(An article originally published, in 2011, on the now defunct Princess Project Kenya website.)
My urge to write is driven by obsessions: radioactive creatures (with tickly legs) creep out of my brain, scurry down my arm, bounce around my fingers, infiltrate my pen, and finally come out as my handwriting, contaminating every word.
Hinga polishes a beer glass and sees a cockroach investigating the bar counter. He whiplashes it with the napkin he holds, sending the insect into boozed paroxysms of near death.
It’s not a phenomenon of writerly technique or rigor or craft that puts the cockroach within Hinga’s eyeshot, but some obsession launching out like a 3 stage rocket, from deep within my genetic coding, and going into orbit around story world. That’s what.
And it just so happens I am in the mood, tonight, to share, in no particular order of importance, my seven biggest obsessions (and my thoughts on them). Here goes:
‘Sunbeam proof, I hang like a roof’ – Shelley.
Some Nairobians go beer watching when they have free time.
Others engage in TV watching without realising what a fatal waste of time this is. Whenever I see gangs of people huddled around Panasonic screens in some Premier League or Churchill Live frenzy, I feel I am watching a bunch of frogs swimming inside a big sufuria. The sufuria is warming over a big jiko, slowly coming to a boil, and the frogs in it are oblivious to what’s cooking.
Some are more daring and go to Apple Bees where a DJ sometimes announces a ‘special offer’ over the disco – go onto the stage, take off your clothes and dance with a professionally naked lady and win a month’s pass to the VIP lounge – and a guy climbs onto the stage and removes his clothes and dances skin to skin with the professionally naked lady and after a couple of minutes she bends over and sucks him. It’s such a surprise that the guy blows his nut right in her mouth, in front of the whole screaming crowd below, and the professionally naked lady is equally surprised and quickly unbends over and dashes offstage, spitting out the contents in her mouth.
Yet others have the heavier addiction of internet watching and plan to die surfing the web.
I prefer something less urban, less bourgeoisie and more natural – cloud watching.
I can’t say when my fascination began but I have a clear memory of one particular Sunday afternoon from childhood. My parents were taking a siesta, Nairobi was quiet, the sun was out and these great white islands were floating in the blue sky. I took a pillow and went out to the veranda, lay down on the floor of it and looked skyward.
I saw a sea: High Cirrus’ spread finely like beach sand, slow waves of muscular cumulus approaching the beach and crashing on it; a large grey whale of Strato-Nimbus inching in from the south. A jetliner zoomed through the deeper waters and left behind a 3 pronged fork trail of Alto-Airbus, if there is such a cloud. Some cumulus waves had overbulging muscles, and the cloudscape turned epically monstrous and mushroomy, that it seemed the sea was turned into a nuclear weapons test site.
INSECTS & BUGS
‘Cockroach whose mind is pure machinery’ – Ginsberg.
Last week I had an embarrassing moment. We were four gentlemen (dressed in power suits) and two ladies (dressed in even more powerful skirts) having coffee at an upmarket joint. Our executive folders and diaries, laptops and pens lied on top of a white table cloth, along with the shining crockery.
Then one of the gentlemen passed me an important document and asked me to peruse it. I laid it flat on the white table cloth and looked, when, from under a table-corner, crawled out a cockroach. It moved in a start-stop motion, every now and then twitching its mustachio whiskers, and it crawled onto the document and there it froze.
My colleagues summoned a waiter and it should have been nothing much. But this cockroach was fat and juicy – about three inches long and half inch oval wide. Its head had a lovely yellow stain, its main body burnt red wings, and the spiky dark green legs carried and balanced the weight of its body with shock absorber efficiency. Yes, it stood still but those mustachio whiskers still twitched, caressing the words of the document with great intelligence. It was a beautiful cockroach.
Perhaps my colleagues sympathised with the close attention I was paying the insect, maybe they thought I was exhibiting a displeasure that was well measured out. But then I took a napkin from the table and whiplashed the cockroach. Its mushy inner body spread out like butter over a radius of few inches on the document. I moved my head closer to examine the post-mortem scenario better, even taking a toothpick to prod around the remains. I wonder what my colleagues thought.
After all, they didn’t know I once found a scorpion on my way back from school. It looked translucent and was overturned in the soil. It was dead. I picked it up and examined it. It didn’t look as dangerous as in the books and TV. I put it in my school bag. At home, I stored it in a small box. Surprisingly, it did not seem to rot away. For like a month it stayed intact, I still cannot figure out why, maybe it wasn’t dead, maybe it was just hibernating, and only afterwards did it start to shrink.
