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.
But will teachers explore these suggestive elements alongside the author’s biography? This is very unlikely.
In fact, although I have taught Ihimaera’s books for a few years now in post-colonial and animal studies literature classes, when a Nation editor asked me to review The Whale Rider in February after it was chosen as a national set book, I strategically suppressed details about the author’s sexuality.
Maybe I was wrong, but I feared that if Kenyans knew about Ihimaera’s sexuality before the magnificent book was already fully settled in the classroom, it would be withdrawn from the curriculum, thanks to a homophobia-soaked brigade of hypocrites that calls the shots in the media, churches, schools, and mosques.
I also suppressed the fact that alongside Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Margaret Ogola, Witi Ihimaera says he enjoys the work of the locally unknown but internationally acclaimed Kenyan gay writer Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla, the author of Ode to Lata (2002).
Dhalla’s novel, which has been made into a film, is about the experiences of Ali, a gay man who leaves Kenya for Los Angeles and is haunted by his past as he narrates about his present relationships with men.
It is while writing a guidebook to The Whale Rider that I decided I shouldn’t be quiet about the author’s sexual orientation and the issues that the novel subtly presents.
If I have any fear in life these days, it is that my child, when she grows up, might lump me together with the gang of Kenyan homophobes who will demonise a novel just because of the author’s sexual preferences.
There is a likelihood my publishers will delete from the guidebook the sections discussing homosexuality, but that will be between them and their God, if they believe in Him at all.
Ironically, the KIE has been forcing publishers and authors to expunge anything to do with sexual desire from the literary works they prescribe for schools.
The KIE censorship is so draconian that the situation is worse than it was during the worst of Moi days, when students would read even revolutionary books by Sembene Ousmane and Alex la Guma, in spite of the government’s anti-Marxist paranoia.
Works that referred to homosexuality were also read as set books in Moi’s Kenya, including Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, which suggests existence of men having sex with men in prisons, and John Ruganda’s The Burdens, which talks about “priests pressing their chests on young boys”.
Today, KIE would most likely have those “offensive” parts deleted. Unfortunately, royalties from set book sales are so attractive that eminent writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the late Francis Imbuga have agreed to play ball, allowing KIE to bowdlerise and mutilate their works for approval as set books.
For fear of offending the powerful government body, upcoming writers neither experiment with language nor explore the complexity of life in the 21st century. The result is a heap of new novels that read like advanced primary school compositions.
If the choice of a gay text was not deliberate on KIE’s part, it should teach us a few lessons.
One of this is that it is time KIE stopped policing books too much. Let the kids giggle and snigger at the clever way writers cloak “dirty” meanings for the readers to decode.
After all, secondary school students are not toddlers; they are young adults who will need skills to decode dirty messages in real life, where they will always encounter people with hidden sexual agenda to decode.
The outcome of KIE censorship is ridiculous and counter-productive. When one reads the Kenyan version of The Whale Rider against international editions, it appears that the Kenyan editors have been compelled to drop colloquial and slang words used in the original.
Words such as “cous” (for cousin), “guy” and “fella” are dropped in some parts of the work probably because KIE envisions the use of the set books as pedagogical tools in teaching formal English only.
But you can’t imprison language however much you try. Good texts are uncanny and subversive. They even rebel against their own authors, leave alone government mandarins whose reading skills are questionable.
This is why the struck out words mischievously sneak back in some parts of the KIE-sanctioned edition of The Whale Rider.
The Ministry of Education should also know that there is nothing wrong with the use of informal language. In fact, if you have a teenage child who doesn’t know Sheng or doesn’t “nkt” in the “xmx” text-messaging language Kenyan teenagers use these days, you have every reason to book him or her an appointment with a shrink.
The problem is not the use of informal language; it is the context in which the language is used that matters. Ihimaera uses colloquial language and a variety of other informal registers to create a bond between his young narrator and his young target readers.
Funnily, the more KIE tries to clean up The Whale Rider, the more vulgar the story becomes. The replacement of informal words with formal ones makes the text obscenely stiff, a structural phallic symbol that unknowingly privileges the patriarchal and hetero-normative ideals that the author is against in the novel.
The other lesson is that KIE should make the process in which they select set books more transparent than it is. At the moment, the method used to select books is shrouded in mystery, with allegations of corruption and caprice on the part of KIE.
In the new era of transparency and open vetting in Kenya, KIE should publish the list of submitted titles and the various shortlists to enable the public to weigh in on the materials best for use in schools.
It is good to remember that the duty of a teacher is to facilitate the students to be critical thinkers and to sharpen their ability to judge whether a text is good or not.
As long as a story is not pornographic and, therefore, out of contention as a set-book, KIE should not aspire to a perfect text by editing out the parts that it feels are inappropriate.
Indeed, these “bad” parts should be used to help the student point out instances of language use, character’s speech, or authorial thematic emphasis to be avoided in a healthy society.
We should also remember that these days you are not likely to come across a good text that does not offer itself to gay interpretations. The essays in Madhavi Menon’s Shakesqueer (2011) are just some of the many interpretations that show that almost all Shakespeare’s works have gay subtexts.
These include Romeoand Juliet, Julius Caesar, and The Merchant of Venice that have been used as Kiswahili and English set books in Kenyan schools in the recent past.
Further, as Pauline Kiernan demonstrates in Filthy Shakespeare (2008), the Elizabethan bard’s works are full of coarse jokes about everything including same-sex desire. Will we try to edit sex out of Shakespeare?
Remember also that one of the most important writers in Kenya, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye (fondly called MOM), has argued in the 1996 book Moral Issues in Kenya that in a modern Kenya, where sex and procreation are no longer tightly linked, homosexuality can no longer be termed “unnatural”. She even argues that homosexuality should be legalised.
This is a fairly radical position to come from a writer whose novels are based on conservative family values and to whom “abortion is murder”. Her works, such Coming to Birth, have been used as set books in schools.
Prof J. Roger Kurtz observes that Macgoye’s view on homosexuality may have been influenced by her friendship with the respected poet Jonathan Kariara (1935-1993), whose poems, such as A Leopard Lives in a Muu Tree, are popular in schools.
Although Kariara never directly treated the theme of homosexuality and did not say openly that he was gay, there are many hints in his poems and short stories about the insecurities and hypocrisy of heterosexual unions.
The Moses series author Barbara Kimenye also has a children’s book, Prettyboy, Beware, that broaches the theme of homosexuality. Used as reader in lower secondary school, the book talks about “men being attracted to each other and even living together.”
If authors get jettisoned from the syllabus because they treat gay themes sympathetically, even Ngugi wa Thiong’o will have to be expelled.
Although the satire is somewhat lost in the English translation, in Ngugi’s Kikuyu Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), he mocks characters who are hostile to “ucoga” (homosexuality) as part of what they crudely dismiss as “nguiko njogomu” (queer sex).
So if we suppress works such as Ihimaera’s novel in the future just because we consider ourselves too holy for a certain kind of authors and texts, let’s be ready to get rid of Ngugi, Macgoye, and even Shakespeare as well.