Ngugi wa Thiong'o Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is primarily known as a novelist, having published one of the first English-language novels by an East African, Weep Not, Child (1964). This novel, The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and Petals of Blood (1977) re-create the cultural history of the Gikuyu people and the emergence of modern Kenya. His fifth novel, Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (1980; Devil on the Cross, 1982), combines elements of Gikuyu oral tradition with satire on neocolonial exploitation and realism portraying the victims of that exploitation. Writing fiction for the first time in his native Gikuyu, Ngugi completed his own translations into Kiswahili and English. In addition to his novels, Ngugi has also published a collection of early short stories, Secret Lives and Other Stories (1975), which gathers his work in this genre from the early 1960’s to the mid-1970’s.

Ngugi has also written extensively as a social and literary critic. His collection of literary criticism, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972), testifies to the maturation of his social vision, including speculations on Mau Mau, nationalism, socialism, and capitalism. A second collection of essays, Writers in Politics (1981; revised 1997), asserts that the function of the writer in society is essentially a political one, however explicitly mute or vocal the writer...

(The entire section is 562 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the foremost writer of modern East Africa. Through his novels, essays, and plays, he has garnered the respect of both Africans and others. His fiction offers the single most impressive record of an African country’s precolonial history, its exploitation under colonial rule, its turmoil in gaining independence, and its subsequent struggles to maintain a democratic government in the midst of neocolonial corruption. His essays, often forthrightly polemical, have resulted in the emergence of East African literature as a serious topic of criticism among scholars of world literature; he has also made a significant contribution to curriculum reform in African universities, emphasizing the study of African literature.

Ngugi’s plays, like his early fiction, reveal a well-schooled and well-read background in British and European literature, but they evolve, as do his novels, from a humanistic, ethical focus to one of a leftist, radical program for social reform. By adapting The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and I Will Marry When I Want to experimental forms that include aspects of the Gikuyu oral tradition and by producing and writing the latter play in Gikuyu, Ngugi succeeded in reaching the masses with his drama and his concerns. His explicit commitment to democratic socialist reform and the strong popular support of Ngugi’s I Will Marry When I Want resulted in Ngugi’s detention.

While Ngugi, then...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his novels, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (ehn-GEW-gee wah tee-ONG-goh) has published short stories, numerous plays, and several works of nonfiction. His plays include The Black Hermit (pr. 1962); The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (pr. 1974), written with Micere Githae-Mugo; and, with Ngugi wa Mirii, Ngaahika Ndeenda (pr. 1977; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982) and Maitu Njugira (pb. 1982; Mother, Sing for Me, 1986). Ngugi has expressed his commitment to his political responsibility as a writer in numerous works of literary, political, and social criticism, including Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972), Writers in Politics (1981; enlarged, revised, and subtitled A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature and Society in a 1997 edition), Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (1998). In the 1980’s, he pursued his interest in African-based educational curricula by recasting stories of the Mau Mau resistance, many of which had appeared in his novels, as works for children, written first in his native Kikuyu and later translated into English. A collection of Ngugi’s essays and talks written between 1985 and 1990 appeared in 1993 under the title Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

With the publication of his first three novels, Ngugi wa Thiong’o quickly established himself as the major East African writer of the anglophone literary movement that began in Africa in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This anglophone literary school, which must be distinguished from the preceding romantic francophone movement called "negritude" because of its different political assumptions and its stress on realism, coincided with the bitter political and at times military struggle and the eventual achievement of independence by most African countries that had been under British colonial rule. Given the political situation, this literary movement was naturally preoccupied with assessing the impact of colonialism and with defining independent and syncretic African cultures. With a handful of other African writers, Ngugi stands out as a literary pioneer in this movement.

Ngugi’s systematic examination of the manner in which indigenous cultures were destroyed by colonialism has distinguished him from many of his colleagues, while his depiction of these cultures’ attempts to reconstitute themselves has made him unique. His refusal to divorce literature from politics and his acerbic portrayal of corruption in independent Kenya—first in Petals of Blood and then in his play Ngaahika Ndeenda, which was considered more dangerous by the government because it was performed in an indigenous language—earned him the wrath of political leaders and a year in prison without a trial. Building on his reputation as a fearless critic of African dictatorships, Ngugi produced Wizard of the Crow, which takes up where Petals of Blood left off—-sparing readers nothing by graphically depicting the carnage wrought by these murderous regimes, yet all the while employing his characteristic whimsy and humorous satire to highlight the surreal world the dictators create for their subjects.

Ngugi has also been concerned with the implications entailed in the use of English language by African writers, and he has supplemented his theoretical reflections by switching to Kikuyu as his primary literary language. Ngugi is widely recognized as Africa’s foremost revolutionary writer and is one of the world’s most read African writers.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The representation of women and women’s experiences has changed over the body of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s work, as has his depiction of men and men’s experiences. What differences do you see between male figures in the early works and male figures in later works?

In what ways might the experience of the English-speaking reader of Ngugi’s translated texts be affected by a lack of familiarity with Gikuyu?

What are some of the countries with which the characters in Wizard of the Crow have contact? What do these encounters suggest about Ngugi’s vision of global exchange?

Throughout Wizard of the Crow, the Christian soldiers are on the hunt for the devil. What are some things that the devil could symbolize?

Most of the characters in Wizard of the Crow wish not to be associated with sorcerers or “superstitious” behavior and yet consult the Wizard. How does Ngugi represent the Wizard’s practice?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cantalupo, Charles, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Texts and Contexts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. A selection of contributions from a major conference held in 1994 to honor and examine Ngugi’s work. Although the emphasis is on the prose works, the criticism touches on issues, including Ngugi’s status as an exile and his use of the Gikuyu language, that also inform the drama.

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997. Part of the Studies in African Literature series, this volume offers insightful comments about Ngugi’s work.

Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Examines each of Ngugi’s works in the context of its historical background and in the light of Ngugi’s life. Gikandi asserts that Ngugi’s novels are of primary importance to Ngugi himself, and that the drama and criticism are meant to supplement the novels.

Killam, G. D. An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi. London: Heinemann, 1980. A good starting point for the study of Ngugi, with a biographical outline, an introduction, individual chapters devoted to one title, a bibliography, and an index.

Killam, G. D. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” In The Writing of East and Central Africa. London: Heinemann, 1984. The three parts of this volume contain chapters surveying writing...

(The entire section is 645 words.)