In the early 2000s, long before the advent of Spotify and music streaming services, Mukoma Wa Ngugi was a graduate student living in Boston when he went to a late night party and first heard it. The song that was playing on the stereo was a kind of blues he couldn’t place, sung in a language he couldn’t understand. This catchy tune had a particularly long tail. He thought about it years later.
A decade later, Mukoma applied for an apprenticeship at Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences. During an easy tour of the A&S faculty, he came across an essay by former professor Dagmawi Woubshet, which gave a name to the sound that had so fascinated him. It was a traditional Ethiopian song called Tizita.
“I thought this is the song I’ve been looking for all these years,” said Mukoma, now an associate professor at the Institute of Literature in English. “I spent the next three or four years listening to the same songs over and over.”
Mukoma channeled this fascination into his fourth novel “Unbury Our Dead With Song”, which will be released on September 21 by Cassava Republic Press. The novel is told by a tabloid journalist from Kenya who follows four Ethiopian musicians who fight to see who can sing the best tizita.
While the tizita is ostensibly a type of African blues, it is more than just a song or a genre. For Ethiopians, the Tizita stands for “life itself”. It is sung “through generations, through wars, marriages, deaths, divorces and births,” writes Mukoma. “Every musician, no matter how talented or popular, had to sing the song at least once in their career to be respected. … There was one caveat, however; a badly done Tizita could ruin a career. … There is no turning back from a bad Tizita. “
Even after working on the novel for several years, Mukoma still finds the ultimate meaning of Tizita a little elusive.
“It’s not a song about love. It’s not about nostalgia. It’s about the soul of the country – like a collective memory that’s bigger than anyone who listens, ”he said. “When I think of the novel, it’s really about African beauty, African aesthetics.”
“Different genres give different answers”
Mukoma’s own work also eludes a simple summary. He has published across genres and forms, from literature and detective novels to poems to essays and political commentary, even an eight-part radio play. In 2013, New African Magazine named Mukoma, who is deeply rooted in Kenya, one of the 100 Most Influential Africans, and he’s been nominated for awards like the Caine Prize for African Writing.
“One of the reasons I work in different genres is that I don’t know any better. But the real reason for African writers is that we have to do everything, ”he said. “If you’re working in a literary space where a lot of this work hasn’t been done, you have to do it yourself. We have to create these structures. But the more aesthetic reason for me is that different genres give different answers. “
For example, many of his poems have explored the legacy of the Rwandan genocide and the inexplicable question, “Why does someone wake up one day and kill their neighbor?”
For Mukoma, the intersection of the historical, the political and the personal is not just an academic exercise.
Born in Illinois, he grew up in a village outside of Nairobi, Kenya, as the son of Ngugi wa Thiong’o – an esteemed Kenyan author and long-running Nobel Prize for Literature.
“I grew up in a dictatorship where the government was actively trying to undermine our family – and the word would really be ‘terrorize’,” he said. “My father is a political writer. He was arrested and exiled. We had the police ransacking our house.
“Then in 1990 I came to the USA. But the thing about being black in the 90s is you have Rodney King. You have Amadou Diallo, ”said Mukoma. “It was not an escape, if you will, to a blissful exile. This movement itself has shaped everything I do and how I think about the world. Even my teaching. “
That semester, Mukoma held a course on Race and Enlightenment that examined how a movement pretending to advance sanity and liberation led to colonialism, slavery, and racism, all of which reverberate to this day. Mukoma encourages its students to investigate these types of contradictions – not just in others but in themselves – so that they can broaden their thinking beyond ideological consensus.
Mukoma happily admits that his own blatant contradiction can be found on the page. While much of his work has been focused on the African experience and he is fluent in Kikuyu, he has never written a full book in his own language. He is pleased that “Unbury Our Dead With Song” is being released in the USA, Great Britain and Kenya at the same time – one of his books is being published for the first time in his home country.
For the past decade, Mukoma has sought to build a literary ecosystem in which African writing can grow and flourish. In 2014, he and literary critic Lizzy Attree founded the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature to recognize writing and translation in African languages.
The award, supported primarily by the Kenyan roofing company Mabati Rolling Mills with contributions from Cornell and Cornell’s Africana Studies Center, has resulted in 10 volumes of fiction and poetry being published in Africa and national coverage there. The Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, then Vice President of the country, was the guest of honor at the award ceremony in 2019. However, it was a struggle to get attention for the award in the States.
This kind of cultural support is difficult to maintain without institutional support. Another effort launched by Mukoma, the Global South Project, brought together writers and scholars from Africa, Latin America, Asia and underrepresented groups in the West to create a dialogue for a more democratic and egalitarian world culture. But the project failed due to lack of funds.
“That was a source of frustration,” said Mukoma. “That clearly worked. But sometimes in science there is no thinking beyond a symposium or conference. “
True to its form, Mukoma is currently working on a variety of projects including a non-fiction book about Africans, African-Americans, and the generational trauma of colonization, as well as a television script about the Mau Mau – Kenyans drafted while serving in the Second World War.
“If most of these stories are told, then it is about the colonialists,” he said. “So this is a reversal. That’s what we say now: ‘That was the motivation.’ And hopefully it’s a good story. “
Mukoma continues to share this perspective at Cornell. In 2020, he teamed up with 24 other faculty members to campaign for the name of the Department of English to be changed to Department of Literatures in English to better reflect the diverse fields of study. The new name was approved in February.
“We finally have a department that is symbolically and structurally aware of the diversity of literature,” he said. “That was really unbelievable. The department recognizes the historical moment we are in. Of course, we couldn’t avoid the Black Lives Matter movement or the pandemic. I call them the twin pandemics. They shook us and we acted instead of retreating to our own corners. “