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Sat July 13, 2013

Searching For Clues In A Dangerous Nairobi

Originally published on Sat July 13, 2013 3:39 pm

In a new work of crime fiction from author Mukoma Wa Ngugi you still have the detective and his buddy, the mysterious body that turns up at the outset, and the crazy bar where the cops and criminals hang out together. Only this time, we're not in Scandinavia, or South Florida or on Mystic River. We're in a Nairobi beset with political violence, hotel bombings and ethnic warfare.

Black Star Nairobi is the second in a series from Ngugi, and he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden about his own Kenyan and American upbringing, the identity struggles of the novel's protagonist — an African-American detective from Wisconsin, and the inspiration for the violence permeating the story.


Interview Highlights

On the story taking place during the aftermath of Kenya's 2007 presidential elections

"In this novel I'm driven by the question of violence. In the post-electoral violence of 2007 it was a sort of intimate violence where it was neighbor-against-neighbor — people who knew each other. And there are a lot of questions that arose ... questions of class, the question of the whole democratic process. So I wanted to have characters, you know, who are running around trying to do their case, you know, but all the while being drawn back, you know, by the power, by the powerful nature of the violence that broke out."

On coming to terms with his own identity

"For a very long time I had difficulty, you know, accepting that I was an American citizen because I grew up in Kenya, my parents are Kenyan, my nationality really is Kenyan. And then I came to the U.S. and at some point I had to realize, wow, I've been in the U.S. now longer then I've been in Kenya."

"In a way I do mirror — or maybe Ishmael mirrors — you know, my struggles for identity. Eventually I had to tell myself, 'Who decides a person can have only one identity? Who is the gatekeeper of identity?' And I just decided to acknowledge, to live out, my multiple identities."

On choosing the detective novel genre

"I do have this attraction to the form because with the form you can do so much. Not only can you tell a very, very entertaining story ... but you can explore societal issues. In this case I look at the war on terror, the violence coming from the war on terror, the post-electoral violence. ... It allows you to look at very, very extreme situations, extreme violence, a society just about to explode in a way that I don't think you can do with realist fiction."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

In a new work of crime fiction, you still have the detective and his buddy, the mysterious body that turns up at the outset, the crazy bar where the cops and criminals hang out together. Only this time, we're not in Scandinavia or South Florida. We're in Nairobi, beset with political violence, hotel bombings, ethnic warfare.

"Black Star Nairobi" is the second in a series from Mukoma Wa Ngugi. The novel opens with a dead body in a forest and two detectives who arrive to investigate.

MUKOMA WA NGUGI: As they're looking into that, there's a bomb explosion. And then they realize the two of them are connected. So they end up investigating the murder and the bomb explosion through al sorts of adversary or situations.

LYDEN: Ishmael Fofona is the protagonist of "Black Star Nairobi," and his creator is author Mukoma Wa Ngugi who says the name was a nod to Moby Dick.

NGUGI: So I named him Ishmael because he's on a quest. But he's a black American detective who hails from Madison, Wisconsin. In "Black Star Nairobi," you find him now already settled in Kenya. But in the previous book, "Nairobi Heat," it's an investigation of a murder that sends him to Kenya. So he's an African-American detective on a quest for identity. And while in Kenya then, his Kenyan counterpart - his name is Odhiambo - for short, goes by O.

And then there's Muddy, the femme fatale of the book, who is a rundown survivor of the genocide and also was part of the arm struggle.

LYDEN: It's set in such an eventful time in Kenyan history, 2007, during the Kenyan presidential elections, which led to this really disputed outcome, a lot of violence. Why did you choose this particular timeframe?

NGUGI: In this novel, I'm driven by the question of violence. In the post-electoral violence of 2007, it was a sort of intimate violence where it was neighbor against neighbor, people who knew each other. And there are a lot of questions that arose, you know, from the 2007 post-electoral violence and - questions of class, the question of the whole democratic process. So I wanted to have characters, you know, who are running around trying to do their case, you know, but all the while being drawn back, you know, by the power - by the powerful nature of the violence that broke out.

LYDEN: I want to ask you a little bit more about Kenya. You spent a lot of time there. You were born in Evanston, Illinois, but you grew up in Kenya. Your father is the very famous Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo. And you live here now. You teach English at Cornell University. I'd like to ask more about the influence that Kenya has on your writing.

NGUGI: Well, you know, for a very long time, I had difficulty, you know, accepting that I was an American citizen, because I grew up in Kenya, my parents are Kenyan, my nationality, really, is Kenyan. And then I came to the U.S. And at some point, I had to realize, wow, I've been in the U.S. now longer than I lived in Kenya.

In a way, I do mirror - or maybe Ishmael mirrors, you know, my struggles for identity. You know, and eventually, I had to tell myself, who decides a person can have only one identity? I mean, who is the gatekeeper of identity? And I just decided to acknowledge, to live out my multiple identities.

LYDEN: Let me ask you a little bit about this genre and your father. Your father is a very acclaimed novelist in Kenya and elsewhere, of course. Why did you choose a detective novel as your approach to literature?

NGUGI: You know, we actually just did an even together in London where he said that I've done something he's never been able to do, which is to write a detective story. And "Petals of Blood," you know, he says he meant it to be detective story.

LYDEN: One of your father's most famous books.

NGUGI: Yeah. Yeah, which to me, I find very funny, you know, because, well, it doesn't read like a detective novel. But I do have this attraction to the form because with the form, you can do so much. Not only can you tell a very, very entertaining story, but you can explore societal issues. It allows you to look at very, very extreme situations, extreme violence, a society just about to explode in a way that I don't think you can do with realist fiction.

LYDEN: And the other thing is you are also a poet and Ishmael's girlfriend, Muddy, is a spoken word artist. And after the death of one friend of hers, she does this kind of spontaneous eulogy. Could you read that part, please?

NGUGI: Yeah, sure.

(Reading) Let me tell you a story about a word, one word that is as old as the very earth we walk on, a word that crosses boundaries, that swims underneath the currents of culture, a word that is a language. Let me tell you a story about the word love. When love was born, love was living. This love, there was newborn and old. And young love say to older love, or was it the other way around?

Love say to love, love is birth, love is living and love is death. Love is gentle, love is fierce, love is violent, love is God and love is the devil, and love forgets more than it remembers. But tonight, this morning that is still a night, love is the vehicle that drove us here. Love is us.

LYDEN: That is so beautiful.

NGUGI: Yeah, thank you. With Muddy, I wanted her to - because she comes from a very, very traumatic past, but she tries to deal with it through words. In "Black Star Nairobi," there's a question of whether it actually it was enough, you know, because she keeps reverting back to violence. Violence is her first language, and then poetry is something that she's trying to learn.

LYDEN: Yeah. So you'll go back to teaching. I just think, though, that this cannot clearly be the end for you. I mean, I'm sure - and I certainly hope - we'll see O and Ishmael and Muddy live again in another book.

NGUGI: Yeah, I'm a little bit worried because the way they leave each other at the end of the book, something has to give. Ishmael is really - I think to my mind, he's losing it. He has lost a grasp of the idea that he was for justice, you know? He's in a very, very vulnerable place. So I'm not sure exactly what will happen in the third one, but I'm looking forward to the adventure as well.

LYDEN: That's Mukoma Wa Ngugi, author of the new book "Black Star Nairobi." Mukoma, it's been a terrific pleasure. Thanks so much.

NGUGI: Yeah. Thank you for having me as well. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.