For Online E-newspaper
Daily Nation : February 22nd 2014
20 | Weekend DILEMMA | Why Kenyans are generally religious extremists The author and his message: Too much familiarity breeds contempt Binyavanga Wainaina’s coming out upset many of his readers, but do they have a right to judge him? BY PETER AMUKA email@example.com T he morning after Kenya’s first Caine Prize Winner Binyavanga Wainaina de- clared his sexual orientation, I shared a table at a small Eldoret restaurant with a stranger who seemed thoroughly disappointed that he had bought and read his works. Addressing the author’s newspaper picture as if he was there for real, he angrily shot questions that sounded like answers. “Why should you expect me to read you when your behaviour is so queer? Why do you write for an audience like me when you are so dirty?” My reaction was spontaneous: “He writes excellent prose and narrates so smoothly and fluently. I find his language very captivating and sexy and want to keep reading him.” We continued conversing between sips of tea even as he remained tense and pained about ‘this great writer’. I marvelled at how great art can bring strangers together. I sold Wainaina and other writers by exhorting the stranger to mind the quality and content of writing and not the character of the author, but his disgust was irrepressible. Inside the story “Why did he announce his sexual orientation in the first place? Do we need to know a writer’s sexual life in the first place? Or anybody else’s for that matter? Mere knowledge of this spoils the broth. Sex is too important and sacred to be bandied about in public.” I alluded to the French so- ciologist and thinker Roland Barthes and observed that once a writer unleashes his work in to the reading market, he disappears and does not matter to the reader. I put it precisely by stating that the writer ‘dies’ after writing: he’s nowhere in his product.” “That’s Barthes’ opinion”, was his retort. “At least Binyavanga now seems to me to be very prominent in his writing. I can’t avoid smelling the homosexuality between the lines. It is as if the lines are male and mating. I won’t let my young children read him.” I advised him to trust the tale and not the teller, as Professor Andrew Gurr once told me at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s. “That’s a common statement to almost every literature student on earth, but must be taken with a pinch of salt. What if the teller is right inside the story, naked?” he wondered. In brief, sex and writer’s sex lives spoil literature, according SATURDAY NATION February 22, 2014 No, creative writers do not deserve all the literary glory BY JOSEPH WALUNYWA In his response to my article of February 8 (Saturday Nation, Weekend, p. 24), Richard Mwaniki (Saturday Nation, Weekend, February 15, p. 39) raises issues that require discussion. To begin with, he writes: “Whether Kenyan students of literature comprehend and appreciate literary theory and criticism is (up to) them and their teachers to sort out.” The assumption behind the ar- gument is that I was referring to school-going Kenyans only. In fact, I had in mind practically everyone in Kenya who cares about literature. Secondly, Mwaniki argues that crea- FILE | NATION Award-winning writer Binyavanga Wainaina. His declaration of his sexual orientation has upset many readers and sparked off debate on where to draw the line between a writer’s private life and his writing. to my new partner in literary appreciation. Good writers should not undress for their readers, nor should they present naked characters because sex should not be a public spectacle, he asserted. There are, indeed, many naked characters in D. H. Lawrence’s writing, but a reader should treat all this as fiction, not reality. And that’s the attitude one ought to adopt in reading Binyavanga and every other writing including David Maillu’s. “The more you argue, the more I fear for my children. D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover has naked characters. His Sons and Lovers is the least likeable and acceptable novel for my lovely and innocent children because of the scene where Miriam’s virginity is ruptured by Paul Morel. You don’t expect my daughters and sons to celebrate such events in a novel. Although I don’t know you, I am sure you are normal and won’t let your kids lose their heads and innocence by recommending Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat. They shouldn’t be allowed to imagine what is going “ on between Gikonyo and Mumbi as they make love in the bush in that novel.” By the time Ngugi, of all writ- ers, was literally being equated to pornographic counterparts, I know I was interacting with a typically homophobic and morally conservative Kenyan. There are indeed many like him, and I needn’t have bothered to know him by name, but for the fact that he represented more than that for me: most Kenyans who appreciate creative and imaginative writing relate it so much to real life experiences that its fictionality becomes a non-issue. Moral hypocrisy Before we parted, I under- stood