Perhaps the most useful way to begin a discussion of the relationship between poststructuralist theory and postcolonial discourse is to call attention to the controversies and debates that have accompanied their rise as significant intellectual movements from the late 1960s and 1980s respectively. For one of the things these two movements have in common is that they have always generated heated questions about their political efficacy, their location within intellectual traditions informed by unequal relations of power, and their validity as theoretical categories that can provide us with useful knowledge about the cultures and literatures of previously colonized countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. These issues often divide scholars and critiques of formerly colonized societies into two broad groups: on one hand there are those critics who would like postcolonial theory to account for the specific conditions in which colonialism emerged and functioned and the role of decolonization as a specific narrative of liberation. For these critics, the pitfall of postcolonial theory inheres in its inability to periodize and historicize the colonial experience and to account for the role of colonized subjects as active agents in the making of culture and history. Aijaz Ahmad, for example, argues that the primary failure of postcolonial theory is to be found in its eagerness to foreground a set of questions - on historical agency, the production of colonial subjects, and even the history of modernity - or to consider “the question of cultural domination exercised by countries of advanced capital over imperialized countries” (Ahmad 1992: 2; see also Dirlik 1994; Bartolovich and Lazarus 2002). For such critics of postcolonial theory, its primary failure - its inability to account for the history and process of decolonization - arises from its close affinity to poststructural theory.
It is tempting to read A Grain of Wheat, the novel that cemented Ngugi's reputation as a major writer, through the prism established by Frantz Fanon in his critique of colonialism and the perils of decolonization. Indeed, it has often been claimed that Ngugi was in the process of writing this novel when he came across Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, and that it was in this book that he simultaneously discovered the politics of socialism and a grammar for representing colonialism and what has now come to be known as arrested decolonization. It has even been said that Fanon's famous critique of decolonization as an arrested moment – one in which national consciousness has failed to be “the sill-embracing crystallization of the inner hopes f the whole people” and has instead become “an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been” - provided Ngugi with an important epigraphic text for his third novel. And if epigraphs are important because they determine or shape readers' expectations as they enter the text, our entry into Ngugi's novel is guided by a powerful image of a grain that wilts and dies instead of growing into “that body that shall be,” and by an authorial note drawing attention to the reality of the situation represented in the novel, a situation in which the peasants who fought against British colonial rule in Kenya “now see all that they fought for being put on one side.” Both epigraphs are powerful echoes of Fanon's critique of decolonization.
Ngugi began his writing career under the pressures of three powerful cultural institutions in colonial Kenya: the Protestant church, which was the major conduit for modern identities in the colonial sphere; the mission school, which, through its valorization of literacy as the point of entry into the culture of colonialism, promoted new narratives of temporality and identity; and Gikuyu cultural nationalism, which manifested itself in the tradition of independent schools that the novelist attended in his youth. For the young Ngugi, each of these institutions held promises of emancipation from the bonds of class and ethnicity, but also presented unexpected dilemmas. One of the major appeals of Protestantism in Central Kenya, for example, was its equation of morality with bourgeois civility: one was not merely a Christian because one believed in a certain doctrine; rather, conversion was apparent in one's ability to live a modern life, a life manifested in a new monetary economy, mode of dress, set of cultural values, and even architecture.
But if Christian conversion was the colonial subject's point of contact with modernity, it also implied a self-swilled dedoublement from a set of cultural values that had been at the foundation of one's communal identity. Conversion implied the negation of a traditional identity in preference for a modern, quasi-European one, and this was not particularly easy for the Gikuyu who, as we saw in the last chapter, were beginning to consolidate their identity in the wake of colonial rule. Ngugi was thus born into a culture that was eager to embrace colonial modernity, but one that had serious doubts about the wisdom of a radical negation of its newly invented collective identity.
Of all Ngugi's major works, none seem to have generated as much ideological and theoretical debate as Matigari. This debate has revolved around the identity of this novel in relation to the author's stated intentions, its place in the changing canon of African literature, and the way it forces us to rethink cultural production in the postcolonial state. Reaction to Ngugi's major novels has always been strong and contentious, but the most remarkable thing about the debates revolving around Matigari is that they have not been concerned with the author's personality and his politics, but with a specific set of formal questions: does the overt and consistent use of allegory in the novel represent a new form of didacticism or does it lend itself to linguistic creativity? Is Ngugi's concern with the everyday politics of the postcolonial state a continued search for, and refinement of, techniques of realistic representation, or is the site of everyday culture one of experimentation, in the tradition of what has come to be known as the left-wing avant-garde? Is the powerful religious language of the novel an abdication of Marxist secularism, or is religion deployed in the name of an aesthetic ideal and ideological ends? And what is the meaning of Ngugi's appropriation of Gikuyu oral narratives – does it constitute a significant move away from the tradition of the European novel, or is orality a mark of his embrace of postmodernism?
