The African literature English professor talks books and binaries
by Yana Makuwa
kitsch: So I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself—what you teach, and what you study.
MwN: My name is Mukoma Wa Ngugi. I’m an assistant professor of English at Cornell University, the co-director of the Cornell Global South Project, and also co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature.
kitsch: Could you describe what it’s like balancing being a successful fiction writer and a full-time professor?
MwN: Well, they complement each other. For example I’m very interested in the question of Africans and African-Americans, questions of identity, questions of race and class, and so on and so forth. And part of my research is on that. But then my novels end up being on the same topics. For example, Nairobi Heat is about an African-American detective who’s investigating a murder case that takes him all the way to Kenya. So he becomes an African-American in Africa, right? And so all sorts of questions of identity will arise from that.
Even my next book Mrs. Shaw takes place half in the US and half in Kenya as well. It’s about an exiled pro-democracy activist. So in that one it’s more an exploration of nationalism, of how nations, countries like Kenya, use nationalism to hide the real history. And some of the post-independent betrayals of workers and so on and so forth—the betrayal of the dream of independence.
But that’s something I also explore in other [non-fiction] writing. So I’m saying eventually they complement each other. Even where it doesn’t seem for that to be the case—for example I just finished a novel on the tizita, which is a form of Ethiopian music. It’s all about music but it’s also an exploration of how people relate to each other. So I don’t know, I would say eventually then it’s all interrelated.”
kitsch: Our theme for this issue is binaries. Could you talk about some of your favorite binaries to think about, maybe particularly the African/African-American binary, and how that shapes or doesn’t shape your work?
MwN: I mean, myself, I’m very wary and scared of binaries. So, for example, if you take Africans and African-Americans, certainly there are ways in which their relationship is formed by racism. In an article called “Somewhere between African and Black” on The Guardian, I talk about how both groups see each other through the eyes of racism, to the extent that Africans grow up seeing very negative images of African-Americans, and African-Americans also grow up seeing very very negative images of Africa, you know we have war and so forth.
“I’m very wary and scared of binaries. So, for example, if you take Africans and African-Americans, certainly there are ways in which their relationship is formed by racism.”
But at the same time there has been a lot of solidarity between the two. For example you have Nelson Mandela, who said that it would have taken longer for South Africa to free itself of apartheid if it hadn’t been for the involvement of African-Americans. And you have people like W.E.B. DuBois who is credited as one of the originators of the concept of Pan-Africanism, who ends up dying in Ghana. You have Malcom X and his tour. You have African-American organizations like Africa Action and TransAfrica Forum that agitate for African issues. And one of my favorite examples is Martin Luther King being one of the first people to call for sanctions against South Africa. And vice-versa, you have Black Panthers that ended up in exile in Tanzania and Algeria. So there has been that solidarity.
So there is the angst, because we’re seeing each other through the veil of racism. But at the same time there is great solidarity. But behind that—and this is where the question of binaries becomes important—if you just look at the two of them then you end up with this stable either solidarity or tension between the two. There’s this recent book called Disintegration by Eugene Robinson, and it’s interesting to the extent that it shows essentially the many black Americas in the US. And it also talks about what he calls the imagined blackness, which is mostly bi-racial and first generation Africans. So if you’re just thinking about African-Americans you end up with this stable view of blackness in the US, but to the contrary it’s very very complicated. And the same thing on the African side. You have, well first, different levels of blackness. You certainly have thousands of cultures, thousands of languages, 54 countries. So again, to speak of Africans and African-Americans as a binary, then you’re missing all those complexities that end up influencing how the two relate.
kitsch: Now for some lighter questions: if you could take one course here at Cornell what would it be?
MwN: Well now this is where ego is very dangerous. I really would love to take one of my own classes. No, no. Certainly I would love to take a poetry class from Ishion Hutchinson who is my colleague here. I would like to take some fiction classes. I would love to take theory classes from Jonathan Culler, who is a senior colleague, and a major literary theorist. Certainly I would take a bunch of courses at Africana. I would like to take one on current African politics, for example. I would like to take a course on Africans and African-Americans, or the black diaspora for example. Yeah… And physics. I would love to take a physics course.
kitsch: Could you pick out one object that’s your favorite object here in your office?
MwN: Umm, hm. Well I guess it’s [he gestures to a photograph of his daughter behind him] sort of cheesy but… and I guess it’s not really an object. Let me think of a book that I really… Ah! There’s a book called The Black Count. Oh, or maybe the carvings. They come from a house where I grew up in Kenya. And I grew up seeing them, and they’re of the Mau Mau freedom fighters. They were given to my dad but I stole them when I went back. It’s about Kenyan history and its history of struggle against British colonialism.
Read his fiction and find out more about him at mukomawangugi.com