why early this millennium some Kenyan parents wanted Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People expunged from the Form Four Literature syllabus because of the sex scenes and condoms in the story. Which leads me to wonder why parents who do not, and rarely, teach their offspring about sex, are so concerned about the subject whose moral and literary significance good Literature teachers explain so well in class. At the end of the fortuitous Isn’t reading literature just a lot of imagination? Isn’t what we see and read in to an object (poem, play, narrative) almost what we imagine is inside it?” Prof Peter Amuka encounter, I got the strong impression that Kenyans are generally religious extremists who over-read their beliefs into literary texts. My new-found friend insisted that the Christian God wedded Adam and Eve and that chastity must, therefore, be maintained before marriage. He couldn’t indicate the verse where the nuptials occur in Genesis, but insisted most creative writers celebrate sex and ‘unblessed’ marriages. Sex-workers should, for example, not enjoy such massive space in some of Ngugi’s works, because they signify adulation of sin by the writer. Where I argued that Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Malaya exposed and satirised moral hypocrisy, he condemned poets and other creative writers who, he believed, got inspiration from sex. As if echoing Plato, he was categorical that they were bad for the state and society. Of course, many Kenyans think like him. But isn’t reading literature just a lot of imagination? Isn’t what we see and read into an object (poem, play, narrative) almost what we imagine is inside it? I use the Ugandan poet, Richard Ntiru, to answer such questions. In a poem, ‘The Miniskirt,’ he defends the innocence of the dress by implying that the immorality (near nakedness) associated with it is in the imagination of the observer rather than the wearer. He could very well have been addressing the Ugandan government, who have just banned the miniskirt. Reality they desire What is happening in this kind of behaviour, this misreading of objects, like the miniskirt, novels, poems, plays and other art forms, is tantamount to arguing and even legislating that humanity is sexless. In doing so, the critic, the reader, the Ugandan government, are creating the truth, the reality, they desire and not one that exists. One may even go further and argue that nakedness in any artwork is not obscene or worse until the observer brands it thus. For whatever a story is or becomes or means is the creation of the reader, not the artwork. Prof Amuka teaches at Moi University’s Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies. tive writing is “superior” to theory and criticism because creative writers are the ones who originate discussions about literature. In my article, I did not set out to establish a hierarchical relationship among the three categories of literature. My objective was to put pressure on Kenyan scholars to pay due consideration to each of the three branches of literature. Let us use the example of Ngugi wa Thiong’o to ascertain whether or not theory and criticism are irrelevant to literature. Until Ngugi encountered Frantz Fanon (who is a Marxist/psychoanalytic theorist and critic and author of The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks), he relied on a theoretical framework that was not already clearly articulated. Critics have made this point with respect to Weep Not, Child and The River Between. Subsequent to the encounter with Fanon, his writing changed drastically. He became decidedly “Marxist,” as is seen in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, I will Marry When I Want, Detained, and Pedals of Blood, among other works. Dumb objects On the statue of Dedan Kimathi on Nairobi’s Kimathi Street that Mwaniki offers to justify his position. He asks: “Is the art critic who goes there with a camera, and writes an illustrative piece for his readers equal to the sculptor that created the statue?” Without the theoretical/critical per- spective that I would bring to the act of evaluating that statue, the monument would be no different from any other inert, dumb objects out there. It would do us all a lot of good if we abandoned this habit of over-romanticising creative writers. Creative writers are not angels. They are human beings. They have positions, and in most cases, they write because they would like to impose those positions on the rest of society. We need theory and criticism to separate bad writers from good writers. Finally, when are we going to move beyond the notion that literature is solely about creative writing? In many universities around the world, the term is used to refer to textual productions generally. Many have replaced the term “literature” with terms such as “textual studies” or “cultural studies.” Dr Walunywa is a lecturer at Egerton University’s Department of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. He is also the editor of Egerton Journal.
February 21st 2014
February 23rd 2014