Sleeping Poet: That Party at Frank’s
At 7.30 or 8 or 8.30 p.m., somewhere along in there, on 30 June 2018, the last day of the first half of the year, Frankline Sunday, the 2016 David Astor Fellow, is not in his house. The latest instalment of the raging parties Frank throws in his apartment in Umoja, Nairobi, is on. This particular soiree is in honour of the team behind Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic, an exhibition about music that has just closed at the British Institute of East Africa. With Frank, as with the people who attend his Saturday all-nighters, one doesn’t need an excuse to throw one of these things. Call a couple of people, Are you coming to Umoja? Kuna form, and word gets round that one needs to go to Umoja, and one goes to Umoja. Tonight, however, the party has a purpose.
The reason Frank is not in his house is that he has gone to buy food for the partygoers. The party has been on for a couple of hours already. The first people to arrive were the Maasai Mbili crew, though seeing as Frank does live in Frank’s house, he was probably there before them, and as Clifton Gachagua, inaugural winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry and Frank’s best friend, semi-lives there, odds are that he was there before them too. Maasai Mbili, an artiste collective based in Kibera who were collaborators on Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic, are represented at today’s festivities by Jepkorir Rose and Bethuel Muthee (BM), who are also two of the three members of the curatorial collective, Naijographia; Anita Kavochy, who will in a few months have her first solo exhibition; Kevo Stero, he of the Jobless Corner Campus exhibition, patent pending; Ronics, who has been known to offer such truisms as Happiness ni ajali; and Greenman Mbilo, armchair philosopher and storyteller, for whom the most accurate description is one offered by the artist–academic Neo Musangi—who will also be at this party—that with Greenman, the stories he tells you couldn’t possibly be true, but because it is Greenman, you never really know.
By the time Frank goes off to get the eats, a couple of things will have happened. First, seven months before today, on the thirty-first occasion of Frank’s birthday, Clifton will have described him as the kindest man i have ever seen. he has in him in devils, but they do not compare/he has the care of he devil. he plans, he transcends. Then, Frank will have planned and transcended by making sure that there were bottles of Heineken and Teacher’s Whiskey and Konyagi and Gilbey’s and Smirnoff and Kibao and Blue Moon available. Ni Sato and we are going all night.
Earlier that day, we were somewhere on Ronald Ngala Street waiting for the Umoja matatu to fill up when the drugs began to take effect. Alexis Teyie, whose chapbook was published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund as part of New-Generation African Poets: Tano, said something like, ‘How far is Frank’s? Can we just take a cab and go?’ So we alighted from the matatu, hailed a cab, and off we zoom zoomed. Frank lives on the top floor of a five-storey apartment building, which like every other apartment building on this side of Nairobi does not have an elevator. Alex Teyie, excellent poet though they are, is not an excellent stair-climber, and so, as they struggled up those stairs, they said, ‘Hizi stairs jameni, I hope we are not coming down soon,’ a mostly unnecessary statement, since one does not go to Frank’s so that they can come down soon, a truism Alex did not know, since this was their first time at Frank’s.
Upstairs, the drinking had started, and the talking and the chilling. BM, true to his element, called everyone to read together. Idza L, a founder member of Jalada Africa, is present, and shouts across the room at Frank, declaring her love for his essay ‘Asiyefunzwa na Mamaye’, which had recently been published in Enkare Review’s second issue. A few Enkare Review members were present, and the editor who commissioned that essay smiled at Idza L’s statement. BM’s poetry had just been published in The Johannesburg Review of Books and a few people were talking about those poems. In one corner of the room, Frank was rigging one of his screens to stream the World Cup: France versus Argentina in the second round, a match Clifton was excited about: ‘I was going out with someone and she is in love with Kylian Mbappé, and so I have to watch this game.’ The audio from the football was muted; instead there was music playing from Frank’s stereo system. Right next to the speakers, as BM led the room in a reading of people’s work, Alex was squatting on the floor, back hunched over their laptop screen, doing their taxes, and it is unclear whether this was an indicator of Alex’s boringness at parties or a looming KRA deadline.
