African writing in our time
Mukoma Wa Ngugi
2008-07-09, Issue 386
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Each generation of writers is confounded by the simple and clichéd paradox – the more the world changes the more it remains the same. The imagination wants to be freed from the hold of the past, and yet it finds that the present and the material worlds are indelibly tied to that past. I believe it is to this tension that James Baldwin was speaking when he wrote that a writer cannot write outside his or her times.
Each generation of writers wants to acknowledge the previous generation, but at the same time it begrudges them an unchanged world while claiming the new for itself. It is these tensions that in the end produce literature, and help draw a blurred line between one generation of writers and the next.
I remember a great moment around 2002 when South African poet and anti-apartheid activist Daniel Kunene read a poem he wrote soon after apartheid fell in 1994. The poem was about taking out the trash from the kitchen. By way of introducing the poem, he narrated how he had felt, after having spent all his life fighting this beast called apartheid, now that it was dead, that he could allow his imagination to work out other concerns - the mundane, the minutiae of day to day existence.
But that was 1994 when all seemed possible in South Africa. In 2002, Kunene was reading the poem as something written in a moment in time, before it was overtaken by change that remained the same. Today thinking about the xenophobic attacks, his poem about taking out the trash has deep metaphorical undertones. It could very well be about cleaning out the trash that the ANC has become.
Let me not put words in his mouth and say this: that in the xenophobic killings we find the paradox that allows the new generation of South African writers and Kunene’s generation to have a dialogue. In the same way that Mugabe’s one-man show and the recent Kenya crisis allows the older and younger generation of writers to have a conversation. If such a national crisis is seen as an occasion to blame, then an opportunity to move history and literature forward is lost. If it is used to build on the past and if we understand history as a process then the stage for the next generation of writers is set.
But let me also say this – that I do not know what it means to be a political writer. Perrhaps more than anything this designation has been used to take the African artist and the writer out of what he or she produces. The friendly critic thus says - the African artist is functional; the African writer is political. Yet, the imagination cannot be moved by ideology otherwise it simply gives the ideology a different form.
Imagination is moved by a profound desire to render tangible that which is around it. The artist is moved by beauty and ugliness, by the senseless and chaotic because deep down the imagination is haughty enough to believe that there is nothing it cannot grasp and make visible. The artist has to make music out of two, three or more dead and dying beats. A novel with ten characters means that the writer had to bring a Lazarus back from the dead ten times.
So the African writer lives somewhere between “making the ordinary extra-ordinary”, making the invisible visible and finding a “voice for the voiceless.”
And I think my generation of writers understands this very well. Look, during the post-electoral violence in Kenya, the Concerned Kenyan Writers did not put their pens down in order to be concerned citizens. They spoke as writers to a political situation without as much as giving a nod to those who see Africans as producing only functional art, or want the African writer to write about the snow caps of Mt. Kilimanjaro while ignoring the politics of global warming. So, yes African writers can be unapologetically political but as artists.
It is precisely for these reasons that I remain very partial, even protective of the work that Kwani? Magazine has been doing for the last 6 or so years. I do not think Kwani? blames; I think it just does. And when it comes to African literature, there is a lot of work to be done.
Consider this, in the United States there are thousands of literary journals, some national, and some local, some in universities and some in high-schools. In Britain, you find the same thing. Yet in a country like Kenya, you have only one literary journal that can be considered national and in Nigeria half a dozen or so. One cannot even think of regional or provincial journals let alone high school journals in Africa. In the whole continent, with an exception of African Writing, there is hardly a literary journal that can considered Pan-African in that it serves the concerns of the whole continent. Considering Africa has a population that is close to 700 million, we are in terrible shape.
Or take the question of literary prizes. Again in the West, there are literary prizes for all ages and regions in addition to national ones. In Africa there are only a handful with the most prestigious being Western. In the US there are state and national art councils with their own budgets: African governments see writing as an act of spontaneous combustion by a few ingrates who should in fact be jailed. This is not to say that we need to emulate the literary traditions of the West, but surely we should be able to use them to challenge our own.
What does this mean? Quite simply that the African child sees writing a book as something he or she can never achieve. To chase after a dream, there has to be a belief that it can be achieved. The African student reads a novel by Achebe or Ngugi as a finished product; there is no process, books just happen to be born.
So the work being done by Kwani?, and other magazines such as Chimurenga and Farafina, is very central to the future of African literature. It is these magazines that demystify the writing process for aspiring writers. They become a magnet and home for national and continental talent. It is around these magazines that Literary Festivals are being held and it is around them that we should build African literary prizes. We need to invest in the creation of more journals till Kwani and Chimurenga become one amongst many.
This is not say that we do not have a few failings some of them bordering on the tragic. T.S. Elliot once remarked that a poet’s responsibility is first and foremost to his or her language. It is only fair to say that on this count we are failing - happily. But if we do not pick up the responsibility for our languages, who will?
*Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (poems, 2006), Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change and is co-editor of Pambazuka News (www.pambazuka.org).
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