In the House of the Interpreter Themes

The main themes of In the House of the Interpreter are identity and duality, the power of storytelling, and literary colonialism.

  • Identity and duality: As Ngũgĩ grows into his adult identity, he finds himself caught between two worlds: that of Kenyan culture, in which he was raised, and that of British culture, embodied by the Alliance school.
  • Storytelling: Ngũgĩ loves stories, both Kenyan and European, but he finds that none reflect the whole of his experience.
  • Literary Colonialism: Ngũgĩ finds that the Alliance school’s curriculum entails a narrow view of Africa that favors European perspectives over African ones.

Themes

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Identity and Duality

Throughout In The House of the Interpreter, the young Ngũgĩ walks a line between two worlds. As a native Kenyan whose region is under colonial rule, one might expect him to harbor the nationalistic view that the British are imperialist oppressors and that nothing positive can come of their presence in the region. And at times, he indeed addresses his negative feelings toward his colonizers:

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It was Churchill’s conservatives who reproduced, in Kenya, Hitler’s concentration camps [...] Churchill had caused me to lose my home. The loss lurked inside me, stoking fears of unexpected and sudden interruptions of my life.

Ngũgĩ is particularly blunt about his feelings when addressing “villagization”—the term given by the British state to the process of forcibly uprooting native Kenyans and reorganizing them into state-designed settlements. It is a particularly demeaning and dislocating initiative, and he mentions more than once how angry and displaced it makes him feel. He also feels a sense of pride in his brother, Good Wallace, who, until his capture, is camped out in the mountains fighting with the Mau Mau resistance.

On the other hand, Ngũgĩ is extremely grateful for his experience at Alliance:

When I first stepped onto the grounds of Alliance High School on Thursday, January 20, 1955, I felt as if I had narrowly eluded pursuing bloodhounds in what had seemed a never-ending nightmare.

Though he arrives thinking mostly of shelter from the figurative “bloodhounds” of colonial Kenya, he comes to view it as a sacred space. In this rare environment, he is free to nourish and develop his mind instead of constantly struggling with the turmoil outside the gates. Often, he refers to it in the text as simply “my sanctuary,” and throughout his years there it becomes the closest thing he has to a home. As the war-torn world outside begins to feel less and less like the Kenya he knows, his world inside Alliance expands and grows richer. He discovers literature, chess, debate, theater, as well as his love of writing and storytelling. He develops a passion for public service and even finds comfort in the western church.

Existing in both of these realities creates internal conflict for Ngũgĩ, but it also fosters a nuanced appreciation of humanity across color lines. From childhood, he notes, he has been primed to think of a black monolith and a white monolith in opposition to each other. As he grows into a young man who can balance opposing perspectives, he understands that the situation is not so simple.

The Power of Storytelling

One of Ngũgĩ’s most prevalent ongoing themes in his memoir is the power of storytelling and lore:

There were some storybooks that transcended their time and authorship. Grimm, Aesop, and Andersen: I read their stories over and over again without their ever losing their appeal. They came closest to the oral tales around the evening fireside with which I had grown up. They had a common magic quality; they renewed themselves in the rereading and retelling.

In one tender moment with his mother, he asks her how she knows the age of the mugumo tree they are sitting under. “Because people have lived here longer than the tree,” she tells him, “and they tell the story and they pass on the story and we add to the story.” Later, he draws on this piece of wisdom to describe the way other stories and narratives develop as lore and experience is passed down.

As he dives deeper into literature, he begins to think critically about what is missing from the stories he is reading. In Chapter 51, he elucidates:

In time, I started looking at what I read in and outside the class more critically: none reflected my black experience [...] I looked in vain for writings that I could identify with fully. The choice, it seemed, was between the imperial narratives that disfigured my body and soul, and the liberal ones that restored my body but still disfigured my soul.

The book’s title, too, comes from an instance of storytelling. During one chapel assembly, Edward Carey Francis likens Alliance High School to the house of the interpreter from A Pilgrim’s Progress—a place where the metaphorical dust from the outside world can, through careful administration of institutional ideals, be carefully settled.

Finally, the memoir is itself an act of storytelling, encapsulating and embodying many of the young Ngũgĩ’s lessons about stories. The mature Ngũgĩ is able to craft a story that reflects the whole of his experiences—unlike the stories he heard as an adolescent that spoke to him only partially, either to his body or his soul. And, true to its title, Ngũgĩ’s memoir can be viewed as another figurative “house of the interpreter”: a place where the dust of the world can be settled, transmuted, understood.

Literary Colonialism

Themes of western and Eurocentric colonialism are overtly explored through Ngũgĩ’s memoir. He examines colonialism in the context of political occupation, but subtler instances of literary colonialism also play a significant role in Ngũgĩ’s development as a writer and academic. Initially, the young Ngũgĩ’s appetite for reading is outsized—he wants to read everything in the library, no matter the subject. As he develops his taste for literature, though, he begins to notice that his lived experience is not reflected in the texts available to him:

I could not escape the magic of literature, its endless ability to elicit laughter, tears, a whole range of emotions, but the fact that these emotions were exclusively rooted in the English experience of time and place could only add to my sense of dislocation.

This “tendency to make Europe the reference point for human experience,” as he describes it, complicates his relationship with the western canon. Even in books that take place in Africa, he struggles to find an honest representation. After reading King Solomon’s Mines, he comes to a realization:

Haggard and other popular writers, when it came to my continent, were penning from the same dictum: imperialism was normal, resistance to it immoral. Africa and its peoples were the background that enabled European self-realization, the same theme that ran through our history lessons.

This idea—that the people of Africa (or any colonized region) are a narratively inert canvas on which European expatriates might project their adventure stories—illustrates one of the largest consequences of a colonial education. Such an education is, by nature, conveyed from the perspective of the colonizer, which inevitably reduces the colonized to an adjunct in a story that both parties are equally experiencing.

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