I promised myself (and Rasna) that I would write something about Red Soil and Roasted Maize, her recent collection. I hesitate to use the word “review,” because I want something more textured, less bound to the conventions of the review: overview, significant moments, assessment, evaluation, and so on. I have mentioned, previously, that I am intrigued by the memory work going on in Kenyan cultural production—in Richard Onyango’s paintings, Jim Chuchu’s “plastic tribe” series, Shailja’s Patel’s writing, Sitawa Namwalie’s choreo-poems, among many other projects. I am interested in the kinds of openings these memory objects provide that are often aslant to our dominant rhetorics: when one pays attention to the remarkable individual and collaborative projects taken on by Kenyan women, for instance, one understands that, as Wambui Mwangi and Melissa Williams argue, the one-third gender rule is a start, but not enough.
I started writing (mostly angry) emails to Rasna when I left Kenya and the Daily Nation went online. She lived in my head for a long time before I met her. Another way to say this might be that she is the Kenyan writer with whom I have had the most sustained, long-term relationship. I barely remember those emails now, but I remember their sense of outrage, their sense of “how dare she?” Even as, now, I find myself more than grateful to her for modeling a writing practice that was bold and audacious. At a time in Kenya’s history when it was too possible to feel overwhelmed and defeated, to become callused and indifferent, Rasna’s writing prodded me into feeling something, into remembering that I had a relationship to Kenya, no matter how complex and vexed. It is difficult to value this gift. And I want to mark it.
An early moment in Red Soil captures some of the scope of Rasna’s writing (and vision):
As many print journalists in the country will tell you, newspaper articles are not valued so much for what they say, but for what they can wrap; as in many African countries, old newspapers in Kenya usually end up in informal restaurants and markets where they are used to wrap chips, mandazi, meat and other foodstuff. (location 279)
Trafficking between the professional and the quotidian, between modes of production and practices of consumption, Rasna’s writing is always attuned to transformations in social and material relations: the value of newspaper as it holds food. Granted, this image of newspaper as food wrapper is slightly mournful, to the extent that what we mean by print circulation in Kenya is a process of ink transfer onto food, even as it is common to see folks reading their food wrappers.
This observational metaphor (print as food wrapper) underscores the urgency of and necessity for the collection: the ephemerality of newspaper risks losing precious histories of being and sensation. In a profound way, Rasna has been a barometer of Kenyan feeling, and Red Soil reminds us of this.
Indeed, she outlines a compelling history of how feeling for Kenya emerges:
As “midnight’s child”, born in the period of Kenya’s independence, my cynicism is perhaps a reflection of my generation. We entered adulthood at a time when Kenya degenerated from a healthy, vibrant economy in the 1960s and ‘70s to a banana republic in the 1980s and ‘90s. We have known friends and colleagues who were tortured or imprisoned for fictional offences labelled “sedition”. We have witnessed the national treasure being looted right before our eyes and the country’s most respected institution of higher learning descending into mediocrity and decay. (Kindle location 483)
Because of these structural conditions, she continues, “We cannot be romantic about Kenya, not because we don’t love it, but we don’t remember a time when life was simple, rosy and full of promise” (loc 487). She muses on what it means to love Kenya. On learning that Kibaki had “reinstated William Ruto and Sam Ongeri as ministers, hours after” Raila Odinga had suspended them “corruption allegations,” what Rasna aptly describes as “political shenanigans,” she writes,
That evening, like many other Kenyans, my husband and I spent the night of Valentine’s Day discussing whether we loved this country enough to fight for it, or whether we should just retreat into our own tiny little worlds—and hope that the pain would one day go away. (loc 539)
Loving Kenya is not easy. Rasna documents what it means to love Kenya: the events that make it possible and impossible, the seductions of “roasted maize” and “fresh air and samosas” (loc 1650), the disappointment of “political shenanigans, the promise embodied in writers like Andia Kisia (“Kenya’s unsung literary heroine,” loc 1613) and Yvonne Owuor (loc 1654), the contradictions of arresting citizens for “sitting on a flower pot” in the CBD as slumdwellers use “flying toilets” (loc 3373).
Even with all this, Rasna continually embraces belonging: “Kenyans constantly amaze me” (loc 932); “Nothing can make you fall more in love with Kenya than a visit to another country” (loc 1641).
As I read Red Soil, I am struck by the force of Rasna’s choosing: she has chosen Kenya. Over and over she chooses Kenya. Even when it is undergoing what she describes as a “nervous breakdown” (loc 2327).
Of course, I don’t always agree with Rasna—in my head, I am still writing (sometimes angry) emails. For instance, she claims, “Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a society is to have the equivalent of a nervous breakdown so that it can final seek a lasting cure” (loc 2327). The metaphor grates—the trajectory from “nervous breakdown” to “treatment” is much more complex, mediated by class and access and will and ability. Yet, I’m grateful for the opportunity to disagree, to get angry, to feel something beyond a kind of disinterested voyeurism made possible by my non-residence and education.
Red Soil is a hope-filled book, and this surprises me, not least because Rasna is infamous for her cynicism. Writing is always an act of hope, a note stuck in a beehive in the belief that someday someone will look for honey. I am grateful for Rasna’s sticky notes.