Biographical Friction

Biographical Friction


Yet Geryon did not want/ to become one of those people/ who think of nothing but their stores of pain.
—Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

And—this is very important—this all has something to do with the sight of that tormented, falling down, drunken, bleeding man I mentioned at the beginning. Who is he and what does he mean?
—James Baldwin, Notes for a Hypothetical Novel


I. To Know You: A Letter to Guka1

I know that Cucu2 was well on her way to joining the convent before you came, and convinced her otherwise. So she became a woman, with seven dependents—six children as close in age as six children can be and a husband to collect from the police station, bruised—no doubt of your own incitement—on what became ordinary Saturday mornings. I know that my mother one day suggested, “we just divorce him” when she was seven and a half and already very tired of the violence. “You and who?” Certainly not. For Cucu there were only two kinds of water—bad water and holy water. She could only be responsible for her own sins, of which divorce was certainly one. I know there was a time you wore white leather moccasins. Apparently you were also really funny. I know when my mother told you my father had called off the (first) engagement, as per his mother’s wishes, you said “thank god, I always thought that boy lacked a spinal column,” and she remembered how to laugh. I know you chain-smoked Parliaments. I know Cucu woke up that night to the smell of ash burning a hole into the bed sheets. I know that at your first rehabilitation appointment after the stroke your doctor threw you to the ground and said, “Get up!” My mother says this was the first time she saw you cry, then after that you cried all the time. I don’t think you were simply sad, also exploring new avenues for communication in light of the aphasia. Meanwhile, I had been born and was just learning to speak, so we only missed each other by a little bit. I know there must have been a split second where we spoke exactly the same language.

II. Going to Meet the Man

in a roomful of elders
all mock my broken Gujarati

English girl!

I tunnel into books
forge an armor of English words. 

Mother tongue

Tongue of the mother
I murder in myself

—Shailja Patel, from “Dreaming in Gujarati

Twenty-two, and I sit writing in the back of my father’s car trailing the “Montezuma Funeral Home” hearse on the way to Othaya, Nyeri County, for the first one I’ve ever had to attend. We’re driving to the gravesite after viewing the body, which looked expectedly dead but unexpectedly purple, quite fittingly, actually—Cucu insisted the family all wear matching purple today because it’s Lent. When I die I give up as much of me as possible and please somebody burn the rest immediately. After the viewing of Guka’s purple body there is a church service. It lasts four hours and is conducted entirely in a language I do not speak.

In 1996 I turned two and Guka suffered a severe stroke. As I learned to form intelligible sentences in both English and Kikuyu, his speech significantly deteriorated. As it slowly started to return, I started formal schooling (in English) and slowly forgot my Kikuyu. By the time my family moved to the UK when I was six, I didn’t know a word.

English became my only voice, books my only friends in the cold and far-away new country. Meanwhile, back in the old one, Guka steadily regained speech. The English never really came back, though. Ageni eerĩ matirĩ ũtugire, I guess.3

Two years ago I took my first college fiction class and started writing what I imagined must be fiction but am beginning to realize probably was not (at least not sound) fiction at all. I did, however, for mysterious reasons we are hoping reveal themselves over the course of this essay, write a lot about Guka—

From “The Sun Goes Down So Slowly,” the story of a much older (too old) man who taught me things someone probably should have already, like how to floss and make tomato sauce, convinced me to learn German (a fully flowered regret I remain inexplicably committed to), gave me (in an exclusively practical, not at all gestural way, it much later transpired) a set of his keys, and nothing else in particular:

My first weekend back home, I drive from my dad’s house in Limuru to visit my grandparents in Nyeri. Guka says as much as he can since the stroke. Cucu puts more matoke, sukuma wiki and nyama choma on my plate. She prays for me. She holds my hand in both of her own and reminds me yet again not to marry a white man.

From “Red,” a tale of transcontinental moves and Very Painful Sex, punctuated by excerpts from Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” show:

Her father had sold all of his cows, half his goats and taken out a loan from the Kenya Commercial Bank just to buy her plane ticket. By the time she arrived and made enough money for a long distance phone call, her body had acclimatized to Toowoomba, Southern Queensland, but there was also an 8-week-old fetus inside it. She fixed the image of him (the boy she had finally acquiesced to, day before her flight, his breath hot and Fanta orange, her pinned beneath him atop a suitcase that wouldn’t close.) “How much are you gonna need to end this as ASAP as possible without anyone finding—” The only words she heard before hanging up and vomiting into the kitchen sink. Bile danced with blood as it circled round the metal drain. She still sees that red anytime she has to ask a man for anything.

From “Call,” a narrative in phone calls, exploring the subtle ways in which women strengthen women:

“Binti yangu, now you have to tell yourself the truth. It’s hard, but in life—well you know.”

“You either grow or you grow a tumor.” Halima had heard this story before.

“It’s true. They’re even doing studies on it now, at universities. I will send you on Facebook message—The mind-body connection. You know how your Bibi died.”

According to her mother, Halima’s grandmother had buried her pain for so long it decided it might as well make a home in her left breast.

“That man would beat her so hard I would find her in the morning on the kitchen floor. And then he would go and drink the money. Every time he got into trouble, every time, she would leave the house at 5:00 a.m. after waking us up to read for school. Not even when we had a test, Halima, every day. All seven of her daughters, because we had to do better.”

“I remember mama. To walk in her sandals to the police station—”

“Imagine. And it was not close. At least twice a week she would go. And she would pay them to release him. I would have left him there, that drunkard. I would not have paid.”

She didn’t die of the cancer. She died of the smell of his shit.

