Sunday, February 10, 2013

On Partington's "War on Kwani?"

Yesterday’s Nation features an article by Stephen Derwent Partington, “War on Kwani? marks the death of literary engagement and rise of spite.” The article spotlights Kenya’s ‘literary wars,’ and highlights the regular cycle of criticism that some Kenyan academics direct against the journal Kwani? and those associated with it. However, the article does more than that: It can also be read as commentary on inter-generational conflict in contemporary Kenya.

Like many, I have read a good amount of the literary criticism in Kenyan newspapers over the past few years. And, like them, I have noticed that a disproportionate number of the articles consist primarily of academics taking pot shots at people who dare to create, particularly those in the Kwani? camp. Little is constructive about much of this criticism. In fact, as far as I can tell, most of it goes along the lines of: "Unlike us, the younger generation has failed to create anything worth acknowledging."

This is noteworthy in a nation that has preserved political power in the hands of one generation in its 50 years of independence. In every walk of life, older Kenyans cast doubt on the ability of those younger than them to carry on old traditions or build functional new ones. Interestingly, they never seem to realize that, if the younger ones are really as mediocre as they claim, then that reflects on them as mentors: They can't have done a good job teaching and mentoring if, as they claim, there is no talent in the younger generation.

I think it is definitely worth our while to ask ourselves why our elites (cultural, political and otherwise) have such a hard time handing over the baton to those who come after them. Why are they reluctant to nurture and support budding talent? Fortunately for us, Stephen D. Partington has taken it upon himself to attempt to broach this subject.

My favorite excerpts from the article follow:

“How quickly we forget? How quickly we return to valorise the theories of the very colonisers whose culture worked to oppress us many decades ago? And how spitefully we do it, relishing our role as the New Imperialists? The lazy complaints are all the same: our Kwani?-types are ‘young’, they don’t consider literature’s ‘grand themes’, they are ‘urban-not-rural’ — yes, the right-winger, Leavis, loved his organicism — they do not write according to the classic Aristotelian structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’, they are ‘popular’, they fail to submit to the censoriousness of gate-keeping ‘university experts’, they care about ‘minorities’, they are ‘vulgar’, they don’t use ‘pure linguistic forms’, they do not promote ‘traditional morality’.”

“In short, our ‘new moral formalism’ is a new conservative cowardice, an anti-reform return to the snobberies of the past when and where we could as a middle-aged middle-class mix with our own and choose not to see the slums, the young, the poor, women, and all those others whose vulgarity offends us. And while we might, in the best of worlds, hope that our academics might rise above the simplistic, petty awfulness of elitism and go ‘public’ as intellectuals, it is clear that we cannot rely upon them — or, at least, we can no longer rely upon many of our so-called ‘literary intellectuals’ to show the solidarity with us that their forebears did. Instead, we can expect the silence, in effect a turning away, that we saw from them in 2007-2008. They have not only thrown us to the wolves; to them, we are the wolves, the disgusting young who would bite and rip at the mythical glory of the world they believe we should inhabit. But we do not inhabit that world. Yet. And the Kwani?-ites know it.”

Two things stand out to me here. First is the fact that our contemporary elites have adopted the language of our one-time colonial elites. Second is their silence when faced with harsh Kenyan realities that they have surely had a hand in creating or perpetuating. You know what all of this tells me? It tells me that our cultural, political and other elites have two favorite pastimes: criticizing those who came before them, and criticizing those who follow in their footsteps. But they will not even acknowledge their own part in creating the status quo; and it doesn’t seem to occur to them that they should put themselves under the microscope.

If somebody were to ask me what our biggest challenge as Kenyans was, I would say that this was it: the inability of those at the helm to subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny they subject others to. Predictably, most of us follow suit. It is no wonder that we continue to perpetuate the injustices and inequalities that were set in place during the colonial era.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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