Capturing rhythm, meaning and narrativity

Wizard of the Crow is organised around the aesthetic of resistance, which is very important,” says Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o of his most recent novel.

“The aesthetic of resistance arises when a person, felled to the ground by an enemy, refuses to stay on the ground — he rises again. That moment of rising again, in that moment … resides the aesthetic of resistance, because there is a beauty in someone who is down, but refuses to stay down.

“So for us [Africans], we have to keep on rising again so that we can help in creating a new global dispensation.”

Wizard examines African dictatorship, kleptocracy and global institutions, and rules of engagement affecting them.

The 69-year-old Ngugi considers it a “global epic from Africa” which attempts to examine “global forces in human terms”; how international capital, structural adjustment programmes and “democracy’s guardians” turn blind eyes to the fetid humanitarian nightmares masquerading as governments.

The socialist vision evident in Ngugi’s work peppers our conversation.

Throughout, I also find my Hobbes-ian pessimism continuously shattered on the rock of his optimism.

He believes Africa can, and will, heal itself despite myriad internal problems and “global forces”. He says that “the real threat to democracy in Africa is the lack of empowerment of ordinary people” and that the “alliance between the state and the poor must be strengthened … If a government begins to distance itself from the people, then there is a problem.”

Ngugi was jailed in the Seventies in Kenya for writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu. In jail, he took to writing what became Devil on the Cross on prison-issue toilet paper.

Since that conscious political decision to write in Gikuyu, and the publishing of Decolonising the Mind in 1986, Ngugi has been deemed a linguistic purist in some quarters.

He clarifies his position that writers have a moral obligation to their mother tongue and their sociopolitical milieu: “It’s not that it is easier to write in Gikuyu, but rather it is a position which I have taken as an African writer, as an African intellectual — how to develop a certain relationship with my language, to work in my language, because I believe I have a certain responsibility to my language.”

But is it not a little outdated? No, it is “absolutely relevant,” says Ngugi. “In fact, I have come to believe in it more. By working in Gikuyu, I have come to see the consequences of what I do in Gikuyu and the consequences of what I did earlier in writing in the English language. With translations, it really means that African writing in African languages, through translations, can potentially be available in all other languages, just like other literature we know.

“We probably know works in Greek, Latin and Russian, for example, through translations, but they also exist in the original, so there is no reason why African literature or politics or philosophy cannot exist in their original languages and in translations.”

Ngugi knows all about the theory and praxis of what he is preaching: he is head of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California, at Irvine, as well as being professor of English and comparative literature.

Ngugi translates his work from Gikuyu to English and feels the hardest part is “rendering the musicality of one language in terms of the other”. He believes the key is not replication, but “to capture the spirit of the original in terms of rhythm, meaning and narrativity”.

His stance on writing in African languages has, in recent years, been reinforced by what he feels is the most urgent task for African literature today: “To not only produce in African languages, but to make African languages talk to each other through translations. Because now there is so little translation between and among African languages.

“That is a very pathetic situation. I think that needs to be rectified.”

Ngugi feels that English may have an enabling role to play, for example, by being the middle language when one is translating an isiZulu text into Gikuyu.

“The other thing that needs to be rectified is that governments need to be more supportive of African languages, not only in terms of clear policies in terms of the language situation, but also providing what I call an enabling environment: make sure there are libraries, make sure that, in every learning centre, there are books,” he says.

Integral to this environment is “an alliance of positive government policy, positive practices by publishers and, of course, writers willing to write in African languages.

“That alliance we need. Of course we need the fourth person, who is very, very, very important in all of this — the reader.”

Ngugi says, given the status quo, writing in an African language is “like running a race where your hand and one leg are tied behind you and you are hopping on one leg and you are supposed to compete with people with both feet and hands free. And you wonder why you are not succeeding.”

He laughs, generous to the end.

The politics of literacy

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the 10th Time of the Writer Festival was the sometimes uneasy relationship literature has with, and within, society — and the paradoxes inherent in that relationship.

Laugh it Off’s Justin Nurse and Ntone Edjabe, editor of the Pan-African socio-political literary journal Chimurenga, discussing alternatives to traditional media on the basis that they are independent cultural producers of literature (materialised in a classic form), may seem a little outdated in an electronic age of blogging and independent alternative media sources proliferating on the internet. Granted, Iraqi blogger Mohammed Ali would have added a more cutting edge to discussions had visa difficulties not prevented him from attending, but Nurse did raise a salient point when wondering about the relevance of his presence at a primary school workshop where the learners had no library and Mix-it messages represented a large part of their reading experience. A case of buying into the T-shirt rather than the experience of reading?

The politics of literacy and writing ran through many of the discussions. While Ngugi wa Thiong’o expounded on the idea that the writer has an obligation to his or her art, accentuated by an obligation to his or her socio-political context, the dichotomy between the “artist as a voice for the voiceless” and the artist as an elitist producer remained unresolved. (See Ngugi wa Thiong’o interview above.)

Especially when considering a writers’ festival on a continent which doesn’t read — according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the average literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa in 2000 was 52% for women and 68,9% for men.

Perhaps because of our past, South African readers in the audience seemed intent on the political, in its narrowest sense, being integral to art, during the discussion on The Personal and Political in Contemporary Short Story.

That view was not shared by South Africa’s Mary Watson and Uganda’s sublime Doreen Baingana, author of the collection, Tropical Fish.

“To create a work of art, I like to create a beautiful thing … how political a story is, is up to the reader and the reader’s interpretation,” said Baingana. She added that her role is to “tell stories, to provide my take on the challenges that people face. Through the act of writing fiction, I can hopefully expose the African experience and individual experience”.

Watson felt that socio-spatial-political concerns that underwent a subtle, sophisticated level of filtering were integral to the resonance of her work.

Swedish journalist and author Oscar Hemer postulated the engaging idea that the transgression of the genre boundaries between journalism, academic writing and fiction would “achieve and communicate a deeper understanding of reality”.

Hemer went further, to dispute the “exaggerated claims” that globalisation is a solely destructive force. He argued that the Eurocentric monopoly on the concept of modernity is finally undergoing a pluralisation and being “de-Westernised” by globalisation, citing the modern projects of China and India as examples and South Africa as “an exemplary illustration, not only of the duality of globalisation, but also of the contradictions of modernity — of its very ambivalence”. — Niren Tolsi

Time of the Writer was hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban

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