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Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Memoir as Self-Translation (Lecture Notes)

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(On Wednesday, 6 November 2013, I gave the second lecture that week on Ngugi’s memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, for my first-year class at the University of British Columbia, English 111, which is an introduction to prose non-fiction, focused this year on the theme of “dislocations.” I have been developing what I want to think of as an “improvisational pedagogy,” which aims to foster as sense of engagement by trying to stage an on-your-toes critical thinking around texts, and their interpretation: the idea is to go into class well prepared, but to try and let the lecture unfold in situ, allowing the structure to emerge as you speak. When this kind of teaching works, the results (from my perspective) are really significant, and what I hope happens, right there in the classroom, is a more vital and compelling dialogue around the course material. However, this kind of improvising can also be a bit risky, in as much as it can also potentially fall apart on you. After my first lecture on Ngugi, I felt that I hadn’t brought the material together as fully as I had hoped, so I decided to script the second lecture more completely, which I did the night before, not to work at the last minute but still to preserve a few vestiges of that critical immediacy, if possible. The last paragraph of the script, along these lines, isn’t really a coherent paragraph, but consists of a set of claims about Ngugi’s memoir that I could then elaborate at that moment, which I did. Here is the script for that lecture, which I think turned out pretty well; this was intended as introduction to reading Ngugi for first-year students, not as particularly original criticism – work for which others are probably much better qualified than I am. But it does attempt to map out my own engagements with Ngugi’s texts, to model a potential critical practice for these students.)

