Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer

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Reinhard Sander, Bernth Lindfors, and Lynette Citron, eds. Ngugi wa Thiong'o Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006. xxvi + 445 pp. Bibliography. Index. $29.95. Paper.

This is an invaluable collection of interviews with Ngugi wa Thiong'o, one of the foremost African writers and a key theorist of the social and political conditions in the global South. Ngugi never disappoints students of African literature because of the energy, poignancy, and verve with which he discusses relations between the developed countries and the less developed nations. Although he excoriates the West for its contribution to the malaise facing Africa today, he is most strident in criticizing Africa's ruling elites for suppressing basic freedoms and plundering their own countries. Covered in the interviews is the intersection of politics and aesthetics, in which Ngugi blankly says he does not believe in the philosophy of art for art's sake; for him, an African writer must engage the social issues facing the society or risk being completely irrelevant. It is because of his participation in politically engaged aesthetics, especially community theater, that Ngugi was detained without trial between 1977 and 1978, sacked from his academic position at the University of Nairobi, and sent to exile in 1982. Ngugi is best known in postcolonial studies because of his 1986 dramatic abandonment of the English language and decision to write primarily in Gikuyu as away of freeing African peoples from the cultural domination of Europe.

The editors must be commended for selecting the interviews spanning the period between 1964 and 2003, and presenting them chronologically to capture Ngugi's ideological development as a social and literary commentator. In the late 1960s, a time when Ngugi's colleague at the University of Nairobi, Taban Lo Liyong, saw East Africa as a literary desert, Ngugi was full of hope that the region would catch up with other parts of Africa, especially West Africa, in producing works of art. Ngugi's prediction of a vibrant literary culture was correct, given the major works that East Africa has produced since the 1960s, including some of the best works by women writers. But Ngugi seems to see politics largely in terms of nationalistic contestation between the North and the South and between the rich and the poor classes within single nations. Women's issues start to surface in his later interviews. And even in these interviews, gender as an analytic category is subordinated to global, class, and nationalist politics.

Ngugi is a master ironist whose plays, short stories, and novels ably capture the multiple contradictions in postcolonial societies. But he is not himself above contradictions. For example, Ngugi expresses skepticism about writing a work of art in exile to cover recent events at home; yet his Murogi wa Kagogo ( Wizard of the Crow) is set in Kenya - a place Ngugi had been away from for over two decades. The novel's attempt to express the digital revolution (which developed in Ngugi's absence) culminates in a mouthful of transliterated expressions from English, such as the expression he uses for "Web site," kieya kia rurenda (which would translate back into English as "the construction site for cobwebs"), instead of just localizing the word website, as Gikuyu speakers called the Internet phenomenon when it entered their discursive field. …