Writers in Politics: A re-engagement with issues of literature and society by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O
Literature results from conscious acts of men and women in society. Being a product of their intellectual and imaginative activity, it is thoroughly social. The very act of writing, even at the level of the individual, implies a social relationship: one is writing about somebody for somebody. At the collective level literature embodies in word-images the tensions, conflicts and contradictions at the heart of a community’s being and becoming. It reflects, on the aesthetic plane, a community’s wrestling with its environment to make it yield the means of life – food, clothes, shelter. It is of course more than just a mechanical reflection of social reality. As one of man’s artistic activities, literature is in itself part of human self-realisation as a result of his wrestling with nature and with one another. It is also enjoyable as a process and as an end product. More importantly, it shapes our attitude to life, to the daily struggles with nature, within communities and within our individual souls and selves. It shapes our feelings. And feelings are an important component of thinking, imagination, decision making and action.
Literature, then, does not belong to ethereal planes and surreal spaces, electing to have nothing to do with the mundanity of economics, politics, race, class, history. As a process and an end, it is conditioned by these social forces and pressures because imagination takes place within economic, political, class and race contexts. Arising from its thoroughly social character, literature is partisan: it takes sides more so in a class society.
A writer after all comes from a particular class, gender, race and nation. He is a product of an actual social process of eating, drinking, learning, loving, hating, and he has developed a class attitude to all these activities in support or opposition. A writer tries to persuade his readers, to make them not only view a certain reality, but also from a certain angle of vision. The persuasion can take the form of a direct appeal on behalf of a writer’s open doctrine or an indirect one through influencing the imagination, feelings and actions of the recipient in a certain way towards certain goals and values consciously or unconsciously held by him.
A nation’s literature which is a sum total of the products of many individuals in that society is then both a reflection of that people’s collective reality and also an embodiment of that people’s way of looking at the world and their place in its making. It is partisan on the collective level because it tries to make the reader see how that nation has defined itself historically in the internal relationship of all the parts that contribute to its wholeness and the worlds around it.
In order to make economic and political occupation complete and effective, the coloniser tried also to control the cultural environment – education, religion, language, literature, songs and dances, every form of expressive practices – hoping in this way to control a people’ values, their world outlook and hence their images and definitions of self. Their ideal was to have a slave who accepted that he was a slave. Better still a slave who would actually be grateful to the master for his magnanimity in chaining him to a nobler civilisation…. The fact is a slave is never a slave until he accepts that he is a slave. Hence all those celebrated programmes of assimilation and co-option with the language of the colonizer playing a central mediating role. Mind control through culture was the key! Cultural subjugation was a necessary condition for economic and political mastery.
Amilcar Cabral has argued that ‘to dominate a nation by force of arms is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralise or paralyse its culture. For, as long as a section of the populace is able to have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation.’ Seeds of cultural opposition could so easily sprout into political resistance and even armed opposition. In such a situation the coloniser is faced with two untenable alternatives: liquidisation of the entire population or harmonisation of the ‘economic and political domination of these people with its cultural personality.’ The first alternative which implies the genocide of the indigenous population ‘creates a void which takes from the foreign domination its content and objective’ which is of course the labour of the dominated people. The second has never been confirmed by history for it is impossible to harmonise economic and political domination of a people whatever the degree of social development, with the preservation of its culture. To avoid either of these alternatives colonial imperialist domination creates theories about the coloniser and the colonised which are ‘nothing but crude racist formulations.’ Racism and racist doctrines formulated through culture become an integral part of the ‘permanent siege’ of the indigenous population.