Monthly Archives: October 2021

Re-reading The Dispossessed

As with many other people, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was both a gateway into science fiction for me as a child, as well as a very early political textbook. The bleak egalitarianism of Anarres, the striking contrasts with Urras, the scenes of the general strike, and the character of Shevek himself – all these stayed with me for many years, even as the details grew hazy in memory. Earlier this year, I returned to the book, after the passage of a decade and a half. It was a fascinating experience to come back to such a formative piece of work as an adult, and now with a long-standing interest in philosophical anarchism. Of course, The Dispossessed is canon; it’s been analysed extensively over the last fifty years. I don’t intend to add more words to that corpus, so this post is essentially a set of reflections upon re-reading the book.

For me, the most striking part of The Dispossessed is the level of detail with which Le Guin constructs the anarchist society upon Anarres, much of which – I think – has held up particularly well over the decades. At various points in the book – whether as vehicles for advancing the plot, or just as passing mentions in conversations or through the narrative voice – the spheres of production, reproduction, and distribution are all touched upon: from urban infrastructure to art, from supply chains to the naming of children – it’s all there. Much of the discussion, indeed, speaks to radical political texts and arguments that (at least in some cases) were contemporaneous with – or written after – The Dispossessed.

For example, in one of the first descriptions of the urban centre of Abennay, we are told that: “Abennay was poisonless: a bare city, bright, the colours light and hard, the air pure. It was quiet. You could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt. Nothing was hidden.” (p. 84) This reminded me powerfully of Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett’s book, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. Sendra and Sennett speak of “publicising infrastructure” as an element of radical urban design, or to “unblackbox infrastructure through architectural design.” (Sendra & Sennett, p. 65) The basic idea is to mitigate differences in power that arise out of urban infrastructure being kept out of sight – and opaque – to those who actually live in the city, and to provide the collective with a measure of control over where the resources are coming from and how they are used. Le Guin does not, of course, get into the technicalities of the urban architecture of Abennay, but the novelist’s task is suggestion, and in that sense, the words “you could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt … nothing was hidden” indicate how the anarchist foundations of Anarres also constitute the – literal – foundation of its cities. While Verso has published Designing Disorder in 2020, the original – solely authored by Sennett – was published in 1970 – four years before The Dispossessed. I can’t but help wondering if Le Guin was inspired in some way by the Sennett’s radical infrastructural proposals.

The art of Anarres is equally interesting. Shevek’s intense reaction upon attending his first concerts in Abennay sets in motion a chain of thought that leads us to this observation: “Thus, architecture had developed, early and freely, a consistent style, pure and plain, subtle in proportion. Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and story-telling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theatre stood wholly alone, and only the theatre was ever called “the Art” – a thing complete in itself.” (p. 131) This reminded me immediately of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s book, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology – also, coincidentally, published in 1970! While that book is primarily about science, its core point – that the division (and hierarchy) between “intellectual” and “manual” labour, where the former is sought to be abstracted from social relations – is a construction of capitalism, applies equally to the distinction between artistic and manual labour. Sohn-Rethel’s proposal for a world in which intellectual labour is “re-embedded” – so to say – within the social relations of production appears to have been accomplished with respect to art on Anarres, as the quoted passage shows (although there is some chafing about it). Once again, I wonder if these ideas – then in wide circulation among leftists and radicals – formed part of the base upon which Le Guin built Anarres.

A third feature of Anarres is that de-growth is very evidently a part of material life – and not just something determined by the harshness of the terrain. The origins of the term “de-growth” are, of course, much more recent (in SF, the idea has been most recently articulated in Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built). We are told this early on when the complex organicism of Anarres is described, as well as its apparent liberation from the commodity form and the capitalist imperative of ceaseless growth. There is, therefore, a strong political economy thread running through The Dispossessed, and I thought it made a particularly vivid re-appearance later on, after the protest marches on Urras: “.. the revolutionists in Nio, they come from the same tradition. They weren’t just striking for better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists, they are anarchists; they were striking against Power” (282) Now, there is of course an open question about whether “power” has been abolished on Anarres (and evidently, insofar as public opinion constitutes a power structure, The Dispossessed is quite clear that it has not), but Le Guin’s clarity here about the distinction between reforms within capitalism (better wages etc) that have historically been the end-goal of mainstream trade unionism on the one hand, and the quest to transform social relations altogether, which has been part of the tradition of more radical unionism, is fascinating (needless to say, socialists would disagree with the accusation that their own manifestos are limited to better wages and having the draft abolished).

The Dispossessed also deals with questions around the institutionalisation – and putrefaction – of revolution. Shevek-the-rebel is always in an ambiguous position because of who – or what – he is rebelling against. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he thinks to himself that “he could not rebel against his society because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 147). I had a somewhat funny mental association while reading this: I found myself thinking of the Mexican political party, PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional – whose name literally translates to “the Institutional Revolutionary Party”. But somehow, it fits perfectly – Anarres has become an institutional revolution which formally denies to its citizens the moral authority to revolt, because how do you rebel against the Revolution, how do you question power when your interlocutor has disavowed power itself? Indeed, I think that The Dispossessed’s sub-title – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – has to do not so much with the harshness of life on Anarres, as it has to do with the tension between the idea of freedom upon which Anarres is built, and the freedom to rebel that it nonetheless denies to is citizens.

