Wanjiku wa Ngugi’s newly published debut novel, The Fall of Saints, is a gripping thriller that tries to answer a difficult question we have carried with us for a long time.
How do bad guys manage to so successfully pretend to be holy and take everyone for a ride, including people who should know better?
Wanjiku, who does a 15-20km jog once in a while to keep her mind clear, is a long-distance writer, and many a lazy reader might not keep up with her pace. The Fall of Saints brings divergent threads of the story into a neat finish, probably too neat to be convincing.
Life, as I know it so far, is too messy to allow an absolute resolution of all mysteries as happens at the end of this novel.
The daughter of the US-based Kenyan literary giant, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wanjiku is currently working on short stories as she stretches and warms up to embark on writing another novel.
In Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel, scholar Carol Sicherman lists Wanjiku as born in 1972, a year after her brother Mukoma wa Ngugi, a poet, novelist, and professor of English at Cornell University in the US.
Ngugi’s first daughter, Wanjiku was born in Limuru and attended Tigoni Primary School. She then joined Loreto Convent Msongari for her secondary school. Limuru, Tigoni, and Msongari feature prominently in her novel.
She left Kenya briefly, doing a high-school stint in Harare, Zimbabwe, (the equivalent of the A’ Levels) before joining New York University, where her father taught between 1992 and 2002 as an Erich Maria Remarque Professor.
Armed with a degree in sociology and political science from the elite university, Wanjiku joined the Africa World Press, in Trenton, New Jersey, as an editor.
After 10 years in the US, she found herself back on African soil. Her employer seconded her to set up publishing offices in Eritrea and Ethiopia. She never made it to Ethiopia because war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia about two months after she had arrived in Asmara.
She says she decided to move to Zimbabwe for a few years afterwards, where she worked with the late Ngugi wa Mirii (who co-authored the play I Will Marry When I Want with Ngugi wa Thiong’o).
She moved to Finland seven years ago. She is currently the director of the Helsinki African Film Festival (HAFF), which takes place annually in May.
“We are interested in promoting African films as well as the filmmakers,” she says in an interview. One of her highlights was inviting Tosh Gitonga (director of Nairobi Half-Life) to Helsinki to present his film last year.
“We scheduled two screenings, which were booked to capacity,” she says. “Due to public demand we have had to schedule another screening this year.” The festival is slated for May 10-18.
Her hobbies are reading, writing, and theatre. She has directed Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and collaborated with her brother Mukoma in writing a play about Miriam Makeba.
Wanjiku is the daughter of East Africa’s foremost literary star, but that will not dim the brightness of her prose.
The novel is not only dedicated to its author’s five-year-old daughter, Nyambura Sade Sallinen, but also to Wanjiku’s father Ngugi, whom she also mentions in an interview with us as one of her favourite authors ever.
Wanjiku further acknowledges her father’s input in crafting the novel and the support from her siblings, most of who are writers in their own right.
Besides her father, Wanjiku’s favourite authors include the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, the Batswana/South African Bessie Head, and the radical African-American poet Sonia Sanchez.
The Fall of Saints is Wanjiku’s first novel, but it is written with the dexterity of a veteran. The only strain one feels is that, as a first book, the author tries to pack too much in it.
The novel’s themes range from corruption in Kenya, inter-racial romance, bioethics, environmental degradation, religious hypocrisy, matatu madness in Nairobi, social Darwinism, loneliness among bourgeois housewives in America, debate on whether marriage is the important institution it is cracked up to be, the role of feminist activism in Kenya, co-option of artists in crimes, to a discussion of the Kantian argument about the “universal ethical imperative” that makes “humans clothe evil with holiness.”
The novel also highlights neo-colonialism in Africa and mocks characters who are overly fascinated with the West. Through one of the most positively drawn characters, the narrative declares that “Kenya has remained the happy valley of the colonial yesterday.”
The Fall of Saints is the story of Mugure, the narrator, who marries an Estonian-American, Zack Sivonen, to overcome immigration problems in the US. She cannot conceive, and she and her husband opt to adopt a mixed-race child.
Partly driven by jealousy and an urge to find out the parentage of the lovely Kobi, their son, Mugure finds herself taking up the work of a sleuth. She uncovers a ring of global child trafficking that is disguised as a church in Kenya.
Her son, biologically fathered by her husband before she met him, was abducted with his knowledge from her mother in Kenya.
Although it will be inevitable to compare Wanjiku’s work with her father’s, there is a stark difference between the two authors.
In literary terms, she is the collective daughter of women writers and critics — from Micere Githae-Mugo, Ama Ata Aidoo, to Prof Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira — who are less interested in grand narratives of national liberation than in highlighting the exploitation of women’s bodies and souls.
In Wanjiku’s novel, women are turned into factories. They are forced to bear children every year. The kids are then taken away and sold abroad.
Mzee Ngugi is fascinated with peasants in most of his works; Wanjiku wa Ngugi belongs to a new generation of women writers — arguably led by the Nigerian Sefi Atta with her 2005 novel Everything Good Will Come — who are interested not in slum life or rural existence, but in the anxieties of the female urban middle classes in Africa.
Mzee Ngugi cringes at being labelled a Marxist, but his writing illustrates Marxist themes. It is about exploitation of workers as they struggle towards a post-revolution utopia. He also writes in his mother tongue Gikuyu. For her part, Wanjiku writes her work in English, just like her brother Mukoma.