They didn’t know I collected cockroaches as a kid. At one point, in my box, I had forty three of them and one day I tried an experiment. I had recently gotten a kitten and back then I had an abnormal fetish for doing sad things to helpless kittens. I took my kitten and put it in the box together with my cockroaches. I left it alone there. The kitten started mewing after a few minutes. Maybe it was hungry but the idea of what would come out from the surely combustible mixture of cockroaches and a kitten left me in tantalizing suspense. I ignored its mews. Only on the following day did I open the box. An anti-climax. The cockroaches and kitten just sat there not bothering each other.
‘Skin head/Dead head/ Everybody gone bad/ In the sink/ On the loo/ Everybody dog food.’ – MJ
In nursery school I had a music teacher called Julia Wigglesworth. She played the piano and the rest of us clapped and sang ba-ba-black-sheep, twinkle twinkle little star and so on. Sometimes she played only the raw chords and we had to guess the nursery rhyme. One day she played something unique, strange and catchy. We didn’t know that one. The next day she brought us the words to sing with: “You better run, you better do what you can…” I fell in love with the music.
Many years later, when the internet came to Kenya, I searched various sites for documents and news reports and police interrogation transcripts and court transcripts. I wanted to be sure.
The guy did nothing.
It was a case of white supremacists from the backyards and horseshit yards of Santa Barbara County playing a dirty game on an innocent black man. The white supremacists were the polished and accomplished media bitches called Diane Dimond or Nancy Grace, they were the shark-brained lawyers called Larry Feldman, they were the conman kid called Jordan Chamdler, and above them all, the white supremacists were the ‘Mad Dog’ District Attorney, the Cold Man himself, Tom Sneddon. You could say I am a die-hard fan and so it’s easy for me to believe all this, but it sucks when fellow Kenyans fall for the white supremacists’ tabloid junk.
And I’ll never forget Julia Wigglesworth.
‘At the age of seven we were suddenly speared by a premonition of the life to come as we stared unthinkingly into that bright, liquid mirror of the street.’ – Henry Miller.
It rains then it stops. Puddles of water collect here and there, microscopic lakes with still water. I stand by the edge of one. The whole world is inside. The sky and all the nearby buildings, the nearby bushes and trees and flowers, parked cars, people walking. I jump in and swim in the sky.
‘Science Fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.’ – Philip K. Dick
At the end of Form Four, I stole fourteen books from the St. Mary’s School library. I didn’t think it was stealing and still don’t – all the date stamps show nobody else borrowed them but I. Five of them were chess books and the remainder Philip K. Dick novels. That was the entire Philip K. Dick collection the school had.
Now, there is a lot of hullabaloo about them so called ‘Literary Writers’. Other writers apparently lack essential qualities these ones have. Well, this is my sweeping statement to that stereotyped assertion: Philip K. Dick is a greater storyteller with a greater imagination than Charles Dickens, Jonathan Franzen and Ngugi Wa Thiongo combined.
Science Fiction is a delicious world. Maybe it’s the greatest fiction genre in ‘literature.’ The Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, or any amphetamine driven prose orgy will always be more meaningful to many millions around the world than say Madame Bovary or Disgrace or Harare North.
“I really love the dark of the night. It helps me to concentrate.” – Bobby Fischer
It wasn’t much of a game at first. From a beginner’s book I figured out a simple winning formula: grab material, exchange down and checkmate. I beat everyone in primary school and afterwards everyone there stopped playing chess with me. That should have been the end of the affair.
Then one day I was aimlessly flipping through an Encyclopaedia Britannica volume, in the school library, and hit upon an extensive chess entry. I read through. It detailed the classical history of the game and its evolution through time. This aroused my interest, so I tore off the two dozen or so pages (photocopiers were not popular things in those early 1990’s days) and took them home.
There were some famous games in it written in a cryptic looking ‘algebraic chess notation’. Luckily, the Britannica piece had a breakdown on how this worked. I set up the board and pieces and played through my very first master game – Adolf Anderssen vs Lionel Kieseritzsky, London 1851, the so called ‘Immortal Game’. Anderssen made a mockery of my ‘winning formula’ – he cast his bishop before swine, donated rooks to charity, and finally threw his queen to the dogs. And Anderssen won. My head exploded. I thought I had seen the first miracle in life.
