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Introduction: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Reflections on His Life of Writing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2019

Simon Gikandi
Affiliation:
Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University, where he is affiliated with the Departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies and the Program in African Studies.
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Summary

Becoming a Writer

If one was looking for that moment that encapsulates Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's entry into the edifice of African letters—and hence the institution of modern authorship—it is probably that day in May, 1964, when his first novel, Weep Not, Child is published by Heinemann Educational Books in London. We have at least two images of this moment: the first one is Ngũgĩ's now famous interview with John de Villiers for the mass circulation Daily Nation newspaper in Nairobi. The young author was introduced to his new public as follows:

Slightly built James Ngũgĩ spoke slowly, earnestly. Only his hands were restless, seeming to flay the air in frustration when his command of the English language, as spoken, left him groping for the word or phrase that would express exactly his meaning. ‘I was trying’, he said, ‘to express the feelings of a small village community in Kenya during the Emergency. The terror, the fear of the unknown in which so many of the little people lived. The setting is a local one, which I know and have lived in, but the feeling, I think, is universal: the feeling of the little man, a child, in a world at war. He is caught in a situation he cannot control; he can only live it’. He was talking about his book, Weep Not, Child, which is being published in Britain this week by William Heinemann. (‘The Birth of a New East African Author’; reprinted in Sander and Lindfors 7)

Here, there is the often-forgotten combination of the moment of arrival of the artist, of his uncertain entry into the culture of letters, and, with it, some hesitation, perhaps doubts about his own capacity to carry the burden thrust on him by history as the first East African novelist. In the interview itself, we can see Ngũgĩ making the first tenuous step into the public sphere that will come to define the rest of his life, drawing adulation from generations of readers, but also the enmity of an insecure postcolonial state.

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Chapter
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Ngugi
Reflections on his Life of Writing
, pp. 1 - 12
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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