Wherever writers and poets and artistes are gathered, a party is never far off. This was certainly true of the Harlem Renaissance in nineteen-twenties New York, when A’Lelia Walker threw party after party in her lavish house on 136th Street, parties that lasted from ‘nine at eve till two in the morn’, parties at which, though she rarely drank, Zora Neale Hurston was the life of. At the same time, the Paris crowd were throwing their share of shindigs, with Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald earning a reputation as the party-loving hub. F Scott’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby, could, in fact, be described as a long, continuous party that only ended with the host’s death. A few decades later, The Beats dropped into town. William S Burroughs, who shot and killed his wife at a party. Jack Kerouac, who held a party on the road with another Beatnik, Neal Cassady, and wrote a book about it, a book that is sometimes considered a piece of great writing, and at other times considered a piece of great typing. Allen Ginsberg, who became a core part of the psychedelic movement of the nineteen-sixties. Ken Kesey, another psychedelic, whose parties, also known as Acid Tests, were the subject of Tom Wolfe’s novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe, considered one of the central purveyors of New Journalism, is also famous for writing about a party thrown at Leonard Bernstein’s house in honour of the Black Panthers: ‘Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s’. His fellow New Journalist Truman Capote was also an avid partier, with the best known of his get-togethers being the Black and White Ball of 1966, thrown at the Plaza Hotel in honour of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post.
However, that was the sixties. Now, in the twenty-first century, the literary party has become serious business. As Nan Graham, the senior vice president of Scribner, said, ‘In the olden days you could never buy dinner from Labor Day until Memorial Day, because there were so many publishing parties.’ In this way, literary gatherings stopped being fun brouhaha crusades and became fundraisers à la The Paris Review or, at the very least, networking events. In Nairobi, Kwani?’s parties straddled the grey zone between networking and a-bit-of-fun, but then Kwani? went broke, moved away from the Kwani? gardens and the parties died. One would have hoped that other literary journals would have stepped into this space and created their own party culture, but the two most visible, Jalada Africa and Enkare Review, had been unable to, at least thus far, and so the result was that on this night, the last night of the first half of 2018, founder members of both Jalada Africa and Enkare Review were at Frank’s house in Umoja.
Standing up, because I’m sitting down on the couch, and then I say, ‘Do you know the song with the man with the body?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah!’ She actually knows the guy. So, she played the song, and it was great, it was perfect. And I was like, ‘Yeah, she’s exactly as I imagined her all along.’—Alex Teyie
Idza L is on deejaying duty tonight. Frank, as I’ve mentioned, has stepped out to get the meat and Clifton is asleep on Frank’s bed. The football game has been abandoned, but the party goes on. At first glance, deejaying may seem an easy task, since all it involves is either choosing the records to play on the record player, as Alex will do later, or playing songs off YouTube, as Idza L is doing now. Idza L’s modus operandi is to ask people for their favourite songs and then play them. Alex requests some Franco and Idza L plays it. Someone else requests Muungano National Choir’s ‘Kaunga Yachee’, and Idza L plays it. Every time a request is made, Idza L will open a new tab with the song. The trick is to shift from the previous tab to the new tab in such a way that not only do the two songs not overlap, but that there is no silence in the room at any point. This can’t be the first time Idza L is attending one of Frank’s parties, so adroitly is she shifting from one song to the next. She has hung out at Frank’s before, several times, because someone said to her, ‘Hey, we’ll be at Frank’s, please come?’ And she went, because there are usually writers there, and there’s usually music, and something to drink, and, eventually, people will start dancing. BM usually kicks off the dancing, but tonight, even though she is also the deejay, Idza L goes for it first. Alex requests some Tracy Chapman, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’, and starts swaying and singing along. Don’t you know, they’re talkin’ bout a revolution, it sounds like a whisper. Idza L gets up from the computer and joins Alex on the dancefloor. This is the first time the two of them are hanging out, and despite the fact that Idza L’s personal blog is one of only two Alex has bookmarked (the other being that of Michelle Angwenyi, one of Kenya’s most exciting new poets, who would surely have been at the party but for being in England), and that, sometime in 2016, Idza L heard Alex read their poetry, they are strangers to each other. Still, they dance. Wasting time in the unemployment lines, Sitting around waiting for a promotion, Tracy Chapman sings, and the two of them dance, oblivious to everyone else around them. Greenman and Neo Musangi are deep in conversation somewhere, as are Anita Kavochy and Jepkorir Rose. Isaac Otidi Amuke, a finalist in the 2016 CNN Multichoice African Journalist Awards, who came in at some point, is talking about cricket with another writer, and Clifton Gachagua is asleep on Frank’s bed. Don’t you know, you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Alex and Idza L fling their hands in the air and run, run, run, run, run, run. Then they hold hands, and, still running on the spot, stare into each other’s eyes and go, Oh I said you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Alex could barely climb the stairs to Frank’s, and Idza had to be supported when standing up from where she was seated, she has trouble getting up because of her knees, but none of that is important in this moment of running, in this moment of Tracy Chapmanning, in this moment of talkin’ bout a revolution. This moment, moments like these, is why Idza L, whose story ‘A Swahili love in 10 Fragments’ published in Jalada Africa went viral, goes to Frank’s. ‘The lit scene. What’s happening, yeah? Sometimes you want to be in the company of people who are writers. Or just get lifted. I know I do.’ On this night of the last day of the first half of 2018, Idza L is lifted and she knows it.
