Just after I published DRUNK, I got a call from someone who shaped how I write about female characters. This was late 2018, I was sharing a rooftop office with Fred Kithinzi at Greenhouse. An all-glass walled office, the view was pure seduction especially if you stepped out onto the balcony and looked out at the lazy windmills over on Ngong Hills. We took calls out in that balcony, pacing up and down the long length of it, minding the direction of the wind blowing through the mouthpiece. If you stood at the edge you looked four floors down at the parking lot of Adams Arcade Mall or someone’s backyard or the massive mosque that was then under construction. We sat next to each other on our identical desks, Fred and I, and together we beat the bushes of capitalism while facing, I’m almost certain, China. Fred’s wife constantly packed him these tasty snacks – pancakes and things – and Fred being a poor eater, guess whose huge responsibility it was for Fred not to go back home with uneaten snacks and face a bemused spouse? Yours truly. I single-handedly kept Fred out of the domestic doghouse. These are things he forgot to thank me for. Anyway, COVID soon came and stuck its viral middle finger in all this setup. After many glorious years sharing office space together, we all scattered in the melee of the pandemic and started working from home where I discovered the great beauty of writing in my underwear and never went back to the office after it was safe to come out again.
I miss Fred. Sometimes. He won’t admit it but I’m sure he misses me too. I wonder who is eating his pancake now. (Ha-Ha). He has since moved to a mansion-office further down Ngong Road on Muchai Drive and Belva Digital has grown in leaps and bounds as a marketing technology agency representing dozens of countries. I’m not surprised, Fred burns the candle at both ends and he’s a great fellow. Fred, if you are reading this, just to be sure, this isn’t a love letter.
Anyway, in 2018, I was in the office and Abigail Arunga called. Abi is a writer and an all-rounded troublemaker. She’s an electric current rumbling below the ground, something you’d pick up on a Richter scale. Eccentric, creative, outspoken, and fun to speak to if you can keep up but never for more than an hour and a half otherwise your brain starts smoking then the top of your head blows up. She’d been looking for me the previous week but my schedule was in knots. She said she was in the neighbourhood and wanted to nip in briefly for a powwow. She bundled up the winding steel staircase up to the office, looking around wildly, saying many things at the same time, all unrelated. Like I said, electric current rumbling below the ground.
After niceties, she said, “now, I finished reading your book (DRUNK) and I enjoyed it and I’m here to give you some feedback.”
“Sounds quite serious,” I said, “this feedback.”
“Yes, it had to be done in person,” she said, “are you ready?”
I wasn’t but she gave it to me on the chin all the same.
In a thumbnail, she said that she found how I characterised the women in DRUNK to be unflattering. They lacked any depth, hollow vessels whose roles were merely to aid the plot of the book. “They have no soul, no personality, nothing to show them as people who we can see and remember.”
“The book isn’t about them,” I protested, “they are there to illustrate Larry’s unravelling.”
“That’s fine, the problem was it seemed like a theme in itself, this inadequacy of these female characters. In the book, you show them as things Larry uses and expends…objects. Some you cast as unstable, who was it that locked Larry in the bathroom after a drunken night out, letting him spend the night on the bathroom floor?”
“Maggie.” I tried not to giggle.
“Yes, her. I believe you start that chapter by saying, ‘And there was Maggie, crazy as a bat.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair .
“Look, I’m not saying that ALL female characters have to have depth or sound smart or look great because that’s not the real world. People are stupid or shallow or whatever, what I’m saying is that we can’t have a buck of female characters in the book being monolithic,” she said, “DRUNK doesn’t have any strong female characters, I mean, except for Larry’s mother, I can’t think of anybody else.”
“Malaika?” I attempted.
“She’s a child. And she’s in a coma half of the book.”
She paused, smiling at me knowing that she was right. “You are a writer, it’s a great responsibility, you can shape how people view things with words and form opinions. And so you want to be conscious of how you portray female characters. You want your daughter to read your book and identify with at least one female character, and not because they lock men in the bathroom or have wild eyes. She must be able to reach out to those characters emotionally and intellectually. And if she disagrees with the character it shouldn’t be because she pees on the roadside. That’s all I had to say. Is there tea in this office?”
After she had left I sat at my desk and thought, shit, I hadn’t seen it that way. I couldn’t have seen it that way. She was right. She planted a very important seed in me, something I pondered on and off even as I embarked on writing my second book. So when I wrote ‘THURSDAYS’ I had Halima, strong-willed and intelligent. And when I wrote my latest ‘LET ME CALL YOU BACK’ I had Gipsy; eccentric, sharp, and witty. I wrote about Ada, Samora’s wife delicately with these sensibilities in mind. Each time I have written about a fictitious female character, I have had Abi’s voice at the back of my mind. Abi standing there, behind me, with a look on her face that seems to say, ‘do better, Biko.” She – with her tact and superior emotional intelligence of offering criticism – completely shaped the consciousness with which I write female characters.
Thanks, Abi. Wamadh chai kata kongo machiegni?
But because I hate to write a boring female character, I always put a cigarette or weed between their fingers and say, ‘There, be bad.’ Or I just have them go about their day without a bra. (Gasp!)
Talking of characters, how Gipsy came to be was that one time my friend Benjaps rang me while I was writing and asked, “what are you doing, kwani?” I said, “writing, kwani?” which was his cue to hang up and sod off but he kept talking so I asked him if he could give me the name of the main character of my book and he immediately said, “Samora.” When I was picking the name of Samora’s best friend, I simply took Benjap’s wife’s name, Gipsy.
