Muchiri on Ngugi, 'The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership'

Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Nganga Muchiri

Mukoma Wa Ngugi. The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. 240 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-472-05368-1.

Reviewed by Nganga Muchiri (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) Published on H-Africa (March, 2019) Commissioned by Dawne Y. Curry (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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In The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership (2018), Mukoma wa Ngugi uncovers why a majority of Africanist literary critics have not followed the example set by the few who have included early African writing in their versions of the African literary tradition. Mukoma names Ntongela Masilela, Daniel Kunene, and Tim Couzens as among some critics who have extensively explored early South African writing. This, Mukoma notes, is the exception and not the norm. That early African writing has remained on the margins of African literary criticism has a lot to do with, as Mukoma cogently argues, the material conditions of publishing literary texts on the African continent. In many ways, the publishing superstructure has propagated the false narrative that African literature begins with the 1960s Makerere writers. On the flip side, this truncated historiography of African writing posits that before Makerere there only existed orature.

Mukoma invites us to imagine an expansive, borderless African literature that begins with texts published in late nineteenth-century southern Africa. How to best define African literature has taken the better part of the twentieth century, ensnaring such public intellectuals as Chinua Achebe, Exekiel Mphalele, Taiye Selasi, Kwame Dawes, Aminatta Forna, and Helon Habila. Mukoma convincingly adds his contribution to this list of cultural critics. His gospel advocates for a “borderless” African literature (p. 14). To better examine the inherent hierarchy of global languages, Mukoma discusses the “English metaphysical empire.” This is a global superstructure that not only helped disinvite African writers who had published in African languages pre-1962, but whose reach also incudes Mukoma’s own upbringing in Limuru, Kenya. Mukoma describes learning English in an environment that was, and still is, extremely hostile to multilingualism and fluency in African languages. I found this piece of biography enlightening; while not universal, Mukoma’s history is quite similar to that of other African artists who are of his generation. The personal and the political are wholly intertwined.

Chapter 1 explores the “various ways Makerere and post-Makerere African writers have responded to the language question in African writing” (p. 26). Given the centrality of English, evidenced by anticolonial resistance that advocated for greater access to colonial infrastructure (linguistic and otherwise), one key question since the African independence era has been: for whom is the African writer writing (p. 40)? Rise of the African Novel correctly notes that “decolonization in the language of the colonizer would be a contradiction” (p. 43). However, I find Mukoma’s omission of the important work done by Gayatri Spivak in this realm glaring. By connecting to Spivak’s analysis of how the master’s language may be used to bring down the master’s house, Mukoma would successfully extend his current discussion to other spaces in the global South. Indeed, as Mukoma states, the languages question “cannot simply be ignored” (p. 70). One easy fix is to establish extensive support for writing in African languages; this could include literary prizes, publishing houses, student literary journals, and so on. A second alternative is to ensure that African languages become vehicles of political and economic growth. What is most pertinent to the language question is Mukoma’s suggestion that Africa’s “languages and writers be in conversation through translation” (p. 68). By invoking Edouard Glissant’s concept of the “right to opacity,” Mukoma acknowledges that translation is never one-to-one. This part of Mukoma’s argument recalls public readings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s writing to state that such performances offer “a ready road map outside of the English-only consensus, out of the English metaphysical empire” (p. 57). I found this statement lacking; it is a hypothetical assertion that is not fully backed up by practical experience.

In chapter 2, Mukoma demonstrates the “aesthetic costs and opportunities of noninterventionist editing” (p. 26). His analysis centers on Amos Tutuola’s writing, especially The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). Mukoma offers his own rendition of Tutuola’s work in standardized English to showcase the fact that editors did the author an injustice by leaving grammatical errors in the text. Mukoma not only occupies the heady heights of cultural theory but wades into the weeds of translation. The nonstandard rendering of Tutuola’s work left him twice misinterpreted—first by Western critics who read his work anthropologically, and secondly by African elites who sought to distance themselves from his work for its perceived illiteracy. That Tutuola’s work is still relevant today is confirmed by Mukoma’s conclusion that not only are authors “always part of a tradition” but also that the “present reveals more of the past” (p. 100). In contrast to Tutuola’s marginalized work, Mukoma posits Achebe’s oeuvre in which the author’s use of English is in a “creative tension” with Ibo language and culture (p. 101).