When Frank comes back with the food, all conversation and dancing and Chapmanning stops. There is meat and there is ugali and there is a vegetable salad and there is avocado. There is always food at Frank’s, food and alcohol. Idza L says, ‘Frank opens his doors to us, yeah? Yaani, the guy is so generous. So, so, generous.’
By eleven, Idza L will have left the party. One would have thought that Alex could get forlorn and lost without their Chapmanning partner, but they have grown into their role as the music connoisseur of the shendang. Alex has discovered Frank’s cache of records, and they are in the zone—so deep, in fact, that every couple of minutes, Isaac Otidi Amuke shouts from where he is seated on the floor: ‘Writer! Poet! Editor! DJ!’ Isaac is at the party with a date, and she is complaining to an Enkare Review editor about a South African writer: ‘Me, after I saw what she did, I decided I can’t buy her books!’ At the other end of the room, Greenman Mbilo is holding court. Neo Musangi and Jepkorir Rose and Anita Kavochy are listening to him, along with everyone else who is not asleep (Clifton, out cold at 11 p.m.). Greenman is explaining his life philosophy.
‘You see, I am a fig tree. That is traditional philosophy. Everyone is a tree and I am a fig tree.’
‘How are you a fig tree?’ Neo asks.
Greenman leans back on the couch, folds his arms and smiles a half-smile. ‘You, what do you understand by fig tree?’
Neo thinks for a bit. ‘I don’t know, you tell me.’
‘I am a fig tree. That’s what a fig tree is.’
‘Ai, Greenman, wacha vako. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not true.’
‘But I’ve just told you. Just because it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it’s not true.’
And in this way the conversation between Greenman and Neo continues, Greenman not saying anything, and Neo not offering him any help, until Isaac points out that Greenman is not saying anything, that he is merely using Neo’s words to prop up his argument. ‘Huyu jamaa anatubeba ufala.’ But Greenman is not carrying anyone ufala. This is the way all conversations with Greenman go, a dance in which the master swordsman never thrusts, using his opponent’s weaponry to build his attack instead. Neo is used to Greenman’s ways, and they dance away from the traps Greenman creates with his words. Later, they will have a conversation with Greenman about where he has been the past few months.
‘Eh, Greenman, umelost. Where have you been?’
‘I’ve been in my mother’s womb.’
An inexperienced adversary would have been lost, but Neo is wise to Greenman’s wiles. ‘What were you doing in your mother’s womb?’
The half-smile. ‘I was discovering what kind of tree I am.’
‘And did you discover?’
‘Have you not been listening to anything I’ve been saying tonight? I am a fig tree.’
Neo will turn to Anita and ask, ‘Huyu Greenman, is he from Kitui?’
Greenman will answer, ‘Yes.’
Neo: ‘I knew it! Us Kitui people, we know each other.’
If one were to attempt to track the present of Kenyan writing, or, to be more particular, Nairobi writing, then Frank’s parties would be a good place to start. On this particular night, the last night of the first half of the year 2018, members of writing communities that coalesced around different literary magazines were all represented: Kwani?, Jalada Africa, Enkare Review. For the longest time, the established Kenyan canon comprised a clique of writers who had been active in the seventies and eighties. In 2003, however, a group of writers decided that they were tired of having to bow down to the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing. This is the Kwani? generation, figures who are now in their late forties and fifties. The late Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Rasna Warah, Ann McReath (in whose house the idea for Kwani? was conceived, during a party she threw for Binyavanga in honour of his Caine Prize win), Parselelo Kantai, Ali Zaidi (in whose garden parties Kwani? evolved), and all the other writers who were part of this group. Billy Kahora is also part of the Kwani? generation, though he joined some time after its formation.
Ten years later, on the sidelines of a writing workshop organised by Kwani?, Granta and the British Council, attendees decided they too were tired of having to bow down to the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing, a group Kwani? was now part of. This is the Jalada Africa generation, figures who are now in their thirties. Mehul Gohil, Okwiri Oduor, Moses Kilolo, Anne Moraa (who was managing editor of the first issue), Clifton Gachagua, Ndinda Kioko, and all the other writers who were part of this group. The Jalada generation was different from Kwani? in that it didn’t identify itself as Kenyan, but as Pan-African. Thus, non-Kenyan writers such as Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Nyana Kakoma, hailing from Zimbabwe and Uganda respectively, were founder members.
