Kate Haines: What do you most admire about your father’s writing style?
Mukoma wa Ngugi: My favourite book and I teach it, is A Grain of Wheat. I like A Grain of Wheat, because certainly the political questions are there – betrayal, colonialism, violence – but I find it fascinating the way the questions are outside, so we get to see the characters still going about their lives. My favourite scene in that book is when all the kids – at that point they are still young, the betrayals and the deaths haven’t come yet – are competing against each other to see who will get to the train first. As it turns out, this is something they used to do as kids.
Going back to some of the differences, I feel that for him realist fiction works. For me, I feel I can’t do a straight-up realist book because there were so many ridiculous things that happened when I was growing up. For example you couldn’t dream of Kenyatta’s death or at some point you couldn’t gather more than 5 people – you had to get a permit. I started thinking of that when I taught Helon Habila’sWaiting for an Angel, which is told in fragmented voices. I kept thinking ‘how can you capture that Nigeria in straight up realist fiction?’ For a generation that grows up with all kinds of ridiculous but iconic things – how do you capture that? When you look at Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, I think that is the reason why it is sort of fragmented. There are high levels of absurdity, but at the same time there are tragedies that are happening, people are dying and there is absolute poverty. You can’t deal with that in a straight memoir. Whereas my Dad’s memoir is a narrative that has a beginning, and follows that through. Thinking about my detective fiction, I don’t know if I could have these extreme characters in a realist novel.
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