Parselelo Kantai wows them at the Oxford Literary Festival
April 16, 2005 2 Comments
On Thursday (14/4), I went to Oxford to listen to Parselelo Kantai read at that city’s literary festival. Other than being one of my closest friends, Parsa is a hell of a writer: he is Kenya’s best journalist in my opinion and was first runner-up in the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing. The reading was held at the Holywell Music Room, which an elderly English woman primly informed me was the oldest concert hall in Europe, built in 1742. She went on to add that Handel might have first performed there and listed a couple of other famous composers and musicians to have appeared on its stage. I was struck by how connected she felt to an event that happened hundreds of years ago – so much so that she said it with a kind of genteel boastfulness. I think to a large extent places like Oxford have become to the English a much needed reminder of accomplishment and glory in a time when a sense of group purpose is increasingly rare. Anyway, let me get back to Parsa’s reading. In the near future, I will post a little piece I have been thinking of called ‘The Soul of the Englishman Harbors a Little Accountant Holding a Form in Triplicate’. There is a rant there that must get out.
Parsa was reading with Brian Chikwava who was the 2004 Caine Prize winner. There was a healthy audience of 150, most with that faintly anxious, earnest expression of the liberal who loves LITERATURE. Parsa read an excerpt of ‘The Story of Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band’. (See the link at the bottom to read the story.) It is a short story of a man who in the 1960s wrote an enormously popular song, but has since descended into poverty and obscurity. He is discovered and promoted by a condom company representative who with the collaboration of the media is determined to use his story to move on up. Kenya’s story in a nutshell: the use and abuse of heroism and hope. The reading was gripping and Parsa was looking seriously bohemian in his Lenin cap and beard.
The scene was surreal. Parsa reading a story about a man tossed aside in Kenya’s rush to ‘modernize and develop’ our way out of the slums of the Comrade Lemmas of this world. A story of a man ignored, and possibly even broken, in his country’s bid to become Oxford, read to an appreciative Oxford audience. It was, as the oracle said in the Matrix, enough to bake my noodle. I wondered how Comrade Lemma is appreciated back in Kenya. Is it translated with the same tools that the Oxford audience was using to reach their murmurs of approval? Does it matter? I suspect that the Oxford audience was hearing a great story of a lost hero found, and an amusing take on the absurdities of African nation-building. The poor urban Kenyan, on the other hand, would have received the reading like the re-opening of a wound. It would have talked to him of how the patriotism felt by so many in the heyday of independent Kenya was stillborn, a perversion. How the colonial state continued unhampered, this time staffed with black personnel wielding pan-African rhetoric rather than the mzungu preaching British exceptionalism. The fate of Comrade Lemma, ignored one moment, exploited the next, would have reminded most Nairobians of what their government does to them daily. In Oxford, Parsa, I realized, was a talented performer who tells a good story, and of course there is nothing wrong with that. But in the Kenya outside posh Westlands, Comrade Lemma is a revolution: a painful and entertaining story of who we are. I think it needs to become a play, a movie and that the Comrade Lemma song needs to be heard everywhere.
Just before did his thing, Brian Chikwava treated the audience to his latest short-story: a hilarious comedy of manners set in a village in the midst of a witchcraft feud. He later sang and I enjoyed sitting there, in that old building, hearing an African producing so much beauty. It felt like I had gone far from home, into the heart of a foreign place, only to suddenly encounter home again. When I needed it most.
The link to Comrade Lemma is below and I will post some pictures of the reading the moment I figure out how to work the technology…