Two-and-a-half years later, another group of young writers, impatient with ambition, decided that they, surprise, surprise, were tired of having to bow down to the gatekeepers of Kenyan writing, a group Jalada Africa was now part of. So they started Enkare Review. In time, a loose grouping formed around them comprising writers who were at various points members of the Enkare Review collective, figures such a Alex Teyie, Bethuel Muthee, Sanya Noel, Troy Onyango, Dalle Abraham and Wairimũ Mũrĩithi; and writers who had been published in Enkare Review such as Michelle Angwenyi and Khadija Bajaber; and writers who shared broad intellectual and artistic affiliations with the group, such as Ivy Nyayieka and Idza Luhumyo (who was also a founder member of Jalada Africa).
But before seeking to place these writers into generational groupings, one must ask what the point of such an enterprise would be. Or, who gives a fuck? Certainly not Frank: on this night he had invited all these groups of people to his house. Is this categorisation important, then, or is it merely the folly of a bored observer of Kenyan writing who wishes to show off how many Kenyan writers’ names they know? Frank’s parties seemingly do not have this function.
At this point, Carey Baraka suffered a series of episodes of nervousness in his house on Thika Road. It became obvious both by the bizarre quality of his first draft and his extremely disorganised lifestyle that the only way this tale could be completed was by means of compulsory verbal composition. Despite warnings from Carey B’s personal physician, we determined that for aesthetic, historical and contractual reasons, The Work would have to be finished at all costs.
What follows, then, is a transcription of the conversations we had as Carey B paced about his house, describing the final hours of the party at Frank’s house.
Ed.: Well, Carey B, if you could explain this last part, we left you attempting a generational explanation of the trends of Kenyan writing, and on a very dark and ominous note that I don’t understand, you proceeded to rubbish the arguments you were making …
CB: Yes …
Ed.: Can you walk us through that? Why all the self-doubt?
CB: It’s not self-doubt. The thing you don’t understand about these organisations, movements, let’s call them movements, is that they can exist in two spheres. On the one hand, these writers can be split evenly as either Kwani? or Jalada or Enkare, but at the same time the writers straddle more than one existence. Let’s talk about Clifton Gachagua, for instance. Clifton was asleep for a huge chunk of the party, and unless I’m mistaken he only woke up around midnight to eat and then he went back to sleep. Mwanaume ni usingizi. But, yeah, Clifton, who was a founder member of Jalada Africa, but also worked at Kwani? for years. A lot of those Jalada folks were published in Kwani?, and a couple of Enkare folks were published in Jalada, and a lot of people across all three have been published in Enkare.
Ed.: So the splitting kind of makes sense, is what I’m getting.
CB: Only if you assume there is a point to it, that doing so carries a nascent epistemological ideology behind it. If there isn’t, you’re just saying that this writer was born in this year, and this one is that year, and this one is fifty years old, and that one is twenty two years old. The point should be, I think, that these movements have been very important to the writing scene in Nairobi in the twenty-first century.
Ed.: So, in a sense, these movements are the building blocks of Nairobi writing in the twenty-first century?
CB: That’s one way of looking at it. But it doesn’t mean that without these cliques of writers, there would have been no writing in Kenya. They helped a lot, definitely, but then so did Kikwetu and Kut and Wamathai and Storymoja and all those other writing spaces that died out. I’ve been reading this anthology put out by a group of queer Kenyan writers on Twitter, and these are writers you will never hear spoken about anywhere. Maybe there are people smarter than I am who will want to study why Kwani? and Jalada and Enkare have stood out above the rest. Me, I just want to go to places like Frank’s and Maasai Mbili and chill and eat and sleep.
Ed.: Clifton did a lot of this, the sleeping?
CB: Yes! Listen, the morning after the party at Frank’s, a bunch of us went to Neo Musangi’s and we stayed there two days. And in these two days Clifton was awake maybe six hours in total. He sleeps like a madman. He is the Madman in Umoja. And if he is in Kilifi, he is the Madman at Kilifi [laughs]. When we were at Frank’s, the party died around 3, 4 a.m., and everyone plopped down to sleep wherever they were. Clifton, who had just woken up from a very long sleep, slept again, right on the floor! I don’t know where he gets the time to write his poetry, with all the sleeping he does. If there was an Olympic event for sleeping, Clifton would walk away with gold year, after year, after year. So, he slept his long sleep, woke up for supper, slept up, woke up again, and when the rest of us were getting down to sleep like normal human beings, he slept again. But then that’s always part of Frank’s parties, the sleeping people. Frank, Neo and BM and Anita and Rose and Alex and Clifton and all these other writers and poets and artistes were asleep on the couches and couch pillows and on the floor and on mattresses. Michael Onsando, another Nairobi poet, came in around 5 a.m., or at least a ghost of his came, because I am not sure whether he was there or whether it was a dream I was having, seeing as people don’t come to parties at fucking five in the morning. Anyway, I wonder how this scene must have seemed to ghost-Michael, all these people just asleep in the room. Is this the present of Kenyan writing?
