Books

Kenyan author to read from prison memoir

Literary legend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o recounts experience that changed his life

By Laura Bulkin
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 5/28/19

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has lived an extraordinary life. In his 81 years, he has been internationally acclaimed as a writer, playwright, activist and educator. He has also endured …

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Books

Kenyan author to read from prison memoir

Literary legend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o recounts experience that changed his life

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has lived an extraordinary life. In his 81 years, he has been internationally acclaimed as a writer, playwright, activist and educator. He has also endured persecution, political imprisonment, assassination attempts and long years of exile from his Kenyan homeland.

Ngũgĩ will read from his newly released book, "Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir," Thursday (May 30) at 5:30 p.m. at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. The event is free and open to the public. A public reception, book sale and signing will follow.

The memoir opens on the night in 1977 when Ngũgĩ was taken from his home by armed police and jailed in Kenya's infamous Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, one of the largest in Africa. It was during this imprisonment that Ngũgĩ made the decision to abandon English as his primary language of creative writing, and committed himself to writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue.

He wrote the Gikuyu novel "Caitani Mutharabaini," later translated into English as "Devil on the Cross," entirely on prison-issued toilet paper, the only paper to which he had access. "Wrestling with the Devil" recounts the challenges of writing the novel under 24-hour surveillance. He captures not only the excruciating pain of being cut off from his wife and children, but also the spirit of defiance that defined his hope.

The Kenya of Ngũgĩ 's birth and youth was a British settler colony. As an adolescent, he lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence, a major theme in his early works. Ngũgĩ burst onto the literary scene in East Africa in 1962 with the performance of his first major play, "The Black Hermit," at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda, as part of the celebration of Uganda's independence.

In 1967, Ngũgĩ became a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi. During his tenure at Nairobi, Ngũgĩ championed the change of subject name from "English" to simply "Literature" to reflect world literature, with African and third world literatures at the center. With Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba, he co-authored "On the Abolition of the English Department," a declaration that sparked a continental and global debate and practices that later became the heart of postcolonial theories. "If there is need for a 'study of the historic continuity of a single culture,' why can't this be African? Why can't African literature be at the center so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?" they asked.

Ngũgĩ 's arrest, ordered by dictator Daniel Arap Moi, followed the 1977 performance of his controversial play, "Ngaahika Ndeenda" (I Will Marry When I Want). The play was sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, and unequivocally championed the cause of ordinary Kenyans and the importance of communicating with them in the languages of their daily lives.

After Amnesty International named Ngũgĩ a prisoner of conscience, an international campaign secured his release in December 1978. However, the Moi regime barred him from jobs at colleges and university in his own country.

While Ngũgĩ was in Britain for the launch and promotion of "Devil on the Cross," he was warned of a government plot to assassinate him in the Nairobi airport on his return to Kenya. This forced him into long-term exile. He taught in universities in the U.S. and the U.K, studied film in Stockholm and worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, which championed the cause of democratic and human rights.

Ngũgĩ is a recipient of 12 honorary doctorates. His novels, plays, essays and short stories have been translated into more than 30 languages. His 1986 essay "Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature" is still a seminal text studied in universities worldwide. Much of his work focuses on decolonization for African peoples, and exposing colonization's impact on language, history, literature and thought.

Taos Center for the Arts Executive Director Colette LaBouff worked with Ngũgĩ from 2002-2009 at the University of California-Irvine, where she was then associate director of the School of Humanities. "Along with being distinguished professor of comparative Llterature and English, Ngũgĩ was also director of the International Center for Writing and Translation in the School of Humanities. It was a great privilege to work with and learn from him during those years," LaBouff said. "When I arrived in Taos, I had it in mind that it would be fantastic to host Ngũgĩ at the TCA. I was thrilled to find out that he had a book recently released, so it was a great time to find out if he was interested in including Taos on his tour that includes cities all over the world. It is with tremendous excitement and honor that the TCA looks forward to hosting Ngũgĩ here in Taos. His life's work and writing is centered on the importance and value of one's own language and culture, and the deep and wide knowledge inherent in both. I feel that his life story and powerful work will resonate with our communities here in Taos. I hope Taos will come out to welcome him."

Seating is limited. Doors will open 45 minutes before the event. For more information, call (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.

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