Several paths are open to the reader who wants to examine Ngugi's literary and critical works in their historical and cultural context: one can choose, for example, to read them as specific commentaries on the African experience as it emerges from colonial domination and moves into the theatre of independence and postcoloniality. One could read these works from the ideological perspective provided by the author himself through his essays and social commentaries. Or one could choose to analyze Ngugi's major novels as a series of experiments in narrative form, experiments driven by the author's search for an appropriate style for representing an increasingly complex social formation. Whatever approach the reader prefers, however, several questions and problems immediately come to mind: what is the relationship between Ngugi's texts and their contexts? Indeed, what is Ngugi's immediate context? Are his novels and plays to be read as attempts to come to terms with a Gikuyu culture trying to reinvent itself in face of the problems and opportunities provided by British colonialism as it establishes its hegemony over the peoples of Central Kenya? Or are these narratives to be read as part of a larger project trying to will an independent Kenyan nation into being?
Reading Ngugi's works through his ideological pronouncements may be convenient to some readers and critics, but it is a process that presents its own theoretical problems: how do we respect his strong views on the nature of literary production, the function of culture, and the relation between art and politics without repressing the significant contradictions that are equally important to the shape and function of his novels and plays?
Ngugi's early stories and novels were written in the shadow of colonial rule in its most violent form – the state of emergency declared in Kenya by the British government on October 20,1952. The years in which Ngugi was educated and came of age (1952–62) were some of the most difficult and traumatic in his country's history. Apart from the state of emergency that had been imposed by the government in an attempt to repress a nationalist movement that had taken up arms to press its political demands, relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, social classes, families, and institutions, were conducted through modes of unprecedented violence. Kenya thus became a classical example of a political situation in which, to use Fanon's memorable term, violence comes to rule “over the ordering of the colonial world.” This is how the theme of violence came to enter Ngugi's early works. This violence can, indeed, be read as the primary mediator of Ngugi's relationship with his colonial situation, the dominant theme in his early works, and the central trope in his tortured struggle to come to terms with his past.
Later in his writing career, after reading Fanon's treatise on violence as a weapon of decolonization, Ngugi would come to interpret the state of emergency in Kenya as the highest point of African resistance against British imperialism. His main argument was that since colonialism had instituted violence as an instrument of conquest and rule, the colonized had no option but to adopt it as the first step in “deciding to embody history” and thus to break down the system of European rule.
Sometime in 1977, a few days after Ngugi was promoted to the position of Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Nairobi, the first African to hold a position that had been left unfilled since the departure of the last group of British expatriates in the department, Okot p'Bitek, the Ugandan poet and one of the strongest advocates of popular culture in East Africa, expressed the fear that the novelist had finally become a member of the intellectual establishment. Okot p'Bitek's fear was that now that Ngugi had been accepted by the institutions of education and power in Kenya, he could no longer be interested in incorporating popular and oral culture into his work or the literature curriculum. But these fears were soon proven unfounded, because precisely at the time that he was being invited into the inner sanctuaries of University governance, Ngugi was embarking on the theatrical experiment at Kamĩrĩĩthũ discussed in the previous chapter. And as throngs of workers, peasants, and students boarded buses and trucks to see the performance of I Will Marry When I Want, p'Bitek was impressed enough to declare the experiment at Kamĩĩthũ the most important event on the African literary and cultural scene in the postcolonial period. For the first time, p'Bitek told an Oral Literature Seminar at the University of Nairobi, intellectuals had taken culture to the people and the people were teaching them the terms by which they understood and represented cultural experiences and expressions.
This was a book that I resisted writing for both personal and intellectual reasons. Although separated by a generation, Ngugi and I share a common colonial and postcolonial background, one whose most defining characteristics are the “state of emergency” declared by the British government in Kenya in 1952, the euphoria of independence in the 1960s, the emergence of the student democratic movement at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s, and the consolidation of the undemocratic postcolonial state in the 1980s. Given this background, I felt, for a long time, that I did not have enough distance from Ngugi's works to be able to develop the kind of systematic critique of his works that I wanted. At the same time, however, I felt that more than any other African writer Ngugi needed the kind of sustained critique that would take his readers beyond the simple politics of identity that have come to dominate so much postcolonial theory and criticism.
