My paper will explore how form represents trauma in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Petals of Blood. I am interested in looking into the ways in which the formal elements of the novel work to process the trauma of the colonial past, but also envision a clear, ameliorated future. In the first half or so of the novel, the style is disjointed and voiced by multiple narrators (as several of Ngugi’s critics have explained). Patrick Williams points out that the multiple characters who come to Ilmorog in this story all carry personal traumas and unresolved histories. In their fragmented narrations, I see a cyclical inability to process the trauma of the past. However, there is a turn in the narration toward a more linear style. I would argue that at this point Petals aims to reckon with the traumas of history in order to propose a socialist, utopic future; though I question whether, as Amoko says, readers can fully understand the traumatic past (involving the murders within the plot and the suffering of the colonial past that led to these murders), or whether the novel’s ending is contrived because, as Punter and Caruth suggest, narratives constantly interrogate and remake memory—making full knowing of the traumatic past impossible.
Amoko, Apollo Obonyo. Postcolonialism in the Wake of the Nairobi Revolution: Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Idea of African Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print. Amoko is interested in Petals of Blood’s connection to the Nairobi Revolution. Amoko claims that some critics read the end of this novel as optimistic, but he argues that it is actually fraught with impossibility and despair (3). While some have read the novel as an optimistic “national allegory” that looks towards a “socialist utopia,” he argues that the novel “is far more reflective of school culture than of national culture” (69). Where this source will be most useful to me, though, is in its analysis of the novel’s form. Amoko discusses the disjointedness of the multiple narrators who tend to interrupt each other, arguing that the novel is like a “jigsaw puzzle that the reader is called upon to piece together” (73). I am interested in looking at the form of the novel in connection with Caruth’s trauma theory in order to examine the ways in which Ngugi represented postcolonial trauma, and I believe it will important to analyze the fact that Amoko believes that the reader can “fully understand” not only the murders, but the turbulent colonial past of exploitation that led to these murders (73).
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996. Print. In this book, Cathy Caruth argues that literature offers a productive lens through which to examine Freud’s conceptions of traumatic experience. She defines trauma as an event that “is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness,” but that returns to haunt the subject (4). Because it was never fully processed in the moment it occurred, the traumatic incident cannot be fully understood, but its continual return demands that the subject recognize it. Literature helpfully represents traumatic experience because, like trauma, literature “defies, even as it claims, our understanding” (5). This understanding of trauma has implications for history as well. Because the traumatic even is bound up in an essential forgetting of the event, the event “is fully evident only in connection with another place, and in another time” (17). One only comes to recognition of the traumatic event a later time and place, as the trauma recurs. So, the history of one’s trauma is bound up within other histories of other people’s traumas (24). I selected this source for my paper on Ngugi’s Petals because I am interested in the book’s literary representation of historical trauma. Throughout the beginning of the book, the narrative cyclically returns to the traumas of different characters and of colonial Ilmorog more broadly. But there seems to me to be a turn in the narrative, when histories become more straightforward, which suggests to me that Ngugi believes that trauma can be processed. He hopefully looks toward a future in which the painful problems of the colonial past can be surmounted.
Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print. Gikandi argues that, according to Ngugi, the African writer is bound up within history, even “haunted by their past” (3). Ngugi then turns to literature in order to make the past more intelligible, which questions the very difference between the disciplines of literature and history. My paper will endeavor to interpret how this means of seeing literature conflicts with or perhaps evolves out of Caruth’s understanding of the ways in which literature as a form is embedded in a “knowing and not knowing” (4).
Hooper, Glenn. “History, Historiography, and Self in Ngugi’s Petals of Blood.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 33.1 (1998): 47-62. Web. Hooper interrogates Ngugi’s vision of a “proletarian-led future” within Petals because Ngugi is invested in understanding history as necessary for construction of the self (48). Hooper says that according to Ngugi, “without a history by which people can live, the problems of answering questions about identity and community…go unanswered” (48).
Nazareth, Peter. “The Second Homecoming: Multiple Ngugis in Petals of Blood.” Marxism and African Literature. Ed. Georg M. Guelberger. London: James Currey, 1985. In this book, Nazareth examines the narrative style of Petals. He claims that the book is presented by three different “authors who coexist uneasily” in the text (122). Each of these three authors interpret the problems of Ilmorog differently and attribute them to different sources. For the purposes of my paper, understanding these narrative voices will be important to an interpretation of the ways in which trauma is processed by the narrative.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Petals of Blood. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.
Okolo, M. S. C. African Literature as Political Philosophy. London: Zed Books, 2007. Print. Okolo points out that although literature has implications for philosophy, the intersection of African philosophy and literature has been relatively uncultivated. However, such a study would be extremely relevant considering Africa’s political crises. It would be helpful to examine literature because it can imagine better alternative futures. This books analyzes Ngugi’s work to show how a philosophical reading of literature can offer understandings of African experience. Okolo’s analysis of Petals is much like Williams’ in that it considers the book as “a fictional account of Marx’s ideology of class struggle…[and] the transformation of society through an inevitable revolution that will sweep away capitalism” (3).
Punter, David. Postcolonial Imaginings: Fictions of a New World Order. London: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. Print. Punter examines how literature almost terroristically disrupts hegemonic narratives by questioning “what it is possible to remember” (128). Terrorists are those “who will not call a close to history,” much like literature will not let narratives and memory lay solid and stable (128). Literature bears a nation’s losses and continually asks “who is to blame for destruction and ruin” (130). His account does not examine Ngugi’s work in particular, but takes a wealth of postcolonial writing from across the globe into account. I certainly see this questioning of the past within Ngugi’s Petals, though I think he is more concerned to impart a coherent vision for the future.
Sicherman, Carol M. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures 20.3 (1991): 347-370. Web. Sicherman argues that Ngugi’s blurring between history and literature results in a blurring between the author, the novel’s narrators, and other characters. He claims, “The purpose of such collocations of historical and fictional characters is to make Kenyan reader reflect on their own place in the continuum of history” (351). I will incorporate Sicherman’s analysis of the ways in which the novel wrestles with the process of memory in the constructions of history and literature.
Williams, Patrick. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999. Print. Williams’ book contends that Ngugi’s writing is inextricably bound up with his life, so he chooses to move chronologically through Ngugi’s oeuvre in the process of examining the author’s personal history in connection with his writing. About Petals, Williams says that Ngugi wrote the book with a clear Marxist agenda. He says that the novel’s characters carry unsettled issues with them when they arrive in Ilmorog (79). Even though it may seem that the characters all come to this town as unrelated individuals, they are actually deeply connected. He says, “Despite social alienation, particularly as the result of capitalism, solidarity is not only possible but already exists, and truly human relations are there to be fought for and constructed” (81). The novel looks forward to a better future through collective unity—and this is what I will be interested in examining through the novel’s formal elements. Williams says that even though history repeats itself, “it is a “mistake…to confuse historical repetition and historical inevitability” (176) because the novel does indicate that “change is possible” (177).