This is the first book-length critical study of the writing of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, the British-born Kenyan writer whose foundational role in the making of Kenyan and East African literature and centrality to the literary tradition of the region stand out as remarkable facts of literary history and contemporaneity.
Macgoye came to Kenya in 1954 as a bookseller with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and eventually made the country her home, becoming a citizen when it attained independence in 1963. She has to date published seven novels, a number of short stories, two poetry collections, children's stories, and two texts in historical and cultural studies. Through these, she has succeeded in "accurately defining the twentieth century Kenyan experience and defending it against patronising and sentimental judgements," as she has defined her goal in Moral Issues in Kenya: A Personal View (1996).
Roger Kurtz has set himself multiple tasks, determining "to present the literary legacy of [. . .] Macgoye, to evaluate its prominent features, and to argue that it holds a central place in the history of Kenya's literature" (vii). He accomplishes this with admirable concentration, competence, and precision, and in the process manages to open up new spaces and avenues for re-thinking and re-engaging in discourses on Macgoye's work.
The text is divided into six chapters, each concentrating on a particular aspect of Macgoye's life and writing, but also interconnected by the leitmotif of her distinct poetics and thought. Chapter one delves into Macgoye's life to illustrate her "steady journey from outsider to beloved literary matriarch" (viii). Macgoye's life as a student in England and a committed young writer-scholar with a passion for mission work is clearly examined to reveal in her an ingrained acceptance of the oneness of the human race, which sees her later on in 1960 defying race constructs [End Page 209] to marry a black Kenyan, medical officer Daniel Oludhe Macgoye. She then unreservedly channels her energy into her personal vision and deeply felt need to become one with the Kenyan society. Simultaneously, and with great singularity of purpose, she dedicates herself to her other dream—becoming a writer, but one with a wide range of cultural tasks. Kurtz scrupulously examines these tasks ranging not only across Kenya but East Africa. Between 1971 and 1975, as manager of Tanzania's University of Dar es Salaam's bookstore, Macgoye turned this rather ordinary outlet into a veritable epicenter of culture and learning. Then in Nairobi from 1975 to 1980, running the pioneering S. J. Moore bookstore, she successfully set the tradition of linking book-selling to poetry readings and broader cultural interactions.
In the second chapter, "Making It Sing: Macgoye's Poetics," Kurtz offers his general interpretation of Macgoye's poetry and analyzes her views on literature and the writing process. The emphasis on the manner in which Macgoye deploys traditional East African forms, sometimes juxtaposing them with modernist aesthetics, is apt. Macgoye's patience as a human being and a writer is also brought out as Kurtz reveals how she managed to cope with the literary establishment that was initially reluctant to accept her. In Kurtz's examination of the close literary communion that Macgoye built with East African founding writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Okot p' Bitek, and Jonathan Kariara, we find that what was most appealing to her in these literary friendships was the seriousness in the other writer, seen as a commitment to writing and as principledness.
Macgoye writes across literary genres. It is thus appropriate for Kurtz to discuss how both her poetry and prose fiction capture Kenyan history in almost equal measure. He is right to observe that "Macgoye's poems and stories draw from a rich store of Luo images and metaphors" (60), and the discussion of these tropes is illuminating. We would, however, add a note about the restrained symbolism or even the entirely asymbolic nature of much of her poetic imagery that underscores her integrity...