Having spent the past few years teaching, thinking, and writing about Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, I find myself irritated by the seeming endless commentary that deems it “atavistic,” “out of touch,” “irrelevant” to young readers.
Much of the criticism reveals a rather unsophisticated understanding of literary criticism, one that focuses on content and plot summary, “themes,” as we used to call it. In such a reading, Ngugi’s specific concerns about women’s bodies can only be read as endorsing or critiquing circumcision. While the issue is worth debating, it seems that we can ask what are, arguably, far more interesting questions about gender and embodiment. That is, we can read women’s circumcision metaphorically and re-purpose it for today.
Mungiki’s recent attempts to define gendered clothing, for instance, can fruitfully be read through Ngugi. Is this reading “beyond” the text? Of course it is. And it is not a bad reading practice either. Use the particular in the text to think through and about the general we inhabit. The absence of such a reading practice suggests to me the impoverished methods taught in schools. I refuse to believe that high school students can only understand forms of new criticism. Certainly students can learn some easy types of gender criticism and post-colonial critique.
I find myself incensed, as well, by the limited ways we seem to understand Ngugi’s text. I think there is good reason, at this particular point in history, to return to his text. Composed in 1961, published in 1965, it returns to the nationalist struggles of the 1920s and 1930s to understand the connection between historical periods, to understand, that is, what a post-colonial moment can gain from a colonial context.
And the lesson?
Waiyaki and Nyambura’s condemnation at the end of the novel speaks to the inability of ethnic groups to become national(ized), to transcend their local politics and beliefs in the service of a larger project. Ngugi, that is, belongs to the group of thinkers including Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Yambo Ouloguem, who, in the first blush of independence, diagnosed the malaise that we still occupy.
Far from being an irrelevant relic that should be replaced by a far more “interesting” and “current” novel, The River Between continues to provoke because it asks whether ethnicity can survive nationalism, and seems to suggest that becoming political, turning into a citizen, requires sacrificing the privileges of ethnicity.
If the current political jostlings are any indication, we are far from learning this lesson.