It is in chapter 3 that Mukoma manifests what a critique of a borderless African literature looks like. His main argument is that “it’s possible to read early South African literature within the African literary tradition and that contemporary African literary criticism cannot be complete without it” (p. 26). This part of Rise of the African Novel takes issue with the fact that critics chronicle African literature commencing from the “wrong literary epoch” (p. 105). This has much to do with the fact that both early South African texts as well as previous work in African languages are both wholly discounted from the Africa’s literary exploits. Mukoma reads three novels, A. C. Jordan’s The Wrath of the Ancestors (published in 1940 as Ingqumbo yeminyanya), Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease (1960), and Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013). Mukoma’s intervention confirms that it’s possible to trace several “aesthetic and political shifts” within Africa’s literary oeuvre (p. 106). Indeed, he convincingly shows that Africa’s body of fictional texts is enriched by reaching “back in time … and across space” (p. 107). I am convinced by Mukoma’s innovative analysis of African writing before and after the Makerere conference. He views the pre-Makerere writer as being in the process of loss, the Makerere writer to be in mourning, and the post-Makerere writer to be melancholic. There is, however, a sense of Afropessimism attached to this kind of analytical approach. By approaching his classification through the lens of absence and negation, Mukoma does not account for the creativity and ingenuity with which Africans in pre- and post-independence eras navigated the sociopolitical sphere not only in the lead-up to European colonialism, but also after African self-rule. Given Mukoma’s interest in titles, he offers two promising alternatives, “African commonwealth literature or literatures of Africa,” to sidestep retrogressive identity politics centered on a text’s contents, its geographical reference, or even its author’s biography (p. 131).

Chapter 4 convincingly argues that the binary between what is literary and what is popular is “a false opposition” (p. 154). The result has been the canonization of the African political novel, at the expense of other forms and genres in African writing. Although Rise of the African Novel is largely a theoretical intervention, Mukoma’s personal biography adds depth to his close readings. For example, he recalls reading canonized literary texts alongside what was considered to be gutter press popular fiction. Indeed, as Mukoma argues, at a particular point in Africa’s literary history after public intellectuals had been cowed into unlawful detention or (self-imposed) exile, it was popular writers who kept relevant key political questions in neocolonial Africa. Hence, it is impossible to chronicle Africa’s literary production while leaving out its popular writers. Given Mukoma’s other work as a crime fiction writer, it is perhaps forgivable that he so strongly evangelizes for detective fiction to be included in Africa’s literary criticism. However, his assertion that “crime fiction is more of place than the realist novel” almost rings false (p. 159). At a minimum, it contradicts his otherwise very important plea for an expansive, borderless literature of Africa. Surely, there is space for both the realist novel and the crime novel without resorting to hierarchical demands? This chapter also clearly points out what future scholars could engage with as they build upon Mukoma’s foundation. There is a glaring gap in literary criticism of, say, pre-twentieth-century Arabic, Amharic, Kiswahili, and South African texts. Other important genres that should be brought back into the fold of Africa’s canon include crime fiction, Hausa women’s literature, sci-fi, and romance. Doing so will require literary critics to disregard conventions of low- versus highbrow literature; moreover, such a transparent approach to Africa’s literary history, languages, and genres will enrich the continent’s literary heritage.

In chapter 5, Mukoma lays out rooted transnationalism as a critical tool worth deploying when engaging with African literature. He decries the unspoken dichotomy whereby Africans produce literature, while Western critics value-add onto this raw material through literary criticism. Bulawayo’s We Need New Names serves as an apt starting point to test out Mukoma’s ideas on rooted transnationalism. We Need New Names is simultaneously an African, a diasporic, and an American novel. Mukoma reads the text’s protagonist as a child of multiple worlds, rooted in multiple places, and with the ability to navigate across these spaces. As a critical tool, rooted transnationalism enables critics to read novels that are simultaneously local in several places, while also engaged in conversations “across these localities” (p. 180). Indeed, using Aminatta Forna’s biography and her oeuvre, Mukoma argues that African authors are already “living out the simultaneity” embedded in the experiences of localness across “multiple transnational realities” (p. 181).