At a time when postcolonial theory seems to have lost interest in local knowledge, history, and context, I thought a critique of Ngugi's works was an ideal way of bringing the referent back into literary studies. But once I had decided to write a book that would foreground how a specifically African context weaves its way into Ngugi's texts, I was confronted with a serious theoretical problem: does an insider's knowledge of the conditions in which works are produced help or deter critique? In writing this book I have tried as much as possible to eschew the role of the native informant.
My basic argument up to this point is that Ngugi's career has been defined by a systematic attempt to master the form of the European novel and to see how its techniques can be brought to bear on the complicated cultures and histories of colonial and postcolonial Africa. I have argued that this engagement with the novel as an aesthetic object is as important as his evolving political ideology in the 1960s and 1970s. And yet, in spite of his numerous attempts to move the novel beyond its European bourgeois heritage - a heritage in which the genre is driven by the need to account for unique individual experiences for isolated and privileged readers - and turn it into an instrument of mass culture and collective change, Ngugi was, for most of this period, the archetypal intellectual writing about the experiences of “the people” from the sanctuary of the university. As we have already seen, the author's sense of his own alienation from his objects of representation, his awareness of the gap between the subjects of his novel (often peasants and workers) and the rarified mode of novelistic expression, became for him a source of artistic angst and ideological soul-searching in the 1970s. In these circumstances, Ngugi's occasional turn to drama was one way of dealing with the crisis that this African writer had to confront when he attempted to represent subjects and cultural situations that were at odds with the language and aesthetic ideology of his inherited novelist tradition.
Ngugi first called attention to the close relation between his nonfictional and fictional works in the preface to Homecoming, his first collection of essays, where he noted that although his critical prose and literary works were differentiated by genre and the protocols and conventions of writing and reading, their conditions of production were similar. Many of the essays in this collection, he reminded his readers, were written at about the same time as his first three novels and were thus products of “the same moods”; they also touched “on similar questions and problems.” But even as he laid out the common ground occupied by his novels and essays, Ngugi was eager to separate their political function, and in this separation we can begin to understand the unseen ideological and aesthetic forces that have shaped his art and thought from the beginning of his artistic career as a student at Makerere University College to his preeminence as an African writer in exile. The creative writer, Ngugi reminded the readers of his first collection of essays, was “immersed in a world of imagination that is other than his conscious self. At his most intense and creative the writer is transfigured, he is possessed, he becomes a medium” (Homecoming, p. xv). Creative writing, Ngugi seemed to suggest, emerged out of an unconscious world (of drives and desires) and the novelist or poet was a genius in touch with higher creative forces. In contrast, the act of writing critical essays was motivated by the need to rationalize the author's “beliefs, attitudes and outlook” in a more “argumentative form” (p. xv). The fictional works had a symbiotic relationship to the critical essays, but the two could not be conflated.
Literary critics have never been sure where to locate Petals of Blood, Ngugi's epic novel of the culture and politics of neo–colonialism in Kenya. Indeed, as Joseph Mclaren has observed in his detailed discussion of the critical literature surrounding this work, opinion about the novel's effectiveness has tended to be divided along ideological and geographical lines, between different modes of interpretation, and disparate views on the direction in which Ngugi's Marxist politics were pushing his novels in the 1970s. But if the critical literature on Petals of Bloody especially during the first two years after the novel's publication had one thing in common, it was the belief that the success or failure of the novel depended on its complex attempt to merge ideology and form. As McLaren has noted, the controversies generated by the novel revolved around two closely related issues: first, the use of realistic devices in fiction and “their validity in voicing political imperatives”; and secondly, “the controversial nature of the political novel and the continued debate regarding art as ideology.”And if Petals of Blood tended, too often perhaps, to be judged in relation to A Grain of Wheat, it was because it seemed to exist both inside and outside the tradition of the European novel. For many of its early critics, the novel seemed to gesture toward familiar patterns of realism popularized by European novelists in the nineteenth century, but it also wanted to go beyond what Ngugi considered to be the limits of this kind of “critical realism,” namely the inability of the bourgeois novel to transcend the social and cultural situation it represented and to function as an aesthetic agent of radical change.
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