On Troy Onyango’s For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings
How does longing pull you apart and distort you in ways you never imagined? How does your identity tug you away from others? What does it feel like to lose the one you deeply love? What is it like to live a different reality from others because of your circumstance?
Troy Onyango, in this new book, For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings, weaves a tapestry of loss, grief, desire, loneliness, and queerness.
In Transfiguration, Roda, a transwoman, deals with loneliness as she is pulled apart from her mother and everyone else because of her new identity. Ensnared in the malignant streets of Nairobi, she faces prejudice: from the neighbors who mock her to the woman in the black buibui— a disgusted passenger who clutches her son tightly to herself to protect him from her. In her becoming, Mzamodo, her friend, who one would argue to be morally depraved, gives her a sense of belonging. It is how Troy crafts the characters in this story, humane and human, that makes it a striking masterpiece and an opening to the other stories. In For What Are Butterflies Their Wings, a sister grieves her brother Rajula who disappears in the lake, and winds back to how they began to fall apart because of their mother’s penchant towards him only— and this would mangle him into a wreck. In Black Is The Color Of Absence, a woman is scarred by the loss of her adopted son. In Little Daju, the eponymous character morphs into a version of his chauvinistic and abusive father. In Goodbye, So Long, two boys in love with each other are torn apart by distance as one of them leaves for a university in Nairobi, and things change as years sprawl by. In Origami, the nameless protagonist yearns for the unrequited love of an unnamed lover and leaves tinges of scent that may remind the lover of their role. In Whirlwind, Nikesh, a family man, leaves Mumbai for Kenya after the death of his childhood lover, a man. In Selah and A Place With Many Doors, sorrow reels through the circuit of the stories and its arc. In This Little Light of Mine, the protagonist, Evans, lost the use of his legs in an accident, and this tugs in loneliness. In The Match, a fresh secondary graduate has his life turned in ways he could not imagine after a match in his dating app. In Sunset Dreams, a woman is torn apart, so terribly, by grief even years after her son’s death, and she tries to live his dream of being a musician like Bob Marley. The narrator writes: grief is cruel, and memory is the vessel of that cruelty.
Troy Onyango accomplished a powerful execution with brilliant language and style, characters with so much depth, strong and poignant themes, and great narrative techniques. Each story is told with narratives that fit in their voice, with charged plots. Troy Onyango has a soft and subtle quality to his telling, and his writing style is his — the kind you savor and think, “this is very Troy Onyangoesque.” He also captures the lived reality of queer people in Kenya with these stories: of queer love, queer longing, queer acceptance, queer grief, which I like to think of as daring yet important, as Kenya is largely an unsafe space for queer people.
Queer persons in Kenya face legal challenges. Sodomy is a felony per Section 162 of the Kenyan Penal Code, punishable by fourteen years imprisonment, and any sexual practices between males termed gross indecency, a felony under section 165 of the same statute, punishable by five years imprisonment.
The opening story, Transfiguration, for example, is not only a bold story about a queer person but specifically a trans woman. Stories about transgender persons are not often told and are very daring to write, and you will find only a few stories about transgender persons in Kenyan literature (and even African literature).
People find solace in literature, especially when it mirrors their lives. Not only does Troy capture these stories, he makes it a point to safety for queer Kenyans (and even queer Africans as a whole).
My title, They Are Wingless Insects Pummeled with Longing, is in response to this book. Picked from the second story in the collection, this brilliant and spellbinding and deeply moving title captures all other stories. The theme of longing pirouettes through the pages, with the characters longing for self, home (by this, I do not necessarily mean family home—that can be a dimension of it—but a safe place), a lover, a friend, or a dream.
It is not typical for short stories to yank you tightly and wring you into worlds you never knew because they are fleeting, but Troy’s stories stay with you, his characters alive in your head.
While this is a very brief review of Troy’s masterpiece and what I like to call literary glory, this is also a plea for you to buy this book and lose yourself in the sentences which will further pull you into distinct worlds.
This review was written by Chinonso Nzeh. Chinonso is Igbo, and his works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Black Boy Review, and elsewhere. He thinks of storytelling as a way to comprehend the world’s wonder. When he’s not writing, he’s reading or listening to old-skool music. He hopes to dump his law degree and become a writing professor