What It Takes to Build Your Credit: "Urban Zoning," by Billy Kahora, Week Two of Blogging the Caine

This is my second post on the shortlist for the "Caine Prize for African Writing," on Billy Kahora's fine story "Urban Zoning," which you can read here (in .pdf form). For an updating list of the other bloggers writing on it, see the bottom of the post.

It's taken me longer to write this post than the previous one, and at the risk of being irritatingly solipsistic and meta, there's actually something interesting in that, just as it's worth noting that the group of bloggers writing about this story is both (a little) diminished from last week's numbers and als0 characterized by a somewhat diminished enthusiasm for the story itself. Perhaps the story is simply less good?

I don't think so; I don't think this story is simply anything. But before I can even get to that, I have to be irritatingly solipsistic and meta. For example, I need to observe that Stephen has done a lot of the work in framing this story that I would have tried to do, and which I would have done much less well. At least part of this is because Stephen lives in Kenya and I do not. You should read his post first, along with Ari's and Ndinda's, to see what I mean, because I'm not being faux humble, but just stating something very obviously true: in each of these posts, they make connections to local references that I (and you?) could not have made, but which are actually quite important to getting the story.

Ari, for example, begins by noting that "Kenyans seem to love stories about bank robbers," and talks about John Kiriamiti's My Life in Crime, a book I haven't read; Ndinda observes that "Kandle reminds one of Shuga, a [Kenyan] mini-TV series that hypothesizes the life of a group of young women, living on life’s fast track and constructing their cities in the slopes of Vesuvius, Nietzschecally speaking" (that I haven't seen); and Stephen observes, in turn:

The main character is ‘Kandle’, that interpolated ‘K’ seeming to Kenyanise ‘candle’. But what do candles have to do with urban Kenya? Oddly, quite a lot. For example, just last week in Kenya a leading TV station hosted an interview with one of the heads of Kenya Power (KP), the country’s ‘electricity provider’. The context of the discussion was the appalling power cuts that have swept across the country every day since the long-delayed rains started – parts of the capital, Nairobi, have been in complete darkness for an age. When asked whether KP is failing because it remains a monopoly without competition, the suit answered that KP does in fact have competition – from ‘candles, paraffin’, and so on.

Putting aside the actual content of that reference for a second, I want to just observe that placing Kahora's main character as a "candle" -- and understanding that reference by the context of the power cuts going on in Nairobi right now, or by an interview given on Kenyan TV last week -- requires us to adopt a significantly different frame of reference than the one that we usually presume when we use the phrase "African writing" (as in, "The Caine Prize for"). And I would put it to you that it is actually a lot easier for non-Africans to talk about "African" writing -- both insightfully and not -- than it is for non-Kenyans to talk about Kenyan writing. And as a Kenyan friend mentioned to me over twitter, Billy Kahora's "Urban Zoning" is a very Kenyan story.

Whatever is meant by this Kenyan-ness, it's worth observing that it means something different from (and in an interesting tension with) whatever it is we mean when we say "African" writing. I'll get back to Kahora's story in a second, and I do want to make a couple of points about the story itself, but since my point of mediation to this story about a Nairobi dude in the early nineties is and can only be the limitations on what I know about Kenya in the early nineties, it's this interpretive frame that I want to start with. Or perhaps that I have no choice but to start with? And perhaps this is the point.

After all, "Africa is not a country" is a statement of both common sense and a kind of pointed media critique. But Kenya is a country. The blog "Africa is a Country" exists and has that name because of the pervasive tendency to reduce the African continent to a singular entity, to homogenize its heterogeneity, and to take a multitude of narratives and narrative possibilities and reduce it to single and very uninteresting story. But no such critique is so pressingly necessary for "Kenya." This is not, of course, to deny that Kenya is also, in important ways, something other than a single thing; if "Kenya" is anything, in fact, it is a thing defined by the differing narratives which different Kenyans make of it. Which is to say, it is like almost every country in the world, all of which are, in some sense, more complex and contradictory than what a phrase like "country" is intended to signify. The United States is not a country either.

