friday, January 4 2013 at 22:00
- Gay references in the novel are subtle but keen readers won’t miss them. However, going by the guidebooks in bookshops, teachers will likely suppress the sexual undertones in the novel and the gay part of the author’s life and writing — assuming they know about it
Although it may be as a result of an oversight at the conservative Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), Kenyan students have, for the first time, had the opportunity to read in class a book by an author who is openly gay.
To be examined as a set book this year, The Whale Rider (1987) is written by the New Zealand gay author Witi Ihimaera. It is a highly accomplished novel about the Maori culture in the wake of European colonialism.
Written by a father of two daughters before he separated from his family, The Whale Rider is overtly feminist, criticising the retrogressive aspects of Maori culture that allow discrimination against women.
Gay references in the novel are subtle but keen readers won’t miss them. But going by the guidebooks on The Whale Rider in Kenyan bookshops, teachers will likely ignore or suppress the gay undertones in the novel and the gay part of the author’s life and writing career — assuming they know about it.
A founder member of the Maori gay organisation Te Waka Awhina Tane, the 1944-born Witi Ihimaera married a librarian, Jane Cleghorn, in 1970. They had two daughters. But the couple broke up when he wrote the first Maori gay novel, Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1996).
Like Ihimaera, the main character in Nights in the Gardens of Spain, David Munro, is a university professor, married with two daughters, and a founder member of the Maori equivalent of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya.
With searing honesty, the novel offers a graphic and frank depiction of the complex “underground” gay scene in Auckland, New Zealand, and the author’s pains of coming to terms with his own homosexuality.
We don’t encounter gay bathhouses or accounts of Aids or suicide in The Whale Rider, but keen readers won’t miss the subtle suggestions of the legitimacy of gay generosity.
To decode homosexuality in The Whale Rider, you may need some basic knowledge of queer theory, which literature teacher-training programmes in Kenya don’t offer because the theory is wrongly assumed to be the preserve of gay and lesbian critics.
But sometimes you don’t even need Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet to get the hints of gay invitations in the novel.
The pet name “Paka” that it gives one of the principal characters is one of the hints. It is the name the masculine wife of the chief of Whangara calls her husband in jest.
According to a glossary in the New Zealand edition of The Whale Rider, “Paka” stands for the offensive word “bugger”, usually impolitely used to describe a silly or annoying person. The word also refers to the act of having anal sex or sex with animals.
According to the queer theorist Lee Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death of Drive (2004), “queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one.”
In The Whale Rider, Witi Ihimaera keeps disturbing heterosexuality by portraying ostensibly heterosexual characters whose sexual identity is indeterminate because they display characteristics of the opposite gender.
In a scene full of irony because the eight-year-old heroine doesn’t fully understand the broader implications of what she is rambling on and on about, Kahu insists that she’s not the kind of girl who “likes boys”.
Homosexuality is used humorously in one incident when Koro Apirana mistakes the male narrator for his wife as they share a bed, both having been turned away by their female partners.
According to the Maori myths of origin, the first Maori man came to New Zealand riding a male whale. The most beautifully narrated passages in the novel involve the sentimental male whale’s longing for its male rider.
The language is lyrical and homoerotic, as the old whale remembers his youth with nostalgia, the Maori male rider on his back. The whale so misses the rider, he is suicidal.