By Mahat Hassan
Ngugi’s fictional rendition of the realities of colonial Kenya in general and the Mau Mau war in particular is commendable but contestable. Kenyan national narrative is rich and told by people from all walks of life.
Literary artists, academics, economists, foreigners and politicians have all had a shot at this history in their works. Granted, the rendition is not anyone’s prerogative but interrogation of the rendition is most welcome.
Missed the point
A certain critic objected to my critique of Ngugi in these pages on December 22, last year. This critic missed the point when he accused me of “jaundiced perspectives”. Ironically, in a piece by Vivere Nandiemo that appeared elsewhere alongside those by Ngugi’s griots, Nandiemo rightly opines that Ngugi’s preoccupation with “the disruption of Gikuyu life during the Mau Mau” as having stolen the literary luster from Ngugi’s fiction. This was basically my thesis.
This critic would want us to ignore Ngugi’s dramatis personae. We shall nose around them as they are essential and embody the ideological eloquence of their creator. If this critic made an attempt and travelled the road less taken, it would have made a difference.
He would be in the company of Carol M Sicherman and William Ochieng. But to such a critic big names (Ngugi, Achebe, Soyinka and Nurrudin Farah) are incapable of literary flaws.
Is it justifiable to label his criticism chimney sweep criticism?
Can such a critic appreciate Carol Sicherman’s and William Ochieng’s less flattering perspectives on Ngugi without throwing up Ngugi’s literary soot?
Chimney Sweep criticism is predictable and boring. Honest and objective criticism is not.
There is massive transformation of the Kenyan society since Ngugi wrote his debut drama, The Black Hermit.
Indeed the world we live in has changed since Ngugi took his first literary baby steps. Several myths about the black man have been debunked, theoretically and practically. A black man is a resident in a white house.
Our common humanity is being reignited. A terrorist, murderer, rapist and thief are what they are. They are not black, white, Christian or Muslim.
At these critical times in our country, we are in search of literature that will exorcise the ghosts of negative ethnicity, which unfortunately some in the academia openly embrace. Any literature that ethnicises patriotism, heroism, humanism and such other positives is misleading.
This is a literary trajectory that those who write after Ngugi should not take. Ngugi was writing at a time when Negritude was in vogue. A time when all black writing was erroneously considered one homogeneous literary block. A time of exclusion.
The vetting of writers was so rigid that the writer’s name on the cover was enough to lock out an otherwise very African writer. This was before Thabo Mbeki’s all-inclusive definition of African in his I am an African speech was conceived.
A time when it was fashionable and excusable to call any white man or white woman a ‘racist’ and a ‘colonialist’. These were the literary manure that nurtured Ngugi’s fiction.
The Kenyan reality is now poles apart with the one that obtained in Ngugi’s earlier fiction. It is one where Geoffrey Griffin, Richard Leakey, Manu Chandaria, Membraton Tadessa and Hassan are as much Kenyan names as Mugo, Nyambura, Otieno and Kabaji.
In the political scene, how liberating will it be to have a President Leakey, a President Chandaria, and President Hassan? Taban Lo Liyong once asked, “If our students of Literature cannot scan a line of poetry, what justifications do they have for studying Literature and walking away with a BA in Literature?”
Similarly, if our Professors of Literature cannot read irony in a work of art, what justifications do they have (other than their ethnicity) to work in our departments of Literature?
The writer is an editor with the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation.