Canon debates need not divide literary critics

Young literature scholars in Kenya prefer to study popular texts but fear upsetting the old order. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • About 90 per cent of the brilliant students of literature in Kenyan universities I have talked to so far emulate the young Turks and are not interested in the literary canon.
  • Leaning towards cultural studies, they are working on mainly 21st-century popular novels.
  • I understand why there is more interest in popular texts than in the canon. It is easier to publish on these works in fairly good journals and fulfil university graduation requirements.
  • Because of the racism in the global publishing venues, it is unlikely for global journals to publish an article on Shakespeare by a black African. We stand a better chance publishing on upcoming African writers in Africanist journals.

I sometimes hope I am wrong, but in the couple of months I have been around, I have noticed in Kenyan universities toxic inter-generational cultural wars that threaten to tear apart the local literary community.

In these wars, older critics give priority to the canon (those texts authenticated and validated by the academy to be the best representatives of high culture in a given society, such as works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Ngugi, and Achebe). On the other hand, younger new hires embrace what their established counterpart scholars dismiss as low-brow popular expressions.
Advocates of the canon regard themselves as the true literary scholars while those who study popular texts (e.g., books by David Maillu and Charles Mangua) are seen to be doing the supposedly less prestigious “cultural studies”.

The latter are trained in foreign universities, especially in Germany, US, South Africa, and France in the recent years and have brought with them new approaches to literary studies that the older generation regard as superficial fads adulterating the best that has been said and thought in the world.

Not in so many words, the younger scholars regard their established counterparts as fossils without a place in a modern university because, like the protagonist Des Esseintes in the Frenchman Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (1884), the old dons have withdrawn from society into the rarefied elitism of old libraries.

About 90 percent of the brilliant students of literature in Kenyan universities I have talked to so far emulate the Young Turks and are not interested in the literary canon.

Leaning towards cultural studies, they are working on mainly 21st-century popular novels.

I understand why there is more interest in popular texts than in the canon. It is easier to publish on these works in fairly good journals and fulfil university graduation requirements. Because of the racism in the global publishing venues, it is unlikely for global journals to publish an article on Shakespeare by a black African. We stand a better chance publishing on upcoming African writers in Africanist journals.

As the local universities become more and more vigilant against plagiarism, students are misguided to strategically avoid texts that have already been worked on. They think you cannot say anything original if you wrote, for instance, on Shakespeare or the early Ngugi.
I’m not articulate enough to participate in the debates, but I must confess I quietly support the shift from the canon. We need to study African writers other than Ngugi and Achebe to appreciate the diversity of African writing, especially in the treatment of 21st-century issues as literary themes.

Innovations in the syllabi, including during the University of Nairobi revolution that Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Anyumba, and Taban Lo Liyong led in the 1960s, come about when teachers question the fairness of the canon.

CONSERVATIVE CHOICES

Therefore, although I’m conservative in my choice of texts when teaching American undergraduates who have little background to African literature so as not trivialise African literature by focusing on what would be considered porn in an African university, I encourage Kenyan undergraduates to study popular and upcoming writers alongside the so-called serious ones. I have post-graduate students in different parts of the world writing cutting-edge work on Kwani? texts and new writers like A. Igoni Barrett, Yaa Gyasi, and Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

But among Kenyan students, there seems to be no clear motivation to move from the canon. Our students focus on fringe texts and pepper everything they say with the word “post-colonial,” seemingly unaware that everything you do in a Kenyan university is obviously post-colonial; it is in our intellectual ghettos in western universities where it is fashionable to mouth such meaningless terms to hide our insecurities and our role as agents of neo-liberal theft of African intellectual resources.

It is important to understand what gave rise to a departure from the canon in other institutions. Cultural studies emerged in England in the 1950s, when scholars from non-elite backgrounds questioned the priority the academy gave to canonical texts at the expense of works that the general population produced, consumed, and enjoyed as artistic products.

These intellectuals (e.g., Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams) encouraged the serious consideration of popular expression that changes in mass communication had brought in their wake. The most inspiring of these new approaches is the work of Stuart Hall (1932-2014) a Jamaican-born British intellectual, who produced theoretically sophisticated, thoroughly interdisciplinary, and deeply engaged analyses of reggae.

His students are now leading experts on punk rock and other forms of popular expression.

I wish our students could emulate Stuart Hall when they choose to embrace the non-canonical. An omnivorous intellectual, Stuart Hall read almost everything and brought his vast knowledge to bear on the analysis of seeming simple texts. To him, popular culture “is one of the sites where the struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged.”

But most of our students seem to have no such genuine intellectual motivation to not just confine themselves to the good old Things Fall Apart or Romeo and Juliet. They mostly pick the fringe texts because no other intellectual has read them, and it would therefore be easy to talk nonsense about a new primary text without being caught.

One of the reasons I’d encourage a student to avoid artists we have always validated as worth of serious consideration is to be able to include women writers, as our canon is so obviously male-dominated: Achebe, Beti, Oyono, Laye, Tutuola, Okigbo, Soyinka, p’Bitek, Fagunwa, Senghor, Sembene, etc. It is as if women are lesser writers.

Therefore, you take the risk of veering from the accepted texts in order to excavate the buried important voices and bring to the foreground the humanity of suppressed groups, including those members of the society who are considered derelicts, deviants, and perverts. You seize that opportunity to study the environment and other post-human members of the cosmos, disabilities, and minority sexual identities as represented in popular culture.

But I’ve noticed that even when young scholars pick a 21st-century popular text by a woman writer, gender and sexuality are not important issues to these students.

They are more interested in studying, for example, the use of flashbacks in a literary text, something they could have done using a conventional canonical book.

They also lack basic disciplinary decency. There’s one essay I read earlier this week that so depressed me because although it was about a new woman’s text, the write-up reeked of male chauvinism from the beginning to the end.

Such male students don’t cite women scholars even when their female professors have worked on similar texts or issues. Sometimes you wonder if the projects are written by rogue researchers hired from Kirinyaga Road, people who have never been to a university and have no idea about the great work women scholars in our institutions have been doing over the decades.

The focus on the non-canonical need not drive a wedge between our established scholars and their upcoming counterparts. If well researched through interviews, fieldwork, readership surveys, and other modern research instruments, the study of popular texts can elucidate representations of non-normative social practices that more established texts have little room for.

[email protected]; Twitter: @evanmwangi

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