Ngugi wa Thiong'o 1938–

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o 1938–

(James T. Ngugi)

PERSONAL: Original name, James Thiong'o Ngugi; born January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya; married; children: five. Education: Makerere University, B.A., 1963; University of Leeds, B.A., 1964.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o William Heinemann Ltd., 15 Queen St., London W1X 8BE, England.

CAREER: Teacher in East African schools, 1964–70; University of Nairobi, Kenya, lecturer in English literature, 1967–77, became senior lecturer and chair of literature department; New York University, New York, NY, Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages, 1992–2002; University of California—Irvine, professor of English and comparative literature and head of International Centre for Writing and Translation, 2002–. Creative writing fellow, Makerere University, 1969–70; visiting lecturer, Northwestern University, 1970–71.

AWARDS, HONORS: Dakar Festival of Negro Arts award, 1965, and the East African Literature Bureau award, both for Weep Not, Child; Nonino Prize, 2001, for body of work.


Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, Heinemann (London, England), 1972, Lawrence Hill, 1973.

Secret Lives, and Other Stories, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1974, Lawrence Hill, 1975.

Petals of Blood (novel), Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1977.

(With Micere Githae Mugo) The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1977, Swahili translation by the authors published as Mzalendo kimathi, c. 1978.

Mtawa Mweusi, Heinemann (London, England), 1978.

Caitaani mutharaba-ini, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1980, translation by the author published as Devil on the Cross, Zimbabwe Publishing, 1983.

Writers in Politics: Essays, Heinemann (London, England), 1981, revised, 1997.

Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, Heinemann (London, England), 1981.

Njamba Nene na mbaathi i mathagu (juvenile), Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1982.

(Coauthor and translator with Ngugi wa Mirii) I Will Marry When I Want (play), Heinemann (London, England), 1982.

Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, New Beacon, 1983.

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.

Writing against Neocolonialism, Vita, 1986.

Matigari ma Njiruungi, Heinemann (London, England), 1986, translation by Wangui published as Matigari, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.

Njambas Nene no Chiubu King'ang'i, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.

Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (juvenile), translation by Waugui wa Goro, Africa World, 1989.

Njamba Nene's Pistol (juvenile), translation by Waugui, Africa World, 1989.

Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Heinemann (London, England), 1992.

Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.


The Black Hermit (play; first produced in Nairobi in 1962), Mekerere University Press, 1963, Humanities, 1968.

Weep Not, Child (novel), introduction and notes by Ime Ikeddeh, Heinemann (London, England), 1964, P. Collier, 1969.

The River Between (novel), Humanities, 1965.

A Grain of Wheat (novel), Heinemann, 1967, 2nd edition, Humanities, 1968.

This Time Tomorrow (play; includes The Reels and The Wound in the Heart; produced and broadcast in 1966, also broadcast on BBC Africa Service in 1967), East African Literature Bureau, 1970.


E.A. Komey and Ezekiel Mphahlele, editors, Modern African Short Stories, Faber, 1964.

W.H. Whiteley, editor, A Selection of African Prose, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Neville Denny, editor, Pan African Short Stories, Nelson, 1965.

Oscar Ronald Dathorne and Willfried Feuser, editors, Africa in Prose, Penguin (New York, NY), 1969.


Contributor of stories to Transition and Kenya Weekly News. Editor of Zuka and Sunday Nation (Nairobi).

SIDELIGHTS: Novelist, dramatist, essayist, and literary critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o is East Africa's most prominent writer. Known to many simply as Ngugi, he has been described by Shatto Arthur Gakwandi in The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa as a "novelist of the people," for his works show his concern for the inhabitants of his native country, Kenya, who have been oppressed and exploited by colonialism, Christianity, and in recent years, by black politicians and businessmen. As Africa Today contributor D. Salituma Wamalwa observed: "Ngugi's approach to literature is one firmly rooted in the historical experience of the writer and his or her people, in an understanding of society as it is and a vision of society as it might be."

