Thursday, July 14

Considering Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “A Grain of Wheat” and “Writers in Politics”

I do believe that it is congenitally impossible for Ngugi wa Thiong’o to not write Literature. The man cannot write something small and light. Wizard of the Crow was about the resistance to a president’s corruption. Petals of Blood handles a town’s transformation from pastoral to industrial. A Grain of Wheat, one of Ngugi’s earliest novels, is, if possible, even more ambitious than those.

It is the dawn of Kenya’s independence in A Grain of Wheat. It has already gained self-rule, and Jomo Kenyatta has returned from his imprisonment. In a few days the people will celebrate uhuru when the British formally withdraw from the nation. A Grain makes every attempt to capture the breadth of the zeitgeist. Everyone with a stake in uhuru is represented. There are veterans of the Mau Mau resistance and the detention camps, and there are collaborators and homeguards. There are white colonial bureaucrats and new black ministers of parliament.

It is, unfortunately, the weakest of Ngugi’s efforts that I have read thus far, too. There are some wonderful scenes that reveal the community’s spirit when the people gathered at the train station on Sundays or of the spontaneous celebrations on midnight of 12 December, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Much of it the writing is over explained and clunky. The symbolism of the “Narrow Escape” and “Lucky One” matatus at the end is a bit much.

What interests me, however, is the contrast between this work and the philosophy and impetus of literature Ngugi lays down in his second collection of essays, Writers in Politics. In the collection’s preface he makes the point that all writing is inherently political and reflective of a society’s power structures. It cannot be denied. The writer’s only choice is whether to support the ruling powers or to challenge them. He repeats this position that every writer must be actively and consciously political in every one of the ensuing thirteen essays. Two essays are dedicated to celebrating Mau Mau. He argues in “Return to the Roots” that writers in the post-colonial world should write in their national and tribal languages rather than English to find their true audience.

Ngugi’s latest, Wizard of the Crow, is a perfect example of this theory. It was first published in Gikuyu and actively celebrates those who resist government corruption and oppression. Not so with A Grain. Leading veterans of Mau Mau are murderers and rapists. One who confessed the oaths and collaborated with the colonists during the Emergency did enjoy the ensuing power but did it first out of love for a woman. The man who led a successful hunger strike in detention camp also betrayed a Mau Mau leader. Even the departing colonial officials are treated with some sympathy. It’s hardly what you would expect from a writer who is fighting the power and celebrating the resistance.

It’s very possible that Ngugi’s views simply changed over time. A Grain was published in 1966. Ngugi only wrote the first essay of Writers in Politics in 1973. A lot can happen over seven years, but I like to believe that superior literature is too subtle for this. It can only be so strident and definite with ideas and abstractions. When it comes to characters and their motives, the edges are blurred and things become less certain, like life, and people do their best to muddle through and do what’s right.

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