African Literature - a LuminaTO Reading & Discussion

African Literature
A reading & discussion
LuminaTO - June 12 - Toronto

With  2009 Booker Prize nominee Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Brian Chikwava, winner of the 2004 Caine Prize & writer/novelist Carole Enahoro

Three very different authors gave brief readings and talked about African literature at this very interesting LuminaTO event last Saturday. The moderator was Toronto Poet Laureate and novelist Dionne Brand.

Brian Chikwava read from the opening of his novel Harrare North - a nickname for London, where he now makes his home. The story is told in patois through an unnamed narrator - a Robert Mugabe supporter and former member of his  Green Bombers, (a kind of ultra nationalist youth paramilitary organization). He arrives at Gatwick claiming asylym, only to find his relatives "lapsed Africans", less than eager to welcome him and even expecting him to pay his own train fare. His voice is sharply and wryly observant in its view from the bottom, and funny even in the unpleasant situation.

Next Carole Enahoro, a Nigerian/Canadian who divides her time between those two countries and the UK, read from her satiric debut novel Doing Dangerously Well. She describes the theme of the story as being about water - is it a human right or commodity to buy and sell? (Pretty much exactly the same terms as water warrior Maude Barlow, interestingly enough!) The story takes place in Nigeria after a water disaster wipes out much of the population, and the excerpt dealt with the machinations of those trying to get into power. The work has a satirical, almost farcical edge to it, and the excerpts revolved around the use of language - by politicians for example - in various situations.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o read from Dreams in a Time of War, a memoir of his childhood up to about high school age in Kenya under colonial rule. He described a system where, in terms of education, there were terminal exams at the end of virtually every academic year, meaning that one's education could be cut short at any juncture, and continuing to the end was "a triumph of luck". He credits his mother - a woman who herself could not read or write - for being key in constantly pushing him to do his academic best. The excerpt he read had to do with his rare questioning of her decision to accept life as the third wife in a polygamist household, something he says his sisters vowed never to do. It shared the illuminating lesson learned, and it's clear that her persistence ignited a love of language that has fueled his life's work.

The discussion and Q&A had a loose kind of framework. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o praised the younger generation of writers as being able to move across cultures in ways that his can't, being of the last generation born under colonial rule.

Dionne Brand remarked on the thread of satire that ran through all of their works.  Ngũgĩ wa remembered the initial euphoria after colonial rule finally ended. Then... "Absurdities begin to emerge - the normalization and nationalization of the absurdities of the colonial world," he said.

"When you have an absurd society - which is how I look at Nigerian society now - it's just what happens everyday," Carol observed. She also noted that sardonic humour was a common element in much of Nigerian culture to begin with. In Brian's novel, the humour comes as more subtle, a way of illuminating the narrator's experience.

When it comes to the use of language, the three writers tended to have different approaches on what it took to tell their stories. Brian, (a native of Zimbabwe,) first wrote the draft of his novel in standard English, only to find he disliked the stilted effect. "I tried a lot of things," he says of the flow of words that truly sounds effortless in its finished form. He reports borrowing elements from various places in order to come up with a voice "to carry the weight of the narrator's experience".

In Carol Enahoro's work, the language, (as her reading illustrated,) becomes relevant to both place and function - using corporate speak when called for, and playing with the Nigerian bent for experimentation with the English language.

Ngũgĩ wa began his career writing in English, then switching to various African languages, including Gĩkũyũ and more recently Kiswahili. "My own English is the language of books and schools," he noted. He sees African languages as the kind of new frontier, an exciting and unexplored territory as opposed to what he called "a voice which speaks through another voice". His recent memoir was written first in English, however.

Brian pointed to music as being really the current, contemporary voice of rural and traditional African culture and language, modernizing those traditions in ways literature has yet to explore.

Questions from the audience included a young man who'd been to a conference where Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's work had been critiqued as once being Marxist in nature, but now softened by his decades of exile in the West. It was a notion that made him chuckle, noting that the same work, Wizard of the Crow, that was mentioned as being less strident had simultaneously been "accused" of being overtly Marxist in tone by others. "We shy from any disucssions of class," he remarked, also noting that the majority of Africans do live in rural areas. "Marx didn't invent the Zimbabwean peasant," he declared.

When asked by another about his seminal work Decolonizing the Mind, and where he thought that notion stood now, he said "We still have a few miles to go!"