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Seasons In Hippoland coverWanjiku wa Ngũgĩ’s second novel, Seasons in Hippoland, arrived in December 2021 as another experiment to certify the power of storytelling. In the book, Wanjiku’s lab floor is “Victoriana,” an East African nation struggling with post-colonial independence. Victoriana, fresh out of the frying pan of colonization, is now sizzling in the embers of rule under its “Emperor-for-life.” Wanjiku’s pitch is to resolve, through storytelling, the status quo that has gripped Victoriana in the aftermath of decolonization. Her plot is led by Mumbi, a wild child who is unaware of the stories of the country, and who, until the commencement of the experiment was luxuriating in the comfort of Westville, that part of Victoriana that houses the Emperor and his henchmen.

Victoriana’s map includes three regions: “Hippoland,” where the refugees from the independence struggle are attempting to pick themselves up; “Londonshire,” where the dregs from the erstwhile colonial rule have settled down; and “Westville,” the epicenter of the quake. Out of the three, Hippoland is key to Wanjiku’s experiment, since it is where the stories of Victoriana have come to rest. To begin the scrutiny, Mumbi is dispatched to Hippoland to live with “Sara”; Sara has lived through the war against the colonisers and has much to say against the Emperor, and she also has the ability to tell stories. Sara’s role in the latest conflict with the Emperor is to move the masses with her stories and stories alone. When Mumbi, with her age and impressionability, collides with Sara, she is automatically entranced by these stories, and they set things in motion. To cut a long story short, fuelled by the stories from Hippoland, Mumbi gets involved in the country’s affairs directly.

If Wanjiku were satisfied with Mumbi’s transformation itself, Seasons would have covered Mumbi’s role in the fight for freedom for Victoriana and ended there. But to demonstrate fully the power and reach of storytelling, any changes effected by Mumbi must be done through storytelling as well—not mere protests. Since there is no place for two storytellers as figures of authority, without further ado, Mumbi pronounces herself the heir to Sara’s storytelling heritage. In a not-unpredictable turn of events, Mumbi’s—and Sara’s—stories convince the people of Hippoland to launch a coup against the Emperor. Mumbi is jailed, followed by the Emperor’s whip coming down on storytelling itself, cutting the tree at its roots. When the citizens of Hippoland, incensed by this clampdown of the Emperor’s government on books and stories and storytelling, protest in all ways possible to keep their customs intact, there is finally evidence that the delirium experienced by Mumbi for the stories of Hippoland is now also the delirium of the masses. In all of this, there must indeed be something of worth in the stories of Hippoland, and storytelling must indeed equal gunpowder. Fin.

As far as outlines go, it is apparent that Wanjiku wrote Seasons with a plan and went about it systematically.

Except Wanjiku failed to work on the stories themselves.

Imagine me writing, “The wind just stopped blowing one day.” And then … nothing. I just leave it at that. I give no explanation, no resolution. I just leave it hanging there. Make it work for the reader: I claim to have a flighty memory, incapable of starting a story and sticking to it ’til its end. Make it more plausible: I claim that this story only works for people who can imagine their own exposition or ending. Worse still, I rely on this “orphaned piece” to promise more stories to come, even if I deliver none in the end. Would that convince you of the power of my story, and my ability to tell the story? The stories from Hippoland, immortalized and deified by Sara—and later Mumbi—are built entirely on such a premise; they stand on the lofty pillars of convenience and have been written with the sole aim of dragging the narrative forward.

Wanjiku is not unaware that this might be the reader’s reaction, that the reader may not buy these feeble attempts to convince them of these stories’ capacity to make waves, and may not swiftly move on to focusing on the strength of storytelling itself. So, she has Mumbi inform us, to the point of denial, that Sara left her stories unfinished because that is just the way she is:

I feared she might run out, but Aunt Sara had too many stories in her head for that to happen. It was as if they had spent ages in queue, simply waiting for their truth to be told. As soon as she opened her mouth, they tumbled out and off her tongue. She would start with no warning. Or with lots of maybes, maybe nots, as if she was not sure of the subject, or as if subjects were interchangeable. It is possible she made them up as she went along.

