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The little known big man of letters

Saturday January 19 2013


Kenyans had better take advantage of technology to write what they are most passionate about. This is according to one of the most acclaimed new-generation authors and filmmakers from Kenya.

 “Modern technology has democratised art in such a way that, whether you are in Kenya or Los Angeles, no one has an excuse not to create,” says Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla in an interview with Saturday Nation.

 “More importantly, it is incumbent on us to give outlet to our creative impulses, not just for the recognition, but especially for personal growth and to preserve our stories,” he adds.

Ghalib urges young Kenyans to write, write —and write more to bring to the surface the many untold stories of our multiple heritage.

Based in Los Angeles, USA, Ghalib is the author of two novels. In addition, he has two movies to his credit.

His work is not well known in Kenya and might find it a little hard to be accepted here because it deals with a taboo topic that establishment critics and the general public would prefer writers to remain tight-lipped about: homosexuality.


 Ghalib’s debut novel, Ode to Lata, is a semi-autobiographical narrative about a boy from Mombasa named Ali who relocates to the US in order to live more honestly than he can in a society that censors his non-normative sexuality.

Ali physically leaves behind a dysfunctional family and an emotionally abusive bisexual lover, but the traumatic experiences at home haunt him as he explores new intimacies in America.

 The psychosis emanating from a painful past is as searing in this novel as it is in the Ethiopian Diaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, which narrate the psychological damage experienced by African immigrants to the US from events in Africa that the characters may not even have witnessed in person.

The Two Krishnas (2010) is a follow-up to Ode to Lata. Like Witi Ihimaera’s beautifully written Nights in the Gardens of Spain, it is about a Kenyan married Hindu man in America, Rahoul Kapoor, who has been cheating on his wife, Pooja, with a younger Muslim man the age of their son Ajay.

The novel states right at the outset its thematic mission: to demonstrate that “desire is incapable of hypocrisy”. We can pretend about many things in life “but we are truly helpless against the heart and its obdurate desires.”

Attraction to fellow men does not leave Kapoor behind, however much he would like to write off his first same-sex encounter with “a schoolmate named Hanif in Kenya, lifetimes ago” as “a rite of passage, something all young boys went through in a culture where sex with a woman was not readily available.”

Subtle identities

Also published as The Exiles, The Two Krishnas explores the place of faith and established religions in confronting the fluid identities of the 21st century. He uses the journey motif, in which characters move from one place to the other in Kenya, to portray the varied history and geography of the country.

Ghalib sensitively presents scenes in which Rahul and his lover Atif make out in erotic associations that knock down religious and class barriers. But although the novel uses as its epigraph a quotation from the Kama Sutra, it is not all about sex. It explores the place of Indians in the development of modern Kenya.

The novel is packed with historical details, including discussions about the struggle for multiparty democracy and if Asians stood any chance to be considered full Kenyan citizens. It might be the first novel to use the Kenneth Matiba figure, although the Matiba of the novel is a fictional character first-named George.

Like Wahome Mutahi, who uses the name “Kigoi” (an anagram for “Koigi” and Kikuyu for a flavourless arrow root) in Three Days on the Cross to suggest to his readers the tribulations of Koigi wa Wamwere in jail, Ghalib’s use of “George Matiba” in a part of the story about the struggles for democratic space in the 1990s will sure remind his readers of the businessman-cum-politician and his outburst about Asians.

Ghalib has also written and directed two films, The Ode (adapted from his first novel in 2008) and Embrace. Featuring Rebecca Hazelwood, Randy Ryan, and Ajay Mehta, Embrace is a story about cross-cultural intimacies in the era of global terror.

 Like his character Ali in Ode to Lata, Ghalib says he left Kenya in 1986 to pursue dreams that were impossible to follow in Kenya at the time, thanks to both cultural and political constraints.

 “I left to pursue higher education and a career in writing, but it was also to lead and explore my life more honestly as a gay man, which I felt couldn’t be done in Kenya at the time,” he says.

Lonely in LA 

In Kenya, he attended the Aga Khan schools.  In Los Angeles, he went to Woodbury University to study graphic arts and marketing. “But my passion was always in writing and film-making,” he says.

 The relocation to the America was not an easy one. “While exciting, the move was also incredibly challenging because I had no ties in the US or any idea of the lay of the land.”

He says that apart from the glamorous aspects of Los Angeles, which is how the world sees it in the movies, the “city can be unkindly exacting and isolating, owing to the sprawl and career mentality.”

This is the antithesis of an intimate town like Mombasa. “So you can imagine the culture shock, the adjustment,” he says.

However, the move was not in vain. Looking back, he thinks leaving Kenya for the US was a good opportunity because he has been able to achieve what many upcoming writers in Kenya can only dream about: two highly acclaimed novels and two movies.

 “I still proudly call Kenya one of my homes and remain awed by the unmatched beauty of its land and people,” says Ghalib, who works as a journalist. “I have covered Kenya extensively and continue to promote it as a tourist haven.”

