11 January 2007

Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

While at the SLS/Kwani? conference in Kenya, I was in a workshop led by M.G. Vassanji, and one day when we had some extra time, he walked with a group of us to the city center in Nairobi. Our first stop was Prestige Book-sellers on Mama Ngina Street, because it was, we were told, a good source of fiction and poetry published in Kenya. As we were looking through the books, someone in the group noticed that Marjorie Macgoye had come into the store. "I'm just here to get some Christmas presents," she said.

I was, I think, the only one of the Americans in the group who knew who she was -- I had begun reading her second novel, Coming to Birth just before I left for Kenya, but I hadn't had time to finish it, and it was a library book, so I just figured it was something I would eventually get back to on my return.

I grabbed a copy of the East African Education Publishers' edition of the book from the shelf, quickly paid for it, and brought it to Mrs. Macgoye, who seemed quite amused to find a bunch of writers randomly hanging out in downtown Nairobi, led there by Vassanji. I asked her if she would mind commemorating the moment for me by signing the book. "Oh," she said, "but I don't have my glasses!" I said I'm not an autograph hound of any sort, and rarely ask for books to be signed, so it didn't really matter to me if it were legible -- this just seemed like such an odd and wonderful moment that I wanted some sort of tangible proof of it. She chuckled and signed the book for me, in perfectly legible print, while I held it in my hands.

I decided not to finish reading Coming to Birth until I got back, though, because for reasons that continue to be somewhat mysterious to me, I didn't want to read any African literature while I was in Africa. Books were the only souvenirs I bought, and I bought a lot of them, but it felt somehow wrong, somehow self-conscious, somehow pretentious and precious to read them while there. (Or maybe I just wanted to save them as special objects and aids to memory.)

In any case, I have now read Coming to Birth, and I've also read the critical, biographical, and historical material included in the library copy I have, published in 2000 by The Feminist Press as part of their "Women Writing Africa" series (a series that includes another Macgoye novel, The Present Moment, as well as a favorite of mine, the sublime You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town by Zoe Wicomb). In a review for the Village Voice, Thomas McGonigle said the ancillary materials "bloated up" the books:
The publishers insist on [the novels'] political and social significance, treating them like textbook descriptions of the social and political life of Kenya. Africa is far too often seen as just a case study in hopelessness, and freighting the novels in this way threatens to sap the pleasure in reading these works.
I haven't looked at The Present Moment yet, but I appreciated the afterword by J. Roger Kurtz for its detailed biography of Macgoye and its careful critical reading of the book. Kurtz is the author of Urban Obsessions, Urban Fears: The Postcolonial Kenyan Novel, a good survey that reveals how much more breadth and depth there is to fiction in Kenya than someone from outside the country, or even inside, might suspect. He knows his subject matter, and he does not try to pigeonhole Macgoye's work in the way McGonigle suggests. The historical essay by Jean Hay is short and basic, but it helps contextualize some of the events that might be otherwise difficult for most readers to learn about. Historical context is important to Coming to Birth, because it is a novel about both an ordinary woman and about Kenya over the course of nearly forty years. Indeed, how Macgoye uses historical details is one of the most interesting elements of the book. You don't need to know the history to appreciate the book on a first reading, but it certainly helps, particularly with one of the most important moments in the protagonist's life, which is confusing if you don't understand the clues that suggest the event it is part of.

The novel primarily tells the story of Paulina, a young Luo woman who is sent from her village to Nairobi to live with her husband, Martin. The novel follows her through the next few decades, as her relationship with Martin changes, as her conception of herself changes, and as Kenya gains independence from Britain and lives through Jomo Kenyatta's reign and then the first couple years of Moi. (The initial circumstances of the story, and some of the plot's progression, reminded me of Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, but Coming to Birth is less bleak and much less painfully ironic.)

Macgoye's technique is to use a generally free-floating point-of-view to move from characters' actions and thoughts to almost journalistic notes on major events. For instance, a conversation between Martin and an old friend ends:
Amina promised to call at the shop next day and by the end of the month it was all settled. She didn't exactly get anything out of it but she enjoyed pulling strings and getting to know other people's business.

