The price of free­dom

He is a No­bel Prize win­ner-in-wait­ing with a global fol­low­ing, but he has also has been per­se­cuted and im­pris­oned for his views. Ahead of his ap­pear­ance at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Book Fes­ti­val, Ngugi wa Thiong’o chats to about his life, his work and

Sunday Herald Life - - Books Interview -

THE Kenyan nov­el­ist Ngugi wa Thiong’o is rarely men­tioned with­out a ref­er­ence to the No­bel Prize. He has not – as yet – won it, but he is held in such rev­er­ence and re­spect that it is widely as­sumed he one day will. Does it mat­ter if it never comes his way? It is hard to know what this self­dep­re­cat­ing and hu­mor­ous nov­el­ist would think, but for his read­ers and ad­mir­ers, the prize would merely con­firm his stand­ing as a pre-em­i­nent writer and thinker who has en­dured much for his art, and for his be­liefs. Other per­haps than in­ter­na­tional pub­lic­ity, it would con­fer noth­ing he does not al­ready pos­sess.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is not a man to court the es­tab­lish­ment, be it literary, reli­gious or po­lit­i­cal. Revered as ar­guably Kenya’s most no­table writer, he was once such a thorn in the flesh of the gov­ern­ment that he was in­car­cer­ated for a year in Kamiti Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Prison in 1977-8. His crime? To write a play about Kenyan peas­ants, per­formed by Kenyan peas­ants, which gave them a po­lit­i­cal and artis­tic voice which, un­til then, they had never had. The play was called Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) and, as Ngugi re­calls dryly in his mem­oir of that ter­ri­ble year, Wrestling with the Devil, he ini­tially thought the gov­ern­ment would praise him for it. He can laugh now.

The au­thor­i­ties’ out­look was chill­ing: “What right had a univer­sity pro­fes­sor to work with ragged-trousered work­ers and tat­tered peas­ants and even ‘pre­tend’ to be learn­ing from a peo­ple whose minds we have de­creed should never rise above the clods of clay they daily break? What is he re­ally up to? Let us thwart his in­ten­tions – what­ever they are. In­car­cer­ate the clever fel­low!”

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ap­pear­ance at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Book Fes­ti­val next week is a coup, this be­ing only his sec­ond visit. I re­mem­ber his first, in 2006, when he cap­ti­vated his au­di­ence with a bravura per­for­mance as he dis­cussed his novel, Wizard of the Crow. I queued to have a copy signed, but the line was too long, and I was too bash­ful, to start a con­ver­sa­tion. Re­cently, how­ever, I had the chance to speak to him when we met at the Auck­land Literary Fes­ti­val, where we were do­ing an event to­gether about our favourite books.

Now 80, Ngugi is not a tall man, but his per­son­al­ity gives the im­pres­sion of stature. He had flown to New Zealand from Amer­ica, where he is Pro­fes­sor of English and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, and when we first met, at a Maori greet­ing cer­e­mony, he was re­cov­er­ing from the flight. By the time of our event, how­ever, he was in fine form, hav­ing the day be­fore filled a hall of 2000 who lis­tened, cap­ti­vated, as he dis­cussed his life and ca­reer. Much of that dis­cur­sive but en­ter­tain­ing hour was spent de­scrib­ing his early ed­u­ca­tion, and his mother’s in­sis­tence that he learn as much, and do as well, as he could. For our ses­sion, he was armed with a list of five books he wanted to share with his au­di­ence. One of them was a de­tec­tive novel writ­ten by his son – one of seven chil­dren. Among my se­lec­tion was Robert Louis Steven­son’s Trea­sure Is­land, at which he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally agreed. As a boy, it had made a huge im­pres­sion on him.

Ear­lier, on dis­cov­er­ing I come from Scot­land, he broke into a smile. He re­called his time here, in the mid-1960s, dur­ing a three-year schol­ar­ship at Leeds univer­sity. He told me that it was as he sat by the win­dow on a cold train from Aberdeen to Ed­in­burgh that he started to write his novel, A Grain of Wheat. He likes to write on the move. Even to­day, he en­joys fly­ing be­cause of the acres of empty time it in­volves, hours he spends writ­ing, heed­less of the tan­noy sys­tem. Once, he nearly missed his flight as a re­sult.

A Grain of Wheat, which be­gan life as he looked out on to our grey east coast, and was pub­lished in 1967, marked a new di­rec­tion in his pol­i­tics, as he em­braced Marx­ism. It is hard to imag­ine a greater con­trast to Scot­land in the age of the Bea­tles than Kenya un­der the rule of Keny­atta. They were more than a con­ti­nent apart; a whole world sep­a­rated them, for these were the years when the Kenyan Land and Free­dom Army – known as the Mau Mau – were in re­volt. Ngugi’s half­brother was a mem­ber, lead­ing at one point to his mother be­ing tor­tured.

