Peter Kimani, the award-winning Kenyan writer, sent the manuscript of his novel to publishers in New York and in Nairobi on the same day.
Within three weeks, the Americans had responded. Two years later, at a time when the novel is taking the world by storm, Kenyan publishers remain mute.
The imported copies of the US-published book first arrived in Kenya at a retail price of Sh1,000. Now, because it is scarce, the price has shot up to Sh3,000 in some of the popular bookshops in Nairobi. Yet, despite the market sentiments, no Kenyan publisher has claimed the local rights.
“It is a curious question I keep asking myself,” Kimani, currently teaching at Amherst College in the United States said. “My hope was that I would get a local edition (published).”
This week, the Dance of the Jakaranda author arrived in London to promote the book that has now been published in Britain. In nearly all the events in his week-long book tour in the United Kingdom, the constant questions about identity, race, power, politics and debilitating legacy of colonialism in Kenya kept popping up from the audiences.
Why, for example, would Kimani, a Kenyan born in Kiambu County and raised in Nairobi’s Eastlands, choose with a main character, Rajan, a third-generation mhindi, whose parents were also born in Kenya, but whose presumed ‘home’ is in India? Why was the novel set in Nakuru? Why pursue the colonial history and not the present history? What does he think about the situation in Kenya today, including the handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, what some commentators say was a reset button to the country’s wicked ethnic animosity? How did he end up with the title ‘Dance of the Jakaranda’ and why Jakaranda with a ‘k’? And, yes, why has the book not been published in Kenya yet?
These questions, Mr Kimani’s novel and his answers speak to the trauma of colonialism and the brutal imperial legacy of the knowledge systems that continue to thrive in Kenya, 55 years after independence.
“I am intrigued by history and how it complicates the present. The past and the present, for me, appear to be side by side,” Mr Kimani told the BBC’s Bola Mosuro in a live interview
His novel was already out before history repeated itself. Kimani chuckled at what he called “a historical coincidence” that the “deportation” of a Kenyan citizen (Miguna Miguna) came to pass when he’d simply imagined it in his book. It is not the only history that has repeated itself.
In the book, there is also a paternity dispute, and with Uhuru and Raila both involved in a dispute over who is the president of Kenya, this was one of those metaphorical accidents of literature. Ezekiel Mutua’s claim that the gay lions had copied the behaviour of white tourists is also alluded to in Kimani’s fictional account released long before Mutua, the chief executive of the Kenya Film Classification Board was quoted making the claim. The launch of the Standard-Gauge Railway built and financed by the Chinese, a rising imperial power taking over the world, loading Kenya with debts, is also another coincidence.
To the first question, about the implied “cultural appropriation” – how can he write the Indian story yet he was an African?—his answer was that he set out to write about an experience outside his own.
In his meeting at the London School of Economics and Political Science, a young man of Indian extraction who revealed that he was born and raised in Thika, was happy that he could see his struggles as a mhindi growing up in Kenya reflected in Kimani’s work
“Thank you! You saved me the time by writing my own life story,” he told Mr Kimani.
It is a question that was repeated in his interview at the BBC, his meeting at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), and nearly everywhere he toured.
“Your book is many things. It is a book about race. It is a love story, a morality tale. And mostly it is a historical novel,” Fiammetta Rocco, the Culture Editor at The Economist said as she sought to know Kimani’s inspiration to set his novel in two historical periods: the early days of the construction of the metre-gauge railway, the Lunatic Express, and the period just after 1963 when Kenya became independent.
“I was curious about this evolution in terms of identity and belonging and I thought that an Indian character as opposed to an African or a white one, would be a fitting metaphor of this complexity and ambiguity of racial and ethnic identity,” said Kimani.
His answer illuminated his thinking about the choice of character, because of the class system that had the whites at the top, Asians in the middle, Arabs somewhere in there, and Africans at the bottom, and how that played out when the country achieved independence and the African (elite) got to the top. It was fortuitous, that after he published the book in 2017, the Kenyan government recognised the Indians born and raised in Kenya as the 44th tribe of Kenya.
Why was the book set in Nakuru?
“I chose Nakuru for one reason. In Kenya’s segregated and ethnicised society, Nakuru represents ambiguity. It is where most of the communities that were displaced when the British took over their land …converged. It is a very vibrant town socially and culturally. And we also have settler farms. It is also in the Rift Valley, the cradle of mankind,” he told his audience.
The Uhuru-Raila handshake, Kimani said, was a reminder of similar rapprochements including the political deal at Lancaster House in the UK where “politicians reached a political settlement but not a resolution of the grievances.”
Conceived as a PhD dissertation, the book has what Fiammetta, who grew up in Kenya, called “surprising rich complexity.”
Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame Jnr, a Ghanaian lecturer at Soas, said about the book: “It keeps you in suspense. It has a lot of interesting title-tattle, gossip, legend and folklore. It is that kind of interesting story which has many strands. It’s nicely interwoven.”
Alphonce Shiundu is a journalist and fact-checker who was on the book tour in the UK.