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Hell is in Bed with Mrs Peprah - Analysis
Mrs. Peprah is the second short story I ever wrote. I was living in my home town, Nakuru at the time, my mother recently deceased, and many of my thoughts were floating around my childhood, and my mother. My mother was a creative and enterprising woman. She owned an art gallery in the 1970s, Nakuru’s first, which was called Green Art. Later she started Nakuru’s first hair salon, by the same name. I was very much my mother’s son, and loved spending time in the salon, among pieces of raffia, and the smell of burning hair. In those days they used gas flames to heat iron combs to straighten hair.
I was visiting my Auntie Rebecca Njau’s home in 2001 when I came across an African American magazine from the 1970s. In it, I read an article by a group of visiting American activists who had been to see Idi Amin. They pronounced him a hero to black people everywhere. I decided that day to write about the naive seventies. This idea was not connected at this time, to the hair salon, or to Milka, the young girl in the story. There were no characters, just a vague, atmospheric idea.
When I sat down to write about the seventies, I realised that I could not see it as an adult; I was a child then, and all my memories had the hazy curiosity of childhood. I lost interest in the story.
A few days later, I had an epiphany, watching a young thirteen year old girl having her hair done in a salon, with her mother policing her, in a salon near Uchumi supermarket in Nakuru. I rushed home and started to write. This is territory I knew well. For years in my mother’s salon, I had seen reluctant girls brought in by ambitious mothers. A hair salon is a place where women go to transform themselves; and this has exciting dramatic possibilities. It is also a place where women who normally do not meet, have t spend intimate time together: respectable married women; church women; loose, partying women; career women and academics from Egerton College. Conflict can flourish in such a salon. I realised that a certain naive middle-class ideal, which thrived during President Kenyatta’s one-dimensional vision of Kenya, could be examined in a story set in a salon in the 1970s. The youngish going-somewhere couples of those days were making lots of money; were climbing rapidly up social and economic ladders; were inventing a new way of being modern and well-off, in former white suburbs, with nothing to guide them but ideals gleaned from television and movies; from white missionaries and Better English, and Student’s Companion and Barbara Cartland. My biggest motivation was getting a young woman character right. For me making Milka a compelling and believable character was to be a mark that I could write fiction, write characters removed from my own experiences.
In the early drafts, Milka dominated the story; Mrs Peprah, her mother, even the Amigos woman only had bit roles. It is only when I was happy with Milka as a character that I realised that the story was not balanced.
Between the time that I came home from South Africa, and when I won the Caine prize, I had put myself on a two-year program to learn to write. The difficulty was always, is always, for any writer – entry: how to cheat your imagination into action. We do not have easy access to worlds in our heads. So, finding meaningful rich veins of possibility occupied most of my time.
The other difficulty I faced was learning to relax. After so many years of school, of work, of journalism - having to work in tight time deadlines, I found it difficult to pace myself correctly for more meditative writing. Eventually I learnt.
These days, for me writing is play. I commit a certain number of hours to be in front of my computer, but I let what comes come. I do not make myself write any fixed number of words. When I am in a groove, a whole night will pass, and I can exceed any word count. When I can’t find a groove, I end up browsing the novels of better writers on my desks, desperate for some light.
I see any literary work as an onion: the greatest pleasure is not in the first draft, it is in turning a draft into a story. It is impossible to create a whole world in one’s head at one go, and deliver it to paper (and fiction is all about creating compelling world, peopled by compelling people). A rich and layered world on paper comes from little things woven into the story over days and months. I still go back to stories written and published years ago, when a new idea for them strikes my mind. This is where the greatest pleasure lies: in making a few changes and seeing new possibilities, new ideas, new depths to characters. I never plan a plot beforehand. Any plots I have drafted out die right there. When I know what will happen at the end, the story becomes dead to me. It is characters who drive me: building new people from a blank page. I almost have to force myself to make action and conflict happen. If you were to leave me alone, I would probably draw endless character sketches.
I sent out the story to different friends. One told me that Mrs. Peprah, being a liberated woman would never stoop so low as to fight with a loose woman in a salon. So I tried to change things a bit, then realised that of course Mrs.Peprah would fight: she is a hot headed woman; and she has deliberately constructed herself in a certain way, in a different direction from most women around her at the time. This makes men afraid of her; puts her constantly in a position where she needs to defend her values. Women like the Cocoa-powder lady offend everything Mrs. Peprah stands for. Mrs. Peprah is also insecure about her looks. Darker skinned women were made to feel ugly in those days. Although Prof. Peprah’s feelings about emancipation were strong, she, like Milka’s mother, belonged to a certain class, and disdained people from from less educated backgrounds. Enough of Prof Peprah had assimilated the heady moralities of missionary schools, and her sexual liberation remained mostly in her poetry; she could not let herself go easily. She resented those who could. A lot about this story is about new ideals: how they are often humiliated by real life; how they never take into account the contrary nature of human beings: Milka is attracted to the Cocoa lady, despite the best efforts and ideals of her mother, and Prof. Peprah. Mrs. Peprah’s feminism is only a superficial coat over who she already is; it is not as flexible an instrument as she wishes. It is too insecure to learn new things. I ended up loving the Cocoa lady more than the other characters, and contemplated making her more central. It was difficult to keep her nameless: but the truth is that she was nameless to Mrs. Peprah, to Milka’s mother, to Milka even. She was a type to them, not a person.
There are some writers for whom theme is everything, and the triumph of Gender would have been the main point of the story. Not me. I trust characters. I never even go out to define theme, or a certain political point of view. I prefer to let human possibilities rule my fiction – the reader is then free to see a theme or a political conclusion from the actions of my characters. It is impossible to write in Africa and not be political, but I refuse to let my political ideals govern the actions of my characters. I do not believe in arts for arts sake: but creativity is messy, and truth is a negotiation: not a statement or a theory; truth is negotiated by point of view; it is as fluid as life, and is never ‘found’.
I can only seek truth by allowing my instincts to govern what I write, I trust nothing else. My politics will always affect my stories. I do not need to try to make this happen. I hope, when people read my stories that they recognise life as they know it in one way or another, from one part of my writing or another; recognise enough to make the story a part of their thoughts and ideas.
Milka will be more flexible with the womanhood she chooses than Mrs. Peprah – if life moves for her in straight line, but life never does that, really. It is quite possible that she will marry some soccer player, and become a Footballer’s wife, but that is another story.
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