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The language of literature

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Ngugi_wa_Thiong'o_reading.jpgNgugi wa Thiong'o writes in Gikuyu, the language spoken by the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.  He translates his own work into English.  

His choice to do so, as he recognizes in a recent video interview with Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, is not popular with the "new generation" of African writers, many (if not most) of whom write in English.  Ngugi wa Thiong'o reserves judgment of these young writers, acknowledging that writing in an African language decreases the chances of publication.  But he criticized the assumptions underlying African literary prizes:   

Look at prizes given to promote African writing . . . They all assume that African writing is only that which is in English.  They assume that European languages are the beginning or the only means by which the African imagination can work, and it's not true.
The question of the language of the imagination is an important and interesting one.  But in framing the issue as he does (and in attacking the faceless "they" to whom "assumptions" can be attributed), Ngugi seems to be setting up a straw colonist for attack and missing the key issue: whether to write in the language of an oral society.

All written literature builds on other writings, through references, allusions, quotations or outright copying (Shakespeare, for example, used other authors' plots).  A writer who decides to write in a language that has no literary canon deprives his or her work of the richness of that dialogue with preexisting literary works.  Attaining aesthetic quality in such a context is an even greater challenge than normal.

That "new generation" African writers are writing in European languages may not simply be a function of wanting to be published, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o suggests, but may result from what Binyavanga Wainaina identifies as a desire for recognition based on "the very 'aesthetic' of their work, not their political leanings or their arrival from a wayward 'Dark Continent.'"  In other words, Wainana urges recognition for quality writing, rather than for the identity or politics of the author - or the language in which he or she writes.  

To produce quality writing, all writers must translate the story in their imagination to words on the page.  And, in the end, the language of the imagination and the language of literature differ, even when both nominally occur in English.  (For instance, the imagination can operate in pictures, while literature uses words.)  

When the writer in question has a choice of languages into which to translate the story in his or her imagination, selecting a non-native language has time and again resulted in innovative works that enrich the language in which they're written (think Vladimir Nabokov, Isak Dinesen, Ha Jin).  Penalizing African writers for choosing English is likely to result in a loss both to English and to literature.

(Photo of Ngugi wa Thiong'o from his website)   

A rebuttal to Kihika

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Captured_Mau_Mau_fighters.jpgIn Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat, Kihika, a Mau Mau rebel leader, expresses some brutal opinions about the way preceding generations dealt with imperialism:

I despise the weak.  Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers.  Their memory gives me no pride.  And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth.  The strong shall rule.  Our fathers had no reason to be weak.  The weak need not remain weak.  Why?  Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb.  They shall not tremble or run away before the sword.  Then instead the enemy shall flee.
(p. 180.)  

While wa Thiongo doesn't outright endorse Kihika's view of history, he doesn't refute it, either.  But - though Kihika's unyielding condemnation and lack of interest in nuance might be appropriate (and is probably necessary) for a guerrilla fighter - history is more complicated, more interesting and kinder to Kihika's forebears than Kihika allows.

As an overall descriptive of the black African response to British imperialism, "weak" is an inadequate adjective.  "Measured," "thoughtful," "multi-faceted," "practical" or "wise" are all more accurate.  A close reading of the historical record reveals, decade by decade, a slowly-evolving, pragmatic African response to the British colonial presence.  Here is a summary:
 
  • From 1895 (when the British officially arrived) through 1914, the colonists came with - in addition to a breathtaking sense of superiority and the ideology of Pax Britannica - some things the Africans wanted and/or adopted: Jesus, medicines, new ways of living and - importantly - enough power to banish the twin menaces of the Masai and the Swahili slave traders.  Some Africans did rebel and resist the British, and the British mounted "punitive" military expeditions against those tribes; but Africans also cooperated with the British, and some African leaders allowed themselves to be co-opted into service of the imperial cause. 
  • From 1914 through 1922, Africans adjusted their views of the British.  The whites came to be revealed as fallible humans - and hypocrites: not super-human bringers-of-peace and banishers-of-slavery-and-tribal-warfare, but self-interested farmers who warred among themselves and forced the Africans into the white fight.  Criticism of British government policies began to be voiced.  Africans protested against "alienation" of African lands and reassignment of such property to whites.  Africans additionally began to question to white missionaries' interpretations of Christianity, where such interpretations condemned traditional African practices.
  • From 1922 through 1939, African opinion condemning colonial abuses coalesced, although little agreement could be reached about how to address such abuses.  The Kikuyu, the largest tribe, split internally on the issue of how to engage the British.  Few were willing to allow white missionaries to continue to "represent" black interests, but advocates for slow-going diplomacy found opponents in favor of more radical measures designed to bring faster results.
  • From 1939-1952, Africans again adjusted their views of British rule, this time in light of WWII and India's triumphant achievement of independence.  The Africans saw that the British could be defeated.  The condemnation of colonial abuses hardened into a rejection of the imperial presence altogether.  Jomo Kenyatta emerged as a leader who could shepherd Kenyans into independent nationhood.
  • From 1952-1963, the Emergency pitched black Africans (and the Kikuyu especially) into a guerrilla war for independence.  British atrocities during this period confirmed the worst suspicions about the white man being more devil than human and promoted a dichotomy of black-African-good/white-Colonist-bad that was to influence subsequent thinking about the colonial era.  Nonetheless, not all blacks resisted the British (e.g., the spear-carrying soldiers depicted in the accompanying photograph), and the British had some African supporters.
As this overview suggests, the black African response to imperialism in the time leading to the years covered by A Grain of Wheat was not at all passive or submissive, but complex, sophisticated and characterized by a reluctance for reflexive, knee-jerk behavior.  In its diplomacy, the response asserted that Kenyans were a people of a nation dealing as equals with another nation.  In its entirety, the response was one about which Kenyans, including Kihika, could justifiably feel pride, if reductive, backwards-glancing concerns about emasculation and, to use Kihika's word, "weakness," didn't force a less positive interpretation.

