Honia

Toward the end of Wizard of the Crow, the local resistance movement show Kamĩtĩ, the protagonist, the land. Through their eyes, he begins to see anew:

They took him to their farms where they grew foods, millet, sorghum, yams, and arrowroot, as well as varieties of Aburĩrian berries. Elsewhere, Aburĩrian soil was dying from being doused with pollutants, imported fertilizer. Here they were working with nature, not against it. The forest was a school to which they often came to hear what it had to tell them: You take, you give, for if you only take without giving back, you will leave the giver exhausted unto death. The gardens were nurseries for healing plants with seeds that could be planted on farms elsewhere; the healing of the land had to start somewhere. (758)

What follows might serve as a prelude to a longer, perhaps more academic project. For now, fragments.

It is no secret that critics located in the west constantly misread African authors, just as African critics constantly misread themselves. There is no position that guarantees reading. And long-established critical frameworks often fail to see consistent themes, longstanding concerns that animate a writer’s oeuvre.

Thiong’o, to my mind, is one of the most under-read authors. Not that critics are not familiar with his works. On the contrary, they are, perhaps, overly familiar: he is the romantic in the early works turned Marxist radical in his middle-to-later period, and now, in his late period, attempts to meld the concerns of a Marxist perspective with a growing critique of neo-colonialism, now known, perhaps, as the new imperialism or neoliberalism. Better minds than mine can parse the distinctions. Perhaps the tragedy that attends Thiong’o’s work is the fate of every over-studied author: a distinct lack of new readings, new possibilities. Admittedly, this might be my own bias.

Take, for example, John Updike’s condescending review of the novel. Unlike MMK, I would not describe Updike as tiptoeing at all:

English-language readers can now explore Ngugi’s imaginary Free Republic of Aburira in his own translation of his novel “Wizard of the Crow.” Readers would do well to remember that it is a translation from a language whose narrative traditions are mostly oral and heavy on performance; the tale is fantastic and didactic, told in broad strokes of caricature… The author of this bulky book offers more indignation than analysis in his portrait of postcolonial Africa. Where does all this-seven hundred and sixty-six pages of fiction too aggrieved to be called satire-leave Africa/Aburira? Though there are some changes at the top, “shit is still shit, even by another name,” a feisty character decrees. “The battle lines may be murky, but they have not changed.”… The novel’s frequent recourse to magic realism would seem appropriate to a culture susceptible to the claims of the supernatural. But somehow magic realism still works best in the supple hands of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago. This ambitious, long-mulled attempt to sustain the spell of oral narrative in an era of electro-visual distractions leaves the Wizard where the reader finds him, up in the air. (New Yorker, July 31, 2006).

It would be generous to term this assessment critical. Readers are told to remember aspects of Gikuyu as a language, a strategy that removes Updike from the mass of undiscerning readers. Terms such as “magic realism,” “fantastic and didactic,” and the judgment “more indignation than analysis” situate the novel as a postcolonial caricature, a hybrid monster of cultural criticism, postcolonial theory, and occasional lapses into the author’s fevered imagination, which he, unlike other masters, cannot control. The tropes are all-too-familiar. Perhaps I want a little humility on Updike’s part, an admission that he needs to learn how to read this work; that parts of it remain inaccessible to him; and that’s okay. A little readerly humility would go a long way. No comment on “a culture susceptible to the claims of the supernatural.” To invoke an undergraduate mistake: the comment speaks for itself.

Perhaps, to invoke a useful trick from deconstruction, we might read Updike’s own prose as symptomatic of his blindspot: for, in his hands, Aburĩria turns into Aburira. Now, he need not use the diacritical mark. But where is the missing i/I? And how is this loss of i/I the key to reading his remarks? His own slash Africa/Aburira so overly identifies the continent with the fictional representation, that because one has one i/I, the other must have one i/I. Arguably, it is within this loss of the i/I we see the conflation of reality with imagination, and the critical framework for assessing Thiong’o’s work. Put another way, Wizard of the Crow is to be read as an extended, if not particularly well-crafted, allegory for Africa. Hence, the text becomes “didactic,” as all African texts do within a western context: “what does Things Fall Apart teach us about Africa?” Quite often, we should respond, the same thing The Scarlet Letter teaches us about America.

I dwell too long otherwise.

Over the past year, inspired by Wizard of the Crow and also by teaching The River Between, I find myself increasingly compelled by Thiong’o’s eco-vision, first articulated in The River Between and becoming increasingly sophisticated in Wizard of the Crow.

In The River Between, Honia is the river of healing and becoming, the site of initiation and drinking, the meeting place of lovers and the barrier between enemies. As metaphor, it speaks to the flow of history, marked by the blood of initiates, an ingested history taken up in pots of drinking water. Bodies are nurtured by historical flows, blood into water into bodies into water. Despite its tragic ending, The River Between ends on a hopeful note, with a river that continues to flow, indifferent, perhaps, to human vagaries, even as its movement ensures continuity, life, healing. This is, to be sure, a difficult idea, stunning and complex for a young writer, as he was then. Indeed, my prose here does it little justice.

By Wizard of the Crow, human impact on the land is such that Thiong’o must create a more dynamic relationship between the two. Land teaches even as it is replenished. Humans listen as they till. Perhaps the vision remains romantic, but, if so, romantic in the very best sense of the term: devoted to a vision of the future.

An uncertain conclusion: By examining and tracing Thiongo’s eco-vision, we gain a fuller and more nuanced vision of a global imagination. His delight in the perverse and the grotesque is more than matched by a fertile, rich, and intriguing theory of how we live with each other and with the earth. To use a terrible—though apt—metaphor: this is a fallow field whose time has come.

9 thoughts on “Honia

  1. Are you from Aburira? You Aburirans/Africans are fond of proverbs. No matter how long a log remains in the water, it will never become a crocodile. Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. And so on.

  2. My broda, as Caesar, King of the Beggars say, “de straight road is a liar.” (Abani, Graceland)

    The wise skunk knows the spoor of its kin and the stink of strangers. (Keguro, Midwest)

  3. If I were a novelist, I’d be rather alarmed to get a positive review from John Updike.

    *Wizard of the Crow* sounds as if it’d be right up my alley. Thanks to Teju for sending me over here.

  4. Dave, thanks for dropping by. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend starting with The River Between. Even though the world it paints is faintly romantic, it provides a nice entry into Thiong’o’s vision.

    Wizard is, admittedly, a difficult read, mostly because there’s so much word play, even in translation. For example, Aburiria, the country’s name, rendered through a Gikuyu accent might sound like Afro-raria. It becomes, I think, a more than subtle critique of those who, like myself, have often accused Ngugi of being nativist. Ngugi satirizes the nativist stance and its neocolonial deployment, recoding both as disease.

    Here, I confess, quite shamefully, that figuring out the Afro-raria thing took me about 500 pages and multiple days. My Gikuyu has been on hiatus for a long time.

  5. keguro – Thanks for this. It is the first time that I have thought of this aspect of Ngugi’s writing, and in fact the first time that I have read something not trashing him roundly as I (unfairly?) tend to do.

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