restricted access Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Postnation: The Cultural Geographies of Colonial, Neocolonial, and Postnational Space
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002) 139-168



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Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's Postnation:
The Cultural Geographies of Colonial, Neocolonial, and Postnational Space

Oliver Lovesey


In the work of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a spatial perspective is as important as the history of resistance to all forms of imperialism in Kenya, the home from which he has been exiled for nearly two decades. 1 The spatial location of cultural identity is emphasized throughout his work. His first story "Mugumo" and his most recent novel Matigari (Matigari ma Njiruungi) conclude with acts of dedication at the sacred mugumo tree, and all of his novels refer to the genesis myth of Gikuyu and Mumbi and thus to revered Mount Kenya. The River Between--his first written and second published novel--excavates the spatial and ideological rift within the community in the early colonial period during the circumcision controversy of 1929-32. The novels' geographical specificity and attention to landscape results less from the literary influence of D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and George Lamming, than from the sacred values associated with a particular soil. For instance, Ngugi's first essay collection, Homecoming, explores the fantasy of a return to Africa in [End Page 139] African diasporan writing, and much of his recent writing questions the appropriation of the homestead, a metonym for the nation, by imperial and neocolonial forces. 1993's Moving the Centre, written in exile and in the lengthening shadow of globalization, re-examines the international divide in political and economic power between the center and the periphery; 1998's Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams extends the notion of empty space first presented in his influential Decolonising the Mind to encompass performative space, a contested political space for reflection and action. For a writer whose aesthetic has been grounded in the nation, the majority of his fiction and non-fictional prose has been written outside his home country--with the notable exception of Devil on the Cross (Caitaani Mutharaha-ini), written in Kenya but within the state's maximum-security prison.

Despite the radical shift in his ideological location--from that of his earliest stories, plays, and often-overlooked journalism, 2 written between 1961 and 1964 in Uganda amid the euphoria of Kenya's dawning independence, to that of his latest prose, produced in Manhattan and Oxford amid anxieties about Kenya's recolonization by the forces of globalization--Ngugi's concerns over four decades are remarkably consistent. Following the practice of the resistance fighters in Kenya's anti-colonial struggle for independence, Ngugi locates the antidote within the poison. He proposes a radical project to refashion the nation, combining his Mau Mau aesthetics and a type of Gikuyu postmodernism that grows out of his critique of colonial and neocolonial Kenya, envisioning cultural revival as the ground for political change. Through an examination of his sometimes conflicted, sometimes fetishistic approach to cultural space, this paper analyzes his articulation of the colonial and neocolonial nation, in particular his dream for the shape of the postnation in the shadow of globalization.

Africa in Manhattan

Ngugi is almost the type of the postcolonial intellectual 3 : a mission-educated member of the rising colonial intelligentsia, enthusiast for independence, disillusioned questioner of the neocolonial state, state prisoner, cultural radical, and exile, living the hybridized, postcolonial condition in the global city of New York. Born in 1938 to a large, landless [End Page 140] peasant family in rural Kenya--his mother was the third of his father's four wives, and he was one of twenty-seven brothers and sisters--Ngugi rapidly joined a tiny African elite, largely because of his facility with the colonizer's language. 4 He therefore encountered what Homi Bhabha calls "the otherness of the Self inscribed in the perverse palimpsest of colonial identity" (Location 44). During the anti-colonial Mau Mau struggle, his brother joined the Land and Freedom Army, the Mau Mau fighters, and Ngugi's mother was tortured. While his brother, who encouraged his schooling, was being bombed in the forests of Mount...


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