Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In spite of its subtitle, Detained is not, strictly speaking, a “diary”: It does not record day-to-day prison experiences, nor was it written while Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in prison. It is, instead, a “memoir”; it recalls from some distance events in his life leading up to his incarceration and, according to a thematic (not chronological) arrangement, particular details during his detention that help him tell his story. Yet this story is not in intention strictly personal; it is historical and ideological: It presents a larger picture, the British occupation of Kenya since the 1890’s and the neocolonialism that followed (beginning in 1963) under Jomo Kenyatta, and more recently, toward the end of Ngugi’s detention, under Daniel Arap Moi. It is thus a memoir of a people oppressed by a foreign culture. Ngugi takes pains to treat himself as one among many who have faced the test of political intimidation. He does not create an initiation experience—a personal rite of passage. Nor does he sentimentalize or glorify his year in prison (though touches of romanticism and idealization color his historical recollections and ideology). Rather, he attempts to record it, reflect upon it, draw political conclusions from it, and castigate those who put him through it. It is a story told with dignity and strength; the victim proves stronger than his tormentors.

The text in the Heinemann edition of 1981 begins with a copy of the “detention order” and a preface, followed by section 1, “Prison Notes,” which constitutes the main body of the memoir, section 2, “Letters from Prison,” and section 3, “Prison Aftermaths,” consisting of documents related to Ngugi’s unsuccessful attempt to reclaim his chairmanship of the literature department at the University of Nairobi.

In the preface, Ngugi explains that his attack on “those who were responsible for my detention” is not “personal” but “ideological,” that he does not want to treat detention “as a personal affair between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon.”

His own arrest is a case in point, as he tries to separate fiction from fact, to dismiss false speculation and name the real reason for his detention. Ngugi’s “crime” was to coauthor and help produce a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982), in a Kenyan language, Gikuyu and, more significant, to involve ordinary people from his native region as actors, stagehands, and consultants in a culturally revolutionary exercise. Ngugi is convinced that historically the greatest fear of the British colonial regime and its Kenyan successor has been an aroused populace aware of its own indigenous culture.

The structure of the memoir results from a combination of factors. As a prison diary it records the author’s personal thoughts and actions, but as an ideological statement it subordinates the personal to the collective good. As a historical commentary it tries to reason from the facts, but as a pedagogical and ideological tool it...

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Detained Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings, 1983.

Delius, Anthony. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1981, p. 1217.

Killam, G. D., ed. Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1984.

Nazareth, Peter. An African View of Literature, 1974.

Rajab, Ahmed. “Detained in Kenya,” in Index on Censorship. VII (June, 1978), pp. 7-10.

Walmsley, Anne. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Free Thoughts on Toilet Paper,” in Index on Censorship. X (June, 1981), pp. 41-42.