“And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”
This line from Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” has stayed with me since I first found it in one of my Amherst creative writing classes. How bewildering that we have been through a pandemic, lost so many, and now, no matter where we are in the world, are suffering the effects of economic and environmental collapse, yet we still have time to make war and enable oppression. Is a world of peace, prosperity and justice for everyone truly impossible?
Our species is pitiable, I think. But perhaps it’s not all our own fault. Had our creators given us telepathy, we might be kinder to one another. We would understand each other’s pain, and we would know—truly know—that we are all flesh, bound by the same inevitable fate. We would be less greedy, less ignorant, and we would have the past ever before us. We would say, “Never Again,” and it would be “Never Again.”
Alas, we have to make do with what our creators did give us: story and, more specifically, fiction—the quasi-telepathy, as Stephen King opines in the memoir On Writing, through which we do the seemingly impossible and enter the minds and hearts of others. In 2024, I implore us to read more fiction, in order to see ourselves in others and to see others in ourselves.
Discovering that I am not so different from someone who looks nothing like me, and lives on the other side of the world or in another century of history, has intrigued me since my Amherst days. I remember taking a class with Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander on “Childhood in African and Caribbean Literature.” It showed me just how similar my childhood in Kenya was to Wole Soyinka’s in Nigeria, and to Jamaica Kincaid’s in Antigua. I discovered Bruno Schulz, who, being male, Polish and Jewish, was three things I am not. Yet when I read his collection The Street of Crocodiles, I thought, yes, yes, this is how childhood was, this intensity of colors and absurdity, this collage of days without end, these sensations I can never adequately describe. Yes, childhood had this quality of breathlessness. I was this greedy for life, this righteous, and I felt everything so keenly, painfully. I wish that Schulz had survived the Holocaust to gift us more than two slim volumes of fiction; what he left us makes me less self-centered, more able to grasp that my experiences are unique only in a very limited way.
Up until about age 10, I did not understand that other people were not made for me. I thought that other people lived only when I was around to witness them do so. More than 20 years after I realized the truth about other people’s lives, I encountered this old realization again in Chapter 3 of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, when 13-year-old Briony, the main character, wonders if other people are as alive as she is, if they are as valuable to themselves as she is to herself. If being them is as vivid an experience as being herself. Like Briony, we understand “only in a rather arid way” that others are like us, and we do not truly feel it. Myopic in this manner, Briony goes on to destroy two lives.
It’s inconvenient to imagine that others have as many motivations and justifications for their actions as we do. It’s exasperating even. I came to Amherst loaded with prejudices against half the world. I resisted others as a way to protect things I felt were above scrutiny: my culture, my religion, my personhood. The process of unlearning these tendencies was not easy, and ever since, I have turned many corners only to encounter yet another of my limitations.
A good book is a mirror to our hypocrisy. For example, I grew up with a particular negative view of African Americans relative to Africans. Percival Everett’s Erasure was therefore a crash into the wall of my tiny imagination. In the book, writer Monk finds himself constantly told by the publishing world that his work is not Black enough. When another person’s novel full of Black stereotypes gets published and gains national success, Monk pens his own terrible novel to make a point. How horrifying it was to realize that I had at first missed the satire of his work—that I had, in fact, internalized racism.
A friend asked me what became of our dreams to change the world. I said that they died a good death. I see now that changing the world is not so important. Changing myself is what is paramount.
I therefore feel lucky that the people, experiences and narratives I encountered at Amherst forced me to scrutinize my beliefs. I remember being moved to tears by I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala in my freshman year and feeling enraged at the injustices faced by Indigenous Guatemalans. I was ready to riot. I also remember feeling betrayed and disgusted at the discovery that the book was neither memoir nor biography. I spoke vehemently against Menchú when, in my first-year seminar, President Anthony Marx asked if it mattered that Menchú’s story was not her own but that of her entire community. Eventually, when I stopped feeling tricked, I found that I had learned three lessons: Other people have a right to tell their own stories on their own terms, each person has a multiplicity of stories, and we can hold all of those stories in our minds at the same time.
Pakistan, for example, is both as wondrous as portrayed in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and as complicated as it appears in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. India is as stratified and aggressive as Aravind Adiga describes it in White Tiger, but also as calm and languid as it emerges in Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address. The South Korea I idolize as I watch saccharine Netflix K-dramas—a land of brave heroines for whom chivalrous heroes will go to extraordinary lengths—is also the country Cho Nam-joo laments for systemic oppression of women in her feminist novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. And my own continent has never been what you and I have been taught to see it as. Binyavaga Wainaina’s essay in Granta, “How to Write About Africa,” should at least make us chuckle at the foolishness of some of the things we believe. Truly, we have only to allow ourselves to imagine the complexity and variety of others to become them and them us.
And we are capable of even greater leaps of imagination. I started reading Ursula Le Guin at Amherst. First her Earthsea novels, then her Hainish stories. As my country and others in Africa become increasingly unsafe for non-heteronormative people, and, elsewhere, trans people are very specifically under attack, I return to the many sociological experiments Le Guin wrote: to her Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness, where everyone is ambisexual; to Seggri in The Matter of Seggri, where there are hundreds of women for every man; and to Anarres in The Dispossessed, where there is hardly any parenthood. Le Guin taught me to ask, “What if?” and “Why is this what we do?” I open my mind to the possibilities she imagined, because our societies are not static; we are always in the process of making and unmaking them, quite unintentionally, and, as such, we are capable of applying ourselves to intentionally creating justice.
A friend who attended NYU, as I did for graduate school, recently asked me what became of our dreams to change the world, we Kenyan students who studied in the United States. I said that they died a good death. I have long stopped believing that I can change the world. At best, I will make one or two or a thousand people who read my work think differently, a drop in the ocean of 8 billion souls. I see now that changing the world is not so important. Changing myself is what is paramount. I know, I believe, that there are lives that really do depend on me excavating myself from my prejudices. I cannot keep myself in the dark.
Makena Onjerika ’10 won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her work has appeared on Granta.com and in Black Warrior Review, Wasafari, Johannesburg Review of Books, Adroit Journal and Waxwing, among other publications. She lives in Nairobi with her son and works as a qualitative market researcher while teaching online fiction classes.
Illustrations by Andy Martin