Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Joburg: A Review

In one of rare occasions, I was able to watch a staged adaptation of Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Jorbug in late summer early 2015. I acknowledge Karabelo, a colleague in the department of Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, who heard my cry and came to my rescue. For quite a number of months after having been in the University of Free State for over six months, I had been complaining that I had not been into a theatre to watch a play except to attend seminars/presentations. Thanks to my colleague who took me to watch the adaptation of London Cape Town Jorbug just before I left for Kenya. It was a great farewell gift. Now that I have read the story I can say so with conviction. The director did a good job and the cast did wonderfully well.
However, nothing beats a good story as reading the story in its original print version and seeing the events come to life by themselves at the back of your mind. I have ended up reconstructing the script afresh and staging the story in my mind as I read along. Needless to say I found myself mouthing certain swear words with a Brrrr accent. It has been worthwhile to indulge some migrant literature at a time when scholars are still engaging lively debate on the same. If you have your sights and interest on literature about migrations, race, mixed marriages and a coming-of-age relationship, then here is an ambitious story that embarks on packaging all and more in one text.  
“Zuko Spencer-O'Malley is dead.” This is the narrative hook that opens the novel. I immediately became suspicious of the name and chose to read into the text’s undertones of a character whose blood is laced with mixed race. I did not have to read far to discover that the father of the untimely dead teenager is one Martin O’Malley (black) married to Germaine Spencer (white). The love story between the two of them is of a romantic nature, one that begins with a light touch when Germaine is dared by her female confidante, Priya, to obtain the phone number of a stranger in a London bar. Martin is a black South African and an Investment Banker in the City while Germaine is English and a lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design and a ceramicist. Theirs is a love story of a rollercoaster nature characterised by breath-taking moments and scuttling to either an exhilarating end or a tragic one.
The seed of their love is sowed in London, it bears its roots and sprouts there but eventually it blossoms and solidifies when they settle first in Cape Town and eventually in Johannesburg. The triangular nature of the physical locales of habitation epitomises the different experiences, challenges and achievements in their lives. In my wildest of dreams I did not imagine that such a catastrophe as the one that befalls the protagonist couple would happen but at the backdrop of the socio-political and economic tragedies befalling many migrants this might not even be near the magnitude of suffering that most people in such a situation find themselves in. At least the scenario in the South African nation is already tragic enough as it is!
Thus, the tripartite structure of the text best captures three historic moments in the lives of the protagonist couple as well as that of the South African nation. London (1994-1998) is a momentous time as South Africa transitions from an apartheid country to a free one in a historic democratic election. Nelson Mandela takes over the helm of the nation and Martin O’Malley and Germaine Spencer fall into in a biracial relationship that takes them by storm literally. The writer then provides an intricate narrative that weaves the biographical stories of the protagonist couple together by bringing on board their family members and close friends. It is here that the protagonist couple marry, beget Zuko Spencer-O’Malley, we learn of O’Malley’s previous relationship with Soraya and his connection to Sufyian, Spencer’s closeness with Priya and her complex lover Anil amongst other happenings.
In the second part, Cape Town (1998-2008), we experience the physical dislocation of the couple as they transition from London to Cape Town. The political mood in South Africa is also such that the presidency has changed and some political undertones of dissent abound. At the same time, the social, economic and political affairs are also in a transitory mood. As a few citizens appear to excel, the majority are left wallowing in the miasma of destitution even as they grapple with memories of historical injustices that had been meted out to them by the apartheid regime. For instance, Germaine realises that there are deep seated problems that cannot be resolved through hand-outs. The general mood that pervades the text is palpable. However, both O’Malley and Spencer seem to thrive and blend in well including Zuko who appears to have established his identity through his promising swimming pastime.
Zukiswa Wanner: Author
It is in Joburg (2008-2011) that the thrill and excitement in the text peaks and ultimately comes crushing down. Zuko has in the closing pages of the second part attained a voice through journal entries. All along we have been listening to the narrative voices of O’Malley and Germaine alternate with each other but now we have to reckon with the subtle innocent voice of their son. It is an artistic move with a far reaching effect since Zuko’s death, voiced in his journal entries, will finally tear the hearts of his parents as well as those of the reader apart. O’Malley’s marriage to Germaine is too good to be true: the ideal investment banker husband and the iconic artistic wife who discovers her independence in art as a way of self-expression. However, the staining of the perfect protagonist couple’s relationship with the death of their only son Zuko comes across as too harsh. The crumbling of their economic investment is understandable but the sexual assault of their son by his closest uncle Liam and his subsequent suicide is extremely hurtful and abominable.
London Cape Town Jorbug is a tragic story short of catharsis. The economic misfortunes of O’Malley through the conning by his estranged father blends in well since it preys on O’Malley’s weakness for unreasonably trusting a man that his mother and wife had earnestly warned him against. On the contrary, the ugly death of Zuko Spencer-O’Malley is devastatingly unjustified. Even when I watched the staged version I still felt short-changed as much as I tried to console myself that this is fiction and I should distance myself from emotional indulgence. It is a rich novel with revelations of racial experiences especially for mixed race relationships. But more importantly, it is a text with daunting information concerning scars of apartheid trauma, anti-racism racism, xenophobia and how relationships are tempered with by different experiences and occurrences. The writer does not have to write a happily-ever-after-story but in this case Wanner could have made an exception. Don’t you agree?

