On Stella Nyanzi and the “small penis” Rule

The late author Michael Crichton’s 2004 book, “State of Fear” – about a conspiracy by Hollywood, environmentalists and academicians to create unnecessary fear among the public about global warming – did not go down well with many on the left. None more than Michael Crowley, then editor of the New Republic, who wrote a scathing review of the book.

Revenge from Crichton was swift, and boy was it sweet! Writing in his 2006 book, “Next”, Crichton caricatured Crowley as a wealthy, spoiled Yale-educated paedophile (aptly named Mick Crowley) with a small penis who rapes his sister-in-law’s two-year-old son.

And as if to drive his point home, Mick Crowley’s character does not play any significant role in the book and neither does he affect the overall plot.

Which brings us to the “small penis” rule – a strategy by authors to avoid libel suits. The “small penis” rule summed up states that a fictional character one is writing about has to bear such close resemblance to the real life person that a reader will instantly make connection between the two, the author will then add an unflattering description: the character has a small penis, has a bad body odour, etc.

Now, rarely will a man, however aggrieved, come to court protesting they have a small penis. Neither would anyone claim the character to whom the bad odour is attributed is them.

To our own beloved Stella Nyanzi: I first met her during the 2015 Writivism festival at the National theater where we hosted her to talk about eroticism in literature. Her panel was a crowd puller and a lovely afternoon interaction it was. Beyond that, I have only followed her Facebook posts – at which point I should admit: I very much loved the imagery in her writings especially the now famous one in which she wants to make love to the president. It was a masterpiece.

More recently, however (starting February 2016, I think), her writing seemed to take a turn for the worst – from literary eroticism to outright slander and abuse. Her choice of victims included Prof. Mamdani, the president, first lady, minister for ethics, among other public officials. The more graphic her writing became, it seems, the more her fan base grew.

Although a firm believer and advocate of artistic license – literary exaggeration and alteration of conventions of grammar to make a point – I am also skeptical of the Pandora’s box such unrestrained freedom can open.

There is no shortage of literary luminaries who have used the might of the pen to speak truth to power. Names like George Orwell or, closer to home, Wahome Mutahi (he of the famous “Whispers” column) come to mind. Wahome used humour and wit to drive daggers into the heart of the KANU dictatorship. He was jailed, got out and wrote even more scathing, yet humourous, attacks. He did not resort to calling people by their nether regions!

Perhaps the dearth of provocative writers like Wahome (who passed on over a decade ago) explains the rise of voices like Stella’s. Or it’s the changing times. All the same am worried for this dying art form. I see sparks of the same from my friend Jimmy Spire Ssentongo‘s Observer column. Beyond that, there is nothing really.

In closing, there is no doubt in my mind now that the current ruling class is not only devoid of any ideas, it is also allergic to new ones; which explains the anger meted out on Stella and many of her kind. But perhaps more saddening is the lack of imagination, you can say even ideas, in what another friend, Angelo Izama, calls the “waiting room” generation.

That the ideas – if any – informing the current ruling class should be contested is not in doubt, what is is the intelligentsia’s weapon of choice – brawn or brains? Stella seems to have chosen the latter. But we can all join her to do better: we do not have to go to the sewers to reclaim Uganda.

What do you think?

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