As I mentioned briefly in class, I am interested in the way that memory, trauma, and grief operate in Petals of Blood. Interweaved throughout the novel are questions of how these people should position themselves in relation to the past, both on a personal level and on a social level. When Wanja asks Karega, “Do you always think about the past,” his response is, “To understand the present…you must understand the past” (154). But Wanja’s response is much different. She replies, “No, I would feel better if a rope was thrown at me. Something I can catch on to…Sometimes one would like to hide the past even from oneself” (154). These replies are revealing for the speakers. Karega, the teacher, wants to find a way to navigate the present despite the traumas of the past, and Nguigi makes it explicit that Karega’s sense of the past is social and communal, in that he wants to find ways to cope with the exploitation of the colonial past. He finds it important to reconstruct the narrative of history in order to understand his place in the present. Ngugi writes that Karega “was concerned that the children…thought of Kenya as a city or a large village somewhere outside Ilmorog. How could he enlarge their consciousness so that they could see themselves, Ilmorog and Kenya, as part of a larger whole…containing the history of African people and their struggles?” (131). His goal is to instill his students with a sense of national consciousness, a sense of their place in the coherent narrative of historical events.
In contrast, Wanja, who has experienced a significant amount of private trauma, wants to be healed of her memory—she longs to forget her past in order to cope with the present. She says, “Perhaps we all carry maimed souls and we are all looking for a cure” (87). The narrative of the novel consistently looks toward ways in which to ameliorate the ills of the past, though a cure may never be found.
The very form of the novel is a reconstruction of various narratives, all concerning the events connected to the murders of Kimeria, Chui, and Mzigo, and the novel underscores the difficulty of reconstructing narrative. For example, Munira has trouble conveying his statement to the police. He says, “The officer suddenly banged the table, all patience was gone: he wanted facts, not history; facts, not sermons or poetry” (51). The implication here, I think, is that facts are never so straightforward or easy to convey. Memory is, in fact, volatile. Munira says, “I who knew Abdulla, Nyakinyua, Wanja, Karega? Have I not leafed through the heart of each? In all our conversations and schemes and remembrance…I was always struck by the razor-blade tension at the edges of our words” (54). In this passage, Munira communicates a fear of reconstructing memory because of this violence that threatens the subject. The novel conveys an unsettling sense of ambivalence concerning how (or whether) characters should formulate a coherent narrative of the past, in order to navigate the present and future.