At the same time, however, the burden of showing that this is the case might be less grave for "Kenya" than it is for "Africa." No analogous mass media stereotype of "Kenya" exists in the (un)consciousness of the global mass media hive-mind, or whatever you want to call it. And while ignorant people actually talk about "Africa" quite a lot -- and thereby imbue it with a kind of positive ignorance, a describable and specific set of simplifying stock images and stories that concretely exist as associations -- non-Kenyans actually talk much less about "Kenya," and have a consequential lack of associations about it. For example, when Americans talk about where Barack Obama's father was from, they may say Kenya, but if they do, they usually mean "Africa." And even if they know they don't know much about Africa -- even if they know that Africa really isn't Tarzan and Heart of Darkness and The Lion King -- this is what they have to work with, and they are aware of those things, even of those limitations. When it comes to Kenya, on the other hand, they tend not to even have that. The fact that the landscape of The Lion King is recognizably the East African Rift Valley and that the animals have Swahili names causes them to signify not as Kenyan but African, and this is the point: the typical American knows lots of (wrong/stupid/racist) myths about "Africa" (and may even know that they are wrong/stupid/racist), that person will still tend to know nothing at all, for good or for ill, about "Kenya."

I beat this point to death, perhaps, to raise the question of whether the dilemma of the "African" writer and the "Kenyan" writer are different things. After all, Bernardina Evaristo, the chair of the Caine Prize's judging committee, called for stories that "enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media," and demanded to know "What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?” But does Billy Kahora's story speak to or have anything at all to say about "Africa" as a continent? Or does it simply address Kenya? In expressing the aspirations of the Caine Prize in this way, Evaristo is enunciating the ambitions of a great deal of what has gone by the name of "African writing" in the past, the struggle to overcome the reader's sense that the continent is a single thing -- the coherent set of pejorative images and stereotypes which we all know -- and to expand the reader's sense of "Africa" beyond its presumed status as "a country." But does it makes any sense to expect a Kenyan writer to argue that "Kenya isn't a country"? Somehow I don't think so.

Now, parenthetically -- and I'm starting to feel like this post is nothing but a Russian doll of parentheticals, equivocations, and qualifications -- we should also remember that BOTH these terms are a crutch, at best, and that we should employ them with a very careful reluctance. A writer is a writer is a writer. Calling someone like Chinua Achebe an "African Writer," for example, is too often a very lazy way of thinking about his novels as a kind of special literary case, books which are not necessarily to be considered when we are discussing "normal" literature. And by that, we -- the "we" that has these kinds of discussions -- usually mean mainstream Anglo-American writing, or the European writing that gets translated into English, or the non-Euro-American writers who have been allowed access to the hallowed halls of capitalized Literature.

Certain writers do seem to transcend their origin in such discussions -- Salmon Rushdie or V.S. Naipaul, for example, or more recently, someone like Teju Cole -- and these writers are allowed to participate in "Literature," without being burdened by the modifier. But not only does calling particular people examples of "world" literature imply that other people are, by the exclusion, not part of the world, but looking at where and why this happens tells you a great deal about publishing and literary commentary (much more than about the writers themselves, even writers do have to deal with the publishing world, and do respond to it). If Teju Cole writes about Lagos, will the New York Times warm to it in quite the same way as it has to his novel about an African in New York City? If not, it will be for reasons that will have everything to do with the NYT's own parochial perspective, neither taking anything from his accomplishment, nor even really speaking to it. But I would, nevertheless, guess that they would not. Open City is a marvelous book, and I say that as someone that doesn't really like W.G. Sebald... but it has not hurt Teju Cole's literary reputation at all that the adjective "Sebaldian" has been so prolifically applied to his novel.
But on the other hand, it might be another kind of crutch to call Billy Kahora a "Kenyan" writer. After all, look at the issue of McSweeney's where "Urban Zoning" was originally published, for the places where the description writer puts emphasis (these are their bolds) in describing the issue's contents are quite telling:

