Hey! Is it true that Charles Mangua is dead? A colleague posed to no one specifically across the open floor office. He had stumbled on the notice of the author’s death in the obituary pages of the Daily Nation on Tuesday last week.
The shocked inquirer wearing a Christ-on-a-bicycle expression on his face only drew blank stares and bewildered silence from his audience. Someone even wondered, “Who’s Charles Mangua?”
Apparently, no one in that limited space knew the news of the writer’s passing on. In fact, had the obituary sponsors not bothered to include Son of a Woman after the name Charles Henry Mangua, the notice would largely have passed unnoticed by many of us fans who so avidly read the 1971 novel in the meadows as we looked after cattle that we forgot the name of the author. The popularity of the novel, more so its catchy title, soon outpaced the man in our psyche.
Described in a past interview with the Saturday Nation as self-effacing and unassuming, Mangua seemingly led a quiet life virtually all his 82-year sojourn on planet earth. A few taps into the keyboard did not yield much about the demise. Even by Tuesday evening, four days after the Saturday passing on of the author, the news had yet to reach Wikipedia.
One would easily say that the novelist preferred to let his writings do the talking once he wrote Son of a Woman, his debut and most famous of his works, in 1971. The following year he wrote Tail in the Mouth. But the masses couldn’t get enough of the first book and its lead character Dodge Kiunyu.
In 1986, he did a sequel, Son of a Woman in Mombasa. The two books were set in Nairobi and Mombasa cities respectively featuring urban crime in post-independence. Then came Kanina and I, published in 1994 and republished in 2000 as Kenyatta’s Jiggers. This is set on the slopes of Mount Kenya, specifically Nyeri and parts of Nyandarua during the emergency and the Mau Mau war of independence.
Mangua had said, in his interview with Saturday Nation a few years ago, Kanina and I/Kenyatta’s Jiggers should have been picked as a set-book for KCSE literature in English. But in his tribute last week ‘Academy ignoring many of our Charles Manguas’ (March 27, 2021), Tom Odhiambo lamented that Mangua’s books as well as those of his literary contemporaries like Major Mwangi, Mwangi Ruheni Mwangi Gicheru and David Mailu are hardly studied in our institutions of higher learning.
‘Popular’ versus ‘serious’
The often preferred and proffered reason is that such works are “popular” rather than “serious” literature. Of course the debate on what should constitute serious literature or whether a “popular” can never be “serious” is not about to end.
Mention the phrase “There comes a time when… ” and people remember the late former Vice President, George Saitoti. But long before Moi International Sports Centre Kasarani became the centre of a Moi succession “kisirani” for Saitoti and other Kanu stalwarts in 2002, Dodge had given us the poignant statement and some serious literary food for thought. “There comes a time,” he declares, “when one has to hold a serious meeting with oneself on questions like ‘Who am I, where am I going, where did I come from and where do I want to go?'”
Significantly, whereas Kanina and I/Kenyatta’s Jiggers has made some token appearances in university reading lists, it is academically the more eschewed Son of a Woman that has inspired more reviews and analyses even in refereed journals.
Those who think that Mangua’s books have no serious literary value should sample some of the serious articles such as Self and Nation in Kenya: Charles Mangua’s ‘Son of a Woman’ by Kathleen Greenfield (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Syntactic Defamiliarization in Charles Mangua’s ‘Son of a Woman’ by Erasmus Akiley Msuya (University of Dar es Salaam, 2016).
Greenfield did a thematic analysis of Mangua’s Son of a Woman that include individual identity, national identity, citizenship and ethnicity.
She finds it particularly revealing that the protagonist found his purpose in life in an aspiration to serve the nation in a novel whose aim is more to entertain than to edify.
Msuya’s is a textual analysis of the literary devices that Mangua uses in Son of a Woman. He focused on redundancy and word order levels of syntactic defamiliarization.
Defamiliarization is an early 20th century concept formed by Russian formalist Victor Shkolvsky, in his essay Art as Technique. He defined it as a literary device familiar objects are made to look different.
Msuya’s finding is that Son of a Woman richly woven with different forms of syntactic styles. Looking at data from the study reveals Mangua’s remarkable deftness in his works.