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  • Nairobi: Urbanités contemporaines: Études Littéraires Africaines 31
  • Joanna Grabski
Nairobi: Urbanités contemporaines: Études Littéraires Africaines 31 Paris: Association pour l'étude des littératures africaines, 2011. 130 pp. ISSN 0769-4563 paper.

Focusing on Nairobi, this special issue brings together six essays addressing literary production and urban life. The essays examine a range of social, political, economic, and intellectual conditions in relation to trends and themes in literature in this particular city. The contributors are scholars from France and Kenya at various stages in their careers, and taken as a group, their essays explore significant issues about the constitution of an urban-based literary genre. They provide focused [End Page 141] analysis about both the substance and style of literature in Nairobi while attending to questions around spatiality, social life, gender and power, and creativity.

The introductory essay by Aurélie Journo outlines the special issue's contributions and central themes. Its primary objective is to examine the place of Nairobi in Kenyan literature from the 1970s to the present. Although its focus is recent literature and the contemporary city, the introduction also traces connections to the history and development of Kenyan literature since independence. To further situate the project's relevance, the introduction incorporates discussion of seminal scholarly works on Kenyan literature. It also elaborates on significant events in the development of an urban genre, especially the founding of the journal Kwani? in 2003, which both marked a break with past literary practices and reoriented Kenyan literature to the urban setting. While the introductory essay articulates the project's scope and identifies connecting threads among the essays, it accords less attention to how this project figures into scholarship on African cities or how literature in Nairobi relates to other forms of urban-based cultural production.

In addition to writing the introductory essay, Journo offers an essay dealing with the representation of Nairobi in recent fiction, paying close attention to work by authors associated with Kwani?. Drawing upon the tools of urban geography, Olivier Marcel explores how various urban institutions including theaters, bars, and cultural centers configure the space for literary production. Hervé Mapeu's essay addresses the dynamics between writers and their audiences by considering the factors that have contributed to the contemporary popular novel's association with the urban middle class. The textual analysis of a novel is offered by Colomba Muriungi's essay that examines Genga-Idowu's Lady in Chains (1993) as "rewriting" prostitution as a form of urban labor with ramifications for economic empowerment. The final essay by Sheila Ali Ryanga and Rachel Wangari Maina addresses the depiction of urban life in modern Swahili literary texts. This coauthored essay also broaches a cluster of questions about the reciprocal influence between Swahili and English literature. Regarding the issue of language, it is worth noting that this project also crosses linguistic barriers in African literature studies by bringing scholarship on Anglophone African literature to a francophone audience.

On the whole, this special issue offers a focused, yet multifaceted case study on literature in one African megalopolis. It deepens understanding of Nairobi's contemporary literary scene while extending, and at times revising, well-settled interpretations about Kenyan literature. It also suggests lines of connection to interdisciplinary scholarship and sparks potential dialogues with research on other African cities and their expressive forms. [End Page 142]

Joanna Grabski
Denison University


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