20 December 2006

Ships in High Transit

Below is a discussion by Njihia Mbitiru of "Ships in High Transit" by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Thank you to everyone who so kindly wrote of their anticipation of the following:

Around the age of twelve I took a highly significant shit. The actual shitting was not that special; what gave this otherwise banal episode an aura of importance was what happened after: as I pushed down the handle, I noticed for the first time, painted on the side of the porcelain tank in faded bold print: Made in Sussex.
That same evening I told my father of my discovery, expecting as children typically do that parental enthusiasm for the banal would be equal to or greater than their own, not understanding that by the time older folk have started having kids, the exotic origins of the downstairs crapper are as banal as the shit they were made to move.
Matano's boss may very well have his toilets made in Sussex and shipped to Kenya and all parts of the Commonwealth. I went on to peg most every toilet I saw and used with identical features as of British origin. Though I can’t fairly say I make a conscious association, hydraulic disposal of personal waste has an air of Albion stronger than say, wearing shirts and pants my ancestors would not consider proper clothing.
How interesting then, to read this excellent story, which extends the metaphoric potential of waste production and disposal into a meditation on history, identity, and the vagaries of negotiating both. (Spoilers start here).

Armitage Shanks, one of that class of not-quite Brits, has decided he should perhaps aspire to the “heroism” of his ancestors, of shipping "heavy ceramic water closets around the world".

So he decides to make shit up (Note: I can't promise I'll stay away from all the easy excremental puns--please bear with my enthusiasm). Enter the Maa, a piece of fakery both rank and grandiloquent.
The story of the Maa People niftily synthesizes the most common stereotypical narratives about Africa, and draws on that reliable saw of everyone from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard (whose brother, by the way, was for a time a colonial District Officer stationed in Kenya) to Leo Frobenius: a group of isolated primitives is somehow in possession of ancient wisdom, which they have intuitive (and therefore degenerate and inferior) access to. Typically there's a pile of old stuff to go along with this mystical power, tied to it in some ineffable way. While this intuition is beyond the pale, so to speak, simply unacceptable as the route to that legacy, it takes the right person to come along and use his superior faculties in claiming that antediluvian prize.
It's also this apparently innate superiority that turns primitive intuition, itself a mask placed on the "Other", into a non-threatening artifact (Matano’s astute disappointment with the desire of Westerners to turn a person into an index of exotic features, for example). And the story is full of these ostensibly non-threatening artifacts, like Matano, Abdullahi, Otieno a.k.a Ole Lenana, and the "Maa" women arrayed in the hotel courtyard to sing for Armitage--I mean Ole um Shambalaa's guests.

All involved in the local end of the charade understand, like um Shambalaa, that making shit up pays. And all are prepared to go to the necessary lengths (i.e. “making a white man your pussy” as Otieno does, getting in business with Nigerians— Matano’s secret sex tape) in order to realize profits.

No desires—especially the sexual kind—are ever anything but part of a sales pitch. Everything is a hustle. Everything has a price, and the rapacious hunger for profit is only successful in the degree to which it identifies and secures an equally rapacious desire for what is on offer.

I’m thinking of the pitches in the story, first Shanks, then that of Prescott and Jean Paul (as seen through Matano’s eyes), Abdullahi’s, the anonymous panting-into-the-receiver monologue for the “SugarOhHoneyHoneyMommy” in Germany, and the unwittingly self-parodying macho bluster of the beach boy. The story could even be seen as a parody of a sales pitch, pointed bitingly at its own absurd debasing premise. Everyone has something to sell. The goods are a body and history is a marketing strategy.

On the other end are the Jean-Paul and Prescotts, themselves in search of an angle, of something to sell and a way to sell it, and the working class European tourists taking a vacation from twelve months spent in “some air-conditioned industrial plant”, availing themselves of the pleasures their history has prepared them to seek after, again and again, and that the locals are working overtime to convince them is really their hearts’ desire.

There is plenty in this single story to think over, and it’s a testament to Wainaina’s acuity and skill that he is able to suggest in just a single story about tourism the devastation wrought on a whole continent by the relentless application of the pernicious logic underlying this sad business.

Earlier I told a story about my early experience with a toilet, and if I may, I’d like to take a cue from Wainaina and, at the risk of being excessive, tie that encounter more firmly to the story.

The promises and injunctions of colonialism are those of the toilet. With independence came the realization that, in fact, both the revamped toilet and the shit it was supposed to disappear could still provide an entertaining spectacle (the secret raison d‘etre of tourism?), if only because the nation-state-toilet was now a caricature of its former pure, guided-by-the-enlightened-European self, a thing now made of shit. Shit disappearing more shit; developed, highly industrialized others may come attend the museal proceedings, and for a hefty price, extracted by the locals with cynical resignation, indulge in purging themselves into various flavors of delight.

Shanks’ efforts are ironic in their production of the very thing his family devoted itself to making disappear. His desire to sanitize his past is simply more bullshit proffered in the hopes of making money. Matano and the rest chase that money, and find themselves laboring to produce shit facsimiles of their history, their selves, for the pleasure of others. It is still possible to do things like provide for one’s own, to make sure that “things will appear in the household” and “school fees…mysteriously paid”, but these minor victories cannot be weighed decisively against the logic to which all efforts are finally bent.

And so the wheel turns as before, a sad dirty secondhand joke laughing mirthlessly at itself. For money.

Topical exegesis aside, the story is put together well enough, and I’m looking forward to that promised novel. I suspect Wainaina’s will find the novel a more amenable form than the short story.

I do wish the story were leaner. There are extraneous bits whose variant repetition of thematic concerns does not seem to add to the story. For example, the paragraph about the village is a distraction and should have been left out. Same goes for the one featuring the Texan.

Otieno is an interesting character, particularly in the context of an aggressively homophobic society, who should’ve had more space in the story. The lamentably common stereotype of coast-dweller as more susceptible to the foreigner-introduced “perversion” of homosexuality receives comparatively little treatment for a story so deftly concerned with the production of stereotypes. Wainaina could have gone further.

Jean Paul’s view of the proceedings would have made for a satisfying counterpoint to the well-handled treatment of Sixty Minute Lady. I also wanted to hear more from the “Maa” women, who always appear as a group. Why not as individuals? Isn’t there one local woman—Giriama femme to Matano’s homme—who might have featured with the same prominence as the other more visible characters? I’m not interested in the reproduction of social inequities in the structure of a story purportedly about those inequities; I am unlikely to learn anything interesting if this is the case.

In this sense the writer appears to share the blind spot of his main protagonist. This is less a negative criticism than the recognition by an artist that one is always working within the parameters of a received discursive imperative, and whether or not we hew to the injunction that we must obey this imperative, I find the most rewarding literary experiences (reading, writing, and discussion) come from an investigation of the marginal and “distasteful”.

Some little things, such as a Swedish man named Jean Paul, I found mildly distressing.

Marechera references are always a plus, and I encourage those unfamiliar with this extraordinary Zimbabwean writer to read Black Sunlight, from which the line “ and the mirror reveals me, a naked and vulnerable fact” is taken, as well as House of Hunger, The Black Insider, and Cemetery of Mind, all of which are readily available in the US. For those in Zim, send me a copy of Mindblast!

This is a longer post than I intended, but honestly it doesn’t feel long enough. I hope this story receives the attention it deserves, for its merits as a fine piece of fiction that is part of what Borges might have called our universal patrimony, and also as one of the best short stories to have been written by a Kenyan in a long time.