In Summary
  • 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.

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