- Currents in African Literature
April 7–9, 1994 saw the largest gathering an African writer has ever pulled in the United States, when more than 200 scholars from Africa, Asia, Europe, Canada and the United States came together to celebrate the work of the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The venue was the Berks campus of Penn State University in Reading, where over 150 papers were read in three days. The poems and essays collected in these two volumes represent a generous sampling from those readings. Studded with work by such outstanding writer-critics as Amiri Baraka, Kamau Braithwaite, Lewis Nkosi, Odun Balogun, Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Frank Chipasula, Alamin Mazrui, Lupenga Mphande, Chimalum Nwankwo, Sonia Sanchez, Gitahi Gititi, and Tanure Ojaide, these volumes represent the most valuable pool of creative and critical material that has ever been assembled on Ngugi. Among the volume’s other prominent contributors are: Henry Chakava, Wole Ogundele, Simon Gikandi, Neil Lazarus, and Carol Sicherman, Kenneth Grundy, Sam Mbure Dennis Hickey, Jeannine DeLombard, Martin Japtok, and Kimani Njogu.
As is to be expected, the contributors do not present a uniform view of Ngugi’s writing; however, in the course of the reading, one discovers central ideas which give the materials a sense of cohesion. One of these is that many believe Ngugi was way ahead of his time when he began his writing career in the 1960s. Ngugi’s radicalism, these writers point out, lies in the stress he placed on the primacy of economic liberation at a time when the other writers of his generation were hooked onto the clash-of-cultures themes. By emphasizing the human degradation and oppression wrought by economic exploitation and disempowerment, Ngugi quite early saw the problems of Africa more clearly and more fully than any of those who used romanticized [End Page 243] views of precolonial Africa as a means of avoiding confrontation with the real problems of class in society. They assert that the current economic collapse of Africa and the waves of political repression that have followed are a vindication of the soundness of Ngugi’s perception of reality. For these critics, the hostility which the Kenyan authorities have relentlessly shown toward Ngugi is a manifestation of the level of the fear, panic and violence with which the corrupt authorities in Africa react to revolutionary ideas.
Related to this is the issue of Ngugi’s exile. The editor writes in his introduction to one of the volumes that exile does not merely mean Ngugi’s physical separation from his homeland, but represents a lack of connection with his locality. That Ngugi is read far more by outsiders than by the Kenyans at whom he primarily targets his work, he adds, is a clear indication of this lack of connection. Ngugi writes to change the bad situation in his country, but it is doubtful that he is read at all by many of his country’s intellectuals, to say nothing of the leadership. A disappointment expressed in “letter after letter from the Kenyan scholars and echoing from the podiums and conversations at the conference,” editor Cantalupo reveals, “was that this historic event was not being held in Kenya, where it should be” (Texts and Contexts x). That, of the more than 200 Kenya-based scholars who wanted to attend the conference, only 15 actually made it, Cantalupo believes, shows how bad the current situation in Kenya is. Other discussions focus on the fact that Ngugi is physically separated from his Kenyan homeland but never spiritually distanced from it. Kenya continues to remain the subject of Ngugi’s writing even in exile, and the continuing reading of Ngugi’s writing by the international community is evidence that he can never be silenced. This is the sense in which the concept of celebration perfectly fits the theme of the conference: the gathering was much more interested in cheering the surviving power of Ngugi’s writings than...