"Our return, after four issues, to pure hardcover bookness features Jonathan Franzen on Upper East Side ambition, Jess Walter on the men who ride children's bicycles in Spokane, Washington, Joe Meno on women who want to be eaten by lions, Etgar Keretand Joyce Carol Oates on murder and language in a restaurant called Cheesus Christ and at Gate C34 of Newark International Airport, respectively—and ten more stories besides, five of them strange and beautiful pieces from Kenya that will tell you, indelibly, what it's like to be drunk for seventy-two hours straight in Nairobi or to smuggle contraband jam into the girls' dormitory of the Precious Blood Riruta Secondary School or to fly over the Kalacha Goda oasis in a small plane, at sunset, with your brother in a coffin next to you."

Jonathan Franzen is featured (in a piece of writing about the Upper East Side), while the phrase "from Kenya" will your port of entry to a story by a writer whose name is not only not very important, but which is framed as telling "you" (because "you" don't know) what it is like to be a certain kind of Kenyan (because, of course, "you" are not). So while I want to be wary of the ways applying the adjective "African" to a story like Kahora's might cause us to overlook or underplay its local specificity -- obscuring the ways it speaks to a very specifically Kenyan set of associations because we're so eager to compare it to Newsweek, Tarzan, or KONY2012 -- the flip-side of that danger might be the ways it becomes a "Welcome to Kenya! This is what it's like!"

In one sense, Kahora gives some credence to this reading, replying in an interview (to the question "What's the story about?"):

Broadly, it is about Nairobi hustle circa the 90s interested in capturing what I feel were the spirit of the times when my generation was coming of age: Moi-ism, alcoholism, easy money, sexual (mis) adventure, generational conflict … a young man goes through all these things in the space of a few hours to capture all these things … and Nairobi as I remember it then …

And when asked to comment on the Evaristo's statement that the short-listed stories are not stereotypical narratives, he partially demurs:

This story within certain spaces at least in urban Africa wold be seen as the most stereotypical story of them all. A young man from the middle-class going bad – that is the stereotype within Nairobi or other African urban ‘middle-class’ spaces. You know this story, anybody who’s grown up in a certain space in Nairobi knows this story: failed youthful promise, alcohol, drugs, corruption … But of course within consideration of the ‘African’ story, it does usually take a back seat to … rural poverty, HIV/AIDS, war, political oppression etc As written narrative, the modern urban tale in an ‘African’ space is yet to mirror its existence in the ‘real’ … interestingly, the stereotypical ‘African story’ is a construct that in time has somehow managed a continued pseudo-lifespan – its death happened immediately it became a stereotype … years ago …

But neither of these questions actually gets us close to the story itself. It is "Kenyan" and is "African." Sure, why not? But how is it these things? Even asking the first two questions, it seems to me, getting bogged down in that debate, actually impedes us from being very able to answering the much more important third one. As, you will notice, I have not!

I make this point for several reasons. One, as an academic who must occasionally claim an interest in things like "African Literature" and "Kenyan Literature," it's useful to see the ways these frameworks impede me from saying much about the story itself. After all, I'm really talking about what people say about what people say about these things. And that meta-conversation has the limitation I'm inadvertently dramatizing; you end up saying little of interest about the actual object of criticism itself. But the second and more germane point is the way "The Caine Prize for African Writing" gets in the way of placing the text in its own context: whether it's stereotypical African literature or expands our notion of African literature, it doesn't get to be, simply, whatever the heck it is on its own. But if this line of thinking is useful, and I think it is or I wouldn't have written it, it is useful because it clarifies the way "What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents" still limits the kind of conversation we can have: while that which is written must not tend towards the stereotypical, it still must talk about the object presumed by that stereotype: "Africa."

