Anglophone heritage of literary criticism in Kenya

Our literature, written in English, is deeply entwined with colonial era

In Summary

• Literary critics do not merely critique but collaborate with writers

Literature and history
Literature and history

King Charles III marked his inaugural diplomatic mission to a Commonwealth nation, emphasising Britain’s enduring commitment to this global organisation since World War II, in the recently-concluded four-day state visit to Kenya. This visit bespoke of profound historical realities and paradoxes, deeply interwoven with the colonial past, forging a lasting connection between the United Kingdom and Kenya.

During his visit, the king emphasised the theme of shared history and heritage, rooted in the imperial era of British colonial rule in Kenya. The colonial state created by Britain governed Kenya for more than seven decades until its hard-won independence in 1963, leaving a complex legacy that profoundly impacted Kenya’s cultural, political and economic identity.

Our celebration of the 60th year of Independence adds weight to the sovereign’s visit, underscoring the lasting bond between these two nations. This milestone serves as a poignant reminder of the remarkable journey from colonial subjugation to a sovereign and independent Kenya, marked by trials and triumphs to this very day.

An intriguing modern connection arises from the fact that the current UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has Kenyan roots, highlighting the ongoing intertwining of these two nations’ histories even at the highest levels of leadership. Our President shares a name with the king’s first son and heir apparent, William.

However, a more serious abiding tie between the two nations is the Anglophone culture and heritage. It is exemplified poignantly through the English language and the literary history of the Anglophone world and English literary criticism.

This rich linguistic-cum-literary tapestry of twined history and heritage sets the stage for exploring the role of the literary critic in Kenyan literature today. As an enterprise of great pith, literary criticism, like the king’s visit, delves into shared heritage and cultural evolution of literary cultures. It is not a simple, fault-finding arena but one whose every and very essence transcends time and space.

As GK Chesterton, one of the most profound literary critics of the past century, wisely noted, “What embitters the world is not excess of criticism but absence of self-criticism.” Literary critics in Kenya serve as stewards of self-criticism, evaluating the past, present and future of Kenyan literatures. They do not merely critique but collaborate with writers, fostering a rich understanding of their works.

The history of literature in Kenya, written in English, is deeply entwined with the British colonial era. Colonial governance, schools, churches and judicial systems institutionalised English within Kenyan society drop by drop, especially after our motherland’s transition to a crown colony a century ago. The Devonshire Whitepaper of 1923 further cemented the formalisation of Englishness, nurturing its systematic growth among indigenous Kenyans.

At the peak of this historical juncture, English critics such as TS Eliot, GK Chesterton, FR Leavis and his wife Queenie Dorothy Leavis, and their mentee IA Richards, played pivotal roles in shaping the world of literary criticism. Their ideas and books, including Eliot’s modernist thought and Richards’ magnum opus, Practical Criticism (1929), became foundational not only in Britain but also in its colonies, including Kenya.

The journey continued with the establishment of English departments in colonial universities. At Makerere, notable figures like Prof Alan Warner and his wife Phylis introduced English canon and thought to students from across East Africa, laying the foundation for Kenyan literary pioneers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jonathan Kariara and Rebecca Njau.

In the late 1960s, the University of Nairobi decolonised its English Department, and the rise of Black Aesthetics and Marxism in the 1970s marked a shift in Kenyan literary criticism. Critics such as Simon Gikandi and Chris L Wanjala championed postcolonial practice, emphasising contextual and ideological interpretations of literary works. They encouraged commitment and rejected superficial aesthetics.

These shifts in the practice of literary criticism provide valuable insights into the dynamic interplay of culture, history and societal change. In Anglophone traditions in our literature, the role of the literary critic is more vital than ever. Critics act as cultural stewards, navigating the evolving terrain of literature.

Much like a poet such as myself crafting verses resonating with shared history and heritage, the literary critic analyses creative works. Critics illuminate the aesthetic beauty, function and societal significance of these works. They are not detached observers but informed and expressive thinkers, sharing valuable perspectives that artists find invaluable.

In a world touted to be in the information and knowledge era, cultivating a critical Kenyan, capable of navigating the intricacies of the de-colonial and digitised global village, is necessary. Our professors always thundered incessantly, “No writer or art exists in a vacuum.” The interdependence between art and life is intimate, and their harmony shapes flourishing societies and cultures throughout history.

A literary critic in the English-speaking world transcends the role of a mere analyst. They synthesise intellectual depth with poetic resonance, embarking on a journey into the heart of human existence.

Critics unravel the hidden philosophies within texts, offering readers an intellectual feast. They become historians, connecting past and present, and nurturing mentors, enriching aspiring writers. The critic’s meticulous analysis reveals not only a text’s meaning but also profound insights into the human condition, philosophical depth and a connection to our roots, enhancing writing skills.

The old Makererean Peter Nazareth of Uganda, a contemporary of Ngugi, once emailed me and guided me that, in our part of the world, the literary critics are not mere spectators but knowledgeable, expressive thinkers, offering valuable insights that artists cherish. They must passionately pursue reading, just as writers passionately pursue their craft.

This equipoise between critic and writer forms the core of any literary tradition, local or global. In a world inundated with information and disinformation, nurturing a critical populace, using education, adept at navigating the complexities of our 60-year-old motherland, is essential.

A society that disregards art critics, and critics in other domains, is destined to decay. This is true both within our anglophone literary heritage and across our art traditions in our African languages.

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