- Literary imagination and criticism only suffers when compartmentalised thus, because it is actually a call to re-invent the wheel of literary criticism.
- Ironically, most of the critics who push for disavowing such Western oriented theories are themselves proud graduates of Western located universities, fully equipped with ways of reading that are equally Western.
One problem that literary critics in Africa and the entire global south grapples with relates to the place of theory in the reading of texts from the region.
How and to what extent can our reading of new literatures benefit, for instance, from the larger post-colonial reading practices?
Can the dominant critical vocabulary circulating worldwide now, such as cosmopolitanism and its variants, be effectively applicable to our appreciation of literatures from eastern Africa? What are some of the viable alternatives to these Western and North American critical tools that have been appropriated, perhaps (un)critically by literary scholars in this region?
These were some of the questions that dominated a one-day conference at the University of Nairobi last week.
Organised jointly by the Department of Literature and the South Asian Mosaic of Society and Arts (Samosa) Festival, the conference brought together writers and critics from Kenya and the United States to discuss issues under the banner of “50 Years of Cosmopolitanism in Kenya”.
A positive thing about the conference is that it had only seven presenters, which gave the audience sufficient time to engage the speakers animatedly on some of the issues raised.
And so Wambui Kamiru’s paper on the use of body art as a way of negotiating belonging, Alex Wanjala’s critique of Gayatri Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization and this writer’s concern with the presence of the Kenyan Asians in the emerging media-scapes, took an entire morning of intense deliberations.
Among the issues raised with this panel was whether post-colonial theories, very disquieting for Prof Henry Indangasi, could adequately address the concerns that literary works in this region have raised, or whether it was an altogether irrelevant and amorphous tool that has been ghettoised in America, according to a recent book quoted by Indangasi.
The younger critics present defended post-colonialism against the charge of irrelevance, arguing instead for a discourse on its adequacy as an analytical category, but also as a nominal reference to lived experiences of many people in Africa and beyond who have been condemned by dynamics of history to spend their lives on the margins of society.
This debate was extended by Mikhail Gromov and Alina Rinkanya who individually focused on language politics and shifting identities, respectively, in MG Vassanji’s novels; while Chris Wanjala evaluated the contribution of Peter Nazareth in literary criticism in East Africa.
In all, the debate came down to the question of whether critics from this region could depend entirely on critical tools fashioned elsewhere, or whether they could mould literary theories that were adequately responsive to the needs and realities in the region.
If you ask me, this question is neither urgent nor helpful. Over my short career as a student of literature and cultural studies, I have become increasingly suspicious of arguments that follow the rubric of ‘we need our own this or that’, because beneath such arguments are notions of exclusivist nationalism that seek to lock out the rest. It amounts to pigeon-holing our respective contributions in a way that renders self-apprehension impossible.
Literary imagination and criticism only suffers when compartmentalised thus, because it is actually a call to re-invent the wheel of literary criticism.
Should it matter to me that post-colonialism or cosmopolitanism — another concept that sparked heated debate at the conference — which significantly address my current and historical realities, were theorised in Western Europe and North America?
DIMNISHED BY TECHNOLOGY
Don’t such calls to mould ‘our own theories’ actually diminish us in a world of scholarship made small by the technologies of travel and communication? And how come we have not, so far, generated any of ‘our own theories’ anyway?
Ironically, most of the critics who push for disavowing such Western oriented theories are themselves proud graduates of Western located universities, fully equipped with ways of reading that are equally Western.
Maybe they have assumed these new positions borne of having lived and survived in the belly of the beast, as it were. But then I may ask, what else from the Western world and America should we reject and instead fashion ‘our own?’
For me, the most powerful indictment of such a line of thought was the fact that we held the conference on the sidelines of the Samosa festival, itself a pointer to the cultural interconnectedness of the eastern African peoples who have all virtually embraced a similarly known food item initially from the South Asian immigrants in the region.
Samosa, sambusa or dhambudha, whatever you call it, and its cousin chapati, have all been used at one time or another as socially symbolic texts for occasion or societal standing, suggesting not just innovative appropriation of hitherto culinary signifiers of the exotic, but demonstrating well and truly that we live in a post-colonial, cosmopolitan world.
Dr Siundu teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi firstname.lastname@example.org