Reading David Maillu I

If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak.
—Binyavanga Wainaina

David Maillu’s writing from the mid-1970s incarnates pornography within the Kenyan imagination. Even today, Maillu’s early works—No!, After 4:30, My Dear Bottle, Unfit for Human Consumption, and others—are invoked in hushed tones, described through absence. Take, for instance, this comment from Evan Mwangi: “The narrative of [No!] is as vulgar as its characters and the story within a story that it carries” (Africa Writes Back to Self). While Mwangi describes the novella, he avoids its “vulgar” parts, further sedimenting the idea of Maillu as pornographic. While Maillu’s work sold well in the 70s, these early works are virtually impossible to find in Nairobi. (Where do books disappear to? Are they like socks in dryers?)

Pornographic is a complex term within Kenyan and African writing more broadly, and Mwangi offers a useful interpretation of it: “Literature that deviates from national rhetoric is equated with pornography because national liberation and the rejection of capitalism are regarded, rightly or wrongly, as urgent issues with which every artist must grapple” (Africa Writes Back). I have reproduced the kind of logic around Maillu that marks him through absence. Maillu’s early works exist within a pornographic imaginary, less so as material objects that merit reading and re-reading. Until quite recently, I knew more about what they were supposed to be than what they actually were.

What would it mean to re-introduce the early Maillu into the Kenyan canon? How might it enable us to think alongside and beyond Ngugi and P’Bitek and Ogot? What might it mean for genre-work? I raise genre-work because Maillu’s works are always described as novels, as “fiction,” a description that is unfair, because his works are much more innovative. Over a series of 2-3 posts, I hope to suggest why reclaiming Maillu matters by engaging with his work as a fan who regrets coming to it so late.
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There’s an unknown woman
I ate yesterday
And man
I don’t feel good about it,
so, my dear bottle
please talk to me;
take me in your hands and comfort me. (“Talk to Me”)

Maillu’s My Dear Bottle opens with these lines, a conversation between a drinker and a bottle (one hears echoes of Soyinka’s The Interpreters). The shape of the work embeds it within a P’Bitek tradition of verse-narrative, but where P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino condemns the deracinating effects of urbanity, Maillu’s work engages with the ambivalence of urbanity, refusing to understand the “rural” or “tradition” as a “solution.” In these early works, Maillu plunges us within the feel-space of desire and sex.

And eating.

There’s a lot of eating in My Dear Bottle.

I ate my ayah
two months ago
when my wife was in the hospital,
oh man,
I don’t feel good about it; (“Two Months Ago”)

I want to forget what I did
To the wife of my neighbor;
I ate her last week
in my toilet
when my wife was sleeping . . . . (“Two Months Ago”)

I wonder where Betty Muthoni is
it’s years and years
since I saw her.
That chick was delicious, man!
You ate her with real appetite . . . . . (“A Stupid Thing”)

A lot of writing has been devoted to metaphors of “eating” in Africa, almost always describing “corruption,” that unwieldy term that means everything and, consequently, nothing. Maillu offers us a different way to think about eating: he returns us to it as pleasure and perversion, as sex and desire, as consumption and production, as erotica and pornography, cunnilingus and analingus, eating out and diving in.

But this is not simple, unrelenting, thoughtless consumption. That refrain, “I don’t feel good about it” arrests us. One reading might be that he’s worried about his promiscuity, concerned by his unrelenting appetite that leads him to “dangerous behavior.” I mean, sex with an “unknown woman!” In that sense, his work becomes a morality tale, a kind of “don’t do this because it’s bad.” It’s one reading. Not the one I prefer.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to address a bottle—and have asked friends whether this is apostrophe or prosopopoeia; not sure yet. What happens if we start from where the speaker seeks comfort, in a bottle, and, more precisely, in an appeal to a bottle, and work backwards? How might absurdity enable a reading of Maillu’s work that does not recuperate it for a redemptive reading? I am interested in staying with the vulgar (remember, vulgar also means common).

In Maillu, “people fuck.” All the time. With all kinds of people. Desire is unrelenting. Women want as much as men—in fact, Maillu’s desiring women are a welcome addition to Kenyan literature, which is enamored of asexual mothers and grandmothers. The sex is not always mutual, and this is conceptually interesting. The “unknown woman,” the “ayah,” the “wife of my neighbor,” and “Betty Muthoni” all have different relations of power to the speaker. And, of course, the eating metaphor (re)produces a too-common trope of woman as consumable good. But what would it mean to contend with the difficulties presented by Maillu’s work—the problem of the consuming man, the desiring woman, the promiscuous man, the libidinal woman, the exploitative employer, the cheating neighbor, Betty Muthoni? What would it mean to contend with the libidinal histories he presents as central to urban(izing) Kenya as opposed to dismissing his work as “vulgar” or “pornographic” or “filthy” and, therefore, not worthy of critical attention and, worse, not worthy of staying in print? What would the shape of common literature be if his work were still widely available. (In my fantasies, his work from the 70s will be reprinted as part of a “Kenyan Classics” series.)

