Reading about Kenya

With banquets of game and fowl and fish,
Strange fruits, and many an unknown dish.

About Malindi
The Lusiads VI.2
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

It is hard to find books which would be useful background for a trip to Kenya. There are many books by travelers, usually western travelers. There are books by famous Kenyan authors, which are not about travel. The travel books, sometimes by intention, sometimes through unexamined cultural assumptions, tend to view Africa as exotic. I’d read (who hasn’t) Hemingway’s stories about East Africa, grown up with Tarzan and stories of lost civilizations, read about Idi Amin when I first started reading newspapers. And then, much later, I read Binyavanga Wainaina‘s short savage piece in Granta called How to Write About Africa. It is a very strong reaction to western writing about Africa. I would strongly recommend that you click through that link and read that piece, it is not much longer than this post.

At the head of my current reading list of books by Kenyan authors is Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This is likely to be the only novel I finish before my trip, but there are a few which I would like to read. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan classic, and I think that’s the one I want to read next. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot, with its questions about women’s role in African life, is another of the founding classics of Kenyan writing. Years ago The Family had picked up Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it had settled, unfinished, into a pile of good intentions. I think this trip will make me start on it again. Kenya has a vibrant literary scene, with many authors writing in English, so I guess I will keep meeting new and old writings.

Some Arabic words were mingled
With the language they were speaking;
They covered their heads with turbans
Of fine cotton-weave fabric

About Swahili
The Lusiads V.76
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

Soon after The Family and I shelved our collection of books together, I picked up a book from what used to be her collection called The Tree where Man was Born. This was written by Peter Matthiesen, one of the founders of The Paris Review. I flipped through this book again in preparation for our journey. The book Safari Ants, Baggy Pants and Elephants, by Susie Kelly, is now on my Kindle, in company with West with the Night by Beryl Markham (hugely praised by Hemingway) and North of South by Shiva Naipaul. Beryl Markham’s book reads like a meeting between Saint Exupery and Hemingway. Susan Kelly is a new travel writer for me. Shiva Naipual, who died at age forty, is now known mainly as the younger brother of the Nobel prizewinning V.S. Naipaul. His book promises a different perspective, since it is the only one about East Africa which is written neither by a native African, nor by an European or European settler. That’s quite a long reading list for a short trip.