The following article is the first in a series about African writers in exile. We will look both backwards and forwards, as the state of exile is hardly a new event in the lives of writers of African descent. But that, dear reader, is jumping the gun. We begin:
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o: Exile And Resistance
Since 1982, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o
has lived in exile in the United States. Probably best known
for his novels about Kenya's struggle to throw off British colonial
rule and to disgorge the bitter pill of neocolonialism his countrymen
have subsequently had to swallow, he has had his own struggle
with these forces. Beginning with his first novel, Weep Not
Child (1964), through his fourth, Petals of Blood
(1977) which very clearly challenges "independent"
Kenya's neocolonial regime Ngugi wrote in English. However,
in December of 1977, following the publication of Petals
of Blood, Ngugi was arrested on vague, Kafkaesque charges
and held without trial in Kenya's Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.
At that point he began to write in his native Gikuyu, the language
of the Mau Mau resistance movement. As he has said many times,
this is one way to resist the cultural dominion of the West.
Ngugi's fabulist one might
say, fantastical novel The Devil on the Cross
was the first of his novels to be written in Gikuyu. He first
wrote it in prison on toilet paper. The original manuscript
is shocking to see the sheets are brownish, rough, almost
waxy, and folded side to side like napkins pulled from a diner's
What The Devil on the Cross baldly serves up to the reader
is a fantasy Devil's Feast in which various extortionists and
profiteers vie for a seat among the top seven Experts in Thievery
and Robbery. Contestants clearly resemble those sinking their
teeth into newly 'independent' Kenya for all it is worth. Nor
is it difficult to see in this scathing satire the "neoliberalismo"
of Latin America, the lip-smacking lords of privatization and
the "new economy."
Eventually Ngugi smuggled out the manuscript of The Devil
on the Cross, helped by a sympathetic guard. An international
outcry against President Daniel Arap Moi for keeping Ngugi in
prison had arisen, although some fellow writers (such as Ali
Mazrui) speculated that his incarceration was somehow partly
his own fault, due to his leftist views, etc., etc. Released
in December 1979, subsequently banned from work and still in
danger, Ngugi left home three years later.
In my mind's eye, I carry an indelible picture of Ngugi a few
years ago, sitting in his New York University office, where
two academic departments, Performance Studies and Comparative
Literature, claim him. I have just asked about the present situation
Ngugi puts his head in his hands. " aagh! Things
are so bad I think the only way to write about it is utter fantasy,
fable-it is so awful!"
Earlier this month, I email him about that statement. He replies,
I meant was the critical realism of 19th century fiction
and then, say, socialist realism, which means a readily
recognizable similitude between the reflection and the object
of reflection becomes inadequate where truth is starker
than fiction. How does one write about massacres, for instance,
in a way that would shock the reader when in reality thousands
and thousands of people have been slaughtered in our lifetime?
An almost annual 20th century occurrence? A novelist has
to find ways of addressing the issues, but how? The fantastical,
the fable, is just one possibility.
In Ngugi's sixth novel, named Matagari
for his main protagonist, a former freedom fighter returns to
his farm. Fine, but the farm is owned, "purchased"
some time before by a white settler whom the man Matagari only
worked the land for. No, argues M., it is mine:
it was my labor that made the place flourish. Ironically this
fictional character was later distinguished by having a warrant
issued for his arrest by President Moi, for the book was widely
read (in Gikuyu) and discussed. Ultimately, all the bookstores
were raided, and all the books seized, by the police.
Ngugi's exile, in short, was never one of a privileged Western
artist going to Paris to be 'free' (never mind from what), to
genuflect before the gods of European ancestors. It is quite
different to be among those disenfranchised by these gods, for
centuries at risk of life and limb. Nor is such exile played
out exactly like Caribbean novelist George Lamming's. Like many
from the English Empire, Lamming went to the Metropole believing
himself as solidly "English" as Britain's original
Ngugi does refer to one of Lamming's "pleasures of exile"
when reflecting upon his own situation, the relief of
not belonging. Away now for eighteen years, Ngugi regards the
time lapse with astonishment, "You never have a sense of
belonging. You are always on the outside. And then you begin
to create an imaginary home you think about it all the
time.... In a way, one does not face up to the reality of one's
new surroundings." Indeed, in order to feel connected,
"I try to reach home by writing, by having a dialogue with
home.... Home is still part of the imagination and writing helps
to make it more real."
English speakers ignorant of Gikuyu must wait for Ngugi's current
work to be translated it is, Ngugi says, already 1600
pages long and due to be published in Gikuyu and one other African
language. While they wait, however, English-only readers can
peruse the recent collection of his Clarendon Lectures in English
Literature, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, delivered
at Oxford University in 1996. The first of the essays, "Art
at War with the State" counterposes the creative power
of art against the absolutist state. The situation is similar,
as Ngugi points out, to Plato's nightmarish exclusion of artists
in The Republic: the state, fearing for its stability,
will even go so far as to persecute and imprison its artists.
Indeed, when speaking further on about Nawal el Sa'adawi, the
Eygptian writer imprisoned for her feminist views during the
Anwar Sadat regime, he likens exile to prison: "exile is
a way of moving the writer from the territorial confinement[,]
where his acts of resistance might ignite other fields[,] into
a global 'exclosure'. The hope is that his actions from this
exclosure, whatever they are, will not directly affect those
confined within the vast territorial enclosure." (p. 61)
Once more, the state feels threatened by change which, after
all, is life. Conversely, stasis is death, and exile or no,
Ngugi tells us, art is a matter of life and death.
|Ngugi wa Thiong'o
is Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies
at New York University.
WORKS DRAWN ON FOR THIS ESSAY
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Weep Not Child. Oxford: Heinemann,1964.
_________________, The River Between. Oxford:Heineman,1965.
_________________, A Grain of Wheat. Oxford: Heineman,1967.
_________________, Petals of Blood. Oxford: Heineman,1977.
_________________, Devil on the Cross. Trans. from the
Gikuyu by the author. Oxford: Heineman,1982. (Heineman published
this in Gikuyu in 1980.)
_________________, Matigari. Trans. from the Gikuyu by
Wangui wa Goro. Oxford: Heineman, 1989. (Published in Gikuyu
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Detained; A Writer's Prison Diary.
Oxford: Heinemann, 1981.
_________________, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams; Towards
a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford:
Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan, 1960.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o has also written a number of plays, short
stories, stories for children, and several essays.
Ngugi's play, I Will Marry When I Want, was written in
collaboration with Ngugi wa Miri and produced with a group of
workers and peasants. Some credit this production closed
by the authorities as part of the cause of Ngugi's detention.
It has met with official opposition whenever anyone attempts
to put it on.
the preservation of public security...." See the introduction
to Ngugi's prison diary, Detained. From the frontispiece,
which is a copy of his detention order.
2. Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile.
(1960) Lamming refers to this pleasure as both belonging wherever
you are and not having to participate in the affairs of the place
because you do not belong.
RELATED WEB SITE
to African Postcolonial Literature, F-K Omoregie [University
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