(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 literature through the censors was a major concern. One of the detainees, Wasonga Sijeyo, reminded Ngugi of the line from the sixteenth century morality play Everyman, reprinted in Everyman Library editions—“I will go with thee, and be thy guide,/ In thy most need to go by thy side”—and tells him, “books have kept me mentally alive.” Ngugi makes frequent reference to authors who have touched him during his life, citing, for example, Isaiah, William Blake, Maxim Gorky, and Wole Soyinka. More important to Ngugi than a particular political ideology are the right and freedom to believe and express it. The political revolution in Kenya will depend upon literature to help awaken the minds and energies of the people.

Underlying Ngugi’s account is a concern that gets to the heart of Ngugi’s perception of private and communal life. Detained is about individual and collective freedom, the right of a people to express itself according to its own insights, in particular in its own cultural heritage. It is no accident that Ngugi begins and ends “Prison Notes” at the same historical moment, the completion of his prison novel, for his survival...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)