Over this past summer, I read In the House of the Interpreter, a second recent volume of memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, published in November 2012. That reading prompted me to put the first volume of Ngugi’s memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War (2010), on the syllabus for this course. As in the earlier text, Ngugi offers a first-hand account of growing up in late colonial Kenya centred on his time as a student, in the latter volume his experience at Alliance, the first high school in the region aimed specifically at educating Africans – apparently modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The New York Times “Sunday Book Review” (from February 8, 2013) praises Ngugi’s second memoir for  “eloquently telegraph[ing] the complicated experience of being simultaneously oppressed and enlightened at the hands of a colonial regime.” The double-bind of an imperialist cultural pedagogy, empowering the colonized by inculcating in them a reflexive deference to the literature and values of the colonizers, is a pervasive theme of both memoirs. The earlier volume also maps Ngugi’s peripatetic early experiences at several schools, from the fostering of Gikuyu language and identity at Kamandura elementary to the often violent suppression of native culture at the “new” Manguo school. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi has recounted the punishments he and his classmates received at this latter school for speaking their own languages, or for not speaking English, and he replays that infamous scene for us in Dreams in a Time of War:
In the new Manguo school, English was still emphasized as the key to modernity, but, whereas in the Karing’a Manguo English and Gikuyu coexisted, now Gikuyu was frowned upon. The witch hunt for those speaking African languages in the compound began, the consequence rising to bodily punishment in some cases. A teacher would give a piece of metal to the first student he caught speaking an African language. The culprit would pass it to the next person who repeated the infraction. This would go on the whole day, and whoever was the last to have the metal in his possession would be beaten. Sometimes the metal was inscribed with demeaning words or phrases like “Call me stupid.” I saw teachers draw blood from students. Despite this we were proud of our English proficiency and eager to practice the new language outside the school compound. (177)
It’s important for Ngugi to recognize that the key moment in the colonization of selves and minds happens in and through linguistic violence, epitomized in the sharp-edged scrawl on that metallic shard. Ngugi traces his largely innocent and even “eager” complicity – and the complicity of his classmates – in the British colonial machine (and who, after all, wants to be beaten, or wants to be labeled stupid?), but his aim is often more diagnostic than imputing. He tries to describe and to understand how this fractious doubling of self and place emerges as a cultural symptom of colonization, and he wants to lay the groundwork for evolving a set of tactics and practices with which he can negotiate with that complicity, if not somehow manage to throw it off.
         The title page of his 2006 novel Wizard of the Crowbears a one-line epigraph: “A translation from Gīkūyū by the author.” Ngugi has been practicing self-translation from Gikuyu into English since the late 1970s. There is a deeply political commitment in self-translation that emerges when we know something of Ngugi’s biography, which I am reproducing from his own website; in 1977,
Kenya’s ruling dictatorship appears to have made a number of attempts to assassinate Ngugi in the decades following his release, and his work was often suppressed in Kenya; he has written and taught in exile, principally in the United States, to the present day. While in prison, he made a statement about his writing practices that has gained wide notoriety, remarking on what he felt was a necessary turn in his work toward indigeneity and autochthony, a reconnection to a genetic sense of place:
Dreams in a Time of War begins with Ngugi’s nostalgic imaginative return to the familial – in fact, largely maternal – “oral universe of story-telling,” shared around a fire (29). Going to school, and gaining a education for which he yearns palpably, also fractures that intimate connection to home, to place: “And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture” (Decolonising the Mind). English, and soon English literature, produced a seductively modern scission from the vitality of the oral, from its magic:
English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education.
Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance. Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan languages stopped. In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard . . . .
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds. (taken from Decolonising the Mind)
Understanding Ngugi’s complex relationship to those “other worlds,” to globalization, is crucial to beginning to evolve a reading of his memoir that remains responsive and alert to the negotiations he undertakes with decolonization. It’s not a question, after all, of simply returning to Gikuyu; in many ways, Ngugi simply can’t go back, at least not unproblematically. His writing operates self-consciously from a position of exile, of geographic otherness. On the second page of Dreams in a Time of War, for example, he frames his hunger – as a child of poverty, he couldn’t afford lunch at school – analogically, thinking his life echoes a famous scene from Oliver Twist (“Please, sir, can I have some more?”), which, he says, he had read in an “abridged version” at school: “I identified with that question; only for me it was often directed at my mother, my sole benefactor, who always gave me more whenever she could” (4). The literature of forced displacement is also the literature of analogic return to the maternal hearth, to earthy genetics. The book opens, in fact, with a reflection on reading (“years later”) the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but Ngugi hears not only an arbitrary mimicry of the name of a colonial Kenyan governor, Sir Charles Eliot, but also the impossible echoes of a day in April 1954 in his hometown of Limuru, when his elder brother Good Wallace, a Mau Mau partisan, escapes police custody. Highbrow, canonical Anglo-American literature is reappropriated by Ngugi’s personal Gikuyu imaginary, and converted into raw material for popular local story. In his Wellek Library lectures published in 2012 as Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Ngugi describes this re-appropriation of canon (itself framed by a reference to an exiled maverick of African-American literature, the novelist James Baldwin) as a necessary step for re-entering the debate – the dialectics, as he suggests (compare Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Marji’s comic book “Dialectic Materialism”) – that not only surrounds but actually informs the decolonizing self, a self not so much translated as continuously translating, negotiating its own terms:
This post-colonial catholicity – a kind of troubled but widely various universalism, perhaps a “humanism of the other” as one philosopher (Emmanuel Levinas) suggestively puts it – manifests itself in Dreams in a Time of War as young Ngugi’s enthusiasm for the poetic magic of words, both Gikuyu and English; “one day,” he writes, “I am able to read on my own the Gikuyu primer we used in class”:
I can hear the music. The choice and arrangement of the words, the cadence, I can’t pick any one thing that makes it so beautiful and long-lived in my memory. I realized that even written words can carry the music I loved in stories [. . .] (64-65)
Gikuyu transcribed in Latin-European orthography promises a return to that enlivening maternal hearth, but that return is only enabled by the acquisition of a literacy proffered by colonial culture. Biblical passages – re-purposed chunks of Christian liturgy – are also almost as resonant for him: “I committed . . . whole passages to memory. They were poetic. They were music” (69). Ngugi seems to unpack an Afrologicalcadence, a rhythmic sense, even from Western European literatures; they sing in his ear, in a manner that recalls Karen Blixen’s seduction by the landscape and culture of Kenya in the early pages of Out of Africa: “When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find that it is the same in all her music” (24). But for Ngugi, the point isn’t to parody the kind of cultural safari in which Blixen engages, trying to catch a vitality from that world that promises her some “magnificent enlargement of all [her] world” (25). The enlargement entailed by colonial modernity certainly catches up young Ngugi in its whelming sweep, but the cadences he uncovers in his languages, in translation, wants to reverse that flow, to push back at it, and to open other spaces.
         More often than not, that oral creativity finds itself beaten down or overwritten by imperialist literacies; space for articulating shared connections to place, to ground oneself, is not always made within the written, but is instead undone by it, as in the case of the double-sale of Ngugi’s father’s land. (See page 19.) The Gikuyu, by Ngugi’s account, are forced to re-appropriate resources, to squat, to inhabit their own spaces simultaneously as outsiders and native and to make subversive use of the scraps and shards of economic modernization, of globalization. Consider Ngugi’s description of how he and his brother constructed their own skewed version of a wheelbarrow, which they then market back to those in power – metonymically, the landlord’s children. (See pages 52-55.) His description of his circumcision (pages 196-203) counterpoints cultural inscription on the body – a Gikuyu ritual of initiation into the community of manhood – with the modern work of education, of self-writing. How are bodies tied to place, and how are they sites of displacement, of translation, of debate? Conflicting accounts of the Lari massacre (pages 180-81) seem aptly to frame, for Ngugi, the ironies – which he’ll later start to spin into dialectics, generative conflicts – of colonial discourse. And finally, Mzee Ngandi’s recounting of Jomo Kenyatta’s 1952 courtroom speech offers us, through the added filter of Ngugi’s memory, an instance of the creative misprisions and re-appropriations of story-telling, as the oral and the written collide and reshape one another. (See page 187 on.) This section concludes by giving the memoir its title, and suggesting something of the expansive power not simply of myth but of myth-making that Ngugi wants to take on in his own creative writing (195).

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