My final point is a mildly critical one: there is one respect in which I think that The Dispossessed is not particularly convincing, and that is in its treatment of gender relations. I mean, in particular, the gender relations on Urras: Urras is an advanced capitalist society – I’d put them at around 2050/2100 in earth equivalent – but the gender relations there are borderline feudal, and feel almost caricatured at times. We have known, of course, that one of the features of the 20th century was that discrimination – whether gender-based, racial, or otherwise – moved from being formal and direct to being structural, institutional, and indirect. Urras, I think, would have been a far more convincing foil to Anarres had gender relations been treated with the same subtlety that the rest of the world-building was.

But overall, I think it’s striking how much of The Dispossessed continues to hold up, how well it has aged, and how much of it continues to feel relevant – a true sign of a classic. Its highlight-reel of lines is truly memorable: “Men always have theories and things always have to fit them” (179); “… separation is educational alright, but your presence is all the education I want” (210); “We make justice here or nowhere” (243); “If you evade suffering, you also evade the chance of joy” (275); and of course, the devastating “Weigh it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” he said, turning to her, “and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.” (289)

I can think of no other writer whose finest line also doubles up as a comprehensive critique of methodological utilitarianism!

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Reading Kenya

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea: The Dragonfly Sea is the story of Ayaana, who grows up with her mother, Munira, and a father that she adopts – Muhidin – on the island of Pate, off the Kenyan coast. Her life changes when – on the basis of DNA tests – it is found that she is one of the distant descendants of a Chinese naval expedition that was wrecked off the coast of Pate seven hundred years ago. As part of their cultural diplomacy, the Chinese declare her a cultural ambassador – someone who can “walk the space between the past and the present, so that the future could be shared” (p. 154), and finance her education in China. But meanwhile, things are not well on Pate, when Muhidin’s recently-returned son – and now married to Munira – is renditioned as a suspected terrorist, and their fragile family is torn apart. While Ayaana’s time in China – and a brief, perilous sojourn in Turkey – changes her, she too will return to a very changed Pate Island.

Readers familiar with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s previous novel, Dust, will quickly recognise the familiar qualities of her writing: atmospheric writing (“Each port had a distinctive smell, as if the sea distilled the climate, hopes, and experiences of each place into a unique essence. Kilindini. Top note, earth, fire, moon flowers, and blood; middle note, salt, putrefying seaweed, and rust; bottom note, wood, twilight’s sun warmth, sweat (182 – 3)); a deep sense of place (“Outside, East African botanical exiles – the flame trees of Xiamen had exploded into red flower, and in the late light these looked like giant lanterns (357)); prose that engages all the senses (“Imagine the world as a salt road, and yourselves as slugs crossing it…” (120)); and sentences crafted like jewels (“Cartography not of possession, but of, how odd, belonging…” (478)). At the same time, The Dragonfly Sea paints upon a much larger canvas than the contained, Kenyan narrative-scape of Dust: from Pate Island to Mozambique to China to Turkey and back again – and all though, with the sea being its own character – The Dragonfly Sea communicates a sense of immensity, radiating outwards from the sometime-city-now-almost-ghost-town of Pate: “My town lives inside the ghost of a city that was the centre of the world.” (242)

At the centre of the story is Ayaana, a protagonist to whom you lose your heart to immediately; in many ways, as she navigated the world, Ayaana reminded me of Kirabo in Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman and Wurche in Ayesha Haruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Owuor gives us an equally memorable supporting cast around her, from Munira and Muhidin to the emotionally lacerated Chinese ship-captain Lai Jin, and of course, the sea itself: most of Ayaana’s character itself is revealed not through interiority, but through engagement with these characters as they enter, cross, recross, and – sometimes – exit the stage of her life; by the end, it is more than sufficient to bear the narrative burden that Owuor places upon it, and the ending is a triumph.

Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda: Peter Kiman’s Dance of the Jakaranda is a generational story, along the lines of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu or Namwalli Serpell’s The Old Drift. It moves between 1902 and 1962 Kenya: at the time when the great railway line that formed the heart of the British colony was being constructed (with the help of Indian labour), and the years leading up to Kenyan independence. At the centre of the story is Jakaranda Hotel at Nakuru, built by Ian McDonald (“the Master”), former Commissioner of the Protectorate, for a wife who would never live there; at the time of Independence, we find Rajan Salim – a musician, and – as it turns out – the grandson of Babu, one of the initial Indian emigrants brought to build the railway, and McDonald’s bete noire – playing to packed crowds at the Jakaranda Hotel; soon, however, the chaos around Independence will engulf Nakuru and Rajan as well, and lead to the opening up of a particularly dark past involving McDonald, Babu, and the assassinated preacher Turnbull.

