Nikhil Singh, Taty Went West, Kwani?, 2015., Rosarium Publishing, 2018.
Taty is a troubled teen running away from home. She quickly finds herself kidnapped by a malicious imp in the dinosaur-infested Outzone. While confronting demons of her own, Taty finds herself in a chaotic world full of evangelizing robot nuns, Buddhist punks, and the ominous Dr. Dali. Nikhil Singh has created a truly unique universe with a bold, petulant heroine one can't help but cheer for. Called “a hallucinogenic post-apocalyptic carnival ride” by Lauren Beukes, Taty Went West is told with bold swagger and otherworldly imagination by one of Africa's most promising new writers. As Billy Kahora, managing editor of Kenya's Kwani Trust, says, “Savvy, ultra-modern, Taty straddles the mediated realities of our own continent and the groundbreaking possibilities of our ongoing universal imaginaries.”
‘A hallucinogenic post-apocalyptic carnival ride – Nikhil Singh has a strange and intriguing mind.’ - Lauren Beukes
‘Nikhil Singh writes a prose as lush and crocodile-infested as the rainforests in the Outzone.’ Mehul Gohil, winner of the 2010 Kwani? ‘The Kenya I Live In’ Short Story Prize
Travellers called the Zone ‘the Land of Strangers’: the place where anyone could escape anything, and where the lost things lay.
Taty is a troubled adolescent living with her equally troubled mother in the suburbs of the Lowlands. In a moment of uncontrolled anger she finds her life changed forever and, hiding a terrible secret, she becomes a runaway, heading West into the Outzone.
When she is captured by a malicious imp, befriended by an evangelising robotic nun and wooed by a transgender hoodlum, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary adventure story.
With moustachioed wrestlers, marauding Buddhist Punks, a feline voodoo surgeon and the enigmatic presence of the disfigured Dr Dali, Nikhil Singh has created a unique universe and a heroine whose petulant nonchalance hides a mighty spirit.
As Taty navigates the collapse of an already chaotic society, struggling against present danger while confronting the demons of her own past, her story is narrated in prose that soars with elegance and swagger in equal measure.
Taty Went West is an introduction to an electrifying new talent – an imagination unfettered by any known convention.
In South African author Singh’s transgressive debut, 16-year-old Taty runs away from home and finds more than she bargains for in the lawless jungle of the Outzone: “a forest of dead time, a necrotic wonderland, a province of waking coma where time itself had grown sickly and died.” Lured in by the gun-toting, sharp-clawed Miss Muppet, Taty is bopped on the head and whisked away to the jungle pleasure palace of “imp pimp” Alphonse Guava and his creepy companions, including a Religio Robot named Number Nun who has been hijacked and reprogrammed to serve Guava’s degrading desires; Michelle, a crucified girl who drags her cross behind her; “detachable Siamese” twins who can unjoin at will; and murderous zombie Typhoid Mary. Taty is pressed into a life of servitude as a “ghost girl,” providing psychosexual pleasure to a host of exceedingly strange clients. When Guava’s rival crime lord, Mister Sister, introduces his new pleasure provider, a symbiote that indelibly changes its hosts, this leads to all-out war. Singh has a gift for memorable visuals, but this circus sideshow frequently veers into the absurd, and the characters don’t demand much emotional investment. This is a series of set pieces designed to shock and assault the senses, a phantasmagorical confection that exhausts more than it intrigues. - Publishers Weekly
Sometimes a narrative begins in a familiar place: with someone embarking on a journey, for instance. Nikhil Singh’s novel Taty Went West is like that—the first sentence of the second chapter seems to usher the reader into familiar territory. “The piggy bank bought her a bus ticket to nowhere fast,” Singh writes, tapping into a longstanding tradition of young people venturing out into parts unknown. (As if to make this more explicit, Singh includes a nod to the Beat Generation later in the novel.) Taty is a young woman frustrated by suburban life, tuned in to her favorite songs on her Walkman. She’s in search of something bigger, a larger and more compelling world. This is a familiar story, right?
