James Ngugi Essay - Critical Essays

Ngugi, James (Vol. 3)

Ngugi, James 1938–

A Black African novelist, native of Kenya, Ngugi is the author of Weep Not, Child, The River Between, and A Grain of Wheat, novels of the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya.

The revolution in politics and the social fabric of the Kenya village lie under the surface in James Ngugi's first two novels, Weep Not, Child (London, 1964) and The River Between (London, 1965). Ngugi … is probably the best known Kenya writer (except of course Jomo Kenyatta) in English today. His two novels were published only a year apart; yet, while the narrative skill in The River Between is that of a master, Weep Not, Child, on the other hand, is an interesting but unpolished story. In both novels Ngugi has as his central character a young man—intelligent, sensitive, and somewhat apart from his tribal group—who hopes to heal the breach between the warring factions of his social milieu….

Ngugi's novels treat the same themes as those of Chinua Achebe and Onuora Nzekwu; his settings—a village in conflict with old and new customs and approaches to life—are also similar to the ones found in the novels by the two Nigerian writers. Where Ngugi differs is in his tactile imagery, and in the coolness of his prose. Ngugi's landscape is filled with growth and vegetation; the demanding sun and sultry flatlands have not yet desiccated hope, even for a union of understanding with the white settler.

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967, pp. 140-41.

A Grain of Wheat, James Ngugi's latest novel, is an extremely interesting piece of work because it brings a new theme to African literature—the effects on a people of the changes brought about in themselves by the demands of a bloody and bitter struggle for independence. How fit is one for peace, when one has made revolution one's life? Set in the immediate post-Mau-Mau period the novel looks back to the personal tragedies of a number of people who were active in Mau-Mau, and examines how the experience now shapes their lives. In the uneasy peace, they have to come to terms with one another, but their relationships are determined by the experience that has put all human relationships through the test of fire—the guerilla revolution itself…. It is the measure of James Ngugi's development as a writer that none of the protagonists in this novel is marred by the pseudo-nobility of some of the characters in his earlier work, and yet he succeeds in placing the so-called Mau-Mau movement in the historical, political, and sociological context of the African continental revolution. What the white world perhaps still thinks of as a reversion to primitive savagery (as opposed, no doubt, to civilized savagery in Nazi Germany) is shown to be a guerilla war in which freedom was won, and which brought with its accomplishment a high price for the people who waged it.

Nadine Gordimer, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1970, p. 226.