*Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Ngugi wa Thiong’o has always insisted that his essays should be read alongside his novels: “…they have been products of the same moods and touch on similar questions and problems” (Homecoming, 1972). They indeed accompany the works of fiction as they trace the history of men and ideas in East Africa, from the hopeful days of independence to the later questioning of ways of asserting a truly African culture. They also trace the evolution of a novelist who is also a professor of literature and an international literary and political figure, required to address meetings in many parts of the world. His five collections to date reflect the change in the function of Ngugi’s essays as his public itself changes. Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972) consists of texts written from a university perspective. The author analyses the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and George Lamming, at the same time proposing to widen the curriculum. The relevance of literature in the cultural life and educational system of a newly independent country is foremost in his mind. Art has a function to fulfill; “The Writer in a Changing Society” is representative of this central preoccupation, echoing Achebe’s famous line, “The novelist is a teacher.”
Writers in Politics (1981) was written between 1970 and 1980, accompanying the publication of Petals of Blood (1977). The latter is a committed novel which is a fierce indictment of injustice in Kenyan society, yet the writer knows that the masses in whose name he intends to speak will not have access to his book in English. He reiterates the question: “…what is the relevance of literature to life?” but this time does not think that a change in school reading lists will be enough to solve problems. While the first collection is marked by the thinking of Frantz Fanon, Writers in Politics is more clearly Marxist, with references to other world literatures such as that of North Korea.
Two events radicalized his approach even further. First, in December 1977 he was detained for a year without charges after the production of a play in his original language Gikuyu was promptly banned by the regime; the experience is related in Detained (1981), both an autobiography and a meditation. Second, in 1982, an attempted coup took place in Nairobi: while order was restored, Ngugi was not allowed to return to his country and was forced to remain in exile. Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983) is an angry account of the way opposition is quashed; parallels are drawn with the liberation struggles of the Mau Mau period. Recent events, with photographic documents about the banned play and detained students, figure prominently in the book, yet even when using these images of violent conflict, Ngugi still pursues his reflection on the part played by oral and written art in “National Identity and Imperialist Domination: The Crisis of Culture in Africa Today.”
The book that follows is a meditation on the central problem of the choice between English or African languages for literature. By 1980 Ngugi had decided to write his fiction in Gikuyu. On this topic, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) collects essays which were mostly delivered as university lectures. The focus of the work is clear, and the debate is set at a consistently high level.
This volume is an important contribution to the discussion of cultural assertion in the face of various types of domination.
The most recent volume, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993), gathers texts which for the most part were first spoken addresses at various occasions, often of a political nature. It covers no new ground in its attack on the hegemony of a new multinational order. Ngugi asks for action and cultural resistance: the title, a kind of retort to V.S. Naipaul’s more inward-looking Finding the Centre (1984), proposes a shift away from the neo-colonial metropolis to a world where a plurality of centers would engage in a fruitful dialogue.
Many of these essays are historical landmarks, mapping the development and the assertion of an African world view. Ngugi is an intellectual novelist, a theoretician who with exacting honesty takes pains to analyze his position in an explicit, sometimes dogmatic corollary to his works of art. The essays clarify the issues, whereas the polyphonic novels allow room for debate, complexity, and contradiction. His essays are always extremely clear, even didactic, with logical developments and well-organized structures, often giving examples in the shape of parables. At his worst, and particularly in the last volume, Ngugi can give a reductive political sermon, often reiterating ideas expressed in other Marxist-inspired writings. At his best, however, he can summon all the resources of spoken rhetoric: he is a compelling speaker, and several essays are given life by rhythmic assertions and sarcastic questioning, a polemic mode that carries a great deal of energy. In many ways, once the political immediacy recedes, the texts with the most appeal are of two kinds: the pieces of literary criticism, which are among the best by an African writer, and the most personal moments, the “grains of sand” which, being intimate, reveal the vulnerable human being, the man whose love of life is the profound motivating source of so much didactic energy. “Matigari, and the Dreams of One East Africa,” an essay from Moving the Centre devoted to the identity of East Africa, has at its core a description of a fishing party in Dar es Salaam. The evocation of the tastes, the smells, the voices of Tanzania so close to inaccessible Kenya across the border contains the pleasures and the pain of the exile. Such passages display the best qualities of the fictional prose as well as the firm intellectual control of the essays. As such they are likely to endure beyond the time and place that occasioned them.
Originally wrote as James T.Ngugi. Born 5 January 1938 in Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kiambu District. Studied at Alliance High School, Gikuyu; Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, 1959–63, B.A., 1963; Leeds University, Yorkshire, 1964–67, B.A., 1964. Married Nyambura, 1961: five sons and three daughters. Columnist of “As I See It,” early 19605, and reporter, 1964, Nairobi Daily Nation; editor, Zuka, Nairobi, 1965– 70; lecturer in English, University College, Nairobi, 1967–69; fellow in creative writing, Makerere University, Kampala, 1969–70; visiting lecturer, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1970–71; senior lecturer, associate professor, and chair of the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, 1971–77. Imprisoned under the Public Security Act, 31 December 1977–12 December 1978. Was staying in London in 1982 when an attempted coup in Kenya made it impossible for him, a well-known opponent to the regime, to return to his country: lived for six years in London; taught at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1989–92, and New York University, from 1992; also gives lectures and talks in various universities and at conferences around the world.
Awards: East African Literature Bureau Award, 1964.
Essays and Related Prose
Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, 1972
Writers in Politics, 1981
Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, 1983
Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986
Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, 1993
Other writings: four novels in English (Weep Not, Child, 1964; The River Between, 1965; A Grain of Wheat, 1967; Petals of Blood, 1977), short stories (Secret Lives, 1975),
two novels originally in Gikuyu (Devil on the Cross, 1982; Matigari, 1989), the autobiographical Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981), and several plays, alone or in collaboration.
Sicherman, Carol, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1957–1987, London and New York: Zell, 1989
Cook, David, and Michael Okenimpke, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings, London: Heinemann, 1983
Sicherman, Carol, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Making of a Rebel: A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance, London and New York: Zell, 1990
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