For all its admirable undermining of reductive ideologies (explored in this post), A Grain of Wheat could have and should have done more to depict the variegated reality of Kenyan history and to honor the individual men and women whose forbearance, patience and negotiations skills gave the Mau Mau violence its claim to justice - and who made Kihika a freedom fighter, rather than a thug.

(Image of black African soldiers [carrying spears] escorting captured Mau Mau fighters from The Daily Mail)

Ngugi_wa_Thiongo.jpgI am a fan of art transcending reductive ideologies and, in A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiongo may have provided us with an example of such transcendence.  

The story follows Mugo, a young Kikuyu man, who has been tapped for leadership roles in his village in the aftermath of the 1952 Emergency that pitted the British colonial forces against Mau Mau freedom fighters.  Mugo is deeply conflicted about serving as a leader because he has a shameful past: during the Emergency, he betrayed Kihika, a fiery rebel commander, to the British.  In the end (spoiler alert), Mugo confesses his betrayal to the assembled villagers, and he is condemned to death by the former resistance fighters who have long been seeking Kihika's murderer.

Despite two audacious acts - betrayal and public confession - Mugo is an ambivalent person:  

Mugo . . . . had always found it difficult to make decisions.  Recoiling as if by instinct from setting in motion a course of action whose consequences he could not determine before the start, he allowed himself to drift into things or be pushed into them by an uncanny demon; he rode on the wave of circumstance and lay against the crest, fearing but fascinated by fate.
(p. 23-24.)  In the course of the novel, Mugo struggles to identify with his family, which has abused him; with his tribe, which wants to force him first into war and then into leadership when he'd rather abstain; and with the British, from whom he craves absolution but receives, instead, total rejection.  These struggles endow Mugo with the strength to make a final moral decision (public confession) that leads to his death, rather than to enjoy a diminished life as a corrupt leader with a guilty conscience.

By contrast, Kihika is a person to whom ambivalence is a stranger.  Here, for example, is Kihika discussing his forebearers' responses to colonialism:

I despise the weak.  Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers.  Their memory gives me no pride.  And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth.  The strong shall rule.  Our fathers had no reason to be weak.  The weak need not remain weak.  Why?  Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb.  They shall not tremble or run away before the sword.  Then instead the enemy shall flee.
(p. 180.)  Throughout his life, Kihika has exhibited a devil-may-care rebellious bravado.  He alone among the boys at school challenges the religious instruction against female circumcision (a Kikuyu custom).  He similarly rejects his devoted girlfriend, Wambuku, because accepting her love would require him to settle down into village life.  In the end, Kihika dies because - unused to any approach involving compromise or tolerance of differences of opinion - he too forcefully tries to push Mugo into fighting for the cause.     

And now we arrive at what may be transcendence.  From his two-dimensional and unsympathetic depictions of the colonists in A Grain of Wheat, we know that wa Thiongo is not especially interested in a holistic understanding of the white man.  From his choice (after A Grain of Wheat was published) to write only in Kikuyu, we know that wa Thiongo is not even especially interested in communicating with non-Kikuyus, let alone whites.  And yet A Grain of Wheat ultimately discourages the reader from embracing inflexibility of mind or heart.

By the novel's end, two conclusions - both arrived at by women - complicate the novel's moral landscape.  First, Wambui - a feisty crone who'd risked her life running guns to the Mau Mau fighters and who served as the judge in Mugo's trial - is seized with regret at Mugo's execution.  Mugo was a conscientious man who could have contributed much to an independent Kenya; instead, he had been executed for ideology:  "Wambui was lost in a solid consciousness of a terrible anti-climax to her activities in the fight for freedom.  Perhaps we should not have tried [Mugo], she muttered."  (p. 228-229.)

The second conclusion involves the resolution of a sub-plot involving Mumbi, a gorgeous woman, and Gikonyo, her husband who was imprisoned by the British.  During his imprisonment, Mumbi succumbed to the sexual advances of a former suitor, who has been installed as a village leader by the British.  Returning from prison to find his wife having given birth to his former rival's child, Gikonyo punishes Mumbi for her unfaithfulness.  By the end of the novel, however, Gikonyo wishes to rebuild his relationship with Mumbi, and she refuses any easy reconciliation:

"No, Gikonyo.  People try to rub out things, but they cannot.  Things are not so easy.  What has passed between us is too much to be passed over in a sentence.  We need to talk, to open our hearts to one another, examine them, and then together plan the future we want.  But now, I must go, for the child is ill."
(p. 232-233.)

In short, although the novel condemns white missionaries and humiliates a black teacher in a missionary school for his complicity in the white man's Christianity, A Grain of Wheat also preaches for the redemption of Judas and the forgiveness of Mary Magdalene - on her own terms.  Despite its unquestionable allegiance with the anti-colonial cause (and what appears to be genuine dislike of white people), the message of A Grain of Wheat is hardly the propaganda of militant nationalism.  This textured multi-facetedness - even (possibly) inconsistency - imbues the novel with an admirable humanity.  With these qualities, A Grain of Wheat joins the ranks of works that enlarge the author - and, by extension, all of us - beyond the confinement of our personal limitations.  

I could wish that wa Thiongo had taken the additional step of providing a nuanced portrait of Pontius Pilate and his ilk, but perhaps such a greedy desire for even more transcendence would be un-Christian of me.

(Image of Ngugi wa Thiongo from University of Kwazulu-Natal website)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the wa Thiongo, Ngugi category.

Vargas Llosa, Mario is the previous category.

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