The Week in Review, From the Nursery: Noy Holland, Rudy Wilson & the De-Lish Gothic-Tropic of Hell's Gate

Places to hang yourself in Nairobi, whilst trying to be somewhat on the grid doing it

I'm writing this from The Nursery. The next sentence I write might be from somewhere else. The Nursery is my name for it though in reality it's something different, The River Cafe I think. You can google it yourself and it probably won't come up. It's not a known hangout in the scheme of things. It's more of a hideout. That's why I like it. That, and as the name would suggest, there are organized grids of potted plants, a pond with ducks and birds and other strange looking creatures, coffee or drinks with umbrellas in them and high-speed internet—all in a humid environment ripe with decay and rebirth. And they're playing Fela Kuti. What more could you want in life, besides corn tortillas and a good book? And as I'm writing this, a black cat jumped on my lap.

Black Nursery Cat

She's a bit mangy and has fleas, but she gets away with it. Here are some other shots from around The Nursery to give you the idea.

the nursery




pond at nursery

Now that I've told you, it's no longer a hideout. In concept, it is my favorite place to hang, though practically speaking, The Ship is a better hangout and I spend more time there. The Ship is what I call the UN Gym. They've got the best internet access in Nairobi. The strange thing is it thinks you are in Italy when you search the internet there—all the results come back in Italian, from google.it. Elsewhere here, you get google.co.ke. I call it The Ship because, well, it looks like a cruise ship. I googled it to see if I could find a demonstrative picture, and Jess's site comes up, small world. Though you can't really tell it's ship-like nature from that shot. Here's what it looks like from within the ship (where I'm writing from right now, at the risk of messing with the linear narrative):

view from UN Ship

I also hang myself just up the road at the World Agroforesty Centre, where Jess works, or at least sits. For a while I had a flying-termite-infested office (I'm supposed to be making a website for them), but now I just work from wherever. They have flocks of monkeys that make you feel like you're in the Wizard of Oz, but the internet usually sucks there. They have a great lunch place though, and this funny cat that looks like Garfield, except he's gray not orange. Occasionally I'll hang out at Java House, but their coffee is expensive and it's too much the ex-pat scene, too much like the Starbucks of Nairobi (thankfully of which there are none). A lot of people (ex-pats) hang out at The Village Market, but I avoid that place like the plague. It's the kind of place you'd see on the news after a suicide bomber blew it up, along with 26 Americans.

Now you know where to find me.

The one thing common to all hangouts in Nairobi are stretched canvas roofs. It's like being in a fucking circus. This would be the perfect HQ for Tarpaulin Sky.

roof of the nursery

tarpaulin sky at nursery

Speaking of which, Christian Peet has this woodshed video blog I came across the other day (actually Selah Saterstrom brought it to my attention). Not that I can really stream videos here, but I at least saw him chopping wood at the beginning, the sight of which was about as foreign a sight as I can imagine. Though I had to break apart a monstrous branch yesterday that landed on our roof (not tarpaulin, but tin). And I'm growing my beard out to rival his. I'd show a picture of it, but that would defeat the purpose. I'm supposed to be in cognito or something. (And now, to further disrupt the linear narrative, I shaved it off last night, after getting drunk with some Belgians jaded by too much time spent in the Congo, off Belgian ales (Maredsous 8, Leffe and of course Chimay) made by celibate monks.)

At times I hang myself out to dry at home, but that gets depressing. We live in a quagmire of trees and don't get any morning sun. I pointed out to Jess once that our rafters (that you might recognize in the video from the last post) would be perfect to hang yourself from, and she said that she already thought of that. Not that she would hang herself, but more like it was her idea first. As we pine away to The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen. But now that I have The Chief's Chair, things are different on the homefront. Last week Jess brought me back this wicked chair from Malawi that is the most righteous chair for reading you'll ever find. This is my throne of power, where I'll be reading from.

Malawian Chief's Chair


Rudy Wilson's Red Truck

Last weekend, before I was throned with The Chief's Chair, I read The Red Truck by Rudy Wilson. I think I read it mostly in our hammock. Hammocks are not great for reading. Sometimes I read on our landlord's trampoline, which is a good place to read. In both positions, you are suspended supine, but in a hammock there is an arc to it that suggests sleep or decadent slothliness. I've had The Red Truck in my possession for a while, I just haven't gotten around to reading it til now. A year or two ago, brother Markus sent me a manuscript by Rudy Wilson, that's how I got around to getting The Red Truck. The manuscript was solid, but it's about creepy incest with younger siblings and other places I'd rather not go, at least not as a publisher. It's still unpublished, as far as I know, someone should publish it, it just wasn't for me. It made me want to read his other book though, The Red Truck, which was published back in the 80s by Knopf, one from the Lish line. Speaking of, I just found this letter to the NY Times that Rudy Wilson wrote to them about Lish's editorial practices. Said Lish (after chopping The Red Truck from 440 to 178 pages): "I wish I could put my name to it." Thought Wilson, "you may as well." Even though not one word in the book is Lish's, it's like he's an artisan butcher that can take a beastly carcass and sculpt away the fat and bones to leave only the finest cut, with his signature in it. If The Red Truck was 440 pages, I probably wouldn't have finished it. People criticize Lish, but on the other hand, that takes major cajones. Cajones that I'd never have. Though now that I have The Chief's Chair, maybe I'll grow some goat gonads.