Throughout his career as a writer and professor, Ngugi has worked to free himself and his compatriots from the effects of colonialism, Christianity, and other non-African influences. In the late 1960s, for example, Ngugi and several colleagues at the University of Nairobi successfully convinced school officials to transform the English Department into the Department of African Languages and Literature. Shortly thereafter Ngugi renounced his Christian name, James, citing Christianity's ties to colonialism. He took in its place his name in Gikuyu (or Kikuyu), the dominant language of Kenya. Ngugi strengthened his commitment to the Kenyan culture in 1977, when he declared his inten-tion to write only in Gikuyu or Swahili, not English. In response to a query posed in an interview for Journal of Commonwealth Literature concerning this decision, Ngugi stated "Language is a carrier of a people's culture, culture is a carrier of a people's values; values are the basis of a people's self-definition—the basis of their consciousness. And when you destroy a people's language, you are destroying that very important aspect of their heritage … you are in fact destroying that which helps them to define themselves … that which embodies their collective memory as a people."

Ngugi's determination to write in Gikuyu, combined with his outspoken criticisms of both British and Kenyan rule, have posed threats to his security. In 1977 Ngugi's home was searched by Kenyan police, who confiscated nearly one hundred books then arrested and imprisoned Ngugi without a trial. At the time of his arrest, Ngugi's play Ngaahika Ndena (translated as I Will Marry When I Want), coauthored with Ngugi wa Mirii, had recently been banned on the grounds of being "too provocative," according to American Book Review contributor Henry Indangasi; in addition, his novel Petals of Blood, a searing indictment of the Kenyan government, had just been published in England. Although Ngugi was released from prison a year later, his imprisonment cost him his professorship at the University of Nairobi. When his theatre group was banned by Kenyan officials in 1982, Ngugi, fearing further reprisals, left his country for a self-imposed exile in London.

Ngugi chronicles his prison experience in Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, and expresses his political views in other nonfiction works such as Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. He has received the most critical attention, however, for his fiction, particularly his novels. Ngugi's first novel Weep Not, Child deals with the Mau Mau rebellion against the British administration in the 1950s, and his third novel A Grain of Wheat concerns the aftermath of the war and its effects on Kenya's people. Although critics describe the first novel as somewhat stylistically immature, many comment favorably on the universality of its theme of the reactions of people to the stresses and horrors of war and to the inevitable changes brought to bear on their lives.

In contrast, several reviewers believe that A Grain of Wheat fulfills the promise of Ngugi's first novel. A Grain of Wheat portrays four characters who reflect upon the events of the Mau Mau rebellion and its consequences as they await the day of Kenyan independence, December 12, 1963. G.D. Killam explained in his book An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi: "Uhuru Day, the day when independence from the colonial power is achieved, has been the dream of each of these figures from their schooldays. But there is little joyousness in their lives as they recall over the four days their experiences of the war and its aftermath."

In their book Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings, David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe praised the "almost perfectly controlled form and texture" of A Grain of Wheat. Killam commented: "A Grain of Wheat is the work of a writer more mature than when he wrote his first two books…. In A Grain of Wheat [Ngugi] takes us into the minds of his characters, sensibilities resonant with ambiguities and contradictions, and causes us to feel what they feel, to share in significant measure their hopes an fears and pain." Shatto Arthur Gakwandi similarly observed in The Novel an Contemporary Experience in Africa: "The general tone of A Grain of Wheat is one of bitterness and anger. The painful memories of Mau Mau violence still overhang the Kikuyu villages as the attainment of independence fails to bring the cherished social dreams." Gakwandi added: "While the novel speaks against the harshness of colonial oppression, it is equally bitter against the new leaders of Kenya who are neglecting the interests of the peasant masses who were the people who made the greatest sacrifices during the war of liberation. Ngugi speaks on behalf of those who, in his view, have been neglected by the new government."