Wanjiku’s novel has many humorous moments. After college, Mugure’s only initial capital outlay constitutes nothing more than her genitals. The best sentence in the book has to do with her and her husband in bed, as they, in efforts reminiscent of the impotent Kahuru Wamai in Meja Mwangi’s Carcase for Hounds, try in vain to make a baby.
“Bored in the daytime, I looked forward to our evenings in the quest for a baby,” narrates Mugure in a passage I challenge my readers to reproduce in their mother tongues and e-mail me the translation.
“We went at it with gusto. Every night. Really, lovemaking is great, but it is greater when pleasure combines with purpose.”
Mugure is different from Uka in Dillibe Onyeama’s Sex is a Nigger’s Game or Mustafa in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, who spend their time in Europe acting out the stereotypes of over-sexed Africans in order to exact revenge against colonialists on behalf of Mother Africa. Mugure is just naïve, serving out her body with libidinous abandon to the white man she is mistaken is her faithful heartthrob.
Wanjiku’s Mugure is conscious of animal rights, but seems to quite enjoy her chicken the several times we see her eating. She has no problem with lavish New York houses with private swimming pools or her Nairobi bourgeoisie friends in the so-called leafy suburbs of Lavington.
To recuperate the novel from its worship of easy life, one may say there is a difference between the Mugure, who is telling us the story of her past today, and the naïve Mugure who experienced the events she is talking about.
If that is the case, Wanjiku does not fully capture that disjunction. Mugure is a person who admires extravagant living and emotionally preys on men whose overtures she has rejected.
She comes across as a tad vain, the kind of person you would never like to meet in real life, in spite of her noble engagements against global evil.
In an interview with Wanjiku, we ventured to ask: What’s her relationship with Ngugi (her father) and Mukoma wa Ngugi (her brother) as authors?
“We talk a lot about writing — what makes a good story, sentence structure — that sort of thing,” she said. “We also critique each other’s work, especially amongst us siblings which has been of tremendous help over the years.”
Wanjiku feels lucky to come from a family of talented writers and thinkers. “It’s always great as a writer to have space or people with whom you can discuss the craft of writing.”
She advises aspiring writers to “read, read and read.” For her, “reading certainly enlarges your writing and creative ability.”
Once the pen hits the paper there should be no turning back. “Write, commit to it, and don’t be discouraged by the first draft, or bogged down by the grammar,” she says.
She adds: “It’s quite fulfilling to create characters, or really a world in which you get to decide on the outcome. But it’s a labour of love, sheer gut-wrenching love, but well worth it!”
Her brother Mukoma’s Nairobi Heat was met with criticism among some in Nairobi, who mistook its narraror for the author himself.
However, we should be careful not to take Mugure, the narrator, as Wanjiku’s spokesperson. The character does many things that we would not approve of.
Through Mugure, Wanjiku captures something I’ve always suspected about Kenyans abroad. They don’t think because they know it doesn’t pay to use their brains. All you need as a Kenyan in America — including big professors with big titles there, the whole lot of them! — is a long tongue to lick boot(ie)s.
In spite of her academic qualifications, Mugure uses her body to remain legally in status in America, marrying a man she does not know very well in order to get papers. It is as if she does not have a home in Kenya to return to. It is not lost on us that she doesn’t have a good job in New York.
The novel tries to address many audiences at the same time and might lose those that crave for exclusive attention from the author. Nairobi lawyers are called “attorneys” probably to signal Mugure’s Americanisation.
But she also gives generous anthropological details about New York and Ohio, the kind that Achebe offers about the Igbo people in Things Fall Apart, that would only appeal to friends in her native village.
Similar details are offered about Nairobi, maybe because the novel addresses non-Kenyan readers as well. However, only a Kenyan audience would understand the irony in a security guard in Nairobi rejecting a Sh1,000-note bribe and accepting gratefully a $10-bill, as the exchange rate is not included in the story.
There are a few contradictions that we are not sure whether to attribute to Mugure or the author who created her. The narrator laughs at Americans who think Africa is a country, but she remarks about worshippers who came “all the way from Africa, South Africa, and Kenya,” as if either Africa is a nation-state or Kenya and South Africa are not in Africa.
Theorists of trauma, such as Marianne Hirsch, have remarked that memory extends beyond generations that experienced the painful events in question.
The Ethiopian Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air seems to be demonstrating this theory by showing how children of Ethiopian immigrants in the US are affected by the traumatic events their parents went through in Africa, even if the children were born in the US.
Joe, one of the characters in Wanjiku’s novel, makes a similar observation about memory when he remarks: “trauma can be passed on to the next generation.”
It may be an authorial lapse or a demonstration of this argument about memory that an African American female artist, Melinda, knows the narrator’s name before it is mentioned to her.
Alternatively, Mugure’s husband and the artist, who have an affair behind Mugure’s back, probably have been talking about the narrator and know her name.
Nevertheless, it is curious that Melinda knows Mugure in a book where minute details capturing contradictions are repeated, as Mugure puts together the pieces of the puzzle, sometimes quite awkwardly.
Mugure pokes fun at the character Kivete Kitete, who in turn satirises the security guard Kamau’s obsession with Americans.
“Kivete chattered on about how all the girls would chant his name over and over again,” narrates Mugure, though there is no difference between hers and Kivete’s vanity.
There are readers who will feel that the novel’s attitude towards African Americans leaves some bitter taste in the mouth.
All in all, this is a delicate novel that demands to be read with care.
It reveals a young writer with exceptional abilities, a big philosophical vision, and an audacious will to experiment. I highly recommend this beautifully written work.