“Long, long ago,” said Aunt Sara, beginning another story, “a woman lived in a house on the outskirts of Hippoland, down by the river, waiting. Waiting for her husband to come back and her child to arrive—” Then she stopped. “Tea,” she said and chuckled, “how can I forget my poison?”

Standing up, she hoisted her long kitenge, then let it fall to the floor and set off to the kitchen. By the time she emerged, humming and with a cup of tea, another story had come to her and erased the earlier one. That waiting woman was doomed to wait forever. Most of Aunt Sara’s stories were orphaned. Maybe this is what kept us coming back for more. The hope that we would get to un-orphan them and get them to their end. (p. 31)

The few stories that the reader is told come with that rider. But the understanding that Sara is a storyteller, and that she told Mumbi stories each day of her life spent in Hippoland, is repeatedly and exhaustingly recapitulated to us by Mumbi to reassure us that the stories are working their magic on Mumbi, even if we cannot see it for ourselves. Wanjiku, with the impatience of someone rushing to a point, also gifts Sara the repute of a leader of the masses; she insists Sara is renowned for her ability to inspire people with her stories of hope and courage. Sara is also allotted a backstory, a history with rebellion that goes back a few generations—brave ancestors who fought guerrilla-style against the colonisers—to further bolster her stories’ credibility; Sara is thus deified. But these are mere attempts to cover the shoddy storytelling by Wanjiku, and they create an impression that Mumbi is only a puppet in the hands of the writer, that Mumbi’s metamorphosis is tainted, manufactured by design. As a consequence, it also becomes obvious to the reader that Mumbi is inspired by the cause of Hippoland without there being any stories worthy of that inspiration, that her contribution to the history of Hippoland’s freedom—via storytelling—is that of a directionless madman who is convinced of his ability to produce wine from a rock, but who is not concerned with the use or quality of that wine. The verdict: the experiment has failed.

As an alternative, if we were to uncouple ourselves from Seasons as a book that was written to push forward an agenda and read it only as Mumbi’s story, other impediments to understanding the book come forward.

For one, Seasons, while written by Wanjiku, is still told by a teenager coming of age. In first person. And true to that setup, it reads like a teenager’s account. But there is utter disregard for the rules of literature in its telling, and there exists no pattern or consistency in the narration. There is a mismatch of tenses; large tracts of the book sound like the narrator is older at the time of narration and recollecting her past, then suddenly the narration turns present continuous, as if the story is taking place in real time. There are writers who have experimented with using different tenses in a book, but the reasons for the flip in tense in those cases are discernible. It might happen when the narrator is emotional. Or when the narrator’s senses are inflamed. But the divide is clear, and the reader adjusts their comprehension of the story accordingly, going as far as to feel overwhelmed alongside the narrator themselves. But Wanjiku, in Seasons, has tinkered with the format of narration to such an extent that, as a reader, one is forced to miss the woods for that tense-related tree.

That is not all. There is no demarcation for dialogue in the beginning: all speech, direct or indirect, goes the same route without any obvious betrayal of the emotions of the speakers. At the outset, this strikes one as brilliant and quite elegant. Equipped with only “he said,” “she said,” the reader is left to figure out the emotions from the words alone. But, as with everything else, Wanjiku changes her mind later and suddenly adds quotation marks and adverbs, even exclamation points, with abandon. This sudden decision to add tone to dialogue does not seem to be induced by anything; it does not mark a shift in epoch. One can only assume that the language of Mumbi’s thoughts has shifted shape. These grammatical inconsistencies make the novel a difficult read.

