A reading of my work and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's, that ruminates on the new African diaspora literature. By J.S. Makokha, literary critic based at Kenyatta University's Literature Department. Send your thoughts to him at email@example.com
MIGRITUDE AS CULTURAL SPIRIT OF OUR TIMES
In the past two weeks lovers of literature in Nairobi and Mombasa have had the exceptional chance of celebrating the official homecoming of Migritude, a powerful, one-woman oral poetic performance by Kenyan-born, US based Shailja Patel. The gifted artist entertained and educated enthusiastic spectators for four days at the Phoenix Theatre, Nairobi a week ago. She then staged her show in Mombasa at the Aga Khan Academy, Likoni this week. Her homecoming performances are courtesy of Ford Foundation, which is doing a laudable job supporting the revival of the arts and literature in post-Nyayo Kenya.
Shailja represented Kenya during the World Social Forum and has performed Migritude in East Africa before. She thrilled crowds at the Zanzibar International Film Festival as well as at the international Kwani LitFest last year. A third generation East African Asian who defines herself as both an Asian and an African, an "Asian African", Shailja coined the term Migritude in 2005 from three cultural terms:
migrancy, attitude and negritude. She uses it to name the spirit of "a generation of migrants who do not feel the need to be silent to protect themselves." Migritude then is a spirit of envoiced migrants who take up the challenge of making themselves narrators of their own (hi)stories to their nations and the world.
This nomadic narrative spirit comes to Shailja naturally considering East African Asians are the quintessential symbols of postcolonial migration from East Africa. Descendants of South Asian migrants who have in successive waves immigrated to East Africa, "Asian Africans" are beginning to audibly challenge (n)atavistic accounts of the national histories and cultures of countries they have called home in Africa for more than a century.
Whether from East Africa or from the new homelands where they now live in Europe, America or Australia, East African Asians' efforts to "remember Africa" and "re-membering themselves to Africa" are now becoming increasingly visible especially in the area of culture. In 2000, the Asian African Heritage Trust hosted an exhibition on the community's identity and culture at the National Museum of Kenya in
Nairobi. Kenyan-born, MG Vassanji, has been awarded twice the prestigious Giller Prize for his novels: The Book of Secrets (1994) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). His writings which include a new novel coming out in September, The Assassin's Song, treat the experiences of East Africans of South Asian descent through pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial times.
Zahid Rajan and Zarina Patel, the biographer of A. M. Jeevanjee as well as Makhan Singh, run an informative Nairobi-based journal on South Asian personalities, histories and cultures in East Africa called, Awaaz. They also organize the annual South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts (SAMOSA) cultural festival at the GoDown Art Center in Nairobi. Mubina and Sanaula Karmali have collected an anthology of diasporic oral literature, The Oral Literature of the Asians of East Africa, published by the East African Educational Publishers in 2002.
Shailja's solo artistic work further strengthens this East African Asian self-identification through art, culture and lifestories of an otherwise often misunderstood community; a misunderstanding evident in the April Anti-Asian riots in Kampala. Her poetic work traces the contours of her identity as an Asian African, as a woman and as a migrant East African living in the Diaspora. The Asian exodus out of
Africa of the 1960s and 1970s occasioned by racialist nationalization programs and policies as well as racially-instigated (post)colonial gender violence are some of the major themes that run throughout the collection of poetic works that make up Migritude.
As a literary text therefore, Shailja's rich performance questions issues of history, politics, identity, place, culturo-racial diversity and migration. Structurally, Migritude takes the form of fourteen episodal poetic pieces, which hatch out of a multiracial yolk spiced with synchronized movements, stage effects manipulation and topical themes dramatically narrated in-between the lifestories and memories
of the artist and her motherland.
However, the term 'migritude' can actually be expanded to capture the spirit of African peoples through their more than two thousand years history of migrations, settlement and re-migrations that continue to date. Loaded with memory, estrangement, history, politics and both local as well as global forces, 'migritude' appears to be the right word to describe that experience of present day Africans as they quest
for their identities through the rubbles of slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism and globalization.
When Ngugi wa Thiong'o delivered his official homecoming public lecture, Re-Membering Africa: Burial and Resurrection of African Memory at the University of Nairobi early this year, one could discern that his literary politics and cultural ideology have also migrated beyond his standpoints of yesteryears. The renown writer appears to be
shifting beyond examinations of the internal dynamics working against African nation-states towards the re-examination of those global forces identified under the mantra of globalization that continue to obstruct ways forward for African countries.
A keen reading of Ngugi's cultural politics beyond Moving the Centre (1993) locates his concerns beyond the scope of the limiting boundaries of African nation-states. He is no longer interested in national cultures and national languages as such. In the transnational spirit of migritude, the writer is embracing the whole continent as
the arena of twenty-first century cultural contestations.
This spatial expansion is further illustrated through the critical observation that the fictional setting of the new novel, Wizard of the Crow. The 'Free Republic of Aburiria' is a metonymic post-colonial nation-state that could be many a post-colonial state in Africa and even Asia or Latin America. Aburiria is not easily identifiable as a former African settler colony (read Kenya) like the fictional settings of Ngugi's earlier novels. This spatial expansion can also be observed in his choice of abstract names such as His High Mighty Excellency the Ruler, Machokali (Sharp Eyes) and Sikiokuu (Great Ear) that cannot be typically identified with Kenya.
Characters from his early works had names such as Waiyaki, Mugo, Wanja, Njoroge that give cue to a reader familiar to East Africa as to which particular post-colonial African state Ngugi treats in the 1960s-1980s. This early period arguably reveals the novelist's interest in the welfare of former settler colonies in general, specifically Kenya, where issues of land, race and neocolonialism combine to produce postcolonial disillusionment, injustice and inequalities.
More than two decades of forced exile and university teaching away from East Africa has led the professor to reexamine cultural politics in deeper and broader terms. His magisterial lecture in January shows that the professor who now lives and works by choice in the Diaspora, finds clarity in post/transnationalist concepts such as Negritude, Pan Africanism, African Renaissance and Globalization when describing the
complex cultural past, present and future of African societies and peoples. His recent most essay on the language question in Africa, "Europhone or African Memory: The Challenges of the Pan-Africanist Intellectual in the era of Globalization" published in 2003 further attests to the metamorphosis.
Colonialism to Ngugi is no longer the preserve of Western Europe and its twentieth century oppression of Africa. His colonial discourse analysis has migrated deeper into history and farther away from Africa to also engage the subjugation of Ireland and New Zealand under the Great Britain as well as the colonization of some Far East nations under imperial Japan.
Ngugi's reexamination of twenty-first century Africa in light of growing interconnectedness betwixt and between African nation-states and the rest of the world is necessary in our incessant efforts to understand the emerging phenomena that is transnational African culture. In fact his new novel is a dramatization of the two thousand year epic journey Africans have made to the present as they get buried
by local and global pressures only to resurrect and forge on towards their elusive homecoming—-their true Uhuru.
As diasporic artists such as Shailja demonstrate, this epic African quest for a place and time where Africans can finally feel at home is still on today. New African diasporas are mushrooming in Western Europe, the Far East, America and Australia as Africans continue to emigrate from the continent due to the political activities of
post-independence African governments like that of the Ruler in Wizard of the Crow.
Seeing that more Africans such as Shailja and Ngugi find new homes outside the continent whether by volition or compulsion, the need for them to re-member themselves to the continent through remittances and the arts becomes urgent. To us in Literature, this urgency is already being reflected in celebrations of what is being referred to as the 'new diasporic African literature'.
Over the past ten years, 'Re-membering Africa' types of writings have grown into an amazing cultural enterprise supporting writers, publishers, critics and teachers of African/Postcolonial Literary Studies. For artists, diaspora themes, diasporic narrations and coming-home-from-diaspora homecomings are en vogue. For publishers,
identifying and associating with potentially award-winning diasporic writers is considered a smart commercial venture. For critics, most of them being teachers, privileging diasporic theories in literary criticism is a strategy of identifying oneself with the avant garde of contemporary literary theory such as Homi Bhabha.
Respected outlets of learned discussions on African literatures such as Research in African Literature and English Studies in Africa celebrate the rise to prominence of diasporic writings of Abdulrazak Gurnah, Moses Issegawa, Jamal Mahjoub, MG Vassanji, Binyavanga Wainaina, Leila Aboulela, Doreen Baingana,Yvonne Owuor and Shailja
Patel among other prominent East African as well as other new African writers. Kwani? currently East Africa's liveliest literary outfit, has brought some of these internationally-acclaimed writers to Kenya besides supporting that cosmopolitan literary spirit diaspora writers espouse.
Avtar Brah in her brilliant book, Cartographies of Diaspora (1996) tells us postcolonial Diasporas sustain that limited sense of belonging to any particular nation or culture, which in turn accentuate diasporic critiques of the postcolonial nation-state besides generating desire for new kinds of identification. In Africa
today, these new kinds of identification can be discerned in most Africans who increasingly view themselves as citizens of the continent (i.e Pan Africans), citizens of the world (transnationals) or citizens of two or more nations (leading to calls for dual citizenship in Kenya). In the later case the first citizenship is usually ones country of birth and the second that of ones country of flight.
Diasporic literature with roots in post-independence Africa, to quote Brah once more "offer a critique of discourses of fixed origins while taking account of a homing desire, as distinct from a desire for a homeland." In light of these developments, we can venture the view that quests for new homes are not the main preoccupation of African migrants, writers or otherwise. Rather, it is quests for those places where African people will feel at home that really lead to the "homing desire" epitomized by Ngugi's own emblematic rather than enduring homecomings since 2004.
Shailja's just concluded homecoming goes beyond the artistic effort of bringing Migritude to lovers of literature. It seems to suggest an invitation to expand the temporal and spatial dimensions of our narrations of African nations in the manner of Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow. In such expanded narrative spaces both indigenous and migrant memories and buried (hi)stories can be resurrected and given a long
The writer is a literary critic based at Kenyatta University