I cringe at that last line particularly—on one hand, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that, but mostly because I now realize that in my attempt to reconcile the problem of solipsism with the enduring refrain of the Intro to Fiction Workshop: “Write What You Know,” I ran into self-indulgence of a far more dangerous kind. “To stop sounding self-indulgent, I should probably just stop writing about myself,” sounded about right—so I looked for stories that felt close enough to claim as mine, yet distant enough to claim as “fiction.” My grandparents, Guka in particular, served as entry into a world I didn’t feel I had access to—a world of painfully real people with proper, lived lives.

In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, titled “Don’t Write What You Know,” Bret Anthony Johnston laments:

Another deeper, more essential part of me dies when a workshop student says, “What I wanted to do was __________.” The idea of a writer “wanting” to do something in a story unhinges me. At best, such desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda. I feel pity for the characters, a real sense of futility. I’m reminded of Ron Carlson’s hilarious story, “What We Wanted to Do,” in which a group of villagers intends to spill a cauldron of boiling oil on the Visigoths storming their gates. The oil, however, never reaches its boiling point, so when the villagers commence their dousing, the liquid is lukewarm and the Visigoths aren’t so much scalded as they are terribly pissed off. The result is their most vicious attack. The lesson is a good one for fiction writers: stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point.

It’s a difficult pill to swallow, but yes, my fiction has thus far been absolutely fueled by the intentions Johnston denounces. What I’m still unsure of is what exactly those were. For one, why Guka? How did this apparition of a man I essentially never had a full conversation with find his way so frequently into my stories? Was I trying to know him? Implicate him? Vindicate him? What kind of character was I creating in decontextualizing the few, loose fragments of information about his life I had collected over the years from stories told, conversations overheard, my mother’s old journals—namely, he had a “very short temper,” he beat the shit out of his wife, he sacrificed more than a lot to provide an education for his six children, he was a staunch alcoholic (but lots of fun!), he played golf every day, then he had a stroke. Many years happened. He was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer. He died.

III. Notes for a Hypothetical Novel: Character

I think my most easily diagnosable problem was a fundamental misunderstanding of character. Guka only ever existed in my work as himself—well, not even that, I didn’t really know him—rather, he existed as the judgments I’d imposed on him based on limited facts and very much from my own, trifling vantage point. Baldwin, in a 1984 Paris Review interview, said this:

Obviously you can only deal with your life and work from the vantage point of your self. There isn’t any other vantage point, there is no other point of view. I can’t say about any of my characters that they are utter fictions. I do have a sense of what nagged my attention where and when; even in the dimmest sense I know how a character impinged on me in reality, in what we call reality, the daily world. And then, of course, imagination has something to do with it.

Guka was never a true character in my stories because imagination had nothing whatsoever to do with it. I gave him negative freedom. He never had a chance to become. What’s more solipsistic than writing only of yourself? I think it must be writing other people entirely for yourself: To be angry at—I’m angry that he was a certain kind of man, that he damaged my mother in the various ways parents do, that she in turn damages me in the various ways parents do. To be upset about—I’m upset by the distance between us, in terms of language and place and time; by what this disjuncture between blood and blood means, or doesn’t, about who I am. To house the undesirable emotions—Guka was a vessel for my guilt. I am indebted (which feels like something very close to guilt) to him as a symbol of the sacrifices so many people have made that I’m alive and literate and able to make and grow in any direction I feel compelled, etc. ad infinitum.

The truth is, people rarely do things to us. Usually people just do things. Creating character is not about information. It’s harder work than that.

Johnston attempts to reassure the students in his fiction workshop, chilled by his discouragement of writing what they know:

I say fiction is an act of courage and humility, a protest against our mortality, and we, the authors, don’t matter. What matters is our characters, those constructions of imagination that can transcend our biases and agendas, our egos and entitlements and flesh. Trust your powers of empathy and invention, I say. Trust the example of the authors you love to read.

In his essay “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” Baldwin describes “a figure I carry in my mind’s eye to this day and I don’t know why” (144), a drunk man he saw once as a child coming up his street in a black overcoat, stumbling, falling, bumping his head against some railings and bleeding as kids tormented and laughed at him. “This figure is important,” Baldwin explains, “because he’s going to appear in my novel. He can’t be kept out of it. He occupies too large a place in my imagination” (144). I think he presents us with this character simply that we may look at him—at this specific example of humanness, because it exists, so we must acknowledge its existence. Baldwin is really insistent on this idea of looking to see, it comes up again and again in his essays. Put succinctly in the introduction to the 1961 collection, “Nobody Knows My Name”:

It would seem, unless one looks more deeply at the phenomenon, that most people are able to delude themselves and get through their lives quite happily. But I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are. (xii)

Thii na wega4, Guka. Rest in power. Thank you for making me look.

A group gathered around a coffin.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Elgrably, Jordan. “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No.78.” The Paris Review, issue 91, Spring 1984,

Johnston, Bret Anthony. “Don’t Write What You Know.” The Atlantic. Fiction 2011.

Patel, Shailja. “Dreaming in Gujarati.” Migritude. Los Angeles: Kaya Press, 2010.

Wanjohi, Gerard J. Under One Roof: Gikuyu Proverbs Consolidated. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2001.

  1. Kikuyu: grandfather
  2. Kikuyu: grandmother
  3. Kikuyu proverb: “Two guests cannot be entertained satisfactorily at the same time.” (Wanjohi 11)
  4. In Kikuyu, there are two different ways of saying goodbye, depending on whether you are the one staying or leaving.
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