By this time man had actually landed on the moon. The landing took place ten days after Tom's funeral and few Kenyans had any thoughts to spare for it, although President Nixon declared, in a record that was soon selling cheap in Nairobi's supermarkets, that eyes and hearts all over the world were directed to that spectacular feat. Perhaps he was already more nearly tuned into the launching pad than to minds and hearts. A lot of the world still saw the USA as a land of gadgetry where you could watch a president's assassination on TV without being able to do anything about it. A week later the papers were reporting the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Edward Kennedy's car.
The Tom whose funeral is mentioned is Tom Mboya, an assassinated political leader, and he is only one of the actual people woven into the narrative. The mix of real people with fictional characters could have felt awkward or clumsy, but Macgoye gets away with it (at least for me) because Paulina is such an unprepossessing woman. She's no Forrest Gump, but she travels through various environments, and the people who are mentioned in passing in the story are people who seem natural to those environments -- of course if she is working in the home of a member of the new Kenyan parliament, she's going to encounter some actual politicians, and she's going to be aware of some of the major political events of the time. There is an off-handedness to the presentation of these "major moments" that gives them credibility -- they are among the things the characters are aware of while we are observing their thoughts.

Though Coming to Birth is very much concerned with who does what when, such details are elements of the plot structure, and what meaning the book conveys comes more vividly through the characters' perceptions. Indeed, it is the changes in their perceptions, offered alongside the changes in Kenya's society, that provide the most sustained interest, and the most lasting insight.

Though I don't think biographical material is at all necessary to an appreciation of Coming to Birth, it is nonetheless interesting, because Macgoye has led a fascinating life. She was born in England, went to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, then six years later married a Luo medical officer, Daniel Oludhe Macgoye. Aside from four years working in Tanzania, she has lived in Kenya since first moving there. "Because of this background," Kurtz says, "Macgoye is an unusual, perhaps even unique, figure in the literature of Kenya and of Africa."
She certainly does not fit any of the typical categories of African writers. She is naturalized rather than native-born, so that while she is undoubtably Kenyan, and while her marriage into a Luo family gives her special insight into that community's experience and sensibility, Macgoye clearly occupies a position very different from that of Kenya's indigenous black writers. At the same time, while there is a large community of white Kenyans -- many of them former settlers or their descendants -- this category seems even less apt, if only because Macgoye has consistently rejected the privileges that go along with being white in a place like Kenya. Writers from this group, who produce what is referred to in Kenya as "expatriate literature," include Elspeth Huxley, whose work describes growing up in a settler community in central Kenya, and Isak Dinesen, the pseudonym for Karen Blixen, whose book about her experience as an unsuccessful coffee farmer outside of Nairobi was made into the popular film of the same name, Out of Africa. Literature of the type produced by Huxley and Blixen is written from an outsider's point of view, with outsiders' concerns in mind, and it displays a consciousness of being part of a European colonial diaspora. Macgoye, by contrast, writes from a fundamentally different point of view and with radically different ends in mind. As a result, she is a Kenyan writer, but sui generis.
Macgoye began as a poet, and when she moved to Tanzania she found herself received somewhat differently than she had been in Kenya, for, as Kurtz writes, "In Kenya, Macgoye's poetry had at times been criticized for being too political; in this more radical climate it was deemed insufficiently committed to a progressive political agenda." Such a reception seems to me enviable -- too political for some, not political enough for others -- and it is one I expect Macgoye's novels have encountered as well. (Indeed, Kurtz does a good job in his afterword of showing Macgoye's uncomfortable relationship with the term "feminist" -- she writes books that can easily be seen as espousing a feminist viewpoint, but seems to desire no label for herself other than "writer".)

Macgoye is not always a graceful writer -- even Kurtz admits that dialogue is not one of her strengths -- but there are moments of tremendous grace in Coming to Birth, scenes of unsentimental and complex humanity, moments of lyricism. I'll end with a passage I particularly liked from the final chapter, where syntax and tense seem to struggle to reconcile memory and present life:
Paulina had spent years enough alone not to be worried by silence. She hugged her thoughts to herself. She was at home now. And at home, though news comes to you of meetings and proclamations, of trials and conflict and achievement, home does not change for that, Nairobi does not change for that, whisper, whisper, whisper, the hum of traffic and the undertones of bargaining, the quick breath of pushing carts and the slow breath of sleep, the unbroken round of terms, of seasons, of fashions, of celebrations. There is always something to do, always something to talk about, if you gave yourself time to learn, always something to depend on too and to live by.