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Journal of Postcolonial Writing
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Aesthetic solidarities: Ngũgĩ wa
Thiong’o and the Cold War
Monica Popescua a McGill University, Montreal, Canada
Published online: 01 Jul 2014.
To cite this article: Monica Popescu (2014) Aesthetic solidarities: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Cold
War, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 50:4, 384-397, DOI: 10.1080/17449855.2014.925691
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2014.925691
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Aesthetic solidarities: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Cold War
McGill University, Montreal, Canada
Highlighting the absence of the Cold War from studies of postcolonial literature, this article focuses on the various levels at which the global conflict is reflected in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work and its reception. Beyond direct and oblique references to the
Cold War, Ngũgĩ’s choice of genre in Petals of Blood (historical novel in the socialist realist vein, at the expense of a discredited detective style of novel) speaks to the cultural solidarities Ngũgĩ forged across the Iron Curtain fault lines.
Keywords: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; Cold War genres; socialist realism; reception of
African literature; postcolonial writing
Writing in a realist style and discarding modernist and postmodern techniques is never only an aesthetic choice. In the chapter dedicated to African fiction of his landmark study Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o ties his aesthetic choices to the rejection of cultural colonialism, when he reflects that the African peasantry and the working class should “appropriate the novel” (68). Aimed at finding the right style, form and audience, Ngũgĩ’s literary practice has been part of the democratizing efforts of his oeuvre, as well as the rejection of the aesthetic and ideological shackles created by colonization. Yet what if his works have not only opposed (neo)colonialism, but have been shaped by other forces at play during the latter half of the 20th century? The rifts and cultural alliances created by the Iron Curtain have played a part in the aesthetic choices of postcolonial writers. The scholars’ task, then, would be to revisit classics of anti-colonial and postcolonial literature by positioning their decolonizing ethos against the background of the Cold War.
In this article, Ngũgĩ’s novel Petals of Blood (1977) serves as a case study for how we can reread African literature of the second half of the 20th century through a cold war lens. The stakes of such an exercise go well beyond completing the body of scholarship on Ngũgĩ’s oeuvre with a perspective heretofore absent from this corpus. Like the chemical treatment or heat applied to invisible ink, the Cold War perspective acts as the developing substance that illuminates the political and ideological forces at work in postcolonial literature, the aesthetic choices facing African writers, and even the blind spots in postcolonial studies treating the works of these authors.
Praised as the father of the East African English-language novel and as a Marxist writer of monumental, finely crafted, politically engaged novels that critique the old and new forms of western colonialism in Kenya, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of the best-known postcolonial African writers. His novels recuperate the history of *Email: email@example.com © 2014 Taylor & Francis
Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2014
Vol. 50, No. 4, 384–397, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2014.925691
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O vie do ] a t 0 6:0 8 1 7 O cto be r 2 01 4 anti-colonial resistance and address the ills of neocolonialism – and these have constituted the main lines of inquiry in the scholarship on his work (Robson 1979; Balogun 1997; Williams 1999; Amoko 2010). During the 1970s, Ngũgĩ subscribed to “competing notions of culture” (Gikandi 2000, 148) that ranged from a mostly surpassed liberal notion of culture, to a critical embracement of African nationalism, and a Marxist perspective on the role of literature in reflecting and effecting social change (144); hence, his aesthetics have given rise to contradictory assessments.1 Of all the formal and ideological components of Ngũgĩ’s works, his Marxist aesthetics, as described by Balogun (1997), and his leftist politics have generated the most numerous paradoxical responses – sometimes praised, at other times treated as an embarrassment. For instance, in an early 1980s article, Bernth Lindfors observes that “Ngũgĩ may have his heart in the right place, but the critical consensus seems to be that he does not always have his art where it should be” (1983, 51), suggesting that artistic merit was seen as tarnished through political engagement. Even when scholars positively assessed the revolutionary aspects of Ngũgĩ’s Marxist aesthetics, his support of leftist politics was seen as partisan engagement that diminished the universal appeal of his work. Therefore, scholars sometimes apologized for the writer’s political engagement, pleading for a purely literary value of his work; Koku Amuzu entreats the reader: