Until recently, Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi was best known as a poet and as a commentator on African politics. But with the publication of his first novel, Nairobi Heat (Penguin Books), Mukoma, a SAGES fellow at Case Western Reserve University, has entered very different literary terrain.
Nairobi Heat is a detective story by an author hoping to bridge the gap between "serious" literature and popular fiction. Mukoma wanted to write a novel that was "fun to read," a book that made readers feel they were "on an exciting journey." But he also wanted to explore themes of race and identity, conscience and justice.
The novel begins in Madison, Wisconsin, when a young white woman is found murdered on the porch of an African professor — a man honored for his rescue efforts during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The investigation leads an African American detective to Kenya, where he finds reasons to question the professor's heroic image.
The novel was inspired by an incident from Mukoma's life. While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a graduate student in English, he came home early one morning to find a young woman passed out on the stairs to his upper-level apartment.
He called the police. An African American officer responded. The young woman, dressed in a cheerleader's uniform, was taken away by ambulance.
Afterwards, Mukoma wondered what would have happened if the woman had died. What would have been the outcome if an African American had investigated an African?
Mukoma's work is part of a literary resurgence taking place after years of government repression in Kenya. His first book, a collection of poems titled Hurling Words at Consciousness, appeared in 2006. Last year, one of his stories was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in African Writing, the continent's major literary award.
In addition, Mukoma is a columnist for the BBC's Focus on Africa magazine. His political writings have appeared in the Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, Chimurenga, the Los Angeles Times, the South African Labour Bulletin and the Business Daily African.
Among his major influences, Mukoma points to his father, the world-renowned novelist and postcolonial theorist Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
Ngugi was among the writers who suffered under the dictatorships of Jomo Kenyatta and then of Daniel arap Moi. In 1977, he was detained without trial for one year and eventually forced into exile in 1982. He left for Great Britain and later settled in the United States.
Mukoma was 11 years old when his father was driven from Kenya. "Any time my father did something political abroad, the government put pressure on the family at home," he recalled. "We were for all practical purposes hostages." The police sometimes raided their home in the small rural town of Limuru, and people who dared to associate with them lost their jobs and were threatened by the government.
When the political situation overwhelmed the family, his older siblings entertained Mukoma and his younger sister by telling stories about a cowboy named Mwangi.
"They would start whistling, and we knew they would begin to tell us a cowboy story," he recalls. "They always stopped at a suspenseful point."
Later, he realized they were making up the plot as they went along and only stopped because they'd run out of ideas. Still, the stories were enough to raise his spirits.
Although he spent nearly all of his early life in Kenya, Mukoma was born in the United States. At the time, his father was a visiting professor at Northwestern University. At age 19, Mukoma returned to the U.S. to attend Albright College in Pennsylvania and has lived in this country ever since.
His most recent impressions of Africa derive from visits he has made with his father. When the two of them go to Kenya, undercover security forces escort them through the street. This experience, Mukoma says, helped shape Nairobi Heat. In portraying some of his characters, he drew on stories the security officers had told him.
He also brings the continent to life in his SAGES seminar on African literature. Examining issues that have affected Africa over the past half century, his students read some of his father's works along with Helon Habila's Waiting for an Angel, Nawaal Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero and Tayeb Saleh's Season of Migration to the North.
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