Wanjiku also seems to have adopted the same route for Mumbi’s narration as Sara does for the narration of her own pieces. Every chapter in Seasons ends abruptly without any link to the next one, a method also adopted by Sara to help with her abandoned anecdotes, and in the canyons between each chapter lie the reasons why some characters have made major decisions. How Mumbi decided where to live after Hippoland. Or what to study in college. Whether these choices came about because of the stories of Victoriana or otherwise. The rationale is left entirely to the reader to piece together. Unlike Mumbi, who has a cue card, it is hard for the reader to produce their own explanations. There seems to be no cogent reason for any of these decisions, apart from a change of mind in Mumbi, and the consolation that humans are unpredictable. In this way, Wanjiku has punctured the plot repeatedly, creating much confusion around the very elements of her story that are intended to highlight those of Mumbi’s actions that are fuelled by stories. The tears in the script are not salvaged later either; the current of Seasons runs along broken wires.

Multiple elements in the book are also there simply because they are. For example, Mumbi’s parents are gifted a role: they are lawyers who assist the masses from inside the system. But all that does is explain Mumbi’s decision to pick law right after college. Mumbi goes on to take up the case of a man who has been forcibly picked up by the military of Westville in a show of muscle, and she wins the case on a technicality, with no actual involvement of the law. But then she swiftly moves onto storytelling, for reasons clear to none, and the earlier decision goes for a toss almost as instantly as it came into being. On another occasion, Mumbi falls in love with a man who neither shapes her personality nor adds value to the story. And so on.

Thus, in the absence of any serious conflict, all of these scenes exist only as a record of Mumbi’s life, and on account of this Seasons is full of Chekhov’s guns that never go off. Such glaring errors, when repeatedly encountered, re-emphasise the reader’s feeling that Wanjiku’s only objective is to establish the supremacy of storytelling. Everything else about her novel can seem frustratingly incidental.

Wanjiku does, however, deliver in the end. The few pages that describe what the Emperor has done to the stories of Hippoland can be considered a political discourse on—even a premonition of—the past not being unalterable, on the idea that truth can be bent like a spoon merely with the mind of a man in fear. It is a different matter altogether that we cannot attribute any weight to the stories themselves. But based on the characters’ reactions, we can draw a presumption that there must be something more to storytelling than meets the eye. Why else would the Emperor attempt to shut down every form of storytelling in retaliation?

Do you know the danger posed to the nation by an excited people? Excitement is incitement. It has led to coups and unnecessary violence. We call it treason. We have pictures of you telling your treasonous stories in different locations. All over Hippoland. Telling your stories and exciting the people. Telling them to rebel. To rise against the Emperor. To commit treason and treachery! (p. 177)

For these few pages alone, the journey to the end of Seasons must be made.

Governments burning texts and launching embargoes on the written word is not an unfamiliar concept. Wanjiku, in these final pages, gloriously explains what happens to a nation that is invested in its history and its stories when the government threatens to raze them to the ground and replace them with its own version of the truth:

According to Westville, stories in every form needed to be streamlined including stories about the history of the nation. If this had been done immediately after independence, there would not have been so many stories surrounding the birth of the nation, and it would have been easier to locate the original story of the bowl. If stories had been banned much earlier, the story of the bowl would not have been allowed to spread. Then the American would not have bought it. Then it would still be here, able to help the Emperor when he needed it.

So Westville ordered the official story of the nation to be written down once and for all. Printed in hundreds and thousands, it was distributed to everyone in Westville and Hippoland and Londonshire to make sure everyone knew the one true story about Victoriana. (pp. 191-192)

As you lie panting, having finally understood why Seasons was written, you also allow yourself to notice the endearing traits in the book. For one thing, a few of the descriptions in the book take on the tone of poetry:

The next day Aunt Sara drove us into Hippoland town. Into stalls selling lanterns and lamps and bulbs and mosquito nets and bananas and oranges and hippo tusks and pigeons and hens and yellow dresses and blue skirts and gold bangles and nyama choma and slippers and shoes and milk and tea masala and red pepper and tarot cards and Bibles and English books and a French dictionary and Cola and goats and smoke and merchants and buyers and Indians and women with baskets on their backs and children pulling each other on wooden carts, zooming down the streets, oblivious of cars hooting by. (p. 21)