P.S. Cooper Renner just informed me that Ravenna Press will be reissuing The Red Truck in 2009. So now you won't have to find an expensive used copy on Amazon like I did (if anyone wants it in the meantime, contact me and I'll relinquish my copy).

Gothic in the Tropic of the Dark Continent

Wikipedia says about Southern Gothic:

"One of the most notable features of the Southern Gothic is "the grotesque"—this includes situations, places, or stock characters that often possess some cringe-inducing qualities, typically racial bigotry and egotistical self-righteousness—but enough good traits that readers find themselves interested nevertheless. While often disturbing, Southern Gothic authors commonly use deeply flawed, grotesque characters for greater narrative range and more opportunities to highlight unpleasant aspects of Southern culture, without being too literal or appearing to be overly moralistic."

I think you could definitely say that Wilson's characters are deeply flawed. The Red Truck revolves around these idiot-savant children stuck in arrested development induced by trauma. Such damaged characters are interesting, though I'm not sure there were "enough good traits that readers find themselves interested." I know it sounds lame, like a comment from screenwriting 101, to say "I couldn't relate to or sympathize with any of the characters," but it's true. It also spiraled a bit into this confusing mess of reincarnations that lost me, especially with all it's religious underminings. Nevertheless, worthy of reading for sure, if for the language alone.

I guess you could classify Blake Butler's Ever as southern goth, of the post-modern variety, even though it takes place in a house in an unspecified locale that could be anywhere in America. Hell, my own Marsupial could even qualify as southern goth—I even wrote the first draft of it in the south, in Savannah. Not that I claim any semblance of understanding of the south, not even enough to rightfully criticize the accepted racism that exists there. As Flannery O'Connor remarked, "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." I might question why southern writing need always include requisite incest or bigotry, but that is not for me to ask. Especially when the underlying thrust of Marsupial is a brother's desire for his brother's girlfriend, which is just as bad, or as "grotesque" as incest, so who am I to say.

I've been thinking a lot about "gothic" lately. That's what living in Nairobi will do to you. When I was "death rock," it seemed cold-weather places were the most suitable goth environments. San Francisco in it's fogginess was a great place to be goth. I can still smell the ephemeral concoction of cloves, aquanet hairspray and sublimating dry ice. But now, living on the equator, sandwiched between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, a new appreciation of goth is being instilled, amidst new smells. Not that I see any mod death rockers tooling around Nairobi on vespas and trench coats, but it would be a great place for it. Something about the tropics makes it more fertile for gothicness. Just like the Southern U.S. has a richer gothic tradition than the north. You might not think it, but New Orleans is a better place for vampires than Transylvania. My memory of Guanajuato, Mexico is as a perfect breeding ground for goths and vampires. Nairobi doesn't have such dungeoness subterranean passages, but there's something about it that makes it ripe for a goth movement. Maybe it's because there's more death in the tropics. Not just more death, but when things die they stink and fester and brood. There's more disease, more pestilence, more chaos, more corruption, more sadness, more of a tendency towards the "grotesque," whatever that means. I'm not sure I even know what "gothic" is. I'm not sure why I'm writing all this. Except to say that I feel inclinations towards being gothic and sadcore here.

The Spectacle of Noy Holland's Body, and the Suspension of it

With a name like The Spectacle of the Body, and the fact that most of the stories within it take place in the south, you'd call probably call this book by Noy Holland Southern Gothic. I also managed to read this book last week, a good part of it from The Chief's Chair. Like Rudy Wilson, this was another one from the Lish line, Knopf 1994. In the book's dedication she thanks Gordon Lish, "captain in all weather." Like The Red Truck, I forced myself to read The Spectacle of the Body without a pen in my hand, so I don't have anything too specific to say about it. Except this one sentence sticks out in my mind that pretty much encapsulates the primary story in the collection, Orbit, and the book as a whole.:

... Or before then, I wonder, before that, before the body had seen at all, before the nets, the slow boats, before it was decided to drag the lake—then—even before then—before it occurred to anyone that someone was going to have to decide to have the lake be dragged, or not—I am not saying yes, or no, only that I wonder—no, that I suspect—hope, I hope I am not alone in this, in thinking that in the decision made there was likely to be, apt to have been, some notion—that in the spectacle of the body, in the freak show of the body, was the promise for them, the endurance for them, of some fresh exile, some uneasy glory.