A Review of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s Coming to Birth

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It has taken me an unnecessarily longer time than expected to reread Marjorie Oludhe Mcgoye’s Coming to Birth. Perhaps it is because I consciously knew that she passed on late last year; thus trying to pore over every word or it could be that I have been juggling too many things of late. I concede that this culminates into one of the most difficult book reviews I have ever done. However, the text still left me informed of the various ways in which humans and aspects of life have continued to come into being – to birth so to speak.
The text has enjoyed a wide audience owing to its run in the school curriculum as a set book in addition to its adoption in the Kenyan university literature programmes. Further, with its setting at the backdrop of the colonial times and the period after independence in Kenya, it has continued to interest many a reader due to its historical tangent. Indeed, the text serves as an allegory to the political events bedecking the country at the time. Symbolically, one can lay claim that the text represents the effort to come to birth in the Kenyan nation: economically, socially and politically.
In its opening pages, we are immediately introduced to the main characters: Martin Were and Paulina Akelo. As the reader soon realises, Martin represents the rising and upcoming educated young generation. It is a generation straddled between the traditional African way of doing things and the emergent westernised ways of handling things. It is one source of conflict in the text. In fact, it symbolises Martin’s dilemma on how to handle his marriage: should he carry himself as a traditional patriarch, a representation of a true Luo man or should he act as a liberal man who resides in a town setup?
On the other hand, Paulina is inextricably disadvantaged by the fact that she has to rediscover herself, her self-worth, her womanhood and maternal-hood through the varied personal experiences at the backdrop of an unforgiving patriarchal society that considers women independence ill-advised. When we first encounter her, we immediately empathise with her predicament as a naïve teenage girl thrown into the murky world of a marriage institution she knows nothing about. It appears as a deliberate step by the author to mould a character who will be the voice of reason in conveying the idea of women emancipation eventually towards the end of the text.
For his part, Martin comes across as the inverse of Paulina. As she grows to be more assertive and sure of herself, Martin diminishes not only in confidence but somehow in his moral standing owing to the fact that he feels less of a man as a result of his inability to bear children not just with Paulina but also with the other women such as with Fatima and Fauzia. In a way, the text raises poignant issues regarding the criteria that the society uses to define the individual’s identity: is it education? Money? Children? Work? Marriage? What exactly defines human beings and their sense of worth? Also, of what significance is the railway line to the definition of the country at large? Does the railway redefine the political, social or economic status of the country or that of its people?
Kenya at large seems to be going through certain labour pains as it strives to attain independence at the backdrop of colonisation. Barbed wires, passes and controlled movement of citizens is what we encounter in the opening pages of the novel. We can deduce that Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye uses the story of Martin and Paulina as a foil to narrate the story of independence of the nation at large. Consequently, as we grief with Paulina for the miscarriages she suffers, we also grief with the country for the loss of its freedom fighters, political icons like Argwings Kodhek, J. M. Kariuki, Tom Mboya etc. As Kenya goes through economic upheavals, political assassinations, tribal divisions and other turbulent issues such as armed attacks at the OTC bus station, we also appreciate the equivalent challenges at the personal level as both Martin and Paulina are embattled with personal losses.
Courtesy of:
Where Martin is at times cast as degenerating morally – sleeping with multiple women et al, Paulina is propped as a determined woman who finally finds her voice and financial independence through her perseverance. It is through Paulina that the writer manages to differentiate between womanhood and motherhood. Either can be used to define a woman without having any inhibitions regarding the sense of self-worth. Although Paulina prides herself in being able to bear a child, Martin Okeyo, with Simon, she is soon to discover that motherhood is not the only means to self-definition when he is accidentally killed through a gunshot during the procession to welcome Jomo Kenyatta to Kisumu – an event highlighting the acrimony between the tribe of the Gikuyu and that of the Luo. However, the affair with Martin symbolises her ability to make decisions for herself, if you so wish her sexual independence.
On the other hand, Martin discovers disillusionment when he tries to find happiness in other women. His manhood is consistently crushed when he cannot bear children perhaps intimating that manhood is not only defined by ability to sire children. He finally has to do the inevitable when he packs his things to join Paulina in her place of abode at the home of Mr and Mrs M. This is ironic since the community of the time would consider it a taboo for the man to be housed by the woman – subversion of masculinity – that a man is the provider/protector. It epitomises Paulina’s independence which is already visible in her conversations with her employer. She can voice her opinions and make other decisions like talking to the press and refusing to divulge her identity. In a conciliatory tone, the writer makes it possible for Martin and Paulina to conceive at the end of the text.
It is this conception that is pregnant with a lot of hope. Not just for the couple but also for the country at large. The reader can entertain the imagination that both Martin and Paulina will finally have peace now that they have come of age. Their experiences have taught them, shaped them into a better couple. As a result, we assume that the country has also learnt from its mistakes and it would be willing to mend political differences for the common good of its citizenry. Although the text resonates with authorial intrusions here and there like the encounter of Paulina with the street children, the reader is able to follow the coming of age of the two characters in all different spheres of their lives. It is not necessarily the best of novels of the coming of age of Kenya, neither is it the most interesting read but it is manageable. What is your take?

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