With Tales of Magical Girlhood, New Kenyan Fiction Enchants

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The Nairobi neighborhood I grew up in wasn’t a particularly remarkable one. Row houses with small, fenced-in gardens hid behind walls that grew higher and higher as Kenya’s economic crises of the 1990s triggered, in turn, a security crisis that the city is arguably still wrestling with. In these identical two-story rectangles, Nairobi’s dwindling middle class adapted to what happens when an economy implodes without fanfare. Teachers turned their back rooms into bars. Lawyers built extensions over their front gardens that they could rent out as studios to boost family incomes. Accountants moonlit as pastors on the weekends, and brought relatives from the countryside into the city to repair cars in their front yards. And when all the girls reached Standard Seven—11 or 12 years old, with one year left in primary school—they simply disappeared.

The story went that Nairobi was not the kind of place where girlhood could safely be experienced in public. Well into their teenage years, boys could still be boys, climbing trees and cycling everywhere and anywhere until they could barely move their legs. But girlhood was a dangerous proposition, and the only way to ensure we survived it was by sequestering us from public life. One particular girl, let’s call her Kerubo, was legendary because her brothers would fearlessly climb to the highest branches of the guava tree in one of the neighbors’ front gardens, tossing down the juiciest fruits that would otherwise be pecked at by the birds. Her family was no more religious than the rest of ours were—Sunday or Saturday service or Friday prayers, depending on your faith. But while the rest of us occasionally snuck out to sit in each other’s yards and play hopscotch, five stones, or bladda, Kerubo never set foot outside the compound of her family home after the age of 12. It was as if she simply ceased to exist.

“Every girl I ever knew was lonely,” writes Okwiri Oduor in her debut novel, Things They Lost, a story that injects the fantastic into the mystery of Kenya’s disappearing girls. The magical-realist novel joins Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s House of Rust (2021) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea (2020) as one of three recently published novels by Kenyan women that place Kenyan girls at the center of a magical quest. This is fairly remarkable in Kenyan fiction, where adventure is often written as the birthright of boys and girls exist mostly as harridans, cautioning restraint or doing all of the clean-up. Even outside of Kenya, literary fiction that centers on girlhood is uncommon, particularly without a coming-of-age arc. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is a standout example; Helen Oyeyemi does it with a dark turn in The Icarus Girl, as does Booker Prize finalist Tsitsi Dangaremgba in her first book, Nervous Conditions. Girlhood narrated for adults and framed around adventure and joy is rarer still—Zambian author Ellen Banda Aaku’s Patchwork straddles the line; not necessarily joyful, but also not relying on trauma and tragedy to propel the narrative forward.

So, this new trio of books that envision Kenyan girlhood as a season of magic will appeal to any reader who has survived or wants to understand girlhood as a time of complexity, laced with unparalleled creativity and expansion. But unlike the other two, Oduor’s story is, at heart, a tragedy, using magic to give dimension to the grief and angst that a girlhood interrupted creates. Her protagonist, Ayosa, endures and witnesses, but she also goes and does. Girlhood is captured as a period of motion and action that tends to go unseen in societies where those things are considered unladylike. This is a story about a “little girl who has not yet learnt how to Girl in a manner that is satisfactory.”

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