Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o ((IPA: nɡʊɡi wá ðiɔŋɔ ); born James Ngugi; 5 January 1938) is a Kenyan writer and academic who writes primarily in Gikuyu. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri. His short story The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, is translated into 98 languages from around the world.
In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be “the general bourgeois education system”, by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances. His project sought to “demystify” the theatrical process, and to avoid the “process of alienation [that] produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers” which, according to Ngũgĩ, encourages passivity in “ordinary people”. Although his landmark play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.
His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was published in May 1964, becoming the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa.
Later that year, having won a scholarship to the University of Leeds to study for an MA, Ngũgĩ travelled to England, where he was when his second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965.The River Between, which has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and described an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya’s national secondary school syllabus. He left Leeds without completing his thesis on Caribbean literature, for which his studies had focused on George Lamming, about whom Ngũgĩ said in his 1972 collection of essays Homecoming: “He evoked for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords [sic] deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence.”
Change of name, ideology and teaching
Ngũgĩ’s 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat marked his embrace of FanonistMarxism. He subsequently renounced Christianity, writing in English, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist; he changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and began to write in his native Gikuyu. In 1967, Ngũgĩ also began teaching at the University of Nairobi as a professor of English literature. He continued to teach at the university for ten years while serving as a Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere. During this time, he also guest lectured at Northwestern University in the department of English and African Studies for a year.
While a professor at the University of Nairobi, Ngũgĩ was the catalyst of the discussion to abolish the English department. He argued that after the end of colonialism, it was imperative that a university in Africa teach African literature, including oral literature, and that such should be done with the realization of the richness of African languages.
After his release in December 1978, he was not reinstated to his job as professor at Nairobi University, and his family was harassed. Due to his writing about the injustices of the dictatorial government at the time, Ngugi and his family were forced to live in exile. Only after Arap Moi retired after serving his second and last term in 2002, 22 years later, was it safe for them to return.
During his time in prison, Ngũgĩ made the decision to cease writing his plays and other works in English and began writing all his creative works in his native tongue, Gikuyu.
His later works include Detained, his prison diary (1981), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), an essay arguing for African writers’ expression in their native languages rather than European languages, in order to renounce lingering colonial ties and to build an authentic African literature, and Matigari (translated by Wangui wa Goro), (1987), one of his most famous works, a satire based on a Gikuyu folk tale.
Ngũgĩ was Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University between 1989 and 1992. In 1992, he was guest at the Congress of South African Writers and spent time in Zwide Township with Mzi Mahola, the year he became a professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University, where he held the Erich Maria Remarque Chair. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as having been the first director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.
On 8 August 2004, Ngũgĩ returned to Kenya as part of a month-long tour of East Africa. On 11 August, robbers broke into his high-security apartment: they assaulted Ngũgĩ, sexually assaulted his wife and stole various items of value. When Ngũgĩ returned to America at the end of his month trip, five men were arrested on suspicion of the crime, including Ngũgĩ’s own nephew. In the summer 2006 the American publishing firm Random House published his first new novel in nearly two decades, Wizard of the Crow, translated to English from Gikuyu by the author.
On 10 November 2006, while in San Francisco at Hotel Vitale at the Embarcadero, Ngũgĩ was harassed and ordered to leave the hotel by an employee. The event led to a public outcry and angered both African-Americans and members of the African diaspora living in America prompting an apology by the hotel.
His recent books include Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), and Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 2009 making the argument for the crucial role of African languages in “the resurrection of African memory”, about which Publishers Weekly said: “Ngugi’s language is fresh; the questions he raises are profound, the argument he makes is clear: ‘To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank.'” This was followed by two well received autobiographical works: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), which was described as “brilliant and essential” by the Los Angeles Times, among other positive reviews.
His book The Perfect Nine, originally written and published in Gikuyu as Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (2019), was translated into English by Ngũgĩ for its 2020 publication, and is a reimagining in epic poetry of his people’s origin story. It was described by the Los Angeles Times as “a quest novel-in-verse that explores folklore, myth and allegory through a decidedly feminist and pan-African lens.” The review in World Literature Today said:
“Ngũgĩ crafts a beautiful retelling of the Gĩkũyũ myth that emphasizes the noble pursuit of beauty, the necessity of personal courage, the importance of filial piety, and a sense of the Giver Supreme—a being who represents divinity, and unity, across world religions. All these things coalesce into dynamic verse to make The Perfect Nine a story of miracles and perseverance; a chronicle of modernity and myth; a meditation on beginnings and endings; and a palimpsest of ancient and contemporary memory, as Ngũgĩ overlays the Perfect Nine’s feminine power onto the origin myth of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya in a moving rendition of the epic form.”
Fiona Sampson writing in The Guardian concluded that it is “a beautiful work of integration that not only refuses distinctions between ‘high art’ and traditional storytelling, but supplies that all-too rare human necessity: the sense that life has meaning.”
In March 2021, The Perfect Nine became the first work written in an indigenous African language to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize, with Ngũgĩ becoming the first nominee as both the author and translator of the same book