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Mirror And World
by Isabel Huggan

A good journalist whips into town and grasps the essence. A good fiction writer must get under the skin of a place and its people, under her own skin and into her soul as she dwells there EARLIER this year while in France I had dinner with A French academic, an authority on both Canadian and African literature who teaches at the University of Nice. She talked over dessert about how much Margaret Laurence had been influenced by the oral traditions of Africa,, and how that exposure to tale?telling had shaped her writing.

I counter ? suggested that Laurence had not only grown up with Bible stories being read to her, she had instinctively learried to listen for stories and had very early developed her "ear"; and that Christie in The Diviners was a way of paying homage to that, Scottish heritage from which she had acquired the storyteller's art of weaving one's history into the present.

"Ah, yes, perhaps," admitted the professor in that tone which actually admits nothing. "But she didn't realize the importance of her inheritance until after she'd lived in Africa."

MONTHS later, back in Nairobi, Kenya, where I have been living since 1987, 1 am still picking away at that conversation, sucking the bones to find some meaning for myself. The truth is, I'm a slow learner; it takes me a long time to put things together, to edge around and tinker about and figure out what's what. What, I wonder, am I learning here? And what will it have to do with writing fiction?

Perhaps it is too soon to tell. Perhaps these things can only be known in hindsight, or be discovered by professors in need of another paper for another symposium. But for now, it seems, what I am most learning is silence.

There are many reasons for silence ,here, both for my own stilled voice and the muted voices of others. For myself, it has sprung from a new humility, faced 'With the limits imposed by language. I find myself turning to a camera frequent ly, to supplement my daily journal ? the tools I have always used to capture experience and pin it on the page seem blunted now. I have been struck dumb by beauty, beauty that offen walks hand in hand with appalling circumstance so that one cannot be spoken of without the other. Even learning ?all the. new nouns specific to place ? jacaranda and bombax, ibis and gerunuk, ugali and irio, Kalenjin and Kariobangi ? I am stymied by the necessity of context for these words. I feel like someone given a great joke to tell, but always with the downside?catch: "You really hadda be there

Maybe this is just the complaining of a frustrated documentarist who has trouble translating onto paper the rich spicy, smell of red African soil after rain, a blend of mint and honey And cinnamon rising: from the mud. . . oh no, that doesn't describe it. It's better than that, better by far. ("It's the smell that gets you," said Audrey Thomas, right in that as in so much else.)

As for fiction, I came with a bundle of incomplete stories for the next book and they are still largely unfinished. Because, se, I tell the agent and editor who wait back home, in order to write the old stories I must close my eyes to life here. It is that simple. And with my eyes open to Africa, I am seeing an enormous and vibrant canvas against which my minia tures, my pastel portraits of middle?class women and children fine?tuning their emotional lives, appear to be irrelevant, or worse, self?indulgent. My harsh judgement is political as well as aesthetic and, yes, my fiction suffers now from the weight of liberal white guilt.

Yet it is too soon for me to be writing stories from. this perspective. I simply don't know enough yet. A good journalist whips into town and grasps, the essence; but a good fiction writer must get under the skin of a place and its people, under her own 'skin and into her soul as she dwells there. And here my. silence springs from the growing realization that innocence, especially innocence stemming from the ignorance of privilege, is no longer a virtue but a sin. I am not alone in this ? look at some of the recent white fiction coming out of Africa: Whites, by Norman Rush, or Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, by Maria Thomas, two collections of stories brimming with despair and cynicism. If we write about ourselves, as expatriate whites here, we have little good to say; and if we ?write about, or as if we are, Africans, unless we have been here a very long time we risk superficiality, a lack of authenticity and accuracy. This doesn't have to do with our colour so much as with something else, something underneath: understanding with the heart as well as the eyes takes more than time.

Sometimes I think that in this city dominated by United Nations organizations I should be writing another kind of prose: articles about family planning or breast?feeding or AIDS prevention, putting my skills to meaningful use. In fact, social conscience has silenced one of Kenya's writers during this decade; but before 1980, Grace 0got had written several books, short stories and novels (The Promised Land, Land Without Thunder, The Other Woman, The Island of Tears, The Graduate). In some, she retold Kenyan folktales so that they had contemporary applicability; in. others, she dissected the life she saw around her' after independence (in 1963) as roles were changing at every level of Kenyan society. Her fiction was entirely concerned with reflecting her world back to itself, and eventually she tired of holding up a mirror and entered the world.

I met Grace Ogot in her government office where she works as assistant minister for culture and social services. As a member of parliament since 1983, and a loyal supporter of President Moi (who abhors interference in his country by "outside" organizations such as Amnesty International), it is not surprising that, she disregarded the invitation I brought her from P.E.N. International to attend the World Congress in Toronto/Montreal in September. She was polite and dutiful as I asked questions about her fiction, but only when we turned to her real work did she become animated and vivacious. Now she is assisting rural women in achieving their goals of becoming more independent and financially secure. Getting a posho mill (for grinding maize into flour) is a priority for one group; for another, it is getting water piped into their village, saving women hours and miles of walking time each day. Until these women can improve their actual lives ? and the lives of their children ? fiction must take second place to political engagement.

Political involvement of another kind has also silenced the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who's much, more widely known than Grace Ogot. You can find his novels in Canada (Weep Not, Child, The River Between, Petals of Blood, A Grain of Wheat), and although he is exiled in Britain, those same books are available in Kenya too. It was the radical nature of his politics, expressed in the plays he wrote for the Kamiriithu Theatre (which has since been torn down), and the searing criticism of Kenyan society inherent in those plays which put him "out of favour": perhaps the novels are still allowable because fiction, even in one of Africa's most literate nations, does not have the power to galvanize its audience into action the way that drama can. Strangely, now that Ngugi lives abroad and can write as he pleases, he has chosen to muffle his voice by no longer writing in English, the language of the oppressor. When you read his splendid collection of essays, Decolonising the Mind, his decision to write only in Gikuyu or Kiswahili makes perfect sense; yet this is silence, and in his silence one can hear the danger of anger, of reprisal, and finally, in the echoing emptiness, one acknowledges the failure of language.

And so I sit with my fingers numb on the typewriter keys, wondering what stories I am meant to tell. From my window I watch, knowing now by the stirring of the branches in the blue gum tree exactly the moment the vervet monkeys will appear. They come ? tame enough now to eat from my hand ?and I go out to feed them. I sit on the grass and look into the shifty, furtive eyes of the female monkey who is my favourite. She yanks the banana away sharply and shoots me a quick victorious glance. She is instantly up the tree again, waiting to see what I will do next. I sit silently, waiting too.


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