It’s not a familiar story. That bus ticket’s bought in the second chapter. The one before that sets up an altogether stranger milieu, and one that hints at the bizarre scenarios to come.“There had always been stories of lost cities in the jungle. Descriptions of vast structures hidden behind impenetrable veils of steaming foliage, their once-great plazas and floating pyramids now the haunt of monkeys, shades, and folkloric spiders.”
What happens when you take someone familiar and place them in an utterly alien setting? Taty Went West is, in its own way, a series of variations on that theme of contrasts: the known world meeting the impossible world; the transcendental colliding with the sordid; the speculative meeting the delirious. In Taty Went West, a robot can evoke the divine, and a monstrous presence can be the agent of liberation. This is a novel that abounds with contradictions, taking them to absurd ends.
Although the milieu of Singh’s novel could roughly be described as psychedelic science fiction (complete with nods in the direction of William Burroughs and the Grateful Dead), that doesn’t quite get at its fundamental strangeness. Much of the novel finds Taty attempting to deal with some sort of perilous situation, at times facing horrific danger, and grappling with betrayals, violence, and horror around her. After leaving home, she is kidnapped by a mysterious group led by Alphonse Guava, “the imp pimp,” who tells her that she has considerable psychic abilities, able to transmit certain feelings, emotions, and sensations to the people around her.
What transpires from there, more or less, is Taty’s quest for her own freedom. Complicating matters is the presence of bizarre alien symbiotes, whose presence slowly transforms their hosts into something inhuman, a process that can only be staved off by the consumption of an absurdly large number of carrots. If this seems like Cronenbergian body horror by way of Eugene Ionesco, you’re not wrong. It’s par for the course here: that adorable creature you encounter on a given page might be what it seems to be; it also might be something immensely powerful and twice as malicious. That’s the kind of book this is.
The contrasts continue. Most of the characters have names that come off as overly stylized, the stuff of fables or children’s stories: Dr. Dali, Number Nun, Miss Muppet, and Bronski Glass all come to mind. But this is also a novel in which the threat of violence (particularly sexual violence) is present for many of the characters. (In a 2016 conversation with Geoff Ryman, Singh discussed this aspect of the novel.) The cumulative result is jarring—cartoonish one moment, harrowingly visceral the next. But that juxtaposition has been in place from the outset: this may be a novel with ancient cities, mysterious beings, and adventure—but escapism it is not.
Outside of writing, Singh’s body of work includes forays into film, music, and illustration—specifically, a comics adaptation of a novel by the similarly hard-to-define Kojo Laing. That same multifaceted approach can be seen in a distilled form within this novel, both literally (through both illustrations and cues for music in the prose) and metaphorically. Singh has endeavored to combine theoretically incompatible strands of literature: the picaresque blended with New Wave science fiction blended with absurdist comedy blended with realistic looks at trauma and its aftereffects. Does it all neatly flow together? No, but the risks that Singh takes here succeed more often than not, and the result is a deeply singular and highly compelling literary debut.- Tobias Carroll
In search of reference points for Nikhil Singh’s energetically transgressive first novel, perhaps cued by the 40-odd black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the text, I find myself reaching as much for graphic novels as the prose kind. Think of Grant Morrison circa The Invisibles or Alan Moore circa Lost Girls, mix with a shot of Shea & Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy and a dash of Bryan Catling’s The Vorrh, and you’ll be somewhere in the right neighbourhood. Lauren Beukes’s cover-blurb accurately refers to Taty Went West as a “carnival ride.” It’s a story of invasion and transformation, and its mode is excess: memorable set-piece imagery, showy exploitation, and sometimes questionable taste.