I'm going to close, then, by actually saying something about the story itself. I'm going to claim that the most important aspect of Billy Kahora's story is that Kandle is both a banker and is also stealing from the bank so that he can finance his own loan-shark operation, that he drinks to excess so that he can keep his job and yet he also keeps his job in such a way that he can continue drinking to excess and not do actually do it. The content of these contradictions are important, but no less so than the kind of tangled snake-eating-its-tail  fact of them as contradictions.

First, Stephen touched on the fact that Kandle works as a banker, and this is what got me thinking about it. But while I want to build on what Stephen said, I don't think he's quite right; as he put it:

The organization that is pilfered from and partially subverted by the thieving Kandle is not the government or the wider State machine, but a Kenyan bank run by a manager who, in his fondness for quoting American and British sayings, appears to be covertly in league with international corporations.Kandle’s small theft of bank money then becomes, even if pifflingly small, a very complex act, and metonymic. It is not merely theft from a bad individual employer – the bank and its manager – but also a small act of resistance against neoliberal globalization; as such, Kandle’s pilfering is utterly unlike that elite government corruption that plagues much of the continent and which preys upon the poor, but rather is a sapping of the power of an apparently overwhelmingly powerful economic system that prides itself on its insuperability. Elite corruption is greed; the pilfering of the poor is, on the other hand, an act (even if an inadequate one) of transgression against capitalism and its elites – or so we may read. While not a debased cockroach, Kandle is a tick, and many ticks can kill the capitalist cow, as some proverb probably avers.

Stephen is trying to recuperate this story as what he quite self-consciously calls a "culturally-aware, socialistic text," placing it back into, ironically, the kind of binary frame that a writer like Ngugi wa Thiong'o is known for: parasitic global capitalism and earnest African producer. The thief becomes the good guy again, because it is the parasitic force of multinational capitalism that stole first. And  there is something to this reading, I think.

But the limitation to this reading is the point where we move from "stealing from a thief is not bad" to "stealing from a thief is good." I don't think the story makes this jump. After all, in stealing from the thief, Kandle has become very similar to the thief himself: he is taking money from a bank (in the form of a loan they gave him for furniture) in order to use it, himself, as seed capital for a kind of private micro-lending operation, intending to profit from it exactly as they do (and probably charging even more exorbitant rates). And just as they gave him this loan for furniture, presumably, so that he could equip himself with the bourgeois accoutrements of "Banker," and thus maintain the respectability that maintains the banks reputation (and credit), his own credit as a private lender depends on the same kind of credit-building: by maintaining the facade of a man-about-town, "one of the boys," someone who will lend to you in a pinch and get you out of a jam. This is what he's doing, after all, for the entire first half of the story, a performance; getting "into the zone" is drinking just the right amount so your psychological state lets you live out the fantasy others project onto you, and to trust you for that reason, to credit you with that personality.

In other words, the central ambiguity of the story is that while a credit agency is a faceless facade of global capitalist fantasy -- take out a loan and spend it on and have whatever it is you desire! -- Kandle himself is absent and faceless as a character in precisely this way. He has to be. He must be. To earn the credit he needs (and to play the role he has chosen), he cannot be a person, but must be human capital. He might drink and carouse for pleasure, but he also must do so with the same calculated pragmatic intention as Harvard Business School students must network each night, proving and re-proving their status as the right kind of subject. But the impossibility of calling this good or bad, in the context of a Nairobi where you get along to get along, says a great deal about the ways an earnest artist of rural virtue like Ngugi -- for whom the city, capital, and imperialism are all a singular force of oppression -- is inadequate to describing the moral ambiguities that Kahora has taken as his subject, the ambivalent modernity of urbanization. While Kandle's boss remembers his long labors and long suffering -- his obedience only slowly rewarded, his house in Limuru still unbuilt -- Kandle is working for himself, and succeeds. And perhaps this is what it takes to do that, for good or for ill, and almost certainly both?

Others blogging the Caine!