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The Atlantic

Ngũgĩ in America

Awol Erizku

A few years ago, heart surgery forced Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer and perennial Nobel shortlister, to give up driving. He misses it. He misses getting behind the wheel for a few hours with no end point in mind, randomly exploring the roads. “Like writing a story,” he said.

So when I offered to visit and take him for an afternoon drive, he accepted. For reasons unknown to me, my rental car was upgraded to a white Mustang, and Ngũgĩ laughed at the sight of the big American muscle car and then quickly confronted the challenge of sinking his body, clad in a white dashiki with fire-red embroidery, down into the low-sunk seat. He’s 84 now, still flashing an outsize smile but slowed physically by various health issues. “I can’t enjoy cocktail parties with friends anymore,” he said.

Our terrain was Irvine, in Southern California, where Ngũgĩ moved two decades ago, joining the faculty at UC Irvine. It’s where he’s spent the last stage of a long literary career as one of Africa’s most prominent writers, a position that was confirmed again this year when he was awarded the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. His body of work explores the lasting effects of colonialism on all aspects of social and personal life, and the acts of resistance that maintain individuality and identity. Ngũgĩ’s most recent novel, The Perfect Nine, was also the first written in an indigenous African language to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize. But Irvine could not be farther from the landscape of Kamĩrĩĩthũ, the village in Kenya where he grew up, or, for that matter, Makerere University in Uganda, where he was a student—it’s even far removed from England, where he did graduate work in the 1960s, and the East Coast academic environment he had grown used to before moving here.

“There’s something about Irvine,” said Ngũgĩ, “when you first come to it—the trees, the grass, the tidiness. It was only after I stayed a while that I realized all these trees are artificially here, that the earth around it is desert, that all this greenery is planted.”

I grew up in Irvine. It’s packed with conveniences and amenities: Many roads include dedicated bike lanes; intersections have left-turn arrows; an outside café table is always open and you always want to sit outside because the atmosphere feels like the most perfectly automated air-conditioning system. There’s a reason it feels this way. It is the quintessentially master-planned American community. The city is largely privately owned by a development company that often leases land instead of selling it.

To live here requires very real acquiescence to uniformity. Unless you’re Ngũgĩ. So much of his life has been defined by resisting the idea of sameness and, more than any other quality that unites his work, it’s this insistence on the distinctiveness of each human existence that matters most to him. Irvine is all tract housing and shopping centers, unrelentingly landscaped and manicured—no room for weeds or wabi-sabi. Ngũgĩ looks out and sums it all up: “Culture comes from messiness. It never comes from the neat.”  

In 1980, the population was 83.8 percent white, and that majority was still in place by the time Ngũgĩ arrived. “At first,” he recalled, “my wife could not find a maker of African hair—she had to drive to Los Angeles.” And at the university, where he became the inaugural director of the International Center for Writing and Translation, there were few African faculty members.

Ngũgĩ pointed out a furniture store he likes in a particular shopping center and reflected on those first weeks and months after he arrived, when he started noticing that the shopping center near his house, which was fantastically convenient, was nearly indistinguishable from the next one farther up the road—and the one after that. “All shopping centers are a replica of each other,” he said. “You can even close your eyes and know where the pharmacy will be.”

Before he moved to Irvine, Ngũgĩ said his friends warned him that he might find the environment jarring. “People kept asking me, ‘Why do you want to go to Irvine