- Ngugi wa Thiong'o in/and 2006
Exile is exit in excess; exit is also homecoming's traumatic co-traveler. Movement within the geography and the psyche postulates exclusionary positioning of place and identity. What does the place of arrival contain, asks the migrant? What does it expect from me? How do I handle my past, my memory? Is there room for negotiations? Experiencing exile and living it distract and refract the subject. The pressure from the outside is internalized. How many times has not a migrant or exilic person or (as here) writer been asked the question: "When do you plan to go home?" or "Who are you, really?"—meaning, do you subscribe to domesticity or alterity? Are you one of us or do you persist in being an alien? Most writers in intellectual exile, voluntary or not, realize with sadness that questions such as these are part of the adopted territory's conservative nurturing of the One and Only, whether we define it as Nation, Language, Literature, Religion, or Family-all written large. Isolation or alienation has a price. Confronting such questions, the writer often fumbles with the words, not knowing what to say or how to legitimate his/her role playing; as a writer in disguise speaking/writing (also literally) in many tongues. For many émigrés exile becomes a performance that hosts a whole spectrum of hybrid identity markers: nostalgia for home, anger, duplicity, self-reproach, mourning, but also an incisive sense and recognition of what it is to be a global citizen.
These are some general meditations that foreground this essay about Ngugi wa Thiong'o in what I call sustained performative exile in the US, as it materialized during the single year of 2006. Who is he then? A Kenyan writer in voluntary or nonvoluntary exile in the West; the writer of Murogi wa Kagogo or The Wizard of the Crow, his latest novel that appeared in Gikuyu in May (in parts; three out of six) and in English in August; a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine; Director of UC Irvine's International Center for Writing and Translation; an émigré writer, one of the many postcolonial nomads [End Page 124] with a globalizing agenda; an iconic pan-Africanist; an ex-Marxist; a pseudo-revolutionary; a 2004 Nairobi "home comer," both celebrated and disgraced; a plump short man in his late sixties with bad teeth and a warm giggle? He is all this, and more. The answer to the question "who is Ngugi," I assume, depends on what answer you want. So the real question is: can somebody or anybody, and a writer in particular, be many-body? And what happens when all these functions or shapes or identities mingle and interact with the imaginary or symbolic worlds of fiction, his fiction?
In a recent article in The Guardian, called "The Blitcon Supremacists," Ziauddin Sardar accuses Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan ("Blitcon" stands for "British Literary Conservatives") of using their "celebrity status to advance a clear global political agenda." "Novelists are no longer just novelists," he cries, "they are also global pundits shaping our opinions on everything from art, life and politics to civilization as we know it" (Sardar). But this is what writers always have been doing, from Donne to Dickens to Rushdie, directly on public platforms, in seminar rooms, in interviews, letters, or implicitly and less implicitly, in their, what we strangely call, creative writing. How do we separate these roles and utterances and, and even better, why should we (as long as they do not talk about their favourite tequilas)? These months in 2006, I felt concerned for Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk's desperate attempts at dodging questions that he defines as "political.""No questions about politics," he has appealed in a gentlemanly way at almost all the interviews I saw on TV, and the reporters, hushed, have responded by sinking deeper into their chairs to reformulate their questions. His delusive or idealistic quandary is the same as that of the London-based critic Sardar (the writer of the Granta Books' Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical...