Against the formal pleasure of reading Maillu’s verse narrative—a counterpoint to P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino—or alongside that pleasure, also the difficulty of reading what some critics dismiss as his vulgarity, and what I would term his banal misogyny. My Dear Bottle moves from male entitlement,
Dear bottle, this is shame
I don’t want my wife to know
I keep another woman somewhere;
Bottle, give me power
Because my herd is big. (“Talk to Me” 7)
To a strangely marked indifference toward wives (I’ll return to the strange in a moment),
I’m ashamed of my deeds of last week.
I went home very drunk
and I couldn’t stand the light;
it made me dizzy
then I vomited on the sofa
all the stuff
and when I went to bed
I had a beautiful dream
and urinated on my wife’s buttocks,
terrible! (“A Stupid Thing” 22)
To even more explicit violence against wives:
Man, it’s really too difficult
to colonize your wife
when you don’t have money
I’m of the opinion that
woman is made to be dominated
by man.(“It’s too difficult”)
I want to show [my wife] that I’m rich
and she should be proud of me;
my blows and kicks
have failed to convince her (“It’s too difficult”)
All through My Dear Bottle, the term “wife” is placed under intense pressure: the working class speaker (a mechanic) repeatedly emphasizes that his economic precariousness threatens his married hetero-masculinity. It’s difficult to be a “good” husband, he suggests, when one cannot provide for one’s family. And if one reads for tone, one hears the absurdity of lines such as “my blows and kicks / have failed to convince her.” It’s not too difficult to argue that Maillu critiques the institution of marriage because of how it positions women as “wives,” subject to their husbands’ capricious habits, captive to the casual cruelties of precarious masculinities.
That said, it’s still difficult to figure out the relationship between precarious masculinity and wife abuse. Surely there’s some truth to the notion that all relationships are subject to economic pressures. I’ve never understood the fiction that abstracts love from economics. Surely there’s some truth to the notion that precarious masculinities often emphasize gendered roles and positions: one is a man only because a woman is a woman. And, on the lit-crit side, surely there’s some truth to the idea that author and speaker are not necessarily the same. But alongside these partial truths, one can also posit others. Surely gender precarity need not deepen gendered fissures; it could be the occasion for re-figuring the violence of gendered normativity. Even if we grant the distinction between speaker and author, we can still examine how gendered ideologies circulate in a work and in a culture, and can trouble that author-speaker distinction when (and if) it traffics in banal misogyny. Surely one can critique the institution of marriage, as Maillu does, without making the “wife” the object of ridicule, violence, and indifference.
Those are many “surely.”
For some readers, they might be grounds to continue to exempt Maillu’s early works from the recognizable, circulated canon of Kenyan writing. That would be a mistake. It’s precisely because My Dear Bottle allows such debates to be staged that it deserves our attention. Yes, some of us might relish its banal misogyny; others might ask about the labor of representation; others might ask about the relationship between economic precarity and gendered relations. But if we understand popular works as occasions for debate and reflection, moments when public cultures come into being through debate and contestation, then what matters, ultimately, is that these different perspectives encounter each other within a vibrant public sphere. And that the conflicts engendered through a range of different perspectives shape that sphere.
I have to admit that I’m still not fully convinced by the argument I’ve staged about My Dear Bottle. For me, My Dear Bottle really came into focus after reading After 4:30, another verse narrative.
The edition I have of After 4:30 indicates that it was first published in 1974, the year after My Dear Bottle. The blurb at back of the book reads,
Here is the humorist, David G. Mailly, the writer of people again in After 4:30, unraveling the problems of prostitutes, housewives, and office secretaries with unusual frankness and remarkable clarity, and blaming it all on the men with unquenchable sex appetites. . . . After 4:30 is a must for champion of Women Liberation movement and all African men and women who are nagged by the question, “Where are we headed for?”
The author picture on the back cover also enacts a particular gendered labor:
To call this drag might be going too far, but perhaps not. At first glance (and second), I am struck by how much Maillu resembles Mama Ngina, Kenyatta’s most famous wife. The head wrap is “on point,” as one might say; the slightly visible beaded necklace pulls the image further into gender indeterminacy; and the black-framed glasses, ostensibly masculine, highlight cheekbones many drag queens would die to have. Indeed, Maillu looks like a delegate to a Maendeleo ya Wanawake conference.
After 4:30 enacts a radically sexual politics. Whereas My Dear Bottle is told in a working class man’s voice, After 4:30 is narrated (mainly) by a working woman, a secretary, with brief interludes narrated by her sister. The title indicates the end of the official work day, at 4:30, when a sex economy supplements official labor. Bills get paid through what happens after 4:30.
I like the way I sweat men
A man is like a sheep,
when he’s inside you
you can tell him anything on earth
call him a pig
and he’ll reply you, yes.
After all, I’ve discovered that
a man is not so much of a man
as he claims.
You see, give him the feeling that
soon you’ll take off your pants for him
and you’ll see how foolish he becomes.
you can lead a man to the gallows;
the rule is simple: like a cow
give him something to lick
while you milk him. (“Men’s Seeds”)
We are far away from Lawino who sits in the village and mocks the urban Clementine. We are also far away from a too-polite literature that refuses to grant women sexual desire in the name of “dignity.” And you can hear, without trying very hard, elements of what circulates in much contemporary slam poetry by women.
Sexual appetite pervades After 4:30. Sex is not simply a means to a financial end, though it is that. It also satisfies libidinal urges:
What is the unmarried woman supposed to do
when it itches
and there’s no man around
to scratch her?
No, I’ll make sure I share that man
with his wife;
that’s better for me
than rubbing myself always
with a maize husk.
I don’t want to push carrots in me
I want the real thing
warm! (“Men’s seeds”)
Like the unnamed character in My Dear Bottle, this unnamed character (Tom Odhiambo argues she is called “Emili Katango”) is not entirely (or at all?) sympathetic. It’s not clear how we are to interpret her sexual frustration. It’s also not clear how to interpret the critique that marriage is a selfish arrangement that robs the unmarried of pleasure. Even as Maillu’s attention to women as desiring subjects embeds him within 1970s feminist discourses of pleasure.
How are we to understand this desire in Maillu’s work for women to desire sex with men? Is it simply a male pornographic fantasy being played out when Maillu’s women express their sexual hunger? How do we understand the implicit competition between married and unmarried women for men’s sexual attention? How do we understand the always troubled and troubling terrain of sex(ual) politics? How do we negotiate the space Maillu creates for these questions to be staged and engaged? And what has it meant not to have that space available?
Between 2004 and 2006, Kenya’s parliament discussed a bill on sexual offenses. According to newspaper reports from that period, it was the “first time” that sex had been discussed so openly by Kenyan legislators. Regrettably, it was also a moment when patriarchy came out to play: male legislators insisted on their “rights” to “court” women “aggressively.” Faced with such naked aggression, women parliamentarians armored themselves with motherhood and kinship. Women’s sexual rights, desires, pleasures became impossible topics. What might have happened if women could talk about pleasure and desire? If they could frame violation in ways that allowed them to value sexuality instead of retreating to asexual maternity? These questions might appear frivolous, especially because male parliamentarians couched their comments in terms of rights and pleasures. Indeed, in terms of their rights to pleasure. I invoke this history—which I’ve written about in forthcoming work—because I want to suggest the importance of the space Maillu’s work created in the 1970s. I’m not claiming there haven’t been other spaces through which women’s desires have been broached, in public and otherwise. I am claiming that Maillu’s work was one such space, and that in losing it, too much was given up, too soon.