Billy Kahora, “Urban Zoning”

“And I would put it to you that it is actually a lot easier for non-Africans to talk about “African” writing — both insightfully and not — than it is for non-Kenyans to talk about Kenyan writing.”

The quote above is from Aaron Bady’s post on “Urban Zoning” at The New Inquiry. I find myself more insecure about my lack of context for Kahora’s story than I was for “Bombay’s Republic” last week.And so I’ve waited for other people to write about the story, simply so I’d have something more to bounce off. Stephen Derwent Partington’s post, for example, was really useful; he provides some more background for Kahora’s position within Kenyan literature as a whole. Whereas Bady’s piece (linked above) teases out the implications of “African” writing and “Kenyan” writing, the general and the specific. This is in many ways the question at the heart of the Caine Prize itself, and central to Bernardine Evaristo’s essay here - what does African writing mean, what narratives of Africa are we seeing, what narratives of particular countries, particular districts within those countries, particular social classes; and I’m not sure where I stand on any of it. Which is maddening.

 

And so to “Urban Zoning” (a pdf can be found here) which, without much context I genuinely liked. Kahora’s protagonist Kandle is a young man, currently in what he calls the “Good Zone” (achieved by 72 hours’ drinking and keeping the level of alcohol inside one stable). But there’s also the Bad Zone, a place of self-loathing. The Zone has inflicted damage upon Kandle and his friends – we hear of a cousin who died in a car accident as a result, a friend who cut himself badly and whose wounds became infected, a girl who is sexually assaulted while in the Zone and goes into depression. Kandle’s comment on this is that the Zone “was clearly not for those who lacked restraint” and that all these are “examples of letting the Bad Zone overwhelm you”. So what is this restraint in the context of the story, and what is the level of Kandle’s control over how he experiences the Zone?

From the first, this seems a tenuous thing. Kahora’s prose heightens this sensation – it’s a little slurred, all-over-the-place, as drunk as his protagonist. An early attempt to fend off the Bad Zone by focusing on pleasant memories of school is a failure, as Kandle finds himself thinking of darker things that happened in school soon after. And yet.

Kandle’s dislike of touch is connected within the story to an incident of sexual abuse. Yet that refusal to touch also connects with a larger sense of detachment from everyone around him – even inadvertently catching a whiff of someone else’s sweat affects him to a disproportionate degree.

The “Zoning” in the title is presumably a reference to the good and bad zones in Kandle’s head. But there’s another sort of zoning as well. Early on, Kandle thinks about how he has made a mark in the city, and made himself known.

In many of the younger watering holes in Nairobi’s CBD, he was now an icon.  Respected in Buruburu, in Westlands, in Kile, in Loresho and Ridgeways, one of the last men standing in alcohol-related accidents and suicides. He had different names in different postal codes. In Zanze he was the Small-Package Millionaire. His crew was credited with bringing back life to the City Centre. In Buru he was simply Kan. In the Hurlingham area he was known as The Candle.

As it turns out, Kandle is really good at shifting between registers, being different people in different places. At one point, even as he stares at his own reflection and feels the self-loathing that comes with the bad zone, the face changes to that of his father, and his dislike is displaced along with it. His natural instinct to cringe away from touch becomes the means to charm a woman in the street when he moves out of her way.

Kandle’s control of his multiple, changing identities becomes clearest of all in the final pages, in which he’s charming annoyed secretaries, playing on the emotions of bank officials, and you have to wonder how far his control over all of this, his restraint has to do with his basic dislike of touch.

“You could never really play well if you hated getting close. Same with life and the street, in the city—you needed to be natural with those close to you,” Kandle thinks, but perhaps he’s wrong. Of all the characters we see in the story, he seems the best adapted to the life of his city.

 

Other people who wrote about this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
Ikhide
Loomnie
ndinda
City of Lions
zunguzungu

8 Responses to “Billy Kahora, “Urban Zoning””

  1. These Kenyan writers do love pushing the boundaries. Been reading the 2012 Caine Prize Anthology – African Violet. There is Billy Kahora’s story and then there is the one by Mehul Gohil (Elephants Chained to Big Kennels). If these Kenyans continue at this pace, they will re-invent African fiction.

    • I haven’t read the other stories in African Violet yet, but I’ll certainly look out for Mehul Gohil’s now. I felt completely out of my depth with Kahora, but in a really good way!

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