And then later in the story—I hope Noy doesn't mind that I quote her at length here:

On my hands, I could smell my shoes, I heard the thick flaps of the tent beat in the wind outside the tent and the boy walking out in the wind outside. I could hear my shoes. It was just the trees I heard and the wind that beat the flaps of the tent and the squeaking  steps my shoes made and then the music started. It was just the one light when the music started. The light shined down along her. She had feathers in her hair, the girl, that flew out when she danced. She had a jerky way of dancing, a tooth that as she danced I saw her loosen with her tongue.

I can't help myself, here's one more passage:

My hands were dirty. My hands smelled like Oscar smelled and my hands smelled like Daddy—like the shoes I wore to the ticket booth, the eggs I threw to the whiskered fish, the necks I threw so I could flip the skiff so the snakes would not swim in it.

If that doesn't make you want to read this book, than nothing I say will. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between my own memories and what I've read, or what I've dreamt. At least if the book is good. My life takes on aspects of works I'm reading at that moment. This morning Jess asked me if I was scared and pointed to her crumpled pants laying on the floor. I was confused and then remembered it was a reference to a character trait in Marsupial, something that I had said in passing for whatever reason and then forgot about—definitely not a "real" phobia I have. And I never had sex with my brother's girlfriend or even wanted to. And for the record, I have never had a gin & tonic poolside. It's a metaphor.

I have also never broken a bone in my life. I bet Noy Holland has broken many bones. I interviewed her once here. Most of what I know about her is through her writing, in which she comes off as tomboyish salt of the earth. One of the good old boys. When I first met her, Jess said she was a sexy woman. She may have used the word sultry too. She made Boobs Friday once on <HTMLGiant> because of her ability to dangle spoons from her nipples. When you look at her though, its more like you're thinking if she can do that with spoons, imagine what she could do with a pen. Her stories are rife with tadpoles and yellow birds. Here's a picture I took of a yellow weaver bird that I took near The Nursery that I think she would like:

Yellow Weaver Bird

The copy of The Spectacle of the Body I have came with a bookmarked receipt (credit card number and all) of the person who bought it before me. A Pamela S. Laws that bought it at Shakespeare & Co in NYC on Jul 02, 1994. Now that I'm done with it, I'm giving it to Ro. She is one of the Belgians we got drunk with, and also who I left The Wizard of the Crow with in Kisumu. She is almost done with that already. She is here with us now at The Nursery, wearing my Mexico 68 jacket (hi Ro!). The black kitty is also here, though she is being kind of haughty now and doesn't want to sit on my lap.

Sojourn to Hell's gate

Yesterday we took a break from Nairobi and drove north towards Lake Naivasha in our little saloon car that bottoms out on every speed bump with Ro and Ousman. If you can deal with the maniacal drivers and diesel fumes, it was a pleasant drive.


After passing through some towns, you wind down this escarpment into the Rift Valley. Our destination was Hell's Gate. No particular reason, you just have to start somewhere. We parked at the entrance (the only car there) and rented some bikes.

biking to Hell's Gate

Biking to Hell


getting caught in an aptly named "dust devil" on the way to hell

dust devil


zebra xing

zebra crossing


chasing zebras


Yeah, I know I it's not cool to harass the zebras, but I couldn't resist. Something about the black and white stripes beckoned me like a bull toward a red cape. Even though zebras are about as common as deer here, I still can't get over how cool they are. If I had my way, I would tattoo myself with such markings.


We saw some other animals like ostriches, a giraffe, rock hyrax, gazelle, some sort of huge bearded vulture and of course my perennial favorite, the warthog, though usually when you see them, you see their butts farting in retreat.

warthog butts

Most people go to Hell's Gate for the rock formations and landscape, not for the animals. Why is that any place with basalt formations in columns has devilish or hellacious names? Like Devil's Tower, or Devil's Postpile, or Hell's Canyon and I think there's more I just can't remember off hand. It's been a long time since I've climbed, but there's definitely some solid rock for climbing out in Hell's Gate. I'll refrain from posting too many pictures of good crack, here's one that Jess posted, and here's one she got of me groping some mother jugs.

snippet of poster at entrance to Hell's gate

welcome to hell

Hell's Gate was far from hellacious. It was quite heavenly actually. After riding for 8 clicks or so, we got to some place where we left our bikes and got a Masai guide named Surret who was wearing Doc Martens:

masai wearing doc martens

we descended down into this sandstone gorge with all these geothermal springs dripping down the sides. Having spent a lot of time in the Southwest, I've seen plenty of more spectacular canyons and hot springs, but I suppose it was a nice change from what you usually see in Kenya.

