My favorite Ngugi novel is The River Between, the first novel he completed and the second to be published. Written before Ngugi’s “encounter” with Marxism, it offers a far more interesting approach to Kenyan colonial modernity than the later works, especially since the Mau Mau do not inaugurate the rupture into national(ist) modernity. The scale is smaller, more intimate, yet also larger, more inchoate: ethnicity as small tribe and mythic formation, aggregated into tribe by colonial modernity while also abstracted from history by aesthetic rendering. The Gikuyu of whom Ngugi writes hover at the edges of legibility, hidden away in the hills like mythical gods, learning to contend with how to be human.
It features the improbable modernist figure of Waiyaki—improbable not in the sense that he lacks credibility, but that Waiyaki fits comfortably, if awkwardly, in that vast panoply of damaged and vulnerable and searching modernist characters, and the novel’s realist (really, ethnographic romance) form might obscure its modernist genealogy. Caught between the mythic and the quotidian, the prophetic and the empirical, Waiyaki embraces the contradictions of his modernity.
Like the uncertain Binyavanga, Waiyaki inhabits the world uneasily. On the eve of his “second birth,” a ceremony that prepares him for circumcision,
Waiyaki wanted to be happy, very happy. Was he not going to learn the ways of the land? Was he not going to drink the magic ritual of being born again? He knew he wanted to be like his father, knowing all the ways of the land from Agu to Agu, long ago.
But he felt dejected. Something he could not define seemed to gnaw at his soul, having first crept in through the flesh. (11)
This uneasiness persists throughout the novel. On a dance to celebrate the eve of his circumcision ceremony, “Waiyaki . . . felt uneasy. Something inside him prevented him from losing himself in this frenzy” (40). And, following his encounter with Muthoni at the dance, “He was troubled. . . . That night a feeling that he lacked something, that he yearned for something beyond him, came in low waves of sadness that would not let him sleep” (43). At the moment he is about to be affirmed through initiation, he experiences a profound sense of loss.
In Ngugi’s novel, ethnic belonging is understood as a form of loss—this, for me, complicates interpretations of Ngugi as ethno-nationalist. Something much more interesting is at stake. I am drawn in by Waiyaki’s restlessness: his longing for “something,” vaguely defined, not established or rooted or guaranteed.
An early moment in One Day reminds me of Waiyaki:
We park on the shoulder of a valley that spreads down into a jigsaw puzzle of market gardens before us. For a long time I have wanted to walk between the fault lines of this puzzle. Out there, always in the distance, the world is vague and blurred and pretty.
I want to slide through the seams and go to the other side. (7)
Like the young Binyavanga, Waiyaki wants to “slide through the seams,” to find a way to make the outside “world” matter.
Given Ngugi’s dominance in the Kenyan literary imagination—admittedly, it is mostly non-Kenyans who insist on and continually re-affirm this dominance—what does his presence in Binyavanga’s work enable?
The Ngugi of Binyavanga’s Kenya is an assemblage of rumors and fiction, patchy truths that allow and disallow identification.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a writer and playwright, a Kenyan playwright, and people say he says that women should not perm their hair or wear lipstick. I have permed my hair. I like it. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Kenyans’s most famous writer, and was arrested by Moi in the early 1980s and imprisoned. He is in exile now, and he is trying to bring down the government. His books are banned in Kenya. He is a communist and says that to decolonize we have to write our literature in our own languages. I don’t like Moi—but if those people take over the government, what music will we listen to? Nyatiti? I love writing. I love the theater. I fear writers; they want to go too deep and mess up the clear stepladders of success. I cannot see myself being this sort of person. (p. 88)
In Moi’s Kenya of dissidents, Ngugi the “committed writer” seemed to be an impossible figure: nativist, Afrocentric, and, unfortunately, as disciplinary as Moi’s government. A man who was against “permed hair” was against the freedom of choice one enjoyed under Moi. While I cannot take this opening, it’s worth noting how Moi’s government used “choice” and “opportunity” to distinguish themselves from “freedom-hating” dissidents. In Moi’s Kenya, one could listen to Michael Jackson and perm one’s hair and even wear an earring.