Dance of the Jakaranda moved adroitly between timelines, carefully revealing how events of the past ripple into the future (in that sense, apart from the books I mentioned above, it reminded me even more of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, which moved between Stalin’s purge of the Uzbek intellectuals in the 1930s, and social and cultural upheaval in the Central Asian Khanates a century before. The two stories are similar in how they skilfully depict the faint – yet unmistakable – ways in which events set in motion echo in unexpected ways through the generations. Dance of the Jakaranda is also, of course, a novel about colonialism: that is inevitable given the times that it is set in. On this Kimani is, as one would expect, unsparing: one of the things I learned from it was how the British intentionally introduced infectious diseases to wipe out the animal stock of of the Masai herdsmen, and reduce them to wage labour, so that they could be conscripted into work on the railway line.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this book is its choice of protagonists: Babu and Rajan are Indians in Kenya (an immigrant, and then a third-generation Kenyan-Indian). Writing involving Indians in Kenya – given our intertwined histories – is, of course, not new (think of Joginder Paul’s Land Lust), but this is perhaps the first novel I’ve read by a Kenyan where the story of colonialism and independence is seen through Indian eyes. And this is wonderfully done: Kimani writes with great empathy, sensitivity, and humaneness about what has often been a fraught history. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in the book captures that history in a single, beautiful image:

But what has truly put Nakuru on the world map is the wilflife sanctuary around the Jakaranda, and the annual festival held every December to coincide with the migration of the flamingos, the alien birds that inhabit the lake that gave the township its name. The birds’ first recorded exodus out of town coincided with the expulsion of the Indians, which many believe was the birds’ expression of solidarity with the community. (347)

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song: Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Unbury Our Dead With Song is a love letter to music, to all that it can do – and all that we long for it to do. At the heart of the story is the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita. Told from the eyes of the Kenyan tabloid journalist, John Thandi Manfredi, the story opens at an underground Nairobi bar where a competition is held to determine the best tizita singer of the world. Haunted by what he hears at the bar, John persuades his editor to let him travel to Ethiopia to interview these practitioners of the tizita, and get to the root of what makes this music what it is.

While reading Unbury Our Dead With Song, I was reminded repeatedly of an image from Virgil’s Aeneid: that of a shoreline that recedes every time you sail towards it. This story takes us to the limits of words and of language; then, at the place where words end, to sounds and to music – and then to the ending point of music itself, with something still left over, a gap that still remains. As John describes a tizita performance: “… a place where the music is as true as speech, as true as a conversation with all its starts and hiccups and silences as one searches for meaning, or the right words” (155). Tizita, too, is a searching-without-finding, a suggestion of something but without grasping it. Indeed, on more than one occasion, John – and his interlocutors – can only make sense of it through the language of loss:

“I have many answers, but here is one,” she said as I laughed. “Tizita is of a love lost a long time ago – before you are born. Let me put it this way, “Malaika” is the song the original Tizita singer sang when the wounds of losing love, country, parent, sibling – of losing life while still alive – were still fresh. All those losses over years become something you pass on from generation to generation – the moss of all those broken hearts and loss gathered in song. “Malaika” is the fresh wound; the Tizita is the scar. “Malaika” has a face; the Tizita is faceless, or rather, it has so many faces that it is faceless. (95)


“I told you before. Containment. The Tizita – it is private, a private love or sorrow that joins the public ocean of tears. We mourn and celebrate together and privately at the same time. A good Tizita walks that line – if you show off, you undo that balance. The people feel what they have lost, no need to slap them in the face with it. Besides, what can you tell an erupting volcano of the hotness of the lava?” (p. 133)


“Think about the first death – the Tizita, to me, for me, is that sound of the first death, the recognition and the surprise and the realization; that first consciousness that realized it was going to be no more – and it wanted to leave a message in a bottle that becomes me and you … all I can say is, you can walk for a very long time and get to where you are going, but all along, little bits of yourself are left along the way, and you get to where you are going, and there is no going back without stepping on yourself, and there is no going forward without eventually tearing your entrails out of your body.” (p. 184)

One of the important ideas that contribute to this characterisation of titiza is that of containment. “The explosion is in the containment” (96), John is told. There is a holding back, a bordering, a going-there-but-not-quite; and this is because the gap between expression and feeling will remain no matter what, even when you substitute language with music. Thus, beauty lies not in futile attempts to express feeling, but in knowing when to stop and how far to go. In that sense, much of the story of Unbury Our Dead With Song reminded me of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, which exemplifies the idea of containment so well. In fact, there is one line from Herbert’s poem, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, which – I think – tells us what Unbury Our Dead With Song is fundamentally about: “he would like to remain faithful/ to uncertain clarity.” The tension within the phrase “uncertain clarity” characterises Ngugi’s novel, and it is in that tension that we find its most beautiful lines and moments.

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