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Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Memoir as Self-Translation (Lecture Notes)
(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,
Ngugi’s controversial play [see source for full text] . . . Sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, publicly identified with unequivocally championing the cause of ordinary Kenyans, and committed to communicating with them in the languages of their daily lives, Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charge . . . It was at Kamiti Maximum Prison that Ngugi made the decision to abandon English as his primary language of creative writing and committed himself to writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. . . .
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:
In writing one should hear all the whisperings, all the shouting, all the crying, all the loving and all the hating of the many voices in the past, and those voices will never speak to a writer in a foreign language.
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:
James Baldwin talked of how he stopped hating Shakespeare the moment he was able to appropriate Shakespeare from the straitjackets of English imperial nationalism and place him in a more catholic space. (8)
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).
Shortish Take on Neil Gaiman, Reading Live and In Person
During a question and answer session between readings from his most recent books (one just published, one to appear in September), Neil Gaimanconfessed to a sold-out Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last Thursday that he seemed to have graduated into some next level of fame, when people who hadn’t actually read his work still knew something about who he was and what he did. I have to confess, too, that I haven’t actually read too much Neil Gaiman (some Sandman and a little Coraline,— and I have watched the two Doctor Who episodes he scripted in the last three years), although I’m keen now to read much, much more. I was there not so much as a fan, but just to see and hear him. What started to become compelling about this public appearance were the ways in which he both enlivened and managed his fans’ expectations. They adore him, and every time he (pretty expertly) name-dropped the title of one of his books, at least two-thirds of the audience hooted and cheered. He’s now much more than a cultish comic book and fantasy writer, but he assiduously and warmly cultivates connections with his readership, with his audience, around their willing buy-in to his myth-making: the mythworlds of his fiction, yes, but also the myth of Neil Gaiman, author and impresario of a set of collective subcultural imaginings.
His performance was excellent, and well worth the modest ticket-price. It combined reading from recent work, as I said, with him answering questions audience members had submitted on cards ahead of time. (He told us our – Vancouver’s – questions were the best he had had for the whole tour, probably an untruth, but a nice appeal to our west coast intellectual vanity.) He stayed after the reading for at least three hours, signing books and chatting – briefly, given the numbers – with his keen readers. And that extra willingness to stay on, which was anticipated in media build-up to his appearance, is the first part of his myth: he gives you the sense not of distraction but of caring engagement with his readers, making sure that they have some modicum of contact with him, that they feel that he’s present to them. Neil Gaiman takes considerable pains to offer his audience a feint of intimacy, disclosing what felt like private details of his life particularly around his relationship to femrocker Amanda Palmer – Amanda Fucking Palmer (“No Neil Fucking Gaiman tonight,” he joked) – which were the kinds of details he also occasionally lets slip via Twitter. (He recently tweeted about his happiness waking up in bed beside her, for example.) Now we all do this kind of thing on Twitter, mingling public and private idioms for an indiscriminate readership, but given the extent of Neil Gaiman’s following, as it shifts from cult to mass, it’s this feeling of access, of closeness, that seems to firm up his fan-base, to keep them attached to, immersed in, his writing.
This autobiographical myth-making particularly both frames and informs his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which bears the dedication “For Amanda, who wanted to know.” (Indeed, it’s precisely I’d say the idea of an intimate knowledge – or of a knowing intimacy – that started to become an issue here, as Gaiman read to us, in person. What exactly was it that Amanda wanted to know? How much access were we, as listeners, as over-hearers, being given to that knowledge? Something is described in the book, he told us, about his past, his childhood. This book, he said, came about because he missed his wife and wanted to make her love him by giving her a short story (which developed into a “novelette,” then a novella, then a short novel) with “something me-ish in there,” some small “slices of real life and one slice of imagination when I was a child.” Slices, maybe, like the slices of burnt toast in the passage that he read from the second chapter, which begins with the narrator’s depiction of his detachment from the world – “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else” – but which, through the slow careful accumulation of descriptive detail (like that toast), gradually reconnects the observer to what seems to be going on around him at a remove, even without him.
The narrator’s doubled perspective – a forty-year-old man recalling what he experienced as a seven-year-old – reinforces the essential interestedness (as opposed to detachment, objectivity or disinterest) of the narrator, his being-with as opposed to standing apart-from, those around him, which is how he’s positioned, or positions himself, at the discovery of a corpse (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) in his father’s car:
I don’t remember who said what then, just that they made me stand away from the Mini. I crossed the road, and I stood there on my own while the policeman talked to my father and wrote things down in a notebook. (18)
Writing, here, is limited to sparse note-taking, and the limitations of perspective and memory are candidly foregrounded; we can’t even read over the policeman’s shoulder to see what he has written down. Intimacy or closeness, in other words, remains denied to us, Gaiman’s committed readers. He’s withholding, through the device of an unreliable juvenile focalizer. Generational dictions meld throughout the chapter (adult vocabulary often mingling with childish self-interest, for example), but you can also hear, even in this short excerpt, Gaiman’s inclination toward austerity and directness: how committed to the matter being described here is the voice doing the describing? How involved or how removed?
This point-of-view feels like objectivity, but during his presentation Thursday, when asked about the differences between writing for adults and for – or perhaps about – children, Gaiman asserted that what makes for good writing around children is to “make every word count.” (I’d suggest, too, that there is something of that directness cultivated in his writing for television and especially for graphic texts.) What we might take for empirical distance here, in other words, is shaped by close child-like observation, by the directness and directedness of a child’s eye and ear (not just for descriptive detail, but also for details of speech, of words themselves). While our narrator waits, he thinks back on his father’s constant burning of toast:
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. [The American spelling is original to the edition I have.] When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, and had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
The doubled age of the voice in this passage, audible in the mixed diction, also maps onto a personal mythopoeia around burnt toast and the simultaneous demythologizing of those intimate patrilineal memories, as his whole childhood begins to feel “like a lie” (although likeness, it’s worth asserting, isn’t the same as it’s being a lie). The with-ness of interest, of the narrator’s and the reader’s inter-esse, is caught up in this double movement of Gaiman’s narrative, which both intimates and debunks.
I mean to approach, just so briefly, something of the dynamics of fandom that inhere in Gaiman’s own writing, and in his performance – his reading – last Thursday. The declarative clarity, the confessional candour that circles through his speaking subjects, his voice(s), isn’t so much a masterful feint as it is a self-conscious address to the capacities of language itself to disclose, to tell. Or, perhaps more clearly put, to give us what we want to know. Gaiman’s success, in this terrific new book, strikes me as in part enmeshed in a virtuosity of disavowal: the well-honed verbal craft of making his readers keep wanting, even as he gives them more of the feeling of intimacy, of personal proximity, that they crave. In a very peculiar and particular sense, what Neil Gaiman offers us all is a species of mythical close reading, a closeness both inand as reading. It’s what must keep us coming back to his work, even if it’s for the very first time.