Ngugi wa Thiong'o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. He was educated at Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools; Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain. He is recipient of seven Honorary Doctorates viz D Litt (Albright); PhD (Roskilde); D Litt (Leeds); D Litt &Ph D (Walter Sisulu University); PhD (Carlstate); D Litt (Dillard) and D Litt (Auckland University). He is also Honorary Member of American Academy of Letters. A many-sided intellectual, he is novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic and social activist.
In our globalized world, writers and scholars from the South increasingly
engage with each other through their mutual relationship to the West,
which masks historical South-South relationships. But cultures of the
global south have a great deal to learn from one another by engaging in
direct relationships and establishing direct lines of cultural and
The goal of the "Global South Cultural
Dialogue Project," initiated by scholars at Cornell University together
with writers and scholars based in the Third World, is to facilitate
conversation among writers and scholars from Africa, Latin America, and
Asia as well as minority groups in the West. Through such a dialogue, we
can learn how our different societies have responded to questions of
language, identity, and the role of culture in the work of decolonization.
This project seeks to encourage an honest discussion about the ties that
bind the South to the South and to help imagine and create a more
democratic and egalitarian global culture.
Mukoma wa Ngugi (globalsouthproject.cornell.edu)
editor's note: The following articles look at the issues of language, identity, equality, and collaboration in the literary diaspora.
Break out of the Prison House of Hierarchy
by Mukoma wa Ngugi
A Globalectic Imagination
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Break out of the Prison House of Hierarchy
To read a text with the eyes of the world; to see the world with the eyes of the text
—Ngugi Wa Thiong'o on Globalectics
The call for public work by literary scholars is not predicated on a vague notion of doing a public good - the very survival of our profession depends on it. Undergraduate students are abandoning our literary world for the degrees that will eventually translate into dollars. At the tail end of the pipeline our graduate students cannot find employment. We need the support of the public if we are to stop the barbarians at the gates of our ivory towers - the politicians and university administrators who find us dispensable, and the conservatives who want a return to trade and commodity-centered education. Our last line of defense is the public, the taxpayers.
I commute tens hours a week from Norwalk, CT to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY where I teach. To keep myself busy, I listen to physics podcasts produced by physicists struggling to explain to people outside their field and academia altogether, what is it they do, why they do it and why it matters. It is a difficult thing to take specialized knowledge that comes with theories embedded in theories, with formulas and vocabulary designed to ensure that each conversation does not begin with what Newton or Einstein discovered. But their efforts are rewarding, because I feel I have a very rudimentary understanding of physics as a history of ideas.
True, knowing something about the Large Hadron Collider and its discovery of the Higgs Boson particle will not put food on my table tomorrow, but I also know that understanding how the world works ensures that perhaps our species will be around a little longer. But the more immediate lesson for us in the humanities is this: when the Collider caused fear in the public that the search for the "god particle" (a term I now know physicists dislike) would lead to a second big bang thus destroying us all, physicists did not get defensive, instead they sought to patiently explain why that work was important, and how we would be safe, in a language the rest of us could understand.
Because the physicists are trying to communicate with me, I care. I care enough to worry about their programs getting defunded. I care enough to defend, when called upon, the work of physicists to whoever will listen. Physicists know that being understood by the society at large is not only a good in itself, but that the growth of the field depends on we the tax payers having a rudimentary understanding of what they do, and why it matters to them and to us.
I have my PhD in literary theory, more specifically post-colonial studies. Yet, I cannot say with confidence that I fundamentally know what Derrida's On Grammatology is about. To me, Judith Butler's abjection remains as amorphous as it was six year ago when I first encountered her concept. And quite frankly, I doubt that three or four scholars can agree on the essentials of Spivak's seminal essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" If my fellow travelers and I cannot say even within the uncertainty principle what the main thinkers in our field are talking about; if their specialized language is too specialized for scholars in their field, there is something very wrong. Imagine physicians in the operating room whose language is so densely individualistic that they cannot understand each other – the result is a comedy of deadly errors!
Even though we often teach writers who by definition are engaged with the world, we not only hide their works in impenetrable theories but also disengage their aesthetics from the material world from which they produced their contribution to culture. For example, William Wordsworth wrote the poem "To Touissant L'Overture" for the Haitian revolutionary; addressed the French revolution in the Prelude; and called for the "language of men" as an alternative to the straight jacketed standardized English encoded in Samuel Johnson's English dictionary. But in our classrooms, he is a poet who eschewed the hyper-rationalism of the enlightenment for the more emotive world of aesthetics and noble peasants. I would think that the historical Wordsworth concerned with the fate of the Haitian leader, the fate of language and the excesses of the French revolution is more universal, and speaks more to the student today than the Wordsworth who only writes poems recollected in "emotion in tranquility." And in the hands of postcolonial scholars Wordsworth is altogether unintelligible.
