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  • The Disaffections of Postcolonial Affiliations: Critical Communities and the Linguistic Liberation of Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  • William Slaymaker (bio)

Like all major African writers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has wrestled with the problem of cultural affiliation: an exiled Kenyan nationalist whose mother tongue is Gikuyu, but his educational career in Kenyan missionary schools, and British universities, both in Africa (Makerere) and England (Leeds), has made him an Anglophone writer with both Anglophilic and Anglophobic ideological perspectives on art and politics. Ngugi has attempted a partial rejection of his past through a series of political, religious and aesthetic transformations. He has moved through Achebean realism, Conradian modernism, Socialist Realism to a radical linguistic nationalism, partly postmodern, partly propaganda. These complex transformations can be plotted against his thirty-year career as a novelist, playwright and essayist. Personal political experiences, such as his imprisonment in the late 1970s and exile in the early 1980s, have accelerated his cultural and linguistic shifts from an Afro-Saxon amalgam of cultural ideas and languages to a more essentialist cultural and linguistic pose.

Ngugi’s 1980s novels Devil on the Cross (Gikuyu, 1980; English, 1982) and Matigari (Gikuyu, 1986; English, 1987) combine indigenous Kenyan oral formulas, Mau Mau and other patriotic songs, English and Kiswahili intercalations on a broad base of mixed African and European Socialist and Christian symbols and concepts. Ngugi acknowledges quite openly that his works and critical stances are a melange of affiliations which can be quite confusing and culturally contradictory. While his Kenyan nationalist ideology is [End Page 188] well focused, his creative writing as well as his aesthetic essays are a patchwork of ideologies and languages. But the fact that Ngugi’s nationalistic narratives and dramas may be freighted with European cultural values and meanings does not render them unreadable or untranslatable. As Bakhtin would argue, it is natural for narratives to be syncretic cultural and linguistic amalgams, the polyphonic heteroglossia of carnivalized narrative performances.

However, there are problems with Ngugi’s excessive reliance on Eurocentric theoretical discourses evident in many of his critical essays. While Ngugi borrows from numerous sources, both European and AntiEuropean (Fanon, for example), nonetheless the language of his essays remains Eurocentered and English. His burdensome borrowing from the jargon of the revolutionary left and his continued use of English, not Gikuyu nor Kiswahili, to expound his aesthetic and political theories, leave his discursive practices still well centered in Europe. The title of his collection of essays, Moving the Centre (1993, abbreviated MC in this essay) is deceptive. His discursive language remains closely affiliated with the Eurocenters of his linguistic indoctrination.

The central problem of Ngugi’s total aesthetic enterprise is to work out the paradoxes, contradictions and dilemmas of the languages and legacies of cultural imperialism that he resists and reinscribes. His liberation aesthetics is in need of (de)liberation—a thoughtful delivery from the excesses of nationalist claims and spongy linguistic theories. Ngugi’s alpha-discursive aesthetic practice—the replacement of English by Gikuyu in his literary works so that there is indeed a primary Afrocentered alpha discourse—is clear and really needs less argumentative support than he devotes to it. On the other hand, he spends too many words (almost exclusively in English) on linguistic defense of his Gikuyu novels and plays. The puzzles of his aesthetic practice mainly lie in the hybridized beta discourses of his literary theoretical and political and cultural essays which are bastardized versions of Eurocentered ideologies and Kenyan nativist nationalism that are then applied to a very complex political linguistic and cultural entity: postcolonial Kenya. In other words, the aesthetics of his art and the claims and arguments behind his aesthetic theories as he lays them out in his essays are contradictory themselves and create barriers to sympathetic critical understanding.

JanMohamed, in his book Manichean Aesthetics, makes the point that the dialectic of the praxis of writer as a colonized subject defines the necessary contradictions that informed the colonial text. The colonial writer is necessarily split between self and other and this causes necessary contradictions in ideological intentionality. He asserts that Eurocentered hegemonic texts try to resolve [End Page 189] contradictions in order to secure a coherent world; the colonized...

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pp. 188-196
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