Detained is, on the surface, a political document, a piece of propaganda for a quasi-Marxist, populist, cultural revolution. Ngugi emphasizes its ideological purpose, exposing and attacking the capitalistic mentality that has wasted Kenya for almost a century. Nevertheless, the memoir is also something else—something that may very well reflect an ideology of its own but which is much more personal and humanistic than political. Despite his announced intention, Ngugi writes, after all, an intensely personal document. As he rather unassumingly remarks, he needed not only to understand “the events . . . clearly” but also “to make out . . . what’s happening to me.” Thus, underlying Detained as an expose of colonial oppression is a writer’s discovery of himself.
In fact, Ngugi is at his best not as a propagandist and critic but as a novelist, a man of creative talents. His identity and his role as a novelist are inseparable in his thinking, even about politics. Discovering the self, understanding the self, is a prerequisite for good writing and for understanding the public role of literature in nurturing and fulfilling the lives of others. To a large extent, literature has been Ngugi’s life, and his literary background forces its way into the text. Literary expression is a major topic throughout the memoir. It is significant that Ngugi’s fellow prisoners felt the need to write during their detention. Getting works of...
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