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«Popular Fiction and the Popular Press in Kenya This chapter explores the emergence and growth of popular fiction in Kenya while examining the role of ...»

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Interestingly, Mutahi recalled during an interview with this researcher that once inside the shebeen, whenever the patrons got drunk they always ended up singing—“raising their voices”. The shebeen thus provided him a fascinating allegory. The shebeen provided a space, just like the column, where a number of issues could be introduced as and in ‘whispers’ but would soon be discussed openly and loudly by the patrons. Perhaps equally notable is the fact that similar fiction columns that preceded Whispers often relied on bar room buffoonery, the bar providing a space of ‘relative freedom’ for the writers. The assumption that what was said at a moment of inebriation would not be taken seriously was a reliable subterfuge to introduce ‘taboo’ topics.

For writers, this was one of the ways in which certain norms, political and social, were broached in a public space. But there is also a possibility that the Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003 writer appropriated the name from Nelson Ottah’s “West African Whispers” which as noted above featured in Drum magazine. The column presented what Anthony Sampson describes as an “extremely sardonic view of political events in West Africa” (cited in Stein, 1999: 6).

As earlier noted, the early issues of Whispers were hugely predictable, almost mundane “instructive” narratives reminiscent of the instructive manuals of the ‘market literature tradition’. In fact, they reminded one of market literature such as the Onitsha Market literature (Newell, 2001). Titles such as “The ups and downs of dating” (Sunday Standard, November 13, 1983), “The art of borrowing money” (Sunday Standard, October 23, 1983), “The gospel according to Prophet H.Y.E.N.A” (Sunday Standard, December 18, 1983), “A world full of liars” (Sunday Standard, July 10, 1983) were common in the column in the early 1980s and points to the overt instructional intent of the writer. The column generally had a strong reformational character. In its later years however, the column was to gravitate towards the political. It evolved into a form of ‘mini-republic’ to use Odhiambo’s (1987: 200) words, embodying the subversive. Sample articles that capture this character include: “SOS thinking of defecting from the shilling economy” (Standard on Sunday, June 28, 1992), “The Day SOS met Kiganjo Boys” (Standard on Sunday, March 15, 1992), “Operation Whispers Out” (Standard on Sunday, November 25, 1992), “Total Man’s house divided: Agip House raring to go to war” (Standard on Sunday September 13, 1992). The allusions, imagery and language in the titles gesture towards the political. Most of the stories reflect political events in the country. For instance, in “Total Man’s House Divided: Agip House raring to go”, a domestic quarrel between a man and his wife who happen to belong to different tribes is narrated against the background of the tribal clashes in the country. Similarly, the domestic “fall-out” is to be seen against the background of the political fall-out between members of an opposition party FORD, at the time a formidable opposition outfit in Kenya.

Marital infidelity is explained using political imagery. There is a sense in which the writer began to domesticate the national and ‘nationalise’ the domestic. This inversion in the column allowed for political critique.

It is also important that one notes the influences of what was to be known as New Journalism on the writings in Drum, Joe and later works of writers such as Mutahi. Also known as ‘immersion journalism or literary journalism’, New Journalism refers to a ‘movement’ that emerged in the 1960s in the United States although there were similar trends elsewhere in the world including Africa. It is largely described as having been “a generational revolt against the stylistic and political constraints of cold-war journalism, a rebellion against the drab detached writing of the big-city dailies and the machine-like prose”. 4 The proponents of New Journalism such as Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion argued that straight journalism reduced everything to details, a situation described by Modue (2002) as “an impartiality that becomes desensitising and objective to the point of emotional irrelevance… To do the job fully, there was need for a little soul and poetry, a little shaking up” (cited in the Nation, June, 2002, Vol. 274 (17): 40).

New Journalism revolutionised writing in the popular press, subverting traditional news reporting by using symbols, imagery and imaginative language in news writing. Besides, the writing also experimented with character developments in literary work while writers also became involved in the writing. It was in effect an interface between journalism and literary writing.

