How My Father Taught Me to Talk Jive

Studying Nietzsche from the toilet and other cold, hard truths.

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samson
Samson Kambalu

Copyright © from the forthcoming book THE JIVE TALKER by Samson Kambalu, to be published by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y. Printed by permission.

--My father wore three-piece suits that he had ordered from London in the '60s and '70s, when he could still afford them. Back then he looked like Nat King Cole, but when I was growing up, he looked like a scarecrow. This was not because his suits were too old (for a good suit, as the salesmen always tell us, can last forever), but because my mother was obsessive about hygiene. When my father, who was a clinical officer, returned from his weekly round in the hospital wards, she would undress him in the backyard, before he entered the house, and wash his suit—yes, wash it—to get rid of the tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps, TB and other dangerous diseases that she thought she could trace within the familiar scent of aspirin on him.

For some reason, she did not trust the local dry cleaners for that kind of chore. Her washing machine was the big boulder in the middle of the yard; she would soak the suit in hot water and Sunlight soap and mash it up to a pulp with her strong hands. Thereafter an eerie silence would descend upon the house because the sight of the suit hanging on the line used to scare away all the birds from the surrounding trees.

But my father did not mind looking like a scarecrow. He said he was a philosopher and walked with his head held high in the sky like a giraffe. His favorite study was the bathroom. Apart from the fact that it was the only private space in the house, he believed that it was from the bathroom, and specifically the toilet, that all great ideas came. It was not a coincidence, he said, that Martin Luther conceived the Reformation while on the toilet. Our bathroom was therefore usually stuffed with an eclectic mix of books from his huge two-part bookshelf in the living room, which he called the diptych.

Many of the books were by his favorite writer, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. My father said that Nietzsche was the perfect philosopher for the toilet because of his searing aphoristic style and cold truths. Among the piles of paperbacks by the side of the toilet, he had every book that Nietzsche had ever written: The Birth of Tragedy, Untimely Meditations, Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, The Gay Science, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, The Case of Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Nietzsche vs. Wagner, The Will to Power, Ecce Homo and even My Sister and I, the book he is supposed to have written when he went mad toward the end of his life.

My father made quotations and notes from his readings of Nietzsche and hung them all over the bathroom walls until they spilled over to other places around the house. And, since the time in Blantyre, Malawi, when he had been moved from the leafy suburb of Queens to the rough Nkolokosa township to make way for a real doctor from England, we had called him "the Jive Talker." It was not because he lied or talked jive, but because he liked to keep us awake on random nights and inflict his Nietzsche and personal affirmations on us in drunken performances, which he called jive, named for his favorite beer, Carlsberg Brown, which he also called jive.

When my mother asked the Jive Talker not to talk to us about Nietzsche because we were too young to understand the blasphemous ravings of a syphilitic philosopher, he protested, saying that we were taught about the equally irreverent Christ even before we could read the Bible and yet we understood.

And he was right that we understood, or some of us did anyway: There I was one morning, in Thyolo District, suffering from diarrhea and perched on the toilet, a skinny African boy, only 11 years old, and I was hooked on Nietzsche like I had been on the Bible when I was a born-again. I now wanted to become a philosopher. I was confident that I could do it at that green age because I had read in the Bible that Jesus was already debating the Scriptures with the rabbis when he was only 12 years old. My mother also told me the story of Kalikalanje, the wizard boy, who within a year of his birth was conducting profound conversations with grown-ups after he had accidentally fallen into the fireplace and jumped out with the brain of a sage.

She thought I was special, too: I had been born two months premature, had often fallen from my bed as a baby and had almost drowned in a well when I was 3. These, she reckoned, were the reasons why the Jive Talker thought I had an eidetic memory, why I always came in on top at school and why I sounded like I already knew enough jive to invent my own religion in time for my 12th birthday.

Samson Kambalu is a London-based visual artist.

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