Critical Evaluation

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is among the most prominent East African writers, and A Grain of Wheat is generally considered the masterpiece of the first half of his career. In the second half of his career, he dropped his Christian name (James), and his novels became more overtly political. Petals of Blood (1977) is considered the high point of this second period. In 1977, he decided to write no longer in English but in Gikuyu, the principal language of Kenya, or in Swahili. He thereafter become one of the preeminent spokespersons not only for Kenyan culture but also for the anticolonial voices throughout Africa and, indeed, throughout the world.

Within Kenya, however, he would remain a controversial figure. His fiction attacks not only the European colonizers but also the native Kenyans who took up the reins of power from the British. In Ngugi’s view, the latter rulers continue, as “neocolonials,” to oppress their own people. His eloquent and internationally recognized condemnation of corruption led, in 1977, to his imprisonment in Kenya without a trial and to the loss of his teaching position at the University of Nairobi. In 1982, he went into self-imposed exile in London and the United States.

A Grain of Wheat displays the themes to which Ngugi returns in much of his writing: betrayal, the difficulties of self-definition after years of colonization, and marital tensions. He frequently casts his novels with four to six principal figures who together embody prevalent reactions to the problems of the emerging nation. Much of his international appeal depends not only on his courageous denunciation of political oppression of various sorts but also on these complex characters. They share the ambiguities and mixed motivations of real human beings and are not simply flat characters used...

(The entire section is 747 words.)