World Literature

Even without the Nobel, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's writing of resistance is memorable

Thiong'o abjured English as the coloniser's tongue, and wrote his first novel in prison on toilet paper.

The grand old man of African writing in English, Chinua Achebe, died in Boston in 2013 without having received the call from Stockholm. It is hard to debate the Nigerian's claim to the prize that, thanks to Alfred Nobel's conditions, is never awarded posthumously.

Although considered a favourite, That's one reason that it is entirely appropriate that the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 has been given to Achebe's fellow African literary giant, the 78-year-old Kenyan writer, thinker and activist, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Not only does he richly deserve the attention that the Nobel still commands, but his connection with Achebe is also deeply symbolic of the complicated history and the tumultuous currents that informed post-independence African writing in English – and in the African languages.

In 1958, Achebe’s breakout novel Things Fall Apart was published in the UK by William Heinemann Ltd to critical and popular acclaim. Achebe was subsequently invited to be the editor of the African Writers Series (AWS) that Heinemann launched in 1962, to publish young African voices claiming their history and telling the truth about the colonial encounter that had ravaged their continent, looted its wealth and squeezed its surplus labour.

One of the most compelling books that Achebe published in AWS, in 1964, was Weep Not, Child, authored by a young scholar still at Makerere University, named James Ngũgĩ. It was hailed as the first novel by an East African writer, and tells a powerful coming of age story set against the backdrop of anti-colonial struggle in Kenya. "Nyokabi called him," the novel opens:

She was a small, black woman, with a bold but grave face. One could tell by her small eyes full of life and warmth that she had once been beautiful. But time and bad conditions do not favour beauty. All the same, Nyokabi had retained her full smile – a smile that lit up her dark face.

"Would you like to go to school?"

"Oh mother!" Njoroge gasped. He half feared that the woman might withdraw her words.

The journey to fiction

Weep Not, Child was the product of an intensely creative phase in Ngũgĩ’s life, which began when he was still at university. His play The Black Hermit, staged in Kampala at 1962 as a part of the celebrations surrounding Uganda’s independence from colonialism, was said to herald a brave new voice that spoke for the entire continent.

As it happens, Ngũgĩ’s love for theatre was to remain a life-long commitment that tied him to the oral literatures of Africa, flowing like an underground river below the Dickens and Shakespeare (and Biggles!) that had inhabited his school and college life. In the years to come, every time his literary life felt arid, he was to return to theatre for renewal, for simple answers to his complex problems.

Weep Not, Child was followed in quick succession by The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967), which experimented with structure and form. In the same year, 1967, Ngũgĩ’ accepted a teaching position at the University of Nairobi. This signalled the beginning of his active involvement in politics, and his career as a writer of serious, polemical non-fiction situated around the ideas, identities and histories of Africa (Homecoming, which appeared in print in 1969; Writers in Politics, 1981 and 1997; Decolonising the Mind in 1986; Moving the Center in 1994; Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams in1998; and most recently, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance in 2009.)

As a Fanonist-Marxist, on the one hand he critiqued the terrible neo-colonial domination that had continued in the independent nations of Africa even after independence was won, while on the other hand he spoke of the resistances to bourgeoisie capitalism represented by the newly minted states, by championing peasant resistance movements. His vocal criticism soon began to trouble the authoritarian government that had come to power in Kenya.

If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s first three novels can be said to represent the first phase in post-colonial literature, the revolutionary position that recorded the independence struggle of the new republic, by the time he published the seminal Petals of Blood in 1977 – a complex, ultimately tragic, book with several points of view and a haunting unsparing portrait of a corruption-riddled body politic, so soon after the golden age of nationalism – he represented the second phase of post-colonial literature: criticism of the corrupt state.

In the same year, Ngũgĩ’s controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was performed at Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru. Hearkening back to the folk performative traditions endemic to the tribal cultures of East Africa, I Will Marry When I Want was produced in an open air theatre, with actors from the worker-forces and peasant-communities of the local areas, and voiced their profound grievances with the state of affairs in the country.

Consequently, Ngũgĩ was thrown into a maximum security prison without trial, and for one whole year, he had no connection with the outside world. It was in the Kamiti Maximum Prison that he formulated his ideological position that was to resound in all parts of the former colonised world – that is, decolonising the mind, by abjuring English, the language of the colonisers. On prison-issued toilet paper, he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), which was translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).

Decolonising literature 

After Amnesty secured Ngũgĩ’s release in December 1978 as a “prisoner of conscience” he was hounded out of Kenya by the Moi regime, which he opposed tooth and nail. He lived in exile, in England (1982–1989) and the United States (1989–2002), teaching in some of the most famous American universities, and writing his powerful, oddly luminous books. However, there can be no doubt that Decolonising the Mind, published in 1986, might be considered his most important work, and the single-most important contribution to post-colonial thought, alongside Edward Said’s Orientalism.

In this, Ngũgĩ traced eloquently the power – and the subsequent failure of Achebe’s tradition, the one he too had championed as a young writer. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was celebrated for the unique language it employed to describe the colonial encounter. An Africanised English, one which translated and transplanted (wild) African proverbs to the proverbial (tame) English garden, thus making it robust and fertile all at once. (This is what Indian writers in English, Raja Rao downwards, have also been canonised for accomplishing.)

Ngũgĩ’s argument against this was sophisticated.

When a writer – any writer – chooses to work in a language, he strengthens that language, whether consciously or unconsciously. So if writers eschew their mother tongues and “cannibalise” them to write in the coloniser’s (more correctly, the globaliser’s) tongue, then he is guilty of “enriching” English over their own native languages.

Just as he had given up Christianity – and with that his given name – a few years before, Ngũgĩ gave up English altogether and began to write to his people, in Gikuyu. Matigari (1986) was his second novel in Gikuyu and remained banned in Kenya for the entire length of dictator Moi’s term.

Buoyed by the inevitable sorrow of exile (his trip to Kenya after the fall of Moi from power was traumatic – he and his wife were brutally attacked in their own home), Ngugi has continued to write prolifically. As an academic – currently he is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine – his work has challenged the existing tools of analysis and hermeneutics, and his critical faculty has continued to inform his creative life.

In 2006, after a gap of twenty-two years he published a new novel, his magnum opus as it were, Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of the Gikuyu novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. He has also published two volumes of memoirs that return his readers to the material of his first two novels.

Ngugi’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages and they continue to be the subject of innumerable essays, critical monographs, and dissertations across the world. He has been awarded ten honourary doctorates from around the world, and the flame of his fiery political vision remains undimmed.

The great resistance traditions of Africa includes not only men of letters like Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, but also, in the long silence between them, the voices of hundreds of thousands of poets, performers, shamans and oral historians, both men and women, spinning their yarns in hundreds of thousands of small languages across the never-dark continent.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD dissertation on the Natyashastra and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.