Preliminary Paper Reflections

In my previous academic work, I have been interested in the ways that American modernism responded to social losses related to events such as the disillusionment with religion and the explosion of capitalism. I am currently working on an article that examines how Winesburg, Ohio reacts to the losses of modernity through combinations of mourning and melancholia, and I argue that they require what Ruth Levitas calls secular grace in order for them to mourn effectively.

For the final paper, I intend to connect my interests to Ngugi’s Petals of Blood. To do so, I would like to explore the envisioning of futures and the operations of memory in reconstructing the narratives of history within the novel. A central question of the novel, it seems to me, is how do we grapple with the traumas of the colonial past, and navigate the suffering of the neocolonial present, while at the same time struggling to look toward a better future. How do we grieve for loss—by forgetting? –by slaying the past?

These interests lead me to the end of the novel, which puzzles me. Is it a utopic vision of the future, or a hollow and baseless dream? On one hand, Wanja’s pregnancy closes the novel with hope and promise of new life, and Karega’s newfound social solidarities give him faith in the future. Both Wanja’s second chance at a child and Karega’s sense of belonging were long desired throughout the novel. The fact that Wanja and Karega are both able to find a sense of home at the end aligns with Ruth Levitas’s conception of utopia (in her book Utopia as Method) as a state of grace—a position of reconciliation where there previously had been estrangement and a longing for wholeness. Utopia, within this view, is a method of attaining the grace of understanding others and finding a place where you belong.

But on the other hand, I vacillate over whether the ending of Petals feels contrived, or at least ambivalent. The novel as a whole seems to undercut this utopic envisioning of alternative realities. Throughout the narrative, the past constantly interrupts the present. The neocolonial political structure that replaced colonialism remains corrupt. Midway through the narrative, Karega is skeptical about the power of political science and literature (and education as a whole) to affect any concrete social change. Characters continually say that they “cannot after all escape from [their] separate though linked pasts” (285). Wanja is unable to escape her life of prostitution, though perhaps her pregnancy gestures toward a change in her life—her second chance. Is her baptism of fire enough to free her from the web of history?

My language of grace and baptism is bound up within the novel’s concern with Christianity and its potential for social change. I still do not know what to make of Munira’s extremist motivations for arson, but I do think the novel hinges on its relationship to Christianity and what that means for neocolonial Kenya. Susan J. Hubert in her article “Cultural Hybridity and Social Transformation in Petals of Blood and Burger’s Daughter” argues that Ngugi utilizes liberation theology in Petals, calling for the church to intervene in social revolution. Hubert says, “Ngugi clearly rejects the privatization of religion. In Petals…he shows the destructiveness of a belief in personal salvation (as opposed to understanding redemption in terms of societal transformation)” (55). And she cites Munira’s arson as an example. Though I am not entirely convinced of the all-encompassing accuracy of this reading, I would like to further explore the issue.

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