I ask these questions because of my deep sense that much of what we experience as “radical” or “daring” within Kenyan writing—take, for instance, Parselelo Kantai’s “You Wreck Her”—can only be that because of what we have forgotten or, rather, what has been erased. I’ve seen writing that is timid, frightened, unable to engage with the libidinal, except through titters and blushes. In part, I want more pornographic Kenyan writing. But Maillu gives us more than pornography and in dismissing his work as “merely pornographic,” we miss his formal innovations within Kenyan writing. Simply, I have yet to read a Kenyan writer from the 1970s who is more engaged with the problem of appetite and desire, who writes the complexities of working class and underclass figures (underdogs, Tom Odhiambo has argued) with such grace and skill, all the while avoiding the too-common stories of redemption that we expect from “criminals” and “sinners.”

It is precisely the anti- or a-redemptive qualities of Maillu’s early works that draw me to him. His attention to a working-class figure who, while perhaps allegorical, does not bear the Ngugi burden of being a revolutionary.

I am also drawn to his verse-narrative, which refuses the options presented by P’Bitek—a return to tradition or an embrace of afro-intellectual modernity—by insisting on a working class perspective where such options do not make sense. In a strategic misreading, I would argue that Maillu’s work engages a genealogy of urban figures innovating modes of living and developing strategies for surviving (Cyprian Ekwensi is my go-to person for thinking about such things in the realm of the literary, though one can also invoke Richard Rive and Charles Mungoshi and Calixthe Beyala). Strategies for “surviving is not quite right because Maillu’s work foregrounds a libidinal urbanity, with all the complexities and opportunities that might suggest. The form of the work matters here.

Stephen Partington has written about the effect of having P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino as a founding text for Kenyan poetry. Addressing P’Bitek, he writes,

Alongside Song of Lawino, you wrote some expository prose, notably ‘African Aesthetics – the Acholi Example’, which contained some early statements on Oral Culture that you seemed to insist must become the template for written culture of the sort that you personally spearheaded in your narrative Song. Certainly, the descriptions and hence prescriptions that you made with regard to ‘African Literature’ were repeated in just about very school textbook on poetry, oral or written, that I have on my shelves – I don’t just mean from the 1960s: I mean, miserably, through the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s and, residually, the ‘noughties’! You believed that somehow the cohesive and coherent culture of a ‘tribe’ (I am deliberately using this word) inhered in literature, which must be passed down in a pure and authentic form from generation to generation, again World without end, Amen. Words were perfect, precise carriers of culture; unproblematic memes. And they could police, and should police, both the people within the group and the borders separating the group from those outside. You praised how Acholi literature could ostracise those who wouldn’t play the game of conforming to what you called ‘Acholi culture’ (always a singular, undifferentiated culture); how it begged dissidents to ‘O, cowards, return into your mother’s womb!’; how this was insurance against what you, with echoes of the Fuhrer, called ‘societal disintegration’; how you said that ‘it is by participation alone [for which, read conformity] that life is made meaningful’; how you relished the thought that Acholis can only be ‘truly human’ and ‘grown up’ if they completely accept given rules, and how those who refused to conform were and should be called ‘fools’, ‘insane’, ‘nothing’, ‘not human’. Oh, what a grand vision you had. But if you want us young poets to live there and write and celebrate such a world, then you can bugger off. We don’t want to live in such an environment: we are not willing to be hemmed-in by literature, to be funnelled into the right-wing communitarian (in the negative political sense of that word) idyll. An idyll? No: a dystopia of agonising submission, duty, deference, docility, conformity, subservience and meekness.

Maillu offers a different point of entry into Kenyan poetry, a more unruly one that authorizes more undisciplined works—this is the Kenyan genealogy for Tony Mochama’s poetry, for instance. After reading Maillu, the libidinal is not “daring” or “shocking”; instead, it animates creative expression. I’m not interested in spawning a host of Maillu imitators within Kenyan poetry. Instead, I’m interested in what might ensue if we understand his verse-narratives to be as important to Kenyan literary history—and literary futures—as P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino.