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Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Post by Hush on Fri Dec 12, 2008 2:21 am

Ngugi wa Thiong’o


b. 1938, Kamiriithu, near Limuru,
Kenya novelist, dramatist and essayist

The Kenyan novelist, dramatist, and essayist Ngugi wa Thiong’o dominates the transitional period of modern African literature (1964–70), and his major works constitute an important link between the pioneers of African writing, such as Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, and a younger generation of postcolonial African writers (see colonialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonialism), including Dambudzo Marechera and Tsitsi Dangarembga In his later works, lays, and essays, primarily focused on the relationship between power and culture in the postcolonial state, Ngugi has been one of the most perceptive students of postcolonial cultural politics, and his writings on culture and politics in Africa have influenced many Third World writers. His decision to stop writing fiction in English and to use Gikuyu instead reignited the debate about language and the identity of African literature (see Gikuyu literature; language question).


Starting his career at a time when African literature was trying to free itself from the European tradition, Ngugi’s early works were marked by the influence of his education at Makerere University College in Uganda, where he studied English in the early 1960s. The teaching of English at Makerere, where Ngugi was also the editor of Penpoint, one of the leading literary journals in East Africa at the time, followed the tenets of literary criticism enunciated by F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. At the heart of these tenets was the claim that the best English literature represented the essential humane values of English society and that language was most effective and creative when it reflected an intense moral interest. Following this desire to use language to represent moral conflict, Ngugi’s early stories were focused on the struggle between alienated individuals and collective entities, but they were also engaged in the exploration of a problem that was central to African fiction in the late 1950s and early 1960s, namely how to translate what Leavis had called moral intensity to situations that were removed from English, Englishness, and its tradition of writing.

Ngugi’s early project, then, was how to create a literature in English, an African literature, outside the values of English. In particular, Ngugi had been born in a colonial situation that reflected the radical opposition between Englishness, as it was presented in school culture,and the political and cultural aspirations of colonized Africans. His family was part of a large group of Kenyans who had been dispossessed when large chunks of fertile land in central Kenya and the Rift Valley were set aside for white settlement. Ngugi came of age during the Mau Mau revolt against British colonialism, a revolt driven by grievances over the lost lands. At Alliance High School and in Makerere, the institutions of education, and literary culture in general, were intended to shelter those lucky enough to be admitted from the vagaries and violence of the colonial situation. Literature was the site of a liberal sensibility and a transcendental aesthetic. It was about moral conflict, not that other ugly conflict out there in the real world. At the same time, however, Ngugi could not escape from this other conflict. It was part of the realities that determined his life. The school and the university might offer protection, literature might be the place of moral awakening, but this did not simply make the overwhelming realities of colonialism and the violent struggle against it disappear. Ngugi became a writer seeking to establish a compromise: the reconciliation of moral intensity (as it had been defined by Leavis) and his own memories and experiences of the colonial situation and its violence.

[color=darkblue]Influenced particularly by the works of British modernists like D.H.Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, Ngugi started his career producing novels that would use the African landscape of his childhood and youth to represent what he considered to be larger universal values such as the morality of action and the conflict between individual desires and collective yearnings. But as the drama of decolonization became more complicated, the older forms of representing individual consciousness seemed wanting; independence had undermined the paradigmatic opposition between the colonizer and colonized that had shaped African literature in the formative 1950s; new social relationships and oppositions were not clearly defined in the early 1960s when Ngugi started writing; in the 1970s and 1980s his novels and essays were to become important in elaborating the relationship between culture and the state and the role of the writer in a neocolonial society. Ngugi’s writing career has thus eveloped in several phases closely identified with the nature of late colonialism in East Africa and postcolonial politics in Kenya; they are also part of a journey that has taken him from the liberal culture of Englishness, as promoted by the colonial school and university, to his later role as a writer sufficiently committed to radical social change to riskimprisonment and exile.
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Re: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Post by Hush on Fri Dec 12, 2008 2:41 am


In his first two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965), Ngugi was primarily concerned with the tension between a violent colonial past and the dream of cultural nationalism (see nationalism and post-nationalism). Focusing on some of the historical events that had shaped the history of modern Kenya—the female circumcision controversy of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s—Ngugi produced powerful narratives that examined a violent colonial past and provided a tentative critique of the culture of decolonization. In The River Between, which was his first written novel, Ngugi sought to dramatize a defining moment of cultural nationalism in central Kenya —the female circumcision conflict of the late 1920s/early 1930s, when an influential group of leaders sought to reconcile certain cultural practices, which the colonial government and the Church found repulsive, with their aspirations for modernity. The novel is one of the most powerful representations of the new African subject caught between the need to uphold tradition as the basis of national consciousness while promoting the modernizing institutions of colonialism. As in all of Ngugi’s early works, the center of the conflict was not political; rather, the tragedy of the hero arose when he found himself unable to reconcile two opposing moral positions: the ideology of cultural purity and the claims of self-enlightenment. In contrast to the concern with landscape and the morality of action in The River Between, Weep Not, Child took the structure of an autobiographical novel (see autobiography): here, Ngugi’s aim was to understand the Mau Mau conflict through the eyes of a child, growing up with dreams and aspirations for social upliftment, only to be caught in the powerful conflict between a white settler and Mau Mau nationalists. While what made this novel so striking was its ability to voice the fears and aspirations of those caught in the Mau Mau conflict, its more subtle goal was its concern with a process of negative education, which seemed to be at odds with the larger claims of colonialism itself. Colonialism had found a foothold in central Kenya by privileging the process of education as the point of entry into the modern world; Ngugi’s novel was a reflection on the false premises on which this kind of social upliftment was predicated.

Another important phase in Ngugi’s career was marked by his discovery of Marxism and the works of Frantz Fanon when he was a student at Leeds University. When he arrived at Leeds to undertake graduate studies, Ngugi was having serious doubts about the liberal politics he had espoused in his early works, a politics vividly represented in the early essays collected in Homecoming (1972). In those essays he had argued that the moment of independence was not simply a time when African aspirations would be fulfilled, but also a point of reconciliation when the racial and class conflicts dramatized in his early works would be transcended. But in the very first few years of independence, Ngugi was discovering, as were many African writers of his generation, that both tenets were under threat: the new government seemed eager to embrace white settlers and to protect their economic interests at the expense of the peasants who had opposed them. In addition, the postcolonial regime was now dominated by those Africans who had actively fought Mau Mau, although Jomo Kenyatta, the great nationalist, was now president. Among the Marxist professors and students at Leeds, Ngugi seems to have discovered a more radical method of social and cultural analysis, one that would enable him to account for the persistence of neocolonialism in the new African state. But it was from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963) that he was to discover the tropes that would enable him to narrate the crisis of decolonization. In his book, one of Fanon’s key concerns was the failure of nationalism to live up to its mandate and the continued dominance of colonial institutions in the new African state. He provided a powerful and prophetic warning of a failed decolonization and its consequences on art, culture, and society:

National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, will be an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been. (1963: New York)

Like most of the literature produced in Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s, Ngugi took up the powerful motif of expectation and betrayal in A Grain of Wheat (1966), one of his most popular novels. And he sought to represent a stillborn independence using the techniques of modernism, including interiorized consciousness, flashbacks, and divided perspectives which underscored the uncertainty involved in the task of making sense of the new politics ofindependence in which things rarely appeared to be what they were.

From 1965 to the end of the 1970s, then, Ngugi was concerned with questions of postcolonial failure and the disjuncture between the dream of independence and its betrayal. His goal was to psychoanalyze the narrative of nationalism and to capture the disenchantment that had replaced the euphoria of independence. In the newer essays published in Homecoming (1972), Ngugi sought to intervene in public debates on the role of culture in decolonization and the African writer’s relation to the society, the state, and the historical past. These themes, first taken up in A Grain of Wheat, were to be repeated almost ten years later in Petals of Blood (1977), and in some of the stories collected in Secret Lives (1975). Thekey themes in these new works remained the same as they first appeared in A Grain of Wheat, although some critics have allowed the high modernism of the later to camouflage this thematic continuity. Petals of Blood was, of course, a much more radical novel, with a plot and rhetoric driven by powerful Marxist notions on the relation between culture and politics, underdevelopment, and revolution. But beneath this new grammar of politics, the central motif of the novel was still that of expectation and betrayal, of the dream of nationalism andits sacrifice at what Ngugi considered to be the altar of capitalism. What was perhaps different about Petals of Blood was its rejection of the form and rhetoric of high modernism Ngugi had flirted with in A Grain of Wheat for social realism, which Ngugi believed was a better mode of producing fiction that would both represent the neocolonial polity and provide a Utopian resolution to the politics of everyday life.

A defining characteristic of Ngugi’s career, especially in its middle period (the 1970s and 1980s) was his search for modes of fictional representation that would mediate the politics of everyday life better than traditional novelistic genres. While he had often privileged the role of the novel as the form most attuned to the process of social change, Ngugi was also aware of the extent to which his early novels had been co-opted into the educational system, where they were valued as outstanding examples of the nationalist imagination. He was compelled to rethink the relationship between the novel and politics. This questioning took two forms. First, Ngugi began to probe the relation between genres and the kind of radical political intervention to which his work was committed. Second, he turned his attention to the language question as a symptom of the crisis in African writing. In Decolonising the Mind (1986), for example, he questioned the assumption that European languages were the natural vehicles for the African imagination, arguing that a literature produced in the language of the colonizer was inherently alienating.

Ironically, it was through his marginal dramatic works rather than his canonical novels that Ngugi was forced to confront his own identity as a radical writer in a conservative postcolonial state. As early as 1962, when the production of The Black Hermit (1968) was halted after a few runs at the National Theatre in Kampala, Ngugi’s plays seemed to be politically more effective than his novels. This point was confirmed by the political problems surrounding the production of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1977), a play co-written with Micere Mugo, at the National Theatre in Nairobi in 1976. By the end of the 1970s, as is apparent in the essays collected in Writers in Politics (1981) and Barrel of a Pen (1983), Ngugi had become convinced that his novels were not accessible to the workers and peasants whom he thought to be agents of radical change and the real subjects of a committed literature. In I Will Marry When I Want (1982), a controversial play in Gikuyu co-written with Ngugi wa Miriie, he invited his peasant audience to become major players in the representation of their own lives and, as he later noted in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1999), to break down the boundary between the theatrical and social space.

Another turning point in Ngugi’s career began with his arrest and imprisonment without trial, in 1978, for his involvement with the community theater in Kamiriithu. The circumstances surrounding this case were narrated in Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981), simultaneously a scathing attack on the neocolonial state that had imprisoned him and a reflection on the culture of silence in Africa. It was in prison, however, that Ngugi wrote Devil on the Cross (1982), his first novel in Gikuyu, a work that was to provoke many debates about the role of language in the shaping of African literature, but one in which hebegan to open his works to elements, such as orality and popular culture, that had not been pronounced in his previous novels (see oral literature and performance). Forced into exile in 1982, Ngugi continued to insist that his decision to write in Gikuyu represented an epistemological break; it would accord the African novel its own genealogy and tradition. The publication of Matigari (1989), a work that was considered so dangerous by the Kenyan state that it was banned on publication, was intended to affirm this break with previous novelistic practices, and in particular to open the novel to new audiences. While there have been debates on whether Matigari marked the epistemological break it was intended to make, it is generally considered to have represented a crucial point of transition in Ngugi’s career, taking up questions of orality and cultural transition in unprecedented ways.

Now, if Ngugi is considered to be one of the most influential voices on the relationship between literature, performance, and the politics of culture in Africa, it is because his works have provided readers with powerful stories about what it means to be an African subject under colonial and postcolonial conditions. With the attention he has focused on questions such as nation and narration, power and performance, language and identity, Ngugi has proven to be both a pioneer and innovator in the tradition of African letters.

Further reading
Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.
Gikandi, S. (2000) Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ogude, James (1999) Ngugi’s Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation, London: Pluto Press.
Sicherman, C. (1900) Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel. A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance, London: Hans Zell.
Williams, Patrick (1999) Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

SIMON GIKANDI
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Re: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Post by Hush on Fri Dec 12, 2008 2:46 am

I have spent a lot of time so that I can post it properly so I hope it's gonna be useful for most of us. drunken
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Re: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Post by jamie on Wed Mar 10, 2010 5:57 pm

thank you it is useful for me I like African literature
but not so much
i wish i will read about english and american literature
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Re: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Post by JOKER on Sun Mar 14, 2010 2:09 am

Will, it's very noble of you  to spend a lot of your time to help people. barak lah fik
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