Ed: That must have been a sight! But let me take you back a bit. What was this exhibition, Wanakuboeka?
CB: Oh, yeah. So, a while back the British Institute of East Africa started seeking artists to curate shows for them. Enter this curatorial collective, Naijographia. I am not sure how curatorial collectives work, so don’t ask me! Anyway, Naijographia, who had done a show in Nairobi last year about the geographies of Nairobi, hence the name, were interested in music, and conversations around music. So they reached out to a few individual artistes, Michelle Angwenyi, Kamwangi Njue, Wairimũ Mũrĩithi, Neo Musangi, and then a few collectives, Enkare Review and Maasai Mbili, and asked them to produce and collaborate work about music. Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic was the result of this.
Ed: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but I’m still not sure what this Maasai Mbili is.
CB: So, a couple of years ago, these two dudes used to do sign-writing in Kibera. They used to walk around swaddled in Maasai shukas, so people started calling them Maasai Mbili. Two Maasai. With time, they ventured into other forms of art, got a permanent space in which to perform and exhibit their art, and invited other artistes in Kibera to join their space. This collective of artistes is called Maasai Mbili, and their studio is also called Maasai Mbili. And it’s not just art, because every Saturday they have poetry readings, and I went for one of these readings in 2017, and that’s when I met Frank, in fact. Greenman too.
Ed: Who is this Greenman fellow?
Greenman & the Art of Conversation
Greenman: So once, I was walking past a police station and I saw my friend, Collins, inside masturbating. I continued walking and—
Neo: Wait, what? Ati he was doing what?
Greenman: Masturbating. Collins is always doing things like that, or having things like that happening to him. Like, this one time, he was walking in town when he stumbled upon some unexpected good news.
Neo: And what is unexpected good news?
Greenman: You know, when you are walking in town, and there’s a woman walking in front of you, and she’s wearing a short dress, and she falls down. That’s unexpected good news.
Neo: Ha. Okay. And where is this Collins nowadays?
Greenman: I swallowed him.
Neo: Greenman, are you okay? I know you are from Kitui and I understand that, but are you okay? [turning to Rose] This Greenman, where does he get his stories from?
Rose: You would think he makes them up, but once he told us about a friend of his and we didn’t think this friend was real, but now Greenman is living in his house in Imara Daima.
By 2 a.m., the party was on its last legs. Idza L had left, Isaac Otidi Amuke and his date were almost leaving, and more than half the partygoers were in various stages of sleep. Bethuel Muthee, however, was not. BM had been a rapper when he was younger, and he drew on that experience for this performance at Frank’s house early on the first morning of the second half of 2018. He was freestyling, using the books on Frank’s bookshelves as his inspiration. ‘Hiyo ni Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, na mimi nawaonyesha vumbi,’ he went, moving from bookshelf to bookshelf, Isaac and Frank chanting him along. And when he rapped, ‘Hiyo ni Brief History of the Southern Luo by Bethuel Ogot, na mimi ni Bethuel Muthee,’ one got the feeling that this was the only way that party at Frank’s could have ended.
A brief afterword
I wrote this essay four years ago. So much has happened since then. I have thought more deliberately about literary parties, and have written about how movements in the Kenyan literary scene occurred around parties. Some of the literary organisations mentioned above have died. Others have emerged, and are flourishing. Most pertinently, Frank and Cifton started a literary journal, Down River Road (which Alex Teyie is managing editor of), which has put out three issues so far (Wairimũ Mũrĩithi and I were the editors of one), co-published a collection of poetry by Michael Onsando, and are publishing a short story collection by Linda Musita in a few months.
It is interesting to look back with the benefit of hindsight to see not only the things I was right about, but also that I was wrong about. I see the logic of the arguments I was making, but at the same time I recognise how flawed some of the thinking is. But that’s the nature of these things. A person says something, and they change their mind. Or they don’t. Either way, what they’ll have in time is the gift of memory. And perhaps new literary magazines/movements/moments to think about. And write slightly self-absorbed essays about.
* This editor is not the same person as the Editor of The JRB.
- Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya. His writing about literary culture, food, and politics, among other things, has appeared on Literary Hub, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Electric Literature, Serious Eats, Foreign Policy and Gay Magazine, among other places. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi.