Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Banned books week is a time for us as readers to muse on adversity in the past, yet a necessary reminder that many marginalized voices remain unheard. The work and life of Kenya writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a powerful example of the strength of words on a page and the role of an audience in shaping literature and history at large.
Having lived through his nation’s fight for independence from British Colonial rule, Ngũgĩ understood liberation to mean more than freedom of speech, but freedom from what he deemed “bourgeois” modes of self-expression and education. In 1977, Ngũgĩ lay the foundation for a participatory Kenyan theatre that aimed to demystify the theatrical process and encourage viewer spontaneity and response. The uncensored message of gaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), led to Ngũgĩ’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment. In his prison cell, Ngũgĩ continued to write about the injustices of Kenya’s dictatorial government on toilet paper.
The Mau Mau Rebellion, of which Ngũgĩ is considered an expert literary voice, imbues much of his work. The wrenching cultural change of post-Colonial Kenya is captured in his 1977 work Petals of Blood. Petals synthesizes the lingering effects of the Mau Mau revolt through the personal testimonies of its characters, peppered with Kenyan mythos. Kenyan Vice President Mwai Kibaki cited his attendance at the Petals book launch to position Kenya as a nation of free speech. However, Ngũgĩ was detained later that year for the possession of “banned books.” As recently as the 90s, Ngũgĩ stated that African schools were encouraged not to teach Petals.
While Ngũgĩ continues to write today, we’re working to bring his classic works back into print. Banned Books Week is as much about looking into the past as it is working towards the future. It’s crucial to reflect on this regrettable history, but it’s also a joy to be hearing finally Nobel Prize buzz for Ngũgĩ.
Banned Books Week | Throughout this week, we’re celebrating the need to continue reading banned books and to fighting book banning by spotlighting banned African authors in the Classics Library.