Petals of Blood, Ngugi's fourth novel, is considered his most ambitious and representative work. Like A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood describes the disillusionment of the common people in post-independence Kenya. Killam noted, however, that in Petals of Blood Ngugi "widens and deepens his treatment of themes which he has narrated and dramatized before—themes related to education, both formal and informal; religion, both Christian and customary; the alienation of the land viewed from the historical point of view and as a process which continues in the present; the struggle for independence and the price paid to achieve it." Petals of Blood is also described as Ngugi's most overtly political novel. A West Africa contributor noted an ideological shift in the novel "from the earlier emphasis on nationalism and race questions to a class analysis of society." Critics cite in particular the influence of both Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, the latter of whom, according to Killam, "places the thinking of Marx in the African context." In World Literature Written in English Govind Narian Sharma commented: "Whereas traditional religious and moral thought has attributed exploi-tation and injustice in the world to human wickedness and folly, Ngugi, analyzing the situation in Marxist terms, explains these as 'the effect of laws of social development which make it inevitable that at a certain stage of history one class, pursuing its interests with varying degrees of rationality, should dispossess and exploit another.'"

Petals of Blood concerns four principle characters, all being held on suspicion of murder: Karega, a teacher and labor organizer; Munira, headmaster of a public school in the town of Ilmorog; Abdulla, a half-Indian shopkeeper who was once a guerrilla fighter during the war for independence; and Wanja, a barmaid and former prostitute. "Through these four [characters]," wrote Civia Tamarkin in the Chicago Tribune Book World, "Ngugi tells a haunting tale of lost hopes and soured dreams, raising the simple voice of humanity against the perversity of its condition." American Book Review contributor Henry Indangasi describes Petals of Blood this way: "Through numerous flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, and lengthy confessions, a psychologically credible picture of the characters, and a vast canvas of Kenya's history is unfolded."

Several reviewers note that Ngugi's emphasis on the economic and political conditions in Kenya at times overshadows his narrative. The West Africa contributor explains: "Petals of Blood is not so much a novel as an attempt to think aloud about the problems of modern Kenya: the sharp contrast between the city and the countryside, between the 'ill-gotten' wealth of the new African middle-class and the worsening plight of the unemployed workers and peasants." Charles R. Larson expressed a like opinion in World Literature Today: "Petals of Blood is not so much about these four characters (as fascinating and as skillfully drawn as they are) as it is about political unrest in post-independence Kenya, and what Ngugi considers the failures of the new black elite (politicians and businessmen) to live up to the pre-independence expectations." Foreshadowing Ngugi's 1977 arrest, Larson concludes, "In this sense Petals of Blood is a bold venture—perhaps a risky one—since it is obvious that the author's criticisms of his country's new ruling class will not go unnoticed."

Critics also maintain that this emphasis lends a didactic tone to the novel. Larson, for instance, commented in the New York Times Book Review: "The weakness of Ngugi's novel as a work of the creative imagination ultimately lies in the author's somewhat dated Marxism: revolt of the masses, elimination of the black bourgeois; capitalism to be replaced with African socialism. The author's didacticism weakens what would otherwise have been his finest work." New Yorker contributor John Updike similarly observed that "the characters … stagger and sink under the politico-symbolical message they are made to carry." World Literature Today contributor Andrew Salkey, on the other hand, offered this view: "It's a willfully diagrammatic and didactic novel which also succeeds artistically because of its resonant characterization and deadly irony. It satisfies both the novelist's political intent and the obligation I know he feels toward his art."

Despite these reservations, the majority of critics concur that Petals of Blood is an important literary contribution. Sharma, for example, wrote that "Ngugi's Petals of Blood is a complex and powerful work. It is a statement of his social and political philosophy and an embodiment of his prophetic vision. Ngugi provides a masterly analysis of the social and economic situation in modern Kenya, a scene of unprincipled and ruthless exploitation of man by man, and gives us a picture of the social and moral consequences of this exploitation." Cook and Ikenimkpe state that Petals of Blood "stands as a rare literary achievement: with all its faults upon it, [it is still] a skillfully articulated work which in no degree compromises the author's fully fledged radical political viewpoint." Indangasis concluded: "In many senses, literary and nonliterary, Petals of Blood will remain a major but controversial contribution to African literature, and the literature of colonised peoples."

