It’s Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s 82nd birthday! The prolific legend has published 34 books in total. His fictional works include seven novels: Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967, 1992), Petals of Blood (1977), Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross, 1980), Matigari ma Njiruungi (1986), Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow, 2006), and Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (2018), published in Gikuyu; and two short story collections: A Meeting in the Dark (1974) and Secret Lives, and Other Stories (1976). He has published four memoirs: Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981), Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010), In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening (2016).
In addition, Ngūgī has published thirteen essay collections and nonfictional texts: Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972), Writers in Politics: Essays (1981), Education for a National Culture (1981), Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), Mother, Sing For Me (1986), Writing against Neo-Colonialism (1986), Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom (1993), Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: The Performance of Literature and Power in Post-Colonial Africa (1998), Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009), Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire (2013), and Secure the Base (2016).
Ngūgī has also published four plays: The Black Hermit (1963), This Time Tomorrow (1970), The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976), and Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria ngerekano (I Will Marry When I Want, 1977); and three children’s books: Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (1986), Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (1988), and Njamba Nene’s Pistol (1990).
In honor of Ngūgī’s life and works, here are five snippets from introductions written by five African authors to five of his books that were republished by Penguin Random House as part of their African Writers Series.
Introduction to Weep Not, Child by Ben Okri
Image of Okri via SCMP.
[Ngūgī] would later write his novels in Kikuyu and translate them himself, but he wrote Weep Not Child in English, and in it you can hear an undercurrent of the Kikuyu language, its cadence, its directness in the formal prose – a kind of manifestation in English of the reality, the tone, the coloration of Kikuyu life, a seeping through of one language into another, giving the novel it’s rich African feeling.
Introduction to The River Between by Uzodinma Iweala
Image of Iweala via Radcliffe Institute.
It is through Waiyaki that we see the question that animates Ngūgī ’s body of work: How can you possibly cure the disease with the disease itself? The ills of colonialism cannot be treated with the tools of colonialism. Ngūgī pushes this idea further, suggesting that to assume that colonial tools can heal cultural rifts is to exhibit a lack of respect for indigenous cultures.
Introduction to A Grain of Wheat by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Image of Gurnah via Penguin Random House.
Ngūgī’s own use of [Conrad’s] idea of redemptive language in A Grain of Wheat is more equivocal, not to point to its inescapable duplicity, but to demonstrate the unavoidable inhumanity of sacrifice. Mugo rightly insists on his human need to live as he chooses, but in the argument of this novel to live alone is a pathology, and to live in a community, especially one has historically oppressed as this, requires a sacrifice of those needs. So Kihika signifies an inhumane heroism that is necessary for freedom and justice. He is the ‘grain of wheat’ of the title, who must die for new life to begin.
Introduction to Petals of Blood by Moses Isegawa
Image of Isegawa via Pan Macmillan Australia.
We know that once freed Karega will go on fighting. It is this that imbues Petals of Blood with great optimism. Where the middle classes give up on the peasants and workers, and see only doom and gloom in Ilmorog, in Kenya, in Africa, he sees hope; he sees future prospects.
Introduction to Devil on the Cross by Namwali Serpell
Image of Serpell via UC Berkeley English Department site.
Devil on the Cross is a pointedly didactic novel. It cannot be extricated from the political background to its inception or its reception. To read it otherwise, or to suggest that Ngugi’s artistry, “that undefinable quality of imagination,” somehow exceeds or disrupts his politics, is to condescend to the novel. It is to offer it the anemic consolation prize of aesthetic praise.