THE “CAINE PRIZE AESTHETIC,” according to Helon Habila, is a kind of literary pathology to produce works of writing that fixate on all that ails Africa: poverty, wars, child soldiers, rape, bloodshed, corruption, and massacre. This pathology, as critics have long lamented, presents an exotic, often violent continent.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s latest novel, Mrs. Shaw, has the characteristics of the same script: a violent African state, mutilated and charred bodies, a society under siege, and a vulnerable population. The narrative begins with a massacre in Kwatee, a fictional African nation that mirrors Kenya in many ways: the home country of Mukoma and his father, the eminent African writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Kwatee’s dictator uses torture and massacre to silence members of “the movement,” an opposition group trying to overthrow him and return the country to democratic rule. While the story at first appears to be another example of the “Caine Prize aesthetic,” there is much more at work here. Mukoma’s story draws out the universal ways in which the nation (or its myth) is always founded on exclusions and violence — be it in Africa, in the Global North, or elsewhere.
Mrs. Shaw opens with a scene of violent repression: wounded Kalumba, the story’s protagonist, fleeing from state agents through the bushes. He soon witnesses a massacre that includes Baba Ogum, the father of his best friend, Ogum. Although Baba Ogum’s name appeared on a state-sponsored target list, Kalumba never expected the old preacher to die with such violence. The only witness to the atrocity, Kalumba recalls how the “rebels” are immolated, then buried in an unmarked grave.
Where the protagonist of Mukoma’s earlier novel, Nairobi Heat, leaves Wisconsin for Nairobi to investigate a crime, in Mrs. Shaw Kalumba flees to the United States. He enrolls in a graduate program in African history and literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (the same institution where Mukoma, now an assistant professor of English at Cornell, obtained his doctorate degree), and enters the lecture circuit, giving talks on Kwatee and the condition of exile. Kalumba may have temporarily escaped the instability in Kwatee, but he still feels the alienation that exile inflicts on its victims.
He soon meets two other exiles, one of which is Mrs. Shaw: the wife of a British colonial resident in pre-independence Kwatee, and now a retired professor of African history at Madison. Kalumba learns that she came to the United States after the death of her husband, a brutal colonial officer. The official story is that pro-independence African revolutionaries murdered her husband, but she reveals to Kalumba that she killed him and escaped to the United States with his skull. The other exile Kalumba encounters is Melissa, who becomes his girlfriend. Melissa is the daughter of a Puerto Rican nationalist named Rafael, incarcerated in an American prison for allegedly making bombs.
The triangle between the three characters demonstrates the globalization of state violence at the heart of this story. From his interactions with Melissa, Mrs. Shaw, and Rafael, who they visit in prison, Kalumba is exposed to stories of state-sponsored violence that transcend Africa. Kalumba is soon immersed in the United States’ own history of genocide, such as the decimation of Native American communities during the “discovery” of America. On a visit to Cape Cod, he reminds readers that underneath the beauty of the sea lies the drowned black bodies of those who tried to escape slavery. At various turns, Kalumba is exposed to modern pathologies of American xenophobia and state violence, channeling our contemporary moment, as the country grapples with police violence and a widening paranoia around immigration.
What emerges in Mrs. Shaw is the cyclical nature of a postcolonial nation-state returning, over and over again, to its violent origins. Yet Mukoma is just as critical toward revolutionary movements that they themselves cannot escape the pathologies of violence. Back in Kwatee, we learn that the opposition movement agrees to keep silent about the massacre Kalumba witnesses in exchange for the release of political prisoners and a relaxation of oppressive measures. Even Ogum, whose father was a victim, agrees to stay silent in the name of political exigency. When Kalumba returns to the country and insists on revealing what he knows, he too becomes a victim in a final reckoning. The reality is that the path of violence and oppression can be tread by all — whether it be the dictator of a state, or the rebellion that stands against it.
Significantly, Mrs. Shaw is dedicated to Thomas Sankara, Ruth First, and Maurice Bishop, all three revolutionaries dedicated to anti-imperialism, and who gave their lives to the cause of their nations. As president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, Thomas Sankara revolutionized governance in his country, lambasted France’s imperial tendencies, and pivoted the country toward economic stability and self-sufficiency. He was later deposed and assassinated in a coup led by Blaise Compaore, his close ally. Compaore took over power and reigned until 2014, when he was overthrown for attempting to extend his stay in office. An arrest warrant has just been issued for Compaore’s arrest for his involvement in Sankara’s death as I write this piece. Ruth First, an anti-Apartheid activist, was killed in exile while in Mozambique when she opened a parcel bomb addressed to her. Maurice Bishop, a revolutionary who led Grenada from 1979 to 1983, died after he was deposed by his erstwhile lieutenants. All three revolutionaries eschewed Western imperialism and state-sponsored violence, and paid with their lives.
It’s worth noting that the stories of these three revolutionaries all share some degree of tandem to Western powers. It is not a coincidence that the United States invaded Grenada immediately after Bishop’s death. Although the United States claimed American lives were at risk during the coup that ousted Bishop, the invasion was also meant to check communist influence on the Island. Sankara’s fall took place after he withdrew from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and nationalized state assets. Ruth First died fighting against an apartheid state that long had the support of Western countries including Britain and the United States (it’s worth noting that Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008, and both the U.S. and Britain actively worked to weaken United Nations resolutions that criticized apartheid). With his dedication, Mukoma portrays inspiring examples of revolutionary leaders, even as he further inculpates the Global North in the violence perpetrated against the South.
The dedication of the novel to Ruth First also speaks to another important theme of the novel: the place of women in history and nation formation. If the story of South Africa has mostly been about Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Chris Hani, and other male fighters, Mukoma’s dedication pushes its readers to consider her-story, to foreground the roles of women in national struggles.
Mrs. Shaw is a treatise on traumas, individual and collective, but it is also a document on working through these physical and psychological wounds through the technologies of writing. As Kalumba writes in his diary, he works through the pain of exile and is able to articulate his future, his return home, and what post-exile life would mean for him. For Mrs. Shaw, the photographs of her younger years allow her to work through the pains of losing her mind to Alzheimer’s disease. We can also read her husband’s skull, which she kept so diligently, as an inscription of both the pains he inflicted on her and of her elision from the historical records of Kwatee; the skull is equally a canvas demonstrating her agency.
We can read this novel in conversation with other recent African writings dealing with state violence, the condition of exile, and the immigrant experience — Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names — to name just a few. Like Mukoma, these writers reject the old dichotomies of a parochial sense of nation and belonging in order to reach beyond national boundaries.
 Habila, Helon. “We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo — review.” The Guardian. 20 June 2013.