Here is an excerpt of how I introduce Gipsy in my latest book.
Who the hell is Gipsy to you?
Oh, forgot to mention, she’s a girl in my corner. Every man needs one girl in their corner.
We met in university. She was studying arts, I was studying engineering. She went about with cool, colourful friends. I went with friends who obsessively talked about chess moves. First time I saw her was in the library. She was browsing the shelves while running her hands across the spine of books, sending shivers through their pages. I saw her first because that’s the natural order of things; pretty girls don’t see men like me first. They are seen. She had big dreadlocks tied up in a bun on top of her head like a Cuckoo’s nest. Her face was long and mournful, a great frame for her art. Her lips looked like two tiny pebbles, set against each other. She was the kind of girl I fell in love with and sold my ancestral land for. And my brother’s. She was the kind of girl that would start a generational family feud.
The second time I saw her she was at the cafeteria with her gaggle of cool unreachable friends, engaging in an uncommon activity for university students; eating ice cream. A true luxury. The third time I saw her she was seated on a low enclosure built around a flowerbed. She was reading a book in the bright sunlight and occasionally sipping from a bottle of water [another luxury] while hiding behind knock-off sunglasses. This was my only chance to speak to her but before I could walk towards her, a very tall fellow with the build of a mountain gorilla – the rugby types that look like they think with their biceps – went over and sat next to her. She smiled at him and slipped her arm around his before leaning her head against his shoulder. The smile on her face stabbed me right in the heart. I slowly turned back like a doomed ship.
The fourth time I saw her she was looking up at a monkey in a tree in the campus’ arboretum. I often went there to lie on the grass with my engineering books: Structures : Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down By J.E Gordon, Engineering Mathematics by Stroud, Engineering Thermodynamics by R.K. Rajput. She was wearing her cheap sunglasses, but with the aplomb of an heiress. There was no gorilla in tow, so it seemed like the perfect moment to make myself known.
“A group of monkeys is called a troop.” I said, standing next to her, looking up at the family of monkeys on the tree.
She turned and studied me, askance. “You learned that in engineering class?”
“My head is full of useless information I will never need,” I said. “So why not share it?” I grinned at my stupid reflection on her cheap sunglasses.
“A monkey expert and a philanthropist,” she said, “rare qualities.”
“How do you know I study engineering?”
“The Dean’s list.”
“So, make that monkey expert, philanthropist and high-achiever,” I said.
She chuckled and shook her beautiful head.
“I know,” I said. “I’m -”
“Samora. I know.”
I took her on a few cheap dates but it never amounted to much because on the third date she told me, “I hope you don’t think these are, like, dates?”
I said, I did think they are, like, dates. She said, “no, they aren’t. They are just random meet-ups.”
“Random meet-ups?” I cried. “I plan these things for days!” She laughed and tilted her head patiently and said, “Samora, I have a boyfriend.” I told her it was a real problem for her but I’d wait until they broke up and she asked, “oh why do you think we will break up?” I said, “Because men like him are unable to truly care for anyone else apart from their muscle groups.”
They broke up. Of course they did, but she didn’t date me. She started dating a homeless looking music major fellow who went about with a guitar on his back. She broke up with that one soon after and when I tried again she told me, “Samora, you and I are great friends. I don’t ever want to spoil that.” I don’t even understand how women can choose friendship over an opportunity to have sex. It baffles me to date.
For a while I tried to be the best friend who was also waiting for his moment of glory and through that ended up seeing her date some of the most vile and miscreated humans you can imagine, chaps I was much better than. I’m talking about guys studying courses like Natural Resources Management, Bachelor of Science in Leather Technology. There was once a guy she dated that I had to endure (yes, that was what I was doing, enduring this cast of clowns) who took a course in Dry land Economics. I didn’t even know that a course like that existed. I suspected that they had their classes after midnight, near that dodgy block that housed the recycling plant. Worse, he liked to talk about Dry Land Economics ad nauseam. Now, it’s one thing to study Dry Land Economics but it’s a completely different thing to talk about it in public. This chap was easily the worst boyfriend she ever had in university.
Slowly, begrudgingly, I accepted that we could never amount to anything more than friends, this realisation didn’t come naturally and pragmatically, it came gradually and painfully. Took a good chunk of my few years in university. What matters is that we eventually became the best platonic friends you can imagine. She became my boy.
Our friendship continued after university. She worked for a design company but she wasn’t the type to live her life on the corporate clock, so she quit and started painting and making pots. She’s very talented, and unlike most artists, doesn’t perpetually sulk, and possesses great interpersonal skills. She won a Masters scholarship to study something called Information Experience Design or something similar at Royal College of Art in the UK. She was there for two years, came back a little wide-eyed, idealistic and inspired. Paintbrush in hand. She had also picked up a weird taste in music. She was listening to an artist I had never heard of called Patti Smith. And old African queens like M’bilia Bel and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie.
Our friendship endured many boyfriends, girlfriends and H Pylori. When I started dating my then-girlfriend, now my wife, they naturally took a great dislike for each other. The two times they found themselves in a room, it felt like two antagonistic dogs making low snarling sounds at each other. She thought my then-girlfriend was uppity and aloof. Removed, was the word I believe she used. My then-girlfriend didn’t trust her. “She thinks her art protects her from being a human being,” she told me. “Art isn’t armour. Art is feeling.”
I said nothing. It wasn’t my place to comment.
So yeah, that’s who the hell Gipsy is to me.
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