Jackson Biko is arguably the most prolific journalist and writer in the country presently. His blog Bikozulu is one of the most read, and the Bloggers Association of Kenya Awards (BAKE) he has won, were well deserved.
His latest serving is a novella, that is vintage Biko: laugh-out loud moments, deep moments of introspection about life in the city, yuppie problems and an unlikely twist in the tale.
Silas Nyanchwani and Ivy Aseka chewed the cud on the book, and here is a part of their conversation.
NYANCHWANI: What was your initial reaction when you finished reading the book?
ASEKA: Heart-broken. But mostly frustrated.
ASEKA: Because I believe in happy endings. Yes, the girl survived. But, Larry deserved redemption. I wish he could overcome his alcoholism. He deserved a better ending. What was your immediate thoughts when you finished reading it.
NYANCHWANI: I thanked Biko for taking the bold step to write about something that we easily overlook. The book captures the Zeitgeist of the 2000s, broken families; absentee fathers (both physically and often emotionally), how ruinous alcohol can be…So he picks on very pressing theme, on that he scored a big deal.
ASEKA: Don’t you think it’s ironical that Jeff, who broke his alcohol virginity is the same one that took him to rehab?
NYANCHWANI: Of course, it is rather ironic, how Jeff turns his life around and it is Larry who ends up wasted. I think happy endings are overrated and life has more unhappy endings that we acknowledge.
ASEKA: Sadist. Larry almost killed a little girl. Wasn’t that enough?
NYANCHWANI: Shit happens. Adulthood can throw so many things at you. And when you think about it is over, it moves from bad to worse. In a way, there is something premonitory from the beginning. You know Jeff is headed for doom…
ASEKA: Jeff’s turn around was a bit radical and dramatic if you look at it. Change doesn’t just come overnight.
NYANCHWANI: In fiction, it is possible, but even in real life, there are people who turn their lives around. Depends on why someone is drinking. Some do it for fun, but those who do it as an escape from pain, reality, or something hidden, it is easy to be hooked. I can count guys who quit and lived to tell.
ASEKA: I tend to believe that Larry was drinking as an escape. To drown out the noise. But see how much noise his drinking brought to his life. And the lives of those around him.
NYANCHWANI: I think the defining part of Larry’s life is his relationship with his father. As men, we often want the approval of our fathers. And when we can’t have it, and we don’t have the psychological strength to cope, it can ruin your life. I think that was the motivation.
ASEKA: I think Larry’s issue was that he made it early. He was good at what he did. He was thriving. Then you could sense he was about to trip. He starts to get a bit cocky, you know, and you know how that ends.
NYANCHWANI: Typically, that is what happens…A young driven man gets a good job, promotion, huge perks, no responsibilities and everything gets out of control. In a way, a family, a wife and kids can slow a man down, for the better. The same can be said of women.
ASEKA: I don’t think so. Women are slowed down, but not for the better. But that’s another whole discussion.
NYANCHWANI: Wives have a way of making men responsible. When kids come, bills and all, a man will toe the line. At least if is a responsible man. Left to his own devices, success, huge perks and the job can get his head. So many men around in their 30s with fucked up lives, the money and jobs notwithstanding.
ASEKA: He lost that chance when he screwed things up with Tina.
NYANCHWANI: You know what! Every man, has that one woman who he should ideally marry. The woman goes out of their way to make things happen, but often, she is not the one. However much she tries, it never works…So Tina was that girl for Larry. But Larry decidedly was not the type to slow down, he was headed for self-destruction.
What do you think about the issue of fatherhood?
ASEKA: I believe in giving people chances. Not much is told about what went down between Larry’s parents. Absentee dad, present mom. It’s a tired narrative. But when you look at it, I agree that it did play a great role in ruining Larry. The only man Larry could look up to was Jeff, who drove him to his grave and Lance, the boss who gave him a chance that he ‘shat’ on. Then there’s the detached father. We could paint him as a villain, but we should give the guy some credit. He showed up for his son, albeit late.
NYANCHWANI: You can call it a tired narrative, but men of my father’s generations, those born in the 1950s and 1960s were not the best of fathers. I usually have a bone to pick with them. A good number were mostly absent from our lives. Larry’s mother looks like someone who is caring. And Larry’s father came in too late. You can only bend a tree when it is young, the older we grow, the more hard-heartened we become…We only mellow, if we must, when we are older. But 20-50s, we have so many grudges to settle. Especially, if one subscribes to pettiness, makes sense?