Controversy was also prevalent following the 1986 publication of Ngugi's second novel in Gikuyu, titled Matigarima Njiruungi. Set in an unspecified location, although critics are quick to point out the area's similarities to Kenya, the story centers around the title character, whose name translates as "the patriots who survived the bullets." The tale finds Matigari who once used violence in the fight for his people's liberation, leaving the forest to reclaim his home and reunite his family through peaceful means. After discovering that the heirs of his oppressors have gained control of the house, he is soon arrested. He escapes, embarking on a quest for truth and justice that ends as he is confined to a mental hospital. He again eludes his captors, resolving that "armed power of the people" is needed for justice to prevail. The novel concludes on an ominous note as Matigari burns the house and is attacked by police dogs.

"The publication of Matigari in Kenya fired the imagination of peasants and workers in a way that closely paralleled the hero's effect on their fictional counter-parts," reported David Maughan-Brown in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers. "Kenya's rulers understood the message only too well," explained Times Literary Supplement's Richard Gibson, adding "at first the police actually searched for the mythical Matigari. Failing to lay hands on him, they seized all the copies they could find of the book." Maughan-Brown concluded: "The 'arrest' of his book effectively consigns Ngugi to a double exile: with Ngugi physically cut off from the peasants and workers in Kenya, who are the source of his inspiration, the banning of his book means that he cannot, through his fiction, communicate with those for whom he writes."



Bailey, Diana, Ngugi wo Thiong'o: "The River Between," a Critical View, edited by Yolande Cantu, Collins, 1986.

Bjorkman, Ingrid, Mother, Sing for Me; People's Theatre in Kenya, Zed Books, 1989.

Black Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale, Volume 3, 1992.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 36, 1986.

Cook, David and Michael Okenimkpe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings, Heinemann, 1983.

Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, Africana Publishing, 1977.

Killam, G. D., An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi, Heinemann, 1980.

Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1972.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, Heinemann, 1981.

Palmer, Eustace, An Introduction to the African Novel, Africana Publishing, 1972.

Palmer, Eustace, The Growth of the African Novel, Heinemann, 1979.

Robson, Clifford B., Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Macmillan (London, England), 1979.

Roscoe, Adrian, Uhuru's Fire: African Literature East to South, Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Tibble, Ann, African/English Literature, Peter Owen (London, England), 1965.

Tucker, Martin, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967.


African Literature Today, number 5, 1971; Number 10, 1979.

Africa Today, Volume 33, number 1, 1986.

American Book Review, summer, 1979.

Books Abroad, autumn, 1967; spring, 1968.

Books in Canada, October, 1982.

Chicago Tribune Book World, October 22, 1978.

Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 1978; September 5, 1986.

Iowa Review, spring-summer, 1976.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature, September, 1965, number 1, 1986.

Listener, August 26, 1982.

Michigan Quarterly Review, fall, 1970.

New Republic, January 20, 1979.

New Statesman, October 20, 1972; July 24, 1981; June 18, 1982; August 8, 1986.

New Yorker, July 2, 1979.

New York Times, May 10, 1978, November 9, 1986.

New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1978.

Observer (London, England), June 20, 1982.

Times Literary Supplement, January 28, 1965; November 3, 1972; August 12, 197; October 16, 1981; June 18, 1982; May 8, 1987.

Washington Post, October 9, 1978.

West Africa, February 20, 1978.

World Literature Today, spring, 1978; fall, 1978; spring, 1981; autumn, 1982; summer, 1983; winter, 1984; fall, 1987.

World Literature Written in English, November, 1979, autumn, 1982.