First published in Kenya in 2015 by Kwani?, it is now brought to the UK and US on the heels of its shortlisting for the Nommo Award for best African SF novel. The titular (anti-) heroine is a disaffected teenager fleeing “the locked-down routines of the Lowlands,” seeking a new self, lured by the music of holo-pop singer Coco Carbomb to the lawless jungle Outzone. In fairly short order, Taty finds herself kidnapped by Miss Muffet – a plump, pale, clawed woman who emits a pheromone that makes her impossible to dislike – and delivered into the unsavoury clutches of “the imp pimp,” Alphonse Guava, who coerces Taty into a form of psychic prostitution. Arrayed around Alphonse is a court of equally outlandish characters, including Number Nun, a reprogrammed ex-missionary robot with porcelain skin; the Sugar Twins, a Siamese pair who can conjoin or separate at will; and Typhoid Mary, a blind zombie with Kewpie doll heads where her eyes should be. But no sooner have we met this merry band than we watch them stomped and scattered by a rival crime boss, Mister Sister, who introduces what he claims is an interdimensional infection into the Outzone, in the form of a metaphorically potent symbiote that promises perfect bliss, but in fact transforms its hosts into versions of itself. In a last, desperate, and somewhat mysterious attempt at vengeance, a partially transformed Alphonse charges Taty with delivering a letter to the postbox of a dead god in the Outer Necropolis.
This perhaps makes the novel sound more action-packed than it feels. Singh’s style is lavish, as excessive as the situations and actions it describes; narrative is something that happens to the characters every so often, in between descriptions, rather than being driven by the characters. While many of those descriptions are good, fresh and unexpected, without warning they veer into the cartoonish or questionable. To pick a page more or less at random:
The Dead Duck Diner capsuled a corner just two fingers short of the waterfront. It gleamed like the wet fin of some imaginary car, all sleazy chrome against the fast-forward decay of the esplanade. Festooned with rotisserie jungle chicken, pink-on-green neon and loud checkerboard trim, it bubbled with all the indigestible traffic from the strip. You name the parasite and their umbilical leavings would be smeared along the linoleum counter-tops: robo-jox, the bitchdoctors, all the sailor drek, cyborg love bunnies, bible jerk-jumpers, jewel shifters, soldier-camp dropouts, alien trannies, cannibal hobo freak shows, keyboard cowboys, jungle mummies, the whole carnival sucked through the place like a vacuum cleaner and gathered like gunk in the filters.
That “capsuled” and “two fingers short” are effective and efficient, as is the wet fin, arguably to the point of making the rest of that sentence redundant. And I like the list, in principle, but I wince slightly at the casual juxtaposition of the fantastic and the insulting, in particular with respect to “alien trannies.” (Singh identifies as “whatever I like,” and there is a character, later in the book, described by the blurb as “transgender,” although within the text they identify as having multiple personality disorder; the execution seemed to me more M. Night Shyamalan’s Split than Matt Ruff’s Set This House in Order.) Over and above all of this, you need a certain sensibility to enjoy the fact that the quoted paragraph continues in similar vein until very nearly the end of the following page, when something happens.
I enjoyed such paragraphs more than not. And the central section of the novel in particular, in which Taty flees the symbiont infestation and journeys into the depths of ancient ruins to deliver the aforementioned letter, provides an effective framework for the ugly fecundity of Singh’s imagination, and depth to Taty as a character. There aren’t that many SF novels being published with quite this level of commitment to sheer unironic pulpy invention, and taken at that level Taty Went West verges on the heroic, but it’s never a comfortable reading experience, and doesn’t always feel quite thought-through enough: it is perhaps ultimately a little more invasive than transformative. - Niall Harrison
Nikhil Singh is an artist, writer, musician and film-maker. They have fronted the critically acclaimed South African art-rock bands, The Wild Eyes and Hi Spider, as well as released a plethora of solo albums under the moniker, “Witchboy." They have recently written and directed a feature-length film, Trillzone (2014), which was commissioned by the South African National Arts Festival as part of a J.G. Ballard symposium. As an artist, they have illustrated the graphic novels, The Ziggurat and Salem Brownstone, which was longlisted for The Branford Boase Award. Their work has also been featured in Pictures and Words: New Comic Art and Narrative Illustration, Dazed, I-D Online, Creative Review, The Times (UK), Mail & Guardian (UK), The Independent (UK), Rolling Stone (SA), GQ (SA), and featured as part of the COMICA festival exhibition at the ICA.