Michael Sears interviews Peter Kimani about 'Nairobi Noir'

08 June 2020 - 11:27
By michael sears
'Nairobi Noir' is a dark, eye-opening collection of short stories.
Image: Supplied 'Nairobi Noir' is a dark, eye-opening collection of short stories.

Published in The Big Thrill (05/06/2020)

In their City Noir series, Akashic Books has been bringing out some eye-opening collections from Africa. The first sub-Saharan volume was Lagos Noir, fascinating in its diversity and uniform high quality. Accra Noir and Addis Ababa Noir are ahead, but Nairobi Noir is here now.

The editor, Peter Kimani, is a leading Kenyan journalist, academic, poet and novelist, and his book Dance of the Jakaranda was shortlisted for a number of major prizes.

In Nairobi Noir, he’s assembled a diverse set of Kenyan authors to take a hard look at their city. As Kimani puts it, “these are very illuminating optics.”

Publishers Weekly summed it up this way: “Racial, religious, and class divides are acutely observed in the 14 new stories from Kenyan writers. Crime fiction fans will find much to savour.”

Writing of the city and the collection itself, Kimani concludes his introduction with: “The Green City in the Sun (Nairobi) may have turned into a concrete jungle, but it is still enchanting. And the spirit of its forebears, the hunters and the herders and the hunted, still lives on.”

In this interview with The Big Thrill, Kimani shares insights behind the construction of this eye-opening anthology.

What motivated you to edit a collection of stories set exclusively in Nairobi?

I was commissioned by my publisher, Johnny Temple, to put together Nairobi Noir. One key consideration is that all stories in the anthology have to be set in one city.

You are a well-known author and journalist, but there is a broad spectrum of authors here, from writers just starting out to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Did you invite authors to contribute, or did you open it to anyone?

I did both. I reached out to individual writers, but also sent out calls for contributions. One contributor, for instance, attended my creative writing workshop, while another belonged to a reading club that hosted me. I’d use such forums to solicit for contributions. Nearly half the contributions did not make the grade.

One of the most satisfying elements of the anthology is that about half the contributors are first time writers, appearing in the same collection as one of the world’s best-known living writers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. As one contributor confessed, he was happy I did not divulge who the other contributors were because he would have felt very intimidated.

Nairobi Noir is very dark. Most of the stories give a depressing view of the city with its police corruption and extremes of poverty. A notable exception is the whimsical gem from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I presume the authors chose what to write within broad guidelines. Were you surprised by the approach they took?

I left it to the writers’ imagination to envision stories that gave life to the spaces they inhabit. Surprisingly, they all gestured toward issues of crime and punishment, law and (dis)order. These are very illuminating optics, for this is a city founded on strife.

The British colonial authorities enacted dubious land treaties that dispossessed the original inhabitants, and this noir spirit lurks in virtually every corner of the city. Even as I write this, in the shadow of a pandemic, there are distressing reports of police receiving bribes from folks who want to escape lawful quarantines — to return home and potentially, and knowingly, spread disease. Then there are government officials lining their pockets with funds meant for the most vulnerable, while homeless Kenyans have had their shanties demolished, rendered homeless, yet again.

To survive such vicissitudes, Nairobians use humour to survive a system that undermines their humanity. I believe there are adequate doses of humor in the stories to keep a reader entertained, while placing their pulse on the heart of the matter.

Click here to continue reading the interview.