It was to be another 10 years, how­ever, be­fore Ngugi’s pol­i­tics got him into such trou­ble he was no longer able to re­main in Kenya. The per­for­mance of his “rad­i­cal” play was closed down af­ter a few weeks, and at mid­night, on De­cem­ber 30, 1977, the police ar­rived at his house, re­moved many of his books as ev­i­dence, and took him off for ques­tion­ing. As he writes in Wrestling with the Devil, they told him he was not un­der ar­rest, but in­sisted he get into the car. His preg­nant wife Njeeri watched, and only later did he re­alise she had known im­me­di­ately it would be a long time be­fore they saw each other again. “This was an ab­duc­tion. Still, I couldn’t help mus­ing over the fact that the police squadron was armed to the teeth to

abduct a writer whose only acts of vi­o­lent re­sis­tance were safely be­tween the hard and soft cov­ers of books.”

With­out trial, he was thrown into prison. The first few weeks were aw­ful, as he was kept in iso­la­tion. It con­firmed what he had al­ways feared: “Max­i­mum se­cu­rity: the idea used to fill me with ter­ror when­ever I met it in fic­tion, Dick­ens mostly, and I have al­ways as­so­ci­ated it with Eng­land and English­ness; it con­jured up images of hordes of dan­ger­ous killers a la Mag­witch of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, al­ways ready to es­cape through thick forests and marshes, to un­leash yet more havoc and ter­ror on an other­wise sta­ble, peace­ful and God-fear­ing com­mu­nity of prop­erty own­ers that sees it­self as the whole so­ci­ety.”

What Ngugi en­dured for the fol­low­ing 12 months was dread­ful but he found courage in the friend­ship of his fel­low po­lit­i­cal in­mates. Above all, he kept sane by writ­ing a novel on toi­let pa­per, sheet by sheet, hid­ing the fin­ished pages in the stack of un­used san­i­tary pa­per. “The pa­per it­self was not the sooth­ing, softie-softie kind. It was ac­tu­ally hard, meant to pun­ish pris­on­ers, but it turned out to be great writ­ing ma­te­rial”.

Wrestling with the Devil is in part his ac­count of writ­ing the novel that was to be­come Devil on a Cross, the first novel ever writ­ten in Gikuyu. He chose this lan­guage, he ex­plains, “as a chal­lenge to my­self, a way of af­firm­ing my faith in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the lan­guages of all the dif­fer­ent Kenyan na­tion­al­i­ties, lan­guages whose growth as ve­hi­cles for peo­ple’s strug­gles and de­vel­op­ment had been ac­tively sup­pressed by the Bri­tish colo­nial regime (18951963) and now its post-colo­nial suc­ces­sor”. Around the same time he changed his “colo­nial” name James Thiong’o Ngugi to his present name.

The emo­tional suf­fer­ing he went through in that year is hard to imag­ine, yet for all its rage, Wrestling with the Devil is a re­mark­able ac­count of his de­tain­ment. Most strik­ing is that, while there is out­rage and anger at the way he and oth­ers and their coun­try were be­ing treated, there is also a big­ger philo­soph­i­cal vi­sion, a sense that re­fus­ing to be com­pletely cowed, and stand­ing up to tyrants, be they prison guards or state lead­ers, is the only way to sur­vive with dig­nity, and to help oth­ers im­prove their world.

Thanks in part to the out­cry led by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, Ngugi was freed, along with oth­ers, shortly af­ter Keny­atta’s death. But he was not given his univer­sity job back, and so he and his fam­ily fled. It was to be many years be­fore he felt able to re­turn. When he did, in 2004, the apart­ment in which he and his wife were stay­ing was bro­ken into. While he fought off the men in one room, his wife was raped in another. The slow and de­lib­er­ate way in which the at­tack and rob­bery took place led him to think the gang was car­ry­ing out or­ders. Thus, the sor­row and fear with which he left Kenya, were hor­ri­fy­ingly mir­rored on his re­turn.

To­day, he and his wife live in Cal­i­for­nia, but the list of es­sen­tial books he rec­om­mended to the au­di­ence in Auck­land is proof that his home­land is al­ways in his mind. They are: Black Ja­cobins by C L R James, God’s Bits of Wood by Ose­mane Sem­bene, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, Half of a Yel­low Sun by Ngozi Adichie, and his son Mukoma wa Ngugi’s novel, Nairobi Heat.

Wrestling with the Devil is a new and edited edi­tion of De­tained: A Writer’s Prison Di­ary. It is pub­lished by Vin­tage, £8.99. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is speak­ing at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Book Fes­ti­val on Au­gust 11.

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