Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York) (PAPERBACK); The Present Moment by Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York) (PAPERBACK) represent a bridge between colonial and postcolonial literature and is also a major voice of Kenyan national literature that is uniquely feminist.
Marjorie Macgoye defies easy categorization, as a writer and as an individual. British by birth but Kenyan by choice, she arrived in Nairobi in 1954 at the age of twenty-six, as a bookseller for the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the mission arm of the Anglican Church. Six year later, she quit her job to marry Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a Luo medical officer to whom she had been unofficially engaged for two years. Along with 9 million others, she became a citizen of the new Republic of Kenya soon after it received its independence from Britain in 1963, and except for a four-year stint in Tanzania she has lived and worked there ever since, and raised four now-grown children.
Because of this background, Macgoye is an unusual, perhaps even a unique, figure in the literature of Kenya and of Africa. She certainly does not fit any of the typical categories of African writers. She is naturalized rather than native-born, so that while she is undoubtedly Kenyan, and while her marriage into a Luo family gives her special insight into that community's experience and sensibility, Macgoye clearly occupies a position very different from that of Kenya's indigenous black writers. At the same time,`while there is a large community of white Kenyansmany of them former settlers or their descendants-this category seems even less apt, if only because Macgoye has consistently rejected the privileges that go along with being white in a place like Kenya. Writers from this group, who produce what is referred to in Kenya as "expatriate literature," include Elspeth Huxley, whose works describe growing up in a settler community in central Kenya, and Isak Dinesen, the pseudonym for Karen Blixen, whose book about her experience as an unsuccessful coffee farmer outside of Nairobi was made into the popular film of the same name, Out of Africa. Literature of the type produced by Huxley and Blixen is written from an outsider's point of view, with outsiders' concerns in mind, and it displays a consciousness of being part of a European colonial diaspora. Macgoye, by contrast, writes from a fundamentally different point of view and with radically different ends in mind. As a result, she is a Kenyan writer, but sui generis.
Macgoye's unusual life is best understood in light of three influences: her working-class background, the emancipating role of education in her life, and her commitment to a socially active Christian faith. She was born Marjorie Phyllis King in Southampton, England, on October 21, 1928, the only child of working-class parents. Her father, Richard Thomas King, was a clerk in a shipyard. As the oldest boy in his family, he had been forced to leave school and go to work at age twelve, and missed the more satisfying and lucrative artisan training that his younger brother enjoyed. Marjorie's mother, Phyllis, did complete school and was
a teacher before she was married, a job which she did not enjoy. When Marjorie was growing up, Phyllis did not work outside the home, but she later took in paying boarders. Marjorie's maternal grandparents lived with the family during Marjorie's early years, until their deaths in the mid-1930s, and her paternal grandparents lived nearby. Her childhood was affected by the Great Depression and by two wars: World War I was a recent memory that had left its mark, and World War 11 overshadowed her teenage years. The wars affected all of British society, of course, but as an important passenger and cargo port city, Southampton was a prime military target; in her memoirs, Macgoye recalls two severe attacks, along with constant disturbances.'
Writing and reading were always part of Macgoye's life. She describes herself as being "fed on books" as a child, and a poem she wrote at age seven won publication in the Daily Mirror. She made it to secondary school on a scholarship, graduating in 1945 and taking university entrance exams when World War 11 was in its final stages. Marjorie had always assumed that higher education was beyond her reach-the only person that she knew who had been to university was the neighborhood doctor-but again she was awarded a scholarship, this time to the Royal Holloway College of the University of London, a small women's college in Egham, Surrey, just outside London. The college experience opened a new world to Macgoye, bringing her into contact with the current scholarly debates of the day, as well as international political and social issues. It was here, also, that she sensed a call to the mission field.
In Coming to Birth and The Present Moment, Macgoye sets herself the task of dramatizing how twentieth-century Kenyan history set in motion changes that contributed to the process of women's emancipation in the country. In both novels Macgoye focuses attentively on working-class women struggling to make lives for themselves, to wrest a living and a modicum of autonomy within a rapidly changing society.
The historical scope of Coming to Birth is limited to twenty-two years in the life of a single woman, in the years before and after Kenyan independence. The Present Moment is more ambitious. In a rich and densely worked text, and for the first time, a Kenyan novelist offers a multifaceted, complex women's perspective on Kenyan history and society over the last century. Macgoye does so by presenting, in their own words or through their memories, the stories of seven women in the Refuge for elderly homeless women. Their lives cover a wide span of Kenyan history: from the early years when British colonial rule was establishing itself, through two world wars, world economic depression, local labor unrest, violent anticolonial resistance, and into the triumphant but profoundly problematic postcolonial period.
In The Present Moment history, the engine of societal and political change, does not function as impersonal force, nor as theater featuring the exploits of "great men." Neither is history in the novel a mere backdrop, the enumeration of significant dates and events signposting a privatized account of the domestic lives of the women protagonists. Rather, Kenyan history-colonial and postcolonial--is the very matrix within which the novel's characters struggle, aspire, suffer, act, and endure. History in The Present Moment is that precise location where individual character, choice, contingency, desire, and hope coalesce with the opportunities, tragedies, and possibilities enabled by radical social, cultural, and political change. The personal and public are fused as one plays out within and against the other; women and nation struggle, often against great odds, to "come to birth" by finding an identity,
Moreover, history in The Present Moment does not live safely corralled in the past. Priscilla and Rahel uneasily reflect that "one is never quite safe from reminders" as "sounds of the past kept on reverberating" in the present moment. In addition to the old women's articulated remembrances, others lie just under the surface, and still others rise unexpectedly and painfully: "But memories . . . need not speak in loud voices. They may gibber at a tantalizing distance like a bat in the rafters, or swoop upon you like a moth, soundless but soiling you with a residue of filmy substance". Indeed, the weight of their past experiences "presses bitterly upon the present moment.”
History has been synonymous with far-reaching social change in African communities such as those of precolonial Kenya. These societies were profoundly shaken, fractured, and irretrievably changed by the intrusion of technologically superior European imperial powers in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While traditional communities were not static, they offered their members a relatively stable and conservative environment. The thematic heart of The Present Moment concerns what colonialism and continuing change wrought, for good and ill, in the lives of African women and men.
Change registers in women characters' lives both as loss and as opportunity. With the coming of the new colonial order, as Nduta, owner of the tearoom where Wairimu worked, tells her, "all the old rules [were] set aside". The old village support networks and familial relationships frayed and sometimes snapped under the strain. The chaotic new world of the towns, mushrooming everywhere, provided little safety for women, throwing them back on their own resources. Simultaneously and most crucially, this changing world also presented women with possibilities-an expanding arena for work, mobility, autonomy, choice-that were both a blessing and, especially for earlier generations of women, a curse.
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