Jess climbing down through the hot geothermal waterfall

descent to hell


Fisher's tower seen from within gorge

fisher's tower


photo is not doctored, the algae living off the geothermal water was like really green

green algae


hell's gate



After Hell's Gate, we went to get a bite at some place called Crayfish Camp (chosen for the name of course, though sadly they were out of crayfish) that was down near lake Naivasha. It was like that scene in Apocalypse Now! where they stumble on the camp in the middle of nowhere with the playmate strip show. The place was brimming with these sunburnt British military guys with tribal tattoos hanging out and drinking beer, and Kenyan prostitutes with cowboy hats lingering in the periphery.

 Waterfronts in Kenya are like New York City—undeveloped at inaccessible. We noticed this when we were in Kisumu on Lake Victoria, and now here at Lake Naivasha. After much enquiring and wandering through empty fields and over fences, we were able to emerge out on the lake front.

pulling in the nets on Lake Naivasha

Lake Navaisha fisherman



fisherman with his catch

fisherman on Lake Navaisha

Note in the picture above, that's a cellphone dangling in a plastic bag from the back of his head, apparently the only place to keep it dry. The main industry of Lake Naivasha now are these monstrous industrial flower-growing greenhouses. They give jobs to plenty of people I'm sure, but they are put in these camps to live that looked pretty sad, like there was no existence for these people except to provide flowers for people in Europe and America. Flowering death camps. I don't know, I suppose you could say the same thing about coffee plantations, but if people only knew what sort of life the buying of flowers contributes to, they might think twice about what it means to be romantic. Seems crazy that they would be growing inedible flowers when they could be growing food.

Reflection on Personal Space and Danger on the Dark Continent (for <HTMLGiant>)

As I'm writing this sentence (now back at The Ship), I just got an email from Ryan Call who's interviewing me for <HTMLGiant>. He asks (predicated by my reflections on personal space in my blog posting from when we were leaving NYC (which looking at now seems like a distant memory)):

"Based on what I've read on your various blogs, it looks like you've adapted well to the public spaces of Nairobi. I'm curious though, could you share a little bit about your personal space? Any photos? Journal entries? Thoughts?"

This blog posting hopefully will serve to answer this question! The one thing to add in regards to "personal space" here is that there's a certain sense of confinement or lack of freedom that is difficult to adjust to. Most anyone living here above the poverty level lives behind tall fences, under 24-hour guard with people serving on them hand and foot. Everywhere you go there is this whole rigmarole of security that you have to get through, "gatekeepers", or people wanting to wash your windshield or clean your shoes. Not that Nairobi is even that dangerous. It's like computer virus software. The sense of danger/terror was invented to create jobs (and ex-pats here take pride in their quaint Masai guards who all have the name "soldier") and I wouldn't doubt if it's the security forces themselves who have perpetuated this perceived threat. The police (the built-in security of the operating system) are useless here for anything other than taking bribes, so you have to hire private security, which in a sense is just another layer of extortion. Even the fire-fighting forces are private, like in the old days of the gangs of New York.

While our current situation is not as oppressive as the place we lived in for the first month, we still have a night guard and a "maid" that cleans up after us once a week. Ex-pats living here for any length of time justify it as creating jobs. Just like "work" is "causing to happen" (i.e. getting someone else to do the work). They say their servants are like family to them. Sound familiar to some in the southern U.S.? The maid we have was the maid from the people that lived in our guesthouse before us, so us not hiring her would have put her out of job. It was bad enough that we cut her hours back so she only cleans once a week, that was the compromise. And the night guard isn't necessary, but our landlord keeps him to give him a job. These justifications are self-defeating though, and not something we want to get used to. I don't want to have someone open the door for me every time I go for a run. When I'm at the gym, they have people mopping the sweat up before it even hits the ground. To tell them it's not necessary would only make them feel unneccessary or diminished or would undermine their ability to do their job. It's enough to drive you crazy, especially for a DIY guy like myself. Not that I don't appreciate the privilege of living here. I just never want that appreciation to turn into entitlement. This space, as it exists, is temporary to us. I think of it as traveling through, and I never want to be feel like I belong, to feel such a sense of entitlement, to have the nerve to call it "home." Those people that talk about how they feel spiritual or mystical or free here (a la Out of Africa) do so at someone else's expense. To me that is not freedom. Who was it that said, "you can't be free until the masses are free?" As for adaptation, I admit defeat. The only adaptation we have made is to resolve to not adapt, to not take comfort in being here.


(c) 2008 Derek White