There are elements of this tradition in Drum, Joe and even in fiction columns such as Whispers. For instance, we see a complete negation of what Mark Mordue describes as “emotional irrelevance of writing”. Instead, we see Mutahi directly or indirectly, through his characters, sometimes immersed in the stories he is telling. Indeed, they are not just stories, Mutahi’s work is part Source unknown to the researcher.

journalism. As I noted earlier in the thesis, Mutahi’s use of the first-person involves him as a writer in the emotional contours of his narratives. One also notices the use of the symbolic, of imagery and of a highly imaginative language, which we briefly discuss below, rupture with the more traditional conventions of journalistic writing.





But New Journalism also provided a number of challenges for writers. Pegi Taylor acknowledges that it “takes tremendous craft for a non-fiction writer to dominate his subject” (cited in Writer, 2002: 29). For, “once immersed in it, it becomes difficult for writers to also act as reporters” (ibid.). Quoting Christopher Hanson, she notes the “professional tug of war between telling a good story and the desire to report thoroughly, analyse and explain” (ibid.) Joan Didion on the other hand explains that when this style works it goes unnoticed, but when it fails “it swamps the narrative and leaves the reader toting up errors or misapprehensions” (ibid.).

The point I am making is that Whispers did not grow out of a vacuity. Even as he broke new ground, Mutahi’s column emerged from existing traditions. We see influences of Drum, of New Journalism, of Joe and especially of writers such as Kahiga, Ng’weno and Brian Tetley. Indeed, Mutahi revealed in an interview that he had hoped the Kenyan newspaper would also produce its own Can Tembas, Henry Nxumalos, Bloke Modisanes, Es'kia Mphaleles and Nat Nakasas, writers who made Drum arguably one of the most powerful sites of social and political commentary in South Africa. According to Mutahi, Drum and Whispers represented a ‘new genre’ where the popular media through popular writing would provide a new space for social and political reflection, and direction. To Mutahi therefore, Whispers was supposed to foster a genre, revive a lost tradition and possibly create lasting progenies.

As noted earlier, most of the fiction columns published in the Kenyan press including Whispers at its formative years, were limited in terms of narrative possibilities. Instructive writing barely sustains fiction. Quite often, this form of writing calls for the use of a large cast of characters, all too frequently changed to the extent that readers fail to relate with them. Njabulo Ndebele has pointed out that instructive writing “inhibits the development of stories about ordinary feelings and experiences” (cited in Newell 2001: 5). Partly because of this but also because of the repressive political environment and the rapid social transformation in Kenya, Whispers was to radically transform in the late 1980s. It is within this transformation that one notes the influences of prose writers such as Ferdinand Oyono, Chinua Achebe and one of Mutahi’s most favourite novelists Mongo Beti. Mutahi noted during an interview with the researcher that it is writers like Beti who “understand the conceptual nuances of African rural life”,5 a key aspect in Mutahi’s narratives.

He remarked that Mongo Beti has a special way of moulding “rural” characters especially noting his portrayal of Medza in Mission to Kala (1958).

In the novel, Medza fights for cognition when she discovers herself in “a strange universe and reacts strongly to anything that departs from her own cultural expectations and prejudices” (Lindfors, 1991: 65). It is a relationship that defines Mutahi’s portrayal of the Kenyan ‘urbanite’ and is particularly captured by Mutahi’s main character, Whispers.

Among some of the radical transformations in Whispers included shifts in the column’s narrative framework and thematic trends. Mutahi created a parallel fictional family from where he situated his fiction. He set Whispers within a fictional Kenyan family comprising the characters Whispers, Thatcher (Whisper’s wife), the Investment (daughter) and Whispers Jr. (Son). Other characters who were however transient included Teacher Damiano (Whispers’ former teacher), Father Camissasius (Whisper’s former Catholic priest), Appepklonia (Whispers’s Mother), Rhoda (a barmaid), Uncle Jethro

Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003.

(Whispers’ Uncle), Aunt Kezia (Whispers’ Aunt) among others.6 These characters were used as allegorical characters becoming determinative tropes, discourse markers and acting as points of reference for readers of the column.

