Born James Ngugi; 5 January 1938 is a Kenyan author and academic who writes primarily in Gikuyu and who formerly wrote in English. He has been described as having been “considered East Africa’s leading novelist”. 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 100 languages from around the world.
Ngugi received bachelor’s degrees from Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, in 1963 and from Leeds University, Yorkshire, England, in 1964. After doing graduate work at Leeds, he served as a lecturer in English at University College, Nairobi, Kenya, and as a visiting professor of English at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, U.S. From 1972 to 1977 he was senior lecturer and chairman of the department of literature at the University of Nairobi.
The prizewinning Weep Not, Child is the story of a Kikuyu family drawn into the struggle for Kenyan independence during the state of emergency and the Mau Mau rebellion.
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 Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.
Ngũgĩ was subsequently imprisoned for over a year. Adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, the artist was released from prison, and fled Kenya.
Notable works written by Ngugi are “A Grain of Wheat” “Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening” “Devil on the Cross” “Dreams in a Time of War” “I Will Marry When I Want” “In the House of the Interpreter” “Matigari” “Petals of Blood” “The Black Hermit” “The River Between” “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” “Weep Not, Child” “Wizard of the Crow”
A Grain of Wheat (1967), generally held to be artistically more mature, focuses on the many social, moral, and racial issues of the struggle for independence and its aftermath.
A third novel, The River Between (1965), which was actually written before the others, tells of lovers kept apart by the conflict between Christianity and traditional ways and beliefs and suggests that efforts to reunite a culturally divided community by means of Western education are doomed to failure.
Petals of Blood (1977) deals with social and economic problems in East Africa after independence, particularly the continued exploitation of peasants and workers by foreign business interests and a greedy indigenous bourgeoisie.
In a novel written in Kikuyu and English versions, Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (1980; Devil on the Cross), Ngugi presented these ideas in an allegorical form. Written in a manner meant to recall traditional ballad singers, the novel is a partly realistic, partly fantastical account of a meeting between the Devil and various villains who exploit the poor.
Mũrogi wa Kagogo (2004; Wizard of the Crow- brings the dual lenses of fantasy and satire to bear upon the legacy of colonialism not only as it is perpetuated by a native dictatorship but also as it is ingrained in an ostensibly decolonized culture itself.
The Black Hermit (1968;) was the first of several plays, of which The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976), cowritten with Micere Githae Mugo, is considered by some critics to be his best. He was also coauthor, with Ngugi wa Mirii, of a play first written in Kikuyu, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977) “I Will Marry When I Want),” the performance of which led to his detention for a year without trial by the Kenyan government.
His book Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, which was published in 1981, describes his ordeal. The play attacks capitalism, religious hypocrisy, and corruption among the new economic elite of Kenya. Matigari ma Njiruungi (1986; Matigari) is a novel in the same vein.
Ngugi presented his ideas on literature, culture, and politics in numerous essays and lectures, which were collected in Homecoming (1972), Writers in Politics (1981), Barrel of a Pen (1983), Moving the Centre (1993), and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998). In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986),
Ngugi argued for African-language literature as the only authentic voice for Africans and stated his own intention of writing only in Kikuyu or Kiswahili from that point on. Such works earned him a reputation as one of Africa’s most articulate social critics.
After a long exile from Kenya, Ngugi returned in 2004 with his wife to promote Mũrogi wa Kagogo. Several weeks later they were brutally assaulted in their home; the attack was believed by some to be politically motivated. After their recovery, the couple continued to publicize the book abroad. Ngugi later published the memoirs Dreams in a Time of War (2010), about his childhood; In the House of the Interpreter (2012), which was largely set in the 1950s, during the Mau Mau rebellion against British control in Kenya; and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (2016), a chronicle of his years at Makerere University.
He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. He has also previously taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, and New York University. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He won the 2001 International Nonino Prize in Italy, and the 2016 Park Kyong-ni Prize. Among his children are the authors Mũkoma wa Ngũgi and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.
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