Essay on “Why Can’t African Literature Be at the Centre so That We Can View Other Cultures in Relation to It?” (Ngugi)

Published: 2022/01/10
Number of words: 2589

“Why can’t African Literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relation to it?” (Ngugi). How do the processes of canonisation contribute to the consecration of different categories of literature (e.g. African literature, postcolonial literature, Asian literature)?

The emphasis on the word “can’t” speaks volumes in its connotations of barriers and walls being built around the voices and expressions of cultures of those seen as ‘other’ in comparison to the English literary canon – a further imposition of colonisation of people during a postcolonial state. In this essay, there will be a focus on the comparison to postcolonial and African literatures, also specifically looking at Ngugi’s struggles with both the literal barriers he faced (his imprisonment), and the linguistic barriers he tackled with through the silenced use of his mother tongue. With English writing being seen in the western world (arguably the most powerful world for much of history) as the superior written form, any category apart from the canonisation of English literature has historically been seen as something ‘other’ and lesser – a tributary of originality to be dissected by those in a higher position. However, with the modern world opening those barriers and a ‘canon’ becoming something different in modern literary importance, the exploration of new voices, including that of Ngugi (who could arguably be seen as a pioneer in this venture) becomes crucial in the new world views of literature canonisation.

Taking into consideration Ngugi’s own journey and thoughts into this matter, is key in both dissecting his quotation and revealing a singular journey from a canonised literature to a more African centred style of writing, looking outward into the world. Through looking at his initial novels such as “A Grain of Wheat” and even the segway text between the two literary worlds, “Petals of Blood”, it is arguable to suggest that Ngugi fell into his own entrapment initially with regards to canonisation, but perhaps that gives him the right to speak from both perspectives. There is a great reliance placed on Gikuyu songs which are interspersed throughout “Petals of Blood” for example, which help tell, through the oral tradition of the linking of proverbs and fables, the history of Ilmorog and Kenya before colonial intervention. When paired alongside the snippets of William Blake’s texts at the start of certain parts however, we find a grey area in between where the two worlds meet; the colonial and the historical tradition. The English literary canon appears to be unavoidable. To write in English, it would seem Ngugi could not just let his characters sing about “Waru wa ngirigaca/red potatoes”, without the biblical imagery from Blake’s “Earth groan’d beneath, and Heaven above/Trembled at discovery of love” supporting both the beauty and ugliness of postcolonial African life.[1][2] However, less than ten years after the publishing of this text, Ngugi writes “‘An African writer should write in a language that will allow him to communicate effectively with peasants and workers in Africa” – in other words, he should write in an African language solely in order to achieve this accuracy of inward projection of African life, outwards to other cultures.[3] He realises that “This increased local activity does not mean that a Kenyan literature will not be available to other language groups outside of Africa through translation. It only means that the emphasis will be on reaching African audiences first”, and this is a key development in the fragmentation of literary categories, particularly the change from postcolonial writing to African Literature.[4] The traditional songs in “Petals of Blood” restored a sense of empowerment within the community, and whilst Blake was perhaps used as a segway between the two languages and cultures, it allowed for Ngugi to begin his journey back home lexically before solely writing in Gikuyu in “Devil on the Cross”, and fulfilling his true duty to his country, not the postcolonial oppressors. The biblical beauty of the Western canonised literary world no longer effectively represented Africa (nor did it arguably to begin with), however the re-empowerment of the mother tongue revealed a writing style which reflected the people of the continent in a far more relevant manner.

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A key incident involving Ngugi when exploring the creation of these literary categories, is his imprisonment in 1977 due to his political beliefs outlined in the play “I Will Marry When I Want” starring peasant actors. It consolidated the idea of different categories of literature and their global status being seen as lesser in comparison to the English literary canon. It was seen as a way of silencing certain voices and threatened for no one to further do so and in turn, further consolidated their voices being seen as something ‘other’. His use of story writing as a weapon against the present Kenyan elite, by writing in Gikuyu, saw the direct attack on high-status Kenyans whom were seen as replacements to the former colonial rulers. Ngugi believed the Kenyans had become neo-colonialists, tools of their former British rulers. Former detainees had become detainers, and former freedom fighters now denied freedom to others. His arrest over writing in Gikuyu proved that the issue regarded language itself and for Kenyan’s themselves to imprison without charge one of their own, revealed their own indoctrination of the English language being seen as superior. Their distancing from the Gikuyu roots possibly saw them placing themselves on a higher pedestal and thus consolidating the ‘otherness’ in their peasant counterparts through their language. But Ngugi wrote that “The language of African literature cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention and a problem calling for a resolution”.[5] His imprisonment only further highlighted the issue of what he sees as a ‘cultural bomb’ in alienating someone from their own language. It also alienates them from the knowledge of their homeland, from the geography, the trees, the rivers, the people, everything and so a loss of culture develops. Whilst African Literature cannot be completely devoid of acceptance of the existence of colonial rule, it is key to place Africa in the heart rather than the Empire, for the loss of African Literature only consolidates the higher ranking of canonical literature. This in turn sparks a higher rank of Kenyan elites basing their status on the continuing view of elitist empirical views. For Africa to be truly liberated, it must consolidate its own voice. As Ngugi himself states, “I must write in the language which was the basis of my incarceration”.[6] Starting from your own language and knowledge, and building on it by using others, is an empowerment, while knowing all languages but your own is enslavement.