The ‘new’ Whispers was loosely modelled on Mutahi’s real-life family—his wife Ricarda Njoki (as Thatcher), Octavia Muthoni (as Appepklonia), Caroline Muthoni (as the Investment) and Patrick Mutahi (as Whispers Junior alias the domestic thug). An interesting omission in the column’s permanent characters was Whispers’ father. It is instructive to point out that in the 1950s when Mutahi was growing up, traditional life in rural Kenya had been significantly disrupted as the wage economy and Christianity became integrated in the Kenyan social life. The school and the church replaced the father as the centres of knowledge in rural Kenya. Since for the most time of the year the father was away from home, it is the mother the school, and the church, that mostly influenced a child’s early years and not the father as would ordinarily have been the case.

The main character who lends the column its name, Whispers also called ‘Son of the Soil’ is stereotyped as a typical Kenyan male, unapologetically chauvinistic, opinionated and self-indulgent, a narrative figure already partly defined and popularised by several other writers of popular literature such as Mangua, Kahiga and Maillu. But this character speaks for many ‘Sons of the Soil’. He epitomises their anxieties at a time of rapid social and political transformation. Within the context of the harsh political realities of the period, his name also gestures at certain forms of resistance, which I discuss shortly.

Mutahi indicated during one of my interviews that the character was among the most popular in the column, judging from the correspondence he received from readers. It is this character who inspires events and the mood of the column. Thatcher on the other hand became the model for the new Kenyan woman. In the 1980s, the most visible female symbol of “independence”, at The Consolata missionaries were Italian and some of these names reflect their influence around the Mt. Kenya region.

least in the popular imagination in Kenya was former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher was a popular figure in the Kenyan media and it is because of her visibility and her reputation as the “Iron Lady”, that the name was appropriated in the column to partly reflect the ‘new woman’. In the column, like the former premier, Thatcher is portrayed as a domineering woman, a matriarch who challenges maledom and its notions of “established order”. Thatcher is not the “good time girl”—the weak and fun loving woman of the city. Thatcher became the symbol of the changing times, portrayed as representing a new culture that privileged individual personal liberties. ‘The investment’ and Whispers Jr on the other hand were used as allegorical characters to represent an urban youth culture whose expressive dress sense and language symbolised their latent anxieties and desires in the new era.

These characters reject certain norms such as the perception of the girl in the family as a source of wealth. In fact, Mutahi explained in an interview that the naming of ‘The Investment’ was directly inspired by his father’s view of one of Mutahi’s sisters. Often, the old man would come back home drunk late in the night and call his daughter “my one thousand”. To Mutahi’s father, the daughter was an ‘investment’ whose returns would come with marriage. It is some of these issues that Mutahi attempts to address with ‘The Investment’. I give a detailed reading of these characters in a separate chapter.

Creating characters in Whispers necessitated a redefinition of among other things, the column’s language. Bardolph (1998) argues that the choice of language in popular writing also involves “a choice of readers, of tone, of concepts” (106). Bardolph observes that where this must be done, some writers “try to explore new modes that would address a society where diglossia is the norm” (107). These new modes involve the use of a language defined within particular socio-cultural spaces. Mutahi introduced a language that reflected the popular speech patterns in the country. This language undermines the dominant practices in fiction by reworking and subverting grammatical conventions especially of the English language. The column assumes a polyglot readership able to operate a complex set of mixed codes.

Latent in this writing is a construction of an audience defined by among other things, one’s ability to operate these mixed codes. Barber (1997b) supports the idea that a particular audience is formed on the basis of language, giving the example of Ghanaian concert party where language is used in the interpellation of readers as “citizens of a polyglot nation able to operate mixed codes while still remaining capable of addressing the condensed allusion of the discourses…” (354). The language in Whispers was also an attempt by the writer to dramatise the limits of the column’s circulation. By speaking a language of his readerships, Mutahi was in effect expanding the reach of the column. Below is an example of how this language is used in the column.



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