Liberal indecision not helping our literature - Daily Nation

Liberal indecision not helping our literature

Saturday January 6 2018


Students celebrate their graduation from the University of Nairobi at Graduation Square on December 2, 2016. At some point, we will have to make a clear distinction between form and content in the study of literature, argues Prof Peter Amuka. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

As I looked forward to closing the year 2017 on a high note, a former student of mine called me on December 30 and wondered why Prof Chris Wanjala had accused me of “swallowing ‘isms’ from the west without making them relevant to our situation”.

My immediate reaction: “But he was one of the cooks who nurtured me on Westernisms in the 1970s at the University of Nairobi.”

I told the student that the professor taught me modern poetry and severally mentioned “modernism” in TS Eliot’s poetry.

Prof Wanjala is, therefore, one of the sources of the isms or ideas that I subjected the same student to in the 1980s and 1990s at Moi University.

My second reaction was to feel sorry for the student and myself because the professor was confessing, in a long article, that he treated me and, indirectly, the students at the University of Nairobi’s Literature Department, to a badly-cooked literary diet.

In turn, this implied that one of the grandfathers of Kenya’s literature departments in nearly all national universities has been churning out half-baked graduates who ape isms from the west without relating them to the country’s needs.

Nobody can buy such a claim because some of the best literary scholars serving Kenya and the world with distinction originate from Kenyan Universities.


I cannot list all of them here but Simon Gikandi, Grace Musila, Evan Mwangi, Godwin Siundu, Egara Kabaji and of, course, Chris Wanjala immediately come to mind, among many others. In the globalised world, ideas do not have boundaries and we are swallowing them freely from all directions, east or west, north or south.

In the final analysis, it is not Prof Wanjala who should be solely blamed for the seeming misunderstanding of what his department is doing or should do. There are others. If his portrait of the goings-on there is to be believed, then the saddest thing is that so late in the history of literary studies, a literature department can subject a student to courses on the minimal or non-existent differences between the social sciences and literature.

It is even worse that one can spend energy, time and money distinguishing between form and content in literature in the 21st century. Anybody doing that is lagging behind in on-going intellectual growth and developments in the rest of the world.

As a reminder to the learned professor, literary studies largely operate without any theories of their own. They rely on renowned theories of language and linguistics to understand what content is.

Anthropology comes in to play to help appreciate the cultural content of any literary artifact. Philosophy is obviously unavoidable because some of the most prized literary gems are vehicles of wisdom, lofty thoughts and ideas.

Politics, religion and history are part and parcel of literary culture and Ngugi’s acclaimed fiction is living testimony to this inter-relatedness.

The list of disciplines or areas literary scholarship borrows from is limitless, but perhaps the most significant thing here is the inter-dependency and the fact that literature cannot exist without borrowing.

It is in fact a dead shell without support from outside itself. That is why what we call sayings in oral literature are useless unless they carry ethics, history and much more. Language without socially purposive content is like a lot of wind blowing for the sake of it.

To echo Chinua Achebe, art for art’s sake or language for language’s sake, is “deodorised dog-shit”

I needn’t be as impolite as Chinua Achebe to my alma mater and Prof Wanjala by associating the knowledge I imbibed there with animal dung because my own students may shame me with the same.

The rest of the world may also use the epithet to argue that humanity has never trusted style and language on their own since Plato’s times because they weaken the mind into thinking nothing and lead to all manner of dereliction and immorality.

Let me finally confess that as an undergraduate student, I was persuaded to valorise content over form. I was taught how to harness literature to liberate my mind, Kenya and the rest of the world including Apartheid South Africa, from colonialism.

I was trained to shun structuralism because it confined me to language study and, therefore, shielded me from social reality.

Yet when I embarked on my MA project, the lead supervisor, Owuor Anyumba, insisted that this reality was as embedded in form (languages) as it was in content.

I resisted for a long time until he told me that I was arguing as if the groundnut can be reached without first contending with the shell. Alternatively, I was describing the nut without acknowledging the role of the rout (shell) that led to it.

For him, they were inextricably linked to one another and ignoring the shell meant studying a lifeless nut without a physical location. “The shell is the outer part of the nut,” he said. Thus focusing on one was merely a perspective but not all-encompassing.

In other words, Anyumba was saying that the Department of Literature had not (and is yet) to, distinguish between studying English as a language on the one hand and Literature in English on the other. Some scholars can’t break out of the narcissistic perspective of structuralism and treat language and reality as mutually exclusive.

Like most liberals, Prof Wanjala is sitting on the artificial fence between form and content and cheering both sides in equal measure instead of encouraging conciliatory debates on their similarities and differences as mere perspectives and perceptions. Like the typical liberal he is, hell and heaven are equally attractive and literary studies could as well go nowhere, stagnate and perish.

I don’t want to agree with a colleague that literary studies in Kenya are missing Ngugi wa Thingo’s decisiveness and clear social vision and mission and Owuor Anyumba’s intellectual versatility and tolerance but want to observe that liberal vacillation is not helping either.


Peter Amuka is a professor of literature at Moi University. Email [email protected]