An aside, from Thomas Glave:
And freedom – for the country is, certainly, a free one. So free, so filled with so many choices (flee or remain; survive or die; remember or forget; laugh loudly in daylight, or sob in deepest darkness until a fearsome pounding at the door, accompanied by the growling of waiting jeeps and the clicking of long rifles). So many choices that none of the citizens need even believe in freedom, and in fact are encouraged by those presiding not to do so. (“Torturer’s Wife,” 44)
It is against this background of the dogmatic Ngugi that the young Binyavanga frames his reading of “diversiddy” in US schools that send “college manuals” featuring “photos of international students of many colors sitting on stairs and looking very relaxed and international. Like Model UN club kinds, but after they have had polite sex” (91):
At the bottom of every photo, they gave their opinions, like, What’s really cool about Brandeis is its diversiddy. They looked like picture on television from the seventies, the early eighties. UNESTO concerts on the children of the world—a possible world full of many kinds of normal people all doctors and bankers and lawyers, and all these things are possible, for any shape of anybody. All those kids we used to watch on television were now in Massachusetts doing diversiddy.
I want to do diversiddy. (91)
In the midst of this rumination:
I read Decolonizing the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o a few weeks ago. It is illegal and it was thrilling, and I had vowed to go back to my own language. English is the language of the colonizer.
I will take Gikuyu classes, when I am done with diversiddy and advertising, when I am driving a good car. I will go to the village and make plays in Gikuyu, in my good new car. I will make very good decolonized advertisements for Coca-Cola.
I will be cool and decolonized. An international guy. . . . Even Ngugi is in America. (91-92)
I’m struck, here, by the juxtaposition of “diversiddy” and “advertising,” a hallmark of college catalogues that extends, it is suggested, into a kind of vaguely defined internationalism. “Diversiddy” (one hears and sees diversity, divest, subsidy) marks an imagined internationalism that becomes available and easy for the African subject to take up—it is a picture in a brochure that says “Karibu,” even and especially when its terms seem so framed (literally) and limited, temporally and spatially. “Diversiddy” is something done by people who have “polite sex,” a doing that, as represented by college catalogues, ignores precisely all the contradictions that difference creates.
“Diversiddy” is institution-bound, perhaps even more than nation-bound. (And it’s striking that “diversiddy” does not name, perhaps cannot name, Binyavanga’s experiences at Njoro, Mangu, Lenana, or Kenyatta University. There are other names for Kenyan institutions and practices of difference.)
“Diversiddy” is also something one does while away from Kenya. It is how one enters the “international” in US institutions, another figure: Our College Has X% of International Students. One becomes institutionally international. One returns home to Kenya or Kenyan-ness to forget “diversiddy.” Ngugi was, for a young Binyavanga, the name for this forgetting. He still is for some critics.
But not Ngugi “in America.” There, he promises a different kind of internationalism, one related to “diversiddy” in ways that I cannot yet map, or at least map now.
Moi’s Ngugi is not Waiyaki’s Ngugi, and it is the latter I really like. Waiyaki’s Ngugi understands the risks and promises of being unformed, of remaining possible. He senses, if he doesn’t truly grasp, the limitations of dogma, and he worries about the limitations of societies that cannot accommodate difference. This early book, which is finally being taught in Kenyan schools, has much to teach Kenyans about the limitations of rigid positions and about the necessary risks of ethical undertakings.
It is this sense-Ngugi, Waiyaki’s Ngugi, that emerges so powerfully in Binyavanga’s work, even as he is never named as such. Waiyaki trusts his feelings in a way that Binyavanga narrates feeling through the world.
I wonder if reading Binyavanga provides us with a strategy for how to read Ngugi, at least the early Ngugi. And perhaps even the later Ngugi. As I’ve suggested before, we have become so accustomed to knowing Ngugi that we rarely read him, or at least read him with the attention he deserves. And while I risk sedimenting Kenyan canonicity as a male project in reading Ngugi through Binyavanga, I also wonder if the uneven, fractured, dissonant masculinities their works undertake might mitigate the penile signature.