ASEKA: I think it’s a guy thing. Men are generally aloof. I’m not absolving his dad of his faults. He messed up. But even the most present of fathers in this age are not so present. They work late. Weekends are then spent watching football and such. Just when you think you have a holiday with them, they meet all the village men from Monday to Monday.
NYANCHWANI: Ha! Ha! Ha! That aloofness can be very destructive. In a sense, a man reading the book, will know that it is important to create family time. Working is good, but at the end of the day, you must bring up well-adjusted kids, kids need you the most when you are young. How you treat them, how much time you spend with them, determines how they adjust as adults, not to be a psychologist, but there is a lot of evidence, that cool dads, raise cool kids. Quite often!
There is the issue of the rehab? Increasingly, we all have friends or relatives who are checking into rehab? What does that tell you about society today?
ASEKA: Basically, we are a society that needs to be fixed. But we can’t fix what we can’t quite figure out. It must come from deep within. Like self-initiated healing and recovery. Without that shove from the family. And sometimes, not everything that’s broken must be fixed. Sometimes it’s wise to let the pieces stay broken. This rehab journey was more for his family than for him. And it came from a deep-seated sense of guilt. It was not something he did for himself. Which is why I tend to believe it did not work.
NYANCHWANI: Usually it is…But why are young men and women drinking themselves silly. There is the usual drinking for fun, but lately I meet more and more functional alcoholics, even shockingly most of them are women. What is it in society that is driving people to drink, I mean, go to Jiweke Tavern ON Sunday Evenings, and see what is going there, that is not what you will call normal?
ASEKA: I belong to that young demographic and I’d say it’s that primitive energy and easy cash without responsibilities. Then there’s the allure of alcohol, of the high. And just when you have finished a weekend of drinking, you decide, “kutoa lock” which involves more drinking. And the cycle continues.
The society has also become permissive. There are so many loaded men ready to buy drinks for young women.
NYANCHWANI: There is the drinking and partying that is normal, but there are levels that worry me, like the men Larry started spending time with at Ngara, when he got kicked out of his house? There are people who stock whiskey in the house and half the time are drunk…
ASEKA: Well, it is all shits and giggles until the body becomes dependent on alcohol. It is a habit that has become a way of life for so many people.
And that is a side effect of most illicit things.
ASEKA: I really liked Ruth. She tried to make it work. Larry was really around. Was he searching for something all the women he dates? What did you think about Larry and his women?
NYANCHWANI: Larry is a classic yuppie. Attracts all the women he wants. But women can read bullshit and often quit as soon as they realise it is headed nowhere. So many men, in their 20s and 3os hardly know how to sustain a relationship.
ASEKA: I totally agree. I think the appeal with Larry is that he was such a great guy, excellent company, brilliant but not needy. And then these women figured, I can make him the man I want. Which wasn’t the case. Larry was a monkey that was not yet done with the forest. He didn’t know how to do easy. He liked it complicated.
NYANCHWANI: It is common mistake women make. You can never tie a man down, without his approval, implicit or explicit. A man can mislead you to believe that he really wants you, but if he feels something is off, he will do everything to chase you away. Larry is a symbol of many commitment-phobic men in Nairobi.
What do you think of the book’s format? The parallel plot and the mixing of the narrator’s voice?
ASEKA: I don’t get why Biko is very complicated. He knows he has many Kenyan readers at his feet. And that they will keep begging for more. I strongly feel like he should have made it longer and in hard-copy. Mixing the first and third personal of voice is useful. A single point of view can be limiting. It was a brilliant book. The parallel plots were a great twist. It’s funny how their lives were intertwined. I feel like he prepared us for their meeting, starting with the artisan and his wheelbarrows.
It did break my heart, but I kept going to the next page.
NYANCHWANI: Biko is a brilliant storyteller, in a way he weaves the tale pretty well. In a way, we are all intertwined and our paths often cross, rather violently. The book, could have been longer but I think the fear that people don’t read anymore is rational, and a novella is a good place to start. The points of view, especially the detours to the third person were quite distracting.
But as you say, the book while good it breaks your heart…