Since he was a child, Ghalib has always wanted to be a writer. “I remember yearning to write a novel when I was five years old,” he says.

Fantasize about fans

 “I would create book covers, spend hours clacking away gibberish on my mum’s typewriter, and fantasize about autographing books,” he reminiscences. 

Why have we failed where Ghalib seems to be so easily successful? Our problem seems to be because we do not follow the American-born author Henry James’s 1884 advice to new writers.

In The Art of Fiction, James observed that the major constraint facing the English novel at the time is that authors were writing for young people, and the works tended to be “shy”. They avoided certain topics.

Not writing for the education system, Ghalib can afford to broach topics that many writers would give a wide berth.

 Although similar writers, such as the South African K. Sello Duiker (1974–2005), have suffered marginalisation for presenting themes previously swept under the carpet in African literary studies, Ghalib is successful because of the sensuous way he uses language to present adult themes.

His writing has been compared to South Asian novels, such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, because of the compassion with which he handles  his characters, even if they are people whose lives are a mess.

But Ghalib is also very much like such African writers as the Nigerian virtuoso Chris Abani, whose The Virgin of Flames explores with depth and kindness the lives of African characters in Los Angeles, some of whom are gay, whose lives are at dead ends.

Ghalib started taking up adult themes as a child. He was only 13 when he first got published, probably mistaken for an adult. The article, which he submitted to Viva magazine, was on infertility and the editors were “obviously unaware that it had been penned by some kid.”

Started in 1974, Viva was a venue for hot stuff. The magazine was full of ironies, especially in its moralising, since it captured in every way the tumultuous urban life in the country—cities attracting mentally derailed citizens, bursting at the seams with marital infidelity, with prostitution on the rise.

The magazine where Ghalib first published his piece would criticise the Lions Club charitable organisation  for publishing what Viva editors thought was a “disgracing and humiliating” pornographic calendar. But then it would go ahead to reproduce on its pages that same allegedly offensive image.

Compared to some of the sexually titillating pictures and adverts that Viva published at the time, the Lions Club’s calendar would appear like an illustration from a Jehovah Witness flier.

One of the items regularly advertised in most of the issues of the magazine was Sex Art, a book described as “meant for adult men and women.”

 The contradictions in Viva were registered in the literary criticism of the time as well, where critics like Prof Chris Wanjala would excoriate David Maillu for publishing filthy works, but then go ahead to quote liberally from the “pornographic” sections of the “bad” books, thus keeping Maillu’s words in circulation long after his books went out of print.

Published at 13

When Ghalib published his debut piece around the 1980s, Viva boasted a circulation of 19,000 and was edited by respected journalist Salim Lone.

The magazine carried a wide range of articles, publishing people that would grow to big voices in politics and literature, such as Koigi wa Wamwere, Chelagat Mutai, Wanyiri Kihoro, Magaga Alot and Sam Kahiga.

You could find in Viva a photo of the doyen of East African criticism, (Chris) Wanjala, in conversation with German Nobel Prize winner Gunther Grass in Nairobi.

 Some articles discussed Ngugi wa Thiong’o as an ungrateful and “racist” African writer with a “lack of good manners” for dismissing, at the Danish Library Association 75th anniversary celebrations, the Danish writer Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa as “one of the most dangerous books ever written about Africa.”

Other articles were on politics. But the most outstanding ones were racy pieces on such topics as “what scares men about sex”, “why husbands stray”, “young people and sex,” and some on the number of dinner dates a woman should go to with a man before hopping to bed with him.

With the publishing of Ghalib’s first piece in the “adult” Viva, there was no going back. He voraciously read his mom’s copies of mostly commercial bestsellers by authors like Sidney Sheldon. 

“But the writers that inspired me were the ones I discovered later in life, like Andrew Holleran and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala,” he says. Further, studying Kenyan novels, such as, Ngugi’s The River Between  and Indian ones like  Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie in secondary school fostered Ghalib’s  interest in world literature. “These books set the stage for the types of books I wanted to write,” he says.

As a boy, Bollywood cinema was a constant in his life, and Sundays at the local Drive-In cinema were practically a ritual.

“So you can say that books, films, and music were a strong influence and nurtured my creativity from the beginning.”  

His favourite movies are Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (based on Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same title),  Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (a World War II love story), and Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa (a romantic movie based on Karen Blixen’s memoir about her love affairs in Kenya).

“I consider these the gold standard in not only directing, but also screenwriting, film score and cinematography,” says Ghalib. “Such films place the emphasis on narrative and performance rather than overwrought plots and payoffs.”

Writing is a way of unearthing our cosmopolitan ideals. When writing The Two Krishnas, Ghalib learnt of the exemplary unity between Africans and Indians to secure Kenyan independence.

“Sadly, many of these stories are lost and so many of us hanker only for what’s foreign and different.

‘‘When I write, it’s to give voice to these stories, and to learn in the process,” he says.

He says the impetus to create has to be intrinsic rather than coaxed.

“For an artist, the pain of not creating has to be far worse than doing so and failing in it; the journey rather than the outcome being the ultimate reward,” he adds.