Every time you read one of these passages, you picture Mumbi gasping for breath as she recites all the things she’s seen; they tumble out of her quickly, and our minds transform into one of those plastic cameras we used to own as children, the sort that had a reel of images fitted in, a click would change the image we were viewing; if you clicked rapidly, you got dozens of images flashing before your eyes for half a second and whirr. The descriptions are dizzying if you pay attention to them at the same pace as Mumbi doles them out, but they color your vision in an exciting way. The book is also sprinkled with cultural references that, were it not for the density of the plot, would add value: miti wine and jacaranda trees; kitenges and samosas; nyama choma and acacia bushes. Multiple descriptions of food being prepared and drinks being drunk, an altogether festive set.

In the end, were Hippoland an actual place on the map of the world, and its people were indeed sentimental about their stories, and if there existed a real struggle there worth recording, the author’s choice of location and the fatal gaps in the narration could be accepted, admired even. The author would then be merely narrating history. But Hippoland is a figment of Wanjiku’s imagination, and so are the stories of Hippoland. And much like the hippos that feature less than five times in the entire book—and purely for reasons of sentimentality, for the fact that they lent their name to the town—the entire story or stories of Hippoland can be uprooted and replaced, and the significance of storytelling to a country’s design could still be pitched. In short, strip the book of its setting and the essence remains the same.

An alternate reading of Seasons can be attempted from a study of Wanjiku’s own history. Wanjiku, being the daughter of the celebrated writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, had witnessed first-hand the imprisonment of a storyteller, a penalty meted out purely to cut off the stream of her father’s consciousness. He was incarcerated for about a year and designated a “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International, before he was released. Thiong’o was punished for writing the play Ngaahika Ndeednda (1977) by the then-Vice-President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, and Mumbi’s experiences of being in prison—a year-long imprisonment that is, ostentatiously, for no reason other than to shut her up—also attempts to cover the confusion of a thinker who has been told they are not allowed to think any more. Wanjiku goes to great lengths in drafting these scenes, showing that the Emperor’s government had nothing on Mumbi but still wanted to keep her in there. Thiong’o, being of Kikuyu descent, came from a family involved in Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, again similar to Mumbi’s own origin story, with her lawyer parents and the people around her who are perpetually involved in Hippoland’s mutiny.

Daniel Moi ruled Kenya unopposed from 1979 ’til 2002, before the country shifted to a multi-party democracy and fair elections. The Emperor in Seasons, too, is fashioned as an Emperor-for-life, indicating a lengthy and never-ending regime. That Kenya’s fingerprints lie across Victoriana is also proved by the red berets, the insignia of the military of Kenya as well as the code of the military in Victoriana. The alternate reading of Seasons could be that it is a re-creation of Thiong’o’s journey, a tribute to the life he lived as an activist before exiting Kenya. But this is an alternate reading only: as it is, all the chaff through which the review has sought to see its way—the layers and layers of chaff—obscures Seasons to such an extent that it comes to dominate.

The fact remains that, while the plot of Seasons has been carved anxiously from the rock of individual histories of emancipation in African states, tempting many a reader to study its contents through a political lens, Seasons and Victoriana exist solely for Wanjiku to make a case for stories themselves, to make a case that stories are important, that storytelling is prime. In that way, Seasons is less a study of the birth of a democracy in a former colony and more a commentary on the role of storytelling in a siege, its catalytic prowess. And Seasons serves as a warning that the argument for storytelling is successful only in theory. Should the stories used to make this claim fail to stand on their own, so will the argument.

Manasa Tantravahi runs a bunch of (occasionally defunct) book clubs, and writing clubs in India hoping Fahrenheit 451 stays fiction and is not rendered a premonition. As a part of her campaign, she also pens reviews, some of which have featured in Atticus Review and The Aware National. Quack is her attempt at catharsis through poetry.
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