‘Longing on a large scale is what makes history’ – DeLillo.
I take you inside the mind of my fourteen year old self:
I got flu. Blow my nose on the blanket. Blanket is snot-studded with tiny mucous islands. What a shit month. Dark April. Cold grey clouds everywhere and cold everything. It’s like I have opened the door of the deep freeze and am breathing in the frozen air. There are two pillows under my head and I am lying down, the mucous blanket covering me.
This guy is muscled like a classical greek sculpture. An American footballer. He’s holding the oval ball in his hands. He has a v-shaped upper body filled with hard rocks. Behind him are tall goal posts. American football. And behind everything is a rising mushroom cloud. It’s a slim hardcover novel. Yellowing pages, this book is rotting. Dad told me it’s been around since he was a kid. He hasn’t read this one. He said he tried and never understood a thing. He didn’t like science fiction. That’s why I am going to read it.
The first chapters are so strange. The writer himself sounds strange. Who is this Don DeLillo? But I like it. It’s very strange in a nice way. All the characters are nice. There are no enemies in this story. It’s a singular world too, a college at the edge of a desert. And nothing else. All the characters are super intelligent. They are like some outer space race only that they are all human and very physically fit. They talk about too many intelligent things.
Oh my! The mid section. This guy is translating an American football game into words. My God! This is just like chess annotations. How can somebody do this? I know these science fiction guys sniff a lot of drugs and he sounds Italian enough to do it. Don DeLillo.
Nice people who sweat and hurt each other on the field so much, who think about nuclear war simultaneously, and they have very fat girlfriends who they call ‘beautiful’, and they eat so much good food and they listen to abuse from their coaches such that it’s confusing whether it’s advise or abuse, and in class they learn about the evolution of pre-historic microbes who would one day grow up to play American football.
Just my kind of book. Lithe missiles are coming out of their silos and they are playing American football in the snow.
I take you out of my fourteen year old mind and leave you with random excerpts from some Don DeLillo novels:
Hours later, after we had both missed dinner, Bloomberg rolled over on his back. He managed this without taking his hands from their position behind his neck. He used his elbows as levers and brakes, as landing gear. It seemed some kind of test – to move one’s body 180 degrees without changing the relationship among its parts. (From End Zone)
I spurred the frisky Mustang past hundreds of bungalows, guest cottages and motels, twenty-five hundred miles from Marlboro country, and neon lobster phantasms swam across the wet road. It was evening when we got to Millsgate, a small white town on Penobscot Bay. The rain had stopped and we had dinner in a fishnet restaurant and then set out on foot to search for Bobby Brand’s ascetic garage, Brand in exile, Brand junkless, Brand writing the novel that would detonate in the gut of America like a fiery bacterial bombshell. (From Americana)
She knew he was trying to sense it, she was awake. He was on the verge of saying something or leaning over to touch. He would probably touch, rise on an elbow and touch her at the hip with his hand curled soft. She felt his desire like an airstream in the dark. He was waiting, thinking if this was the time. His own wife and he had to think. (From Libra)
She thought of the prehistoric reptiles that came mutating out of the slime and the insects with chromosome damage poking from the desert near some test site, ants the size of bookmobiles – these were movies for the drive-ins of the fifties, a boy and girl yanking at each other’s buckles and snaps while the bomb footage unfurls and the giant leeches and scorpions appear on the horizon, all radioactive and seeking revenge, and the fleeing crowds, of course, because in the end these creatures not only come from the bomb but displace it, and the armies mobilise and the crowds flee and the sirens wail like sirens. (From Underworld)
My helmet, wobbling slightly, rocking, was on the floor between my feet. I looked into it. I felt sleepy and closed my eyes. I went away for a while, just one level down. Everything was far away. I thought (or dreamed) of a sunny green garden with a table and two chairs. There was a woman somewhere, either there or almost there, and she was wearing clothes of another era. There was music. She was standing behind a chair now, listening to a Bach cantata. It was Bach all right. When I lost the woman, the music went away. But it was still nice. The garden was still there and I felt I could add to it or take away from it if I really tried. Just to see if I could do it, I took away a chair. Then I tried to bring the woman without the music. Somebody tapped my head and I opened my eyes. I couldn’t believe where I was. Suddenly my body ached all over. They were getting up and getting ready to move out. I was looking into Roy Yellin’s chewed-up face. (From End Zone)