A Kenyan writer known as a poet, novelist, journalist & teacher, awarded the prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature in 2011, Peter Kimani now brings out his latest novel, The Dance of the Jakaranda. Globooks journalist Tasha Mathur read the novel and was lucky enough to swap marginalia notes with the author
Kimani explores Kenya’s colonial legacy within a love story, which brings the past back to life, in more ways than one Ia rich, multi-layered piece of work, not only are the characters and their stories captivating but the context of the colonial setting offers a window into a dark part of Africa’s history.
The Dance of the Jakaranda surrounds the construction of the railroad from the inner Kenyan countryside to the trade port of Mombasa – a project that was started by the British in 1896. Enlisting the help of thousands of Indians from the former British Raj, the venture was eventually dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express’ due to the danger and large expense. Not only did many of the workers lose their lives during construction, an unspoken hierarchy formed amongst all involved with the British at the top, Indians in the middle and Africans considered at the bottom. Kimani cleverly illustrates this through a literal separation of Black and Asian workers within the carriages of a train, which ironically rides the rails that they have essentially built together.
The novel follows the lives of four main characters – the British colonialist in charge of the railroad construction Ian McDonald, the Christian preacher Reverend Turnbull, the unintentional Indian hero Babu and his musician grandson, Rajan. Each character’s story branches off from the winding train track, transforming into their own complex narratives yet each interweaving with each other. In an exclusive interview with Peter Kimani, he explained to GloBooks, his intentions behind the novel,
“The basic premise is a love story, and a search for belonging. All the characters, without exception, are invested in one pursuit of happiness or other.”
It’s certainly true that all of the characters in The Dance of The Jakaranda have extremely rich backgrounds, which makes it easy to relate and sympathise with them all at some point in the novel. Despite the British oppressor Ian McDonald`s warring with the Indian worker Babu throughout the novel, it’s not so easy to pick sides as you would think, as Kimani develops each back story to such great detail that you can’t help but consider all perspectives.
However, while there are many strong male characters in the novel, the female voices seem to be slightly lost. Although we hear of Sally, McDonald’s estranged wife and Fatimah, Babu’s industrious wife, it would have been interesting to hear more about these women – especially as much of the novel is driven through their love stories.
While many may know of the colonial history of Kenya, Kimani is able to offer us a very personal and human element of the struggles that were involved. And as he tells us, one of these was very much an aspect of belonging, particularly with Rajan, a ‘brown man in a black world which had been had placed under white rule all his life.’ This is complicated even further, when the police can’t decide where to deport him, as his ancestral home of Punjab had been divided into two – India and Pakistan – yet another direct result of British colonial rule.
The idea of deportation echoes the current state of the so called Windrush generation of Caribbeans , who arrived in Great Britain on the Empire Windrush ship in 1948 – enticed to work in Britain with the promise of a great quality of life, similar to the Indians who had been enticed to work in Kenya. In the novel, the new Kenyan government enforces a rule for each person to register themselves as citizens of the country, similar to those from the Windrush generation needing to prove their right to remain in a country that they’ve lived in most of their lives.
Once again, it questions the idea of identity and where does one truly belong. Kimani shares another reason for writing The Dance of The Jakaranda,
“the novel is interested in re-telling the story of Kenya’s colonisation. In fact, I think mine is an act recovery; restoring the agency of Kenyans, and Africans at large, in telling their story, after centuries of subjugation.”
And the way Kimani tells this story is unique as the form of the novel jumps between two time frames throughout, both during and post colonial rule – showing the parallels between the subjugated and freed citizen. Kimani celebrates the oral tradition of African story telling, which often involved stories being passed from one to other until it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. While some may find it difficult to follow, it adds an atmosphere of buzzing activity to the story as we become privy to what smaller characters gossip about – with the narrator eventually confirming the truth of what actually happens.
Kimani ambitiously attempts to tackle many themes within the novel – colonialism, postcolonialism, racism, social hierarchy, love, lust, belonging, deception and many more. While some have worked more successfully than others, Kimani does illustrate each scene through his beautiful use of language from the snake like movements of the train chugging through the countryside (a motif that’s wonderfully illustrated on the front cover) to his descriptions of the flamingos coming to their new home in Lake Nakuru – a staple tourist site to this day. His poetic descriptions truly bring the African landscape to life, making it easy to imagine the settings of this exotic continent. According to Kimani, not only can it entertain purely as a piece of engaging fiction but hopefully educate those on the facts of Kenya’s colonial legacy.
“My novel questions the idea of European colonisation of Africa as shining ‘light’ on the continent…”
However, in the Dance of the Jakaranda, Kimani successfully redirects the light to shine on the story of European colonisation in an engaging manner, which will keep you reading from start to finish.
The Dance of The Jakaranda by Peter Kimani. Published by Saqi Books.
Tasha Mathur is a blogger and member of The Books Without Borders Bookclub part of http://www.globooks.net