Rooted transnationalism also expounds upon two very significant forms of human migration on the African continent. In the first instance, rural dwellers moved to urban areas in search of employment or educational opportunities, or away from the strictures of customary law. Having established their footholds in mid-twentieth-century towns and colonial cities, these nomads were stuck between two homes—one in the city, and the other in the countryside. Buses, railways, and post offices served to link these two centers of African population growth. The inhabitants were always in conversations across these localities. After the 1980s, another group of African migrants moved overseas for supposedly greener pastures in North America, western Europe, Japan, and Australia. Like previous nomads, they too set up settlements in Toronto, New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Tokyo, and Sydney. Twenty-four-hour transcontinental flights helped to keep alive connections between these new and old homes. With the birth of their children, the first wave of migrants became increasingly torn between versions of home. Mukoma’s rooted transnationalism helps explain the emotional, psychological, and professional push and pull that African migrants experience. Like earlier generations, they too rely on modern forms of communication—WhatsApp, Facetime, and mobile money transfers—to help keep those tenuous connections thriving. Such residents would wholly identify with Mukoma’s assertion that “our work is transnational in that it is rooted and actively aware of the contradictions of each location” (p. 182). But such transnational networks are not universally directed toward the West; exciting forms of community are being presently created by South Sudanese citizens in Uganda and Kenya, Somalis in Kenya, Kenyans in Tanzania, Nigerians in Accra, and Zimbabweans in South Africa. Indeed, as Mukoma correctly notes, we should not forget these “other horizontal and often subversive relationships” (p. 183). Using rooted transnationalism, we can reexamine such migratory patterns and better appreciate their potential as “global cultures sitting right at home,” or indeed, as the kinds of relations that drive history and literature (p. 183). Like Forna, these migrant communities defy easy binary identities that “depend on the assumed stableness of identity, race, nation, and culture” (p. 184). Mukoma’s parting shot is to call for an African literature with roots “everywhere, and the center nowhere” (p. 186). There is much room for growth for a new crop of African writers and the literary critics who will read this work. As these intellectuals focus on a specific period, author, or movement, they could either “deepen the African literary tradition by reading early African writing within it [or] broaden it by reading literatures from the diaspora, and other forms—science, crime, and romance” (p. 187). In the end, Mukoma does not so much resolve the inevitable question “What is African literature?” as much as he constructively rephrases it to state, “African literature is a question to itself” (p. 188).

The “politics of language (and) identity,” as Mukoma cogently argues, were significantly influenced by the minimal benefits arising from mastery of African languages. At present, however, the Marxian superstructure that inhibited growth in African-language publications has shifted. Exemplary follow-ups to Mukoma’s work should investigate the plethora of media houses that broadcast in Gikuyu, Kamba, Luhya, Dholuo, Maa, and so on in Kenya. This phenomenon is replicated in other spaces; for instance, use of West African Pidgin in news announcements. Moreover, use of Swahili, Somaaliya, Afan Oromo, Yoruba, Zulu, et cetera by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America suggest newfound material benefits encouraging high-level language competence. This is especially true in places like Kenya where several TV stations—Inooro, Coro, and Kameme—provide viewers with 24/7 cultural offerings in Gikuyu. This recent experience of having national and international news coverage projected into living rooms in Gikuyu accompanies a steady rise in feature films and TV series made for TV. To keep up with this plethora of cultural production, African literary criticism must expand the current definition of texts to include TV dramas, pop music, comedy, and daily talk shows. In other words, critics must appreciate the multitude of artifacts that African-language speakers ingest and produce on a daily basis.

Citation: Nganga Muchiri. Review of Ngugi, Mukoma Wa, The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. March, 2019. URL:

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