Interview with Peter Kimani author of Dance of the Jakaranda

Photo credit: Yusuf Wachira

Peter Kimani is an award-winning Kenyan author and journalist. He works across a broad spectrum of genres, from fiction to non-fiction, poetry and plays. His latest novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, was published in New York in February 2017, to great critical acclaim. Peter Kimani received his formal education in Kenya, the United Kingdom and the United States, where he earned a doctorate in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston in 2014.

A. Five fun-facts about myself

P.K. 1) Although I am quite cosmopolitan, having worked and studied in three different continents—Africa, Europe and America—I consider myself a village boy. I spent my formative years in a village just outside Nairobi.

2) I have never owned a watch, but for one week in 1990. This first and last memento was lost in a stadium melee. That was also the first and last time I went to the stadium to watch a game.

3) I grew up surrounded by women—my mother and two sisters. My sisters and I, as well as my wife’s sibling, have all produced boys. When they are all together, they make a fine mess!

4) I grew up listening to reggae and took it seriously enough to qualify for a career as an entertainment reporter for Nairobi’s Daily Nation!

5) I am nocturnal. My best writing hours are between 12am and 3am.

A. Where did the idea of writing about Kenya’s Iron Snake come from? 

P.K It was an appropriation of a local myth attributed to a Kenyan seer who dreamt of “white butterflies” whose arrival, he said, would presage the arrival of the Iron Snake. The prophecy came to pass; white butterflies were the white men who arrived to build the railway that set the colonial agenda in mission.

A. On the question of nation building and national identity, why was this important to explore through Rajan’s story?

P.K Rajan typifies the complex question of nationalism—and its limitations. His grandfather is one of the founding fathers of the nation, but he’s treated very shabbily. Rajan himself is threatened with deportation. This idea of who is truly Kenyan remains a very pertinent question, even in contemporary society. Quite recently, an individual was treated to a similar charade and deposited at the airport’s “no man’s land.” The State utilizes colonial legal relics to keep its critics beyond its shores, as happened 100 years ago.

A. The narrator has such a gripping voice. Who is the narrator in this novel? Would you consider the narrator as a character in their own right?

P.K The omniscient narrator is a character in his own right; he knows when to evoke laugher, elicit contemplation, or tease out the folly in others. It took many years and drafts to strike the right tenor. It wasn’t until I found this ironic, satirical tone that I finally felt confident that the voice could bear the weight of the story. Humour, particularly, is a useful trope in sustaining the humanity of the oppressed and subverting the power of the oppressors.

A. What was your process of researching the topic and finally choosing what to keep in, and what to leave out?

P.K I undertook enormous amounts of archival research, library searches, interviews, etc. This was useful in helping discern the social, cultural and political attitudes of the time. For instance, I went to the National Museums of Kenya to take a look at an actual dhow, the sort that coursed the Indian Ocean to deliver Indian workers and traders to the east African coast. But I was also aware that mine was not a re-enactment of history but its re-imagination. All I needed was an authentic understanding of the period. For instance, I knew when the wind blew and lifted Sally, MacDonald’s estranged wife’s dress, she revealed her drawers. In previous drafts, she wore nothing! But I verified the dress code of the time. So I went to such great lengths to verify such minute details. Still, some critics won’t lack hairs to split. One claimed the deer was yet to be introduced in the Kenyan wilds in the 1890s. Jesus Christ! I’m not writing about the Noah’s Ark!

A. Interestingly, your protagonists are all men connected with women who are equally strong-willed and complicated. Given how crucial Seneiya and Rehema are to the story, why do we not hear directly from them or know more of their story? 

P.K This has been a persistent question about the place of women in precolonial and postcolonial Africa. My novel is partly allegorical, equating the birth of a nation to that of contested tot. So Rehema (the name means redemption in Swahili), is quite significant.
I must admit that in my earlier drafts, the British governor for the colonies was a woman. My advisor spoke against it, saying women were unlikely to have held such positions at the turn of the 20th century. History bears those facts out: British women could not vote until 1919; blacks in America had to wait until 1965, and women in Kenya could not vote or own property until 1979.
So, Dance of the Jakaranda reflects the social and cultural attitudes of the time. Still, female characters have their own agency: Fatima is the brainchild behind Babu’s business empire; Sally subverts the racial hierarchy that McDonald upholds, and Mariam is the link between McDonald, Turnbull and Babu. That’s a lot of power to invest in one character! And I haven’t even talked about her influence on Rajan…

A. Why do you think it is important to return to colonial narratives?

P.K Because it is our turn to tell our story! Many hostile witnesses have told it on our behalf for four hundred years!

Dance of the Jakaranda is set in Kenya is on the verge of independence from British colonial rule. Following the building of the Uganda Railway, or the ‘Lunatic Express’ as it was dubbed by the British, this love story unearths secrets about the birth not just of an illicit child, but of an entire nation. Dance of the Jacaranda is published by Telegram (an imprint of Saqi Books) March 2018.

If you are interested in finding out more, check out the links below.

Twitter: (@KimaniPete)


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