馃摉 馃嚢馃嚜 #44: A dazzling Kenyan novel-in-verse

The G末k农y农 origin myth retold by Ng农g末 wa Thiong'o

Welcome back to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you鈥檙e a new reader who joined over the summer break, welcome! If you like the sound of my project, I鈥檇 love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.

Share


Earlier this year The Perfect Nine by Kenyan writer Ng农g末 was Thiong鈥檕 became the first book written in an indigenous African language to receive a nomination for the International Booker Prize. Written in the Bantu language G末k农y农 and told in flowing verse narration, the book is a retelling of the G末k农y农 origin story, in which the ten daughters of G末k农y农 and M农mbi become the founders and matriarchs of the G末k农y农 clans.

The story begins with G末k农y农 and M农mbi鈥攖he first man and woman鈥攕ettling at the base of Mount Kenya, where they have ten daughters: Wanjir农, Wamb农i, Wanjik农, Wang农i, Wangeci, Waceera, Mw末thaga, Wairim农, Waithiegeni, and Wam农y农, their youngest daughter who is born unable to walk. G末k农y农 and M农mbi raise their daughters, who are all dazzlingly beautiful, to be entirely self-sufficient, teaching them to do everything from building houses to making weapons and protecting themselves from danger.

When they鈥檙e old enough, G末k农y农 asks God to provide suitable husbands for his daughters. Immediately God delivers ninety-nine men who promptly set about competing for the sisters鈥 hands in marriage. In turn, the sisters compete against them and, to the men鈥檚 annoyance, beat them at pretty much everything. They find it especially difficult to accept that Wam农y农, the sister who cannot walk, is better than all of them at shooting.

They claimed the women were the real root of all their problems,
That we had lured them from their homes by dreams wrought by charms,
The proof of our witchery being our actions and deeds, like
Our being able to endure and do things just like the men.
Facing danger without complaint showed that we were witches.
A few even cited Warigia鈥檚 ways with arrows as more evidence of witchery:
Otherwise, how could a crawling cripple beat men, fully fit, in archery?
How else could a cripple shoot arrows a distance no man could reach?
That was pure witchery; even our beauty was an illusion wrought by sorcery.

One by one, the men drop out, lose, and even die. Ultimately those who survive are tasked with accompanying the oldest nine sisters on a journey to find an ogre king who may possess a cure to Wam农y农鈥檚 disability. It is this journey which makes up the majority of the book, as the sisters and their suitors face countless challenges, conquering fear and doubt as they learn to respect one another and work together.

As it was now our tradition, there was no saying this is men鈥檚 work or women鈥檚 work.
We did tasks according to ability and necessity and inclination.

Thiong鈥檕, who is based in California and previously spent time in exile after he was jailed in post-colonial Kenya for writing a play in G末k农y农 rather than English, is an exceptional storyteller. Combining Homeric verse with features of oral storytelling, folklore, mythology, and allegory, Thiong鈥檕 writes in rhythmic prose that pulsates with energy and wisdom. The Perfect Nine is a moving feminist retelling of the G末k农y农 origin story which made for a delightfully refreshing departure from almost all the other classical narratives I鈥檝e ever read. I loved it.

The Perfect Nine by Ng农g末 wa Thiong'o, translated by the author (Harvill Secker, 2020 / East African Educational Publishers, 2018)


More books by Kenyan authors:

Here鈥檚 a list of the other recommendations I received this week:

  • Tracking the Scent of My Mother by Muthoni Garland

  • Unfit for Society by Munira Hussein 

  • Cocktail from the Savannah by Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki

  • Back-Fence Talk and Other Vices by Caroline Kinya Mbaya

  • Princess Adhis And The Naija Coca Broda by Tony Mochama

  • The Dream Chasers by Okwiri Oduor

  • The River and the Source by Margaret Ogola

  • The Strange Bride by Grace Ogot, tr. Okoth Okombo

  • The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

  • Nairobi Heat by M农koma wa Ng农g末 

  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

What have you read recently?

If you鈥檝e read a brilliant book in translation or you鈥檇 like to pass on a recommendation, I鈥檇 love to hear about it! For this project, I鈥檓 focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors鈥攂ut, as you鈥檝e seen today, I鈥檓 always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I鈥檒l be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I鈥檒l keep a growing list here.

Leave a comment


Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Mary Adhiambo from Writers Guild Kenya for her recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!