A further key issue regarding the importance placed on English canonical literature over that of other categories and why they were established, is also due to the historical development of English literature and therefore the language of English possibly being seen as a guide to many writers. With such an ingrained artistic history, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Wyatt and Hardy, English literature has paved the way and developed the language in such an impactful manner. Furthermore, the colonisation of much of the world during this literary development has come to see an imposition of this ‘greatness’ onto the people of the conquered world. European influences in general have carved key literary features into writing techniques including form, settings, perspectives, narrative arcs, poeticism, historicism and so many other influences, which have over the centuries had time to develop themselves into what we now see as influential pieces of literature, many of which also incorporate Biblical connotations. Other languages have however, not had that ability, time, wealth, focus or platform to develop in such a manner. With literature being a highly regarded topic in the western world, it’s had time to be scrutinised and therefore perfected organically. Ngugi describes how “When he started writing a play in Gikuyu, he found that the people of the village would correct him when he used the language incorrectly or mis-represented their culture, which they couldn’t do when he wrote in English”.[7] It is only recently therefore, through the publications of mother tongue writing coming into popularity, that the development of a unique writing style to match the culture with which it describes can begin. In more detail:

“For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do…This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black reasonance.”[8]

There is still so much transformative work to be done with the form and linguistic features within these newly developing literary categories. Whereas the historically tried and tested canonical texts may have given English writers a template for successful writing, writers of the new world with diverse cultures and languages are now paving the way to make their voices heard in an equally impactful way. Ways in which writing may have felt familiar are now literally having to be “throw(n)…out” in order to accommodate an unfamiliar literary lexis.[9]

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Lastly, there’s an importance in looking at how the development of different categories is used as a form of empowerment and how it acts as a form of reclaiming the identity of a once colonised country. The more open-mindedness found in the world we now live in has allowed for new voices to speak without being silenced and the study of such voices rather than the imprisonment of them has opened discussions about many new features and perspectives coming to the forefront in all categories of literature. Writing in Gikuyu for example, has become a counter to Anglo-centrism, not only because it is a rejection of the colonial languages but because it encourages writers to think about what is meaningful to the masses, and thus removes the pressure to appeal to European readers. This lack of pressure allows for that aforementioned organic development which the English literary canon had over an extended period of time. Because of this, the study of literature is able to see a more direct impact on historical events, without the specific lens of colonial influence at the heart of its perspective. The English literary canon still exists in its history but with a more internal focus looking at its relation, rather than from the outside, in. Ngugi’s writing of the novel “Devil on the Cross”, a novel about corruption in Gikuyu, on toilet paper whilst imprisoned for example, reveals an act of spiritual and social resistance rather than a physical one, thus affirming his and his people’s right to their own language. But whilst the novel is predominately in Gikuyu, it is interwoven with words and phrases in English, French, Latin, and Swahili, rather than the opposite seen in “Petals of Blood”. We have hints of the European influence but on a smaller scale in relation to the use of Gikuyu. Scholar Joseph Mbele wrote a response to Ngugi’s views and argues that the issues of ineffective representation of the peasant classes will still occur when Gikuyu is translated into English, but that should be less of a worry in comparison to the opposite issue. It is an exercise in Afro-centrism, because the use of English as the default language necessarily implies that the translation (in this case into African) is a defective, second-class medium. He does, however, also argue that “the colonialists and missionaries whom Ngugi castigates were instrumental in promoting many African languages”.[10] Whilst writers such as Ngugi strive to place their unique mark upon the literary world, it is important to remember that the study of a lot of such writings are carried out by their European counterparts. “A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character”, but in order to spread the message of revolution, it needs the correct platform.[11] For African literature to rise in its own right away from the comparison of canonised literature, it needs its own global and local scrutiny, which former colonial countries have arguably had a hand in through their own scrutiny of their past.

In conclusion, through the lens of African literature and postcolonial literature in comparison to canonical and mostly European literatures, it is clear that the creation of these literary categories has made a steady rise through its cutting of ties with aspects (but not completely) of its colonial history. Through the latter having centuries to develop its formats and lexis, along with the wealth and power to distribute this form of writing, canonical literature has been seen as a template for many aspiring writers to create some form of successful work. It is clear that African literature has to some extent, needed postcolonial literature to exist as a springboard for its own organic re-empowerment of the self. The struggles seen by Ngugi himself and his own journey back home lexically reveal a microscopic example of what is happening on a global scale.


Barison, Giulia, “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: an Interview” in Tolomeo, (December 2018).

Dambudzo, Marechera, “The House of Hunger, 2nd edition, (Illinois: Heinemann, 2009).

Mbele, Joseph, “Language in African Literature: An Aside to Ngũgĩ” in ‘Research in African Literatures’, vol. 23, no. 1, (1992).

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature”, (Heinemann Educational: 1986).

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “On Writing in Gikuyu” in ‘Research in African Literatures’, (Summer 1985), pp. 151-156.

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “Petals of Blood”, (Penguin Random House: London, 1977).

[1] Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “Petals of Blood”, (Penguin Random House: London, 1977), pp. 180.

[2] Ibid, pp. 225.

[3] Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “On Writing in Gikuyu” in ‘Research in African Literatures’, (Summer 1985), pp. 151.

[4] Ibid, pp. 155.

[5] Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature”, (Heinemann Educational: 1986), pp. 4.

[6] Barison, Giulia, “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: an Interview” in Tolomeo, (December 2018), pp. 275

[7] Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “On Writing in Gikuyu” in ‘Research in African Literatures’, (Summer 1985), pp. 152.

[8] Dambudzo, Marechera, “The House of Hunger, 2nd edition, (Illinois: Heinemann, 2009), pp. 18.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mbele, Joseph, “Language in African Literature: An Aside to Ngũgĩ” in ‘Research in African Literatures’, vol. 23, no. 1, (1992), pp. 150.

[11] Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature”, (Heinemann Educational: 1986), pp. 30.

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