Nairobi Noir edited by Peter Kimani
Publisher: Akashic Books
Published: February 2020
Genre: Anthology / Akashic Noir Series
Rating: 3 Stars
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o anchors this truly fascinating first East African installment in the Akashic Noir Series. Akashic Books continues its award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the respective city. Brand-new stories by: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Stanley Gazemba, Ngumi Kibera, Peter Kimani, Winfred Kiunga, Kinyanjui Kombani, Caroline Mose, Kevin Mwachiro, Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ, Faith Oneya, Makena Onjerika, Troy Onyango, J.E. Sibi-Okumu, and Rasna Warah. (Source: Goodreads)
The newest addition to Akashic Noir Series (currently at 112 anthologies) is Nairobi Noir and I couldn’t have been more excited to get my hands on this book that features my city on the cover. Each of the books in the series comprise of stories by new and established authors set in distinct locations within the geographic areas of the book. In Nairobi Noir, we traverse Nairobi neighbourhoods from Eastleigh to Dandora, to Kawangware, Parkands, Kilimani, Pangani and Westlands.
I attended the launch and cocktail reception of the book at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi where almost all the authors featured sat on a panel to talk about their noir stories and the inspiration behind them. The excitement in the theatre hall was palpable as the authors took us through nostalgic reminiscence of ‘their’ Nairobi and the changing landscape of the city. It was exhilarating and I couldn’t wait to get home and get started.
The Anthology opens with “She Dug Two Graves” by Winnie Kiunga a story about a Somali refugee woman, Fawzia, whose brother is killed by the police in a murder most foul, a scene that is replicated too often in the lives of refugees living in the sprawling Eastleigh neighbourhood. In her grief over her brother’s death, Al Shabaab terrorists prey on her vulnerabilities and enlist her in their plan to seek revenge. Winnie’s story will definitely give you chills and it’s a great opening for the noir.
"A Song from a Forgotten Place" by Troy Onyango is a favourite of mine. Troy writes tragedy so beautifully. He was able to capture the essence of the city in just a few pages and deliver a story that stays with you long after you’ve read it.
I also mildly enjoyed Rasna Warah’s story “Have Another Roti” which offers fresh insider insight into the Kenyan Indian community and how uncomfortable conversations are soft-pedaled and replaced with conversations about and around food. This story explores other deep themes of mental health, racial segregation, forbidden love, refugees, familial and societal expectations on the individual and the pressure to conform; and this might be the story’s undoing. There were too many ideas and concepts that were not well executed in the short story and it seemed to jump from one issue to the other and then it ends abruptly. I would have loved a more thorough exploration of these themes but maybe not within the parameters of a short story.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o who is lauded as anchoring this Noir series, writes a folktale that struggles to situate itself in the city. Whilst I’ll admit that it was an interesting folktale, though in true Ngugi style, heavy laden with symbolism and colonial themes, it was a folktale nonetheless. I couldn’t reconcile how it fit in with the Noir theme. I can only assume that because he is Ngugi, he got a free pass to write whatever he wished or he submitted one of his old stories and couldn’t be bothered to tailor it to a Noir worthy story.
The rest of the stories were disappointing. Editing issues aside (there are some spelling and grammatical errors), there was no breadth in the range of issues covered. Most of the stories paint Nairobi and Nairobians as being very simplistic, poor and one dimensional. There was less of noir stories and more the kind of poverty porn that panders to the western notions of Africa and ‘African poverty’.
Nairobi and it’s people are so diverse but this wasn’t captured in this anthology.