There are two issues here – one is how we teach writers who are engaged with world - and the other one is how to make literary theory engage with the world in which we lived. In a way I am fortunate to inhabit the world of both the writer and the literary scholar. I certainly would not like to see my poetry or fiction hidden in obscure theory when my whole struggle as a writer is to reach as many people as possible. At the same time I understand the tremendous importance of literary theory and criticism. Literary traditions grow from the laboring and sometimes bickering writers and critics. And literary theory and criticism do have fundamentally important things to say about our world and how we live in it.
I do not know if anyone outside of academia cares to know what Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" is all about, or what Derrida meant by hospitality. But assuming three or four of us can agree that Spivak's essay is about who speaks for whom, that in fact she is taking a swipe at the deconstructionists who in their eagerness to understand the world claimed agency for the oppressed where there was none, then she is raising an important question – who speaks for whom? The same goes for Derrida's questions around Hospitality, especially in an age when the United States' debate surrounding immigration rages on, and countries like Kenya boast internally displaced refugees and refugees proper. Is a hospitality that does not differentiate in terms of nationality, ethnicity or race, or indeed along familial lines, possible?
These are important questions – as important as those raised by Stephen Hawking about the nature of our universe in the A Brief History of Time – written for people like me, people outside his field. We do have important and useful things to say about the world. But we need to find two languages: 'specialist speak' to use in the privacy of our conferences and the other, 'worldspeak,' when we are out in the world. Having demolished the bridges between the ivory tower and those outside the fort, we must rebuild them.
Take the divide between the campus and the town it inhabits; think about the tension and the amount of energy and money it takes to keep the 'philistine townies' out. Think of what it means when we teach our students about service in the community and in the same breath remind them to close the gates behind them. It is not just a question of "trickle-out-and-in" economics of knowledge; we need engagement that sees the community as one of the many but equal partners in the production of knowledge. It is not enough to reserve a few seats for the community when we invite Angela Davis, Toni Morrison or Sonia Sanchez to campus. The reason we keep inviting them to our campuses in the first place is because of their service to the community – to ask them what it is they have learned from that interaction. The events and conferences that bring together today's great living thinkers and writers should be held, at least in part, out in the community centers. Why not?
If we do that, the next time the state thinks about gutting area studies for political capital, those same members of the community can say, we know the work of these literary scholars, even though it does not put food on my table last night. Now I do feel that I can go out into the world and be in the words of Firdaus in Woman Below Point Zero, "be harder than life."
This past December, at the invitation of Joseph Ngunjiri and Mwenda Micheni of the Nation Media group, I conducted a workshop in Nairobi with journalists who cover arts and culture. The goal was simple enough; to see how journalists can apply literary theory to the coverage and criticism of culture and the arts. The workshop had around 15 participants, including bloggers, cartoonists, youth page writers and feature writers. Under the concept of "contradiction," we used the short story by Chimamanda Adichie, "You in America," to explore feminism, classism, globalization, transnationalism and world citizenry. I do not expect to see direct application of the Marxian dialectic, but if contradiction will translate into finding the limitations and usefulness of a novel or film and its relationship to the material society, then that should be good enough. My real hope, though, is that the next time a Kenyan politician takes a swipe at the humanities, there will be one or two journalists who will argue against him or her.
But we can also get these ideas out there in the form of debate instead of already closed theories. At Cornell University, with Prof. Satya Mohanty and other scholars, we have initiated the Global South Project (www.globalsouthproject.cornell.edu) with the understanding that there is no single center, or that the center is everywhere. Often scholars from the Global South relate to each other through ideological constructs from the West. Thus we triangulate theory, whether political or literary, through the West. Even liberationist concepts and theories such as deconstruction or hybridity end up trapped in the same dialectic from which they are trying to break free. In both, the primary relationships are between the colonized/colonized, the Southern subaltern and the West. Our project has the immediate goal of breaking this linkage in order to generate debates that have no inbuilt hierarchies.
We want these discussions to take place as publicly and widely as possible and in as many different centers as possible. Thus variations of this forum on Ngugi Wa Thiong'os Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, will be appearing in World Literature Today, the Journal of Contemporary Thought (India), Wasafiri Journal (London), South Paw Journal (Australia), Chimurenga (South Africa), Africa Review (Kenya), and political websites such as Pambazuka. Our last forum on national chauvinism in literature had essays in WLT, Pambazuka, Daily Nation (Kenya), Frontline (India) and various blogs and Internet based journals.
Through astrophysics, I can see that as far as the universe goes there is no single center or rather the center is everywhere. I can grasp the uncertainty principle where measurements for things that are both waves and particles can never be exact. It should not be easier for me to extract knowledge from physics than in my own field. These two principles are at the heart of Ngugi's Globalectics, where the challenge is for us to break out of the "prison houses" of language, the ivory tower, and imaginary centers. In this way, globalectics offers us one way to organize 'knowledges' coming from the global South.
For Ngugi, "poor theory and its practice imply maximizing the possibilities inherent in the minimum." If we are going to be seen as legitimate producers of knowledge worthy of public respect, debate and ultimately defense, we need not only poor theory, but also humble theorists who are willing to break in and out of the ivory tower and into the world.
Ngũgĩ, Wa Thiongʼo. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.
Sadāwī, Nawāl, and Sharīf Ḥatātah. Woman at Point Zero. London: Zed, 1983. Print.
Originally published in World Literature Today
A Globalectic Imagination
I have often responded to the question of the role of a writer or artist in society by saying that I try to examine issues arising from the organization of wealth, power and values that impinge on the quality of human life. In the preface to his book The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling expressed not too dissimilar sentiments when he wrote that it was "no longer possible to think of politics except as the politics of culture, the organization of human life toward some end or other, toward the modification of sentiments, which to say the quality of human life."
I may have picked the phrase from him for I remember looking at his book way back in the early sixties when, as a student of English at Makerere University College, I was beginning to explore the connection between literature and society. Trilling wrote some of these essays against the background of the Cold War and according to Louis Menand, in the introduction to the 2008 reissue of the collection, he had intended it to be an attack on Stalinism. He was a member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom founded in 1951. Interestingly, I begun writing in the early sixties, when African countries were emerging from colonialism only to be caught up in the politics of the cold war. My writing was against the ism of colonialism but we were also caught up in the politics of culture of the cold war. In fact, the first major conference of African writers of English expression held in Kampala Uganda in 1962 organized by the Society for Cultural Freedom, was later found to have been funded by CIA.
I see some other links. Trilling was a scholar of Matthew Arnold. I too had had a good dose of Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. His articulation of the mission of culture as the pursuit of happiness by means of getting to know "the best which has been thought and said in the world," and that it [culture] sought do away with classes, to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere," stuck in my mind. Trilling's liberal imagination, or rather, the liberal part of it, is imbued with the spirit of Arnold's articulation of the mission of culture. But the word, imagination, is the more intriguing, under whatever political system, then or now.
Imagination is the most central formative agency in human society. An architect visualizes a building before he captures it on paper for the builder. Without imagination, we cannot visualize the past or the future. Religions would be impossible for how would one visualize deities except through imagination? It's because we can imagine different futures that we can struggle against the present state of things. The arts and the imagination are dialectically linked. Imagination makes possible the arts. The arts feed the imagination in the same way that food nourishes the body and ethics the soul. The writer, the singer, the sculptor, the artist in general, symbolizes and speaks to the power of imagination to intimate possibilities even within apparently impossible situations.
That is why, time and again, the state tries to imprison the artist symbolically and in reality limit the space of imagination of a society. Every imperial state has always wanted its citizenry to embrace the Leibnizian optimism: Why fret? We have the best of all possible worlds. Imagination is no respecter of boundaries of time and space. But the state can attempt to limit by killing, detaining, and exiling the artist, or by censorship.
But the State is not the only force that can restrict the operation of imagination and the healthy consumption of the products of imagination. There are other ways of arresting the imagination or rather the full impact of its products. These need not be obviously political or intentionally aimed at such restrictions. The most common of these ways, and of which we may all be guilty from time to time, is putting the products of imagination in the prison house of a narrow view of the world or rather in the prison house of reading. This can manifest itself in the reading of any text, but it is often seen in the organization and reading of literatures, in the imperial tradition of the colonizer and colonized.
Every imperial state has always put its own national literature at the center, conceived as the only center of the literary universe. In my most recent memoir In the House of the Interpreter, I have shown how Shakespeare occupied a central place in the colonial education, a writer most beloved by the colonial order. One could have been hanged for possessing Marx's communist Manifesto but embraced for possessing a copy of Shakespeare. Yet, class struggle and the notion that power came from and was maintained by the violence of the sword, in our world today tanks and drones, had been dramatized by Shakespeare long before Marx and Engels discussed it as theory. But the colonial state had faith that Shakespeare could be taught safely as a "mindless" genius. Thus they trusted the narrow view of interpreting text to do its work and mutilate Shakespeare. Macbeth's bloody dagger could be explained away as the result of blind ambition, a fatal flaw in the character. It was a power grab through assassination. A globalectical reading of Shakespeare would have freed him from colonial and imperial prisons. Imperial nations had taken power by the sword; maintained it by the sword and the colonized could only grab it back by the sword. Today a Fanonistic reading of Shakespeare would yield contemporary relevance even for students outside the imperial perimeters. It's not just Shakespeare, Goethe, or Balzac. A certain reading of postcolonial literatures can equally straight-jacket the ethical and aesthetic vision.
That's why in my book, Globaletics, I have argued for globalectical readings of texts and literatures. Globalectics assumes the interconnectedness of time and space in the area of human thought and action. It's best articulated in the words of my all time favorite, William Blake when he talked about seeing the world in grain of sand, eternity in an hour. Any text, even human encounters, can be read globalectically.
I have found the globalectical perspective useful in writing my memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War and In the House of the Interpreter. On looking back I can see that some events in our rural village were direct echoes of the world. I was born in 1938 and my early childhood was against the background of the Second World War: I was connected to the forests of Burma because my half brother fought there as a British soldier from colonial Kenya. I have cited an incident when he came home with a group of soldiers one rainy night and the army lorry got stuck in the mud. He and his fellow soldiers spent their entire homecoming trying to get it out of the mud but not before it had slid and hit my mother's hut, which for months later leaned on one side. My mud walled grass-thatched hut may not have had the same significance as the leaning tower of Pisa, but it was my castle, and the Second World War had intruded into it. The 19th century colonial railway lines opened the interior of the African continent in the same way it had done in America and Russia. A course organized on the basis of railroad and capitalist expansion can bring together Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, my own A Grain of Wheat, and the Western .
In writing my memoirs, I was surprised to find a connection between the Kenyan African independence school movement of which my primary school was part and the Garveyite politics in the streets of Harlem. The Booker T Washington idea of self reliance had migrated from his conservative conception of relations between whites and blacks in America to animate the idea of Africans and Caribbeans being able to manage their own affairs in politics, business and religion, and therefore doing away with the colonial state, school and church. My high school, around which In the House of the Interpreter is centered, was the most English and elitist of all African secondary schools in Colonial Kenya and founded on recommendations of the 1922 Phelps stoke Commission for Education in East Africa. The commission itself was molded on similar commissions for African American and Native American education. Many Kenyan readers of my memoir are surprised to find historical connections between the educational programs of the country and those of African-Americans and Native-Americans.
Globalectical reading is a matter of both quantity and quality. The quantity is in the spread of texts across cultures and histories. In this literature can learn from orature. The traveler of old, on foot, boat or horseback, was a carrier of tales from one location to another. The stories would of course be retold and acquire local color depending on the teller of tales. The tale was not confined to the national homeland or region. The translator is the modern traveler who brings in one language what he or she has gotten from another. The great tradition of literary intertexuality including recasting one story from one cultural context of one place and time into another place and time, the reinterpretation of Greek classics into modern non-European cultures for instance, is itself a form of translation.
A globalectical imagination also calls for changes in attitudes to languages: monolingualism suffocates, and it is often extended to mean mono-literature and mono-culturism. This also calls for a struggle against the view of literatures (languages and cultures) relating to each other in terms of a hierarchy of power. 'My literature is more aristocratic than yours' - that kind of approach should be replaced by the give and take inherent in the notion of network. I like Cesaire's phrase that culture contact and exchange were the oxygen of civilization. Cesaire's text, A Discourse on Colonialism, is actually very global in its references and even in its reading of history: it's a text that could be read for classes in European, Asian, and African studies, but it is often read as a tirade against old colonialism.
But the globalectical approach is still that of the method both in the organization and reading of literatures: any text can lead the reader from the "here" of one's existence to the "there" of other people's existence and back. In organizing the teaching of world literature one should start from wherever he or she is located. The Imperial approach wanted people no matter from whatever corner of the globe to start from the one imperial center, the metropolis of the empire, as the only center. A globalectical imagination assumes that any center is the center of the world. Each specific text can be read as a mirror of the world.
Globalectical imagination assumes the particularity of the Blakean grain of sand and the universality in the notion of the world. Or as Cesaire writes in his celebrated poem, Return to My Native Land -
"For it is not true that the work of man is finished,
That we have nothing more to do in the world,
That we are just parasites in this world,
That it is enough for us to walk in step with the world,
For the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all,
The violence entrenched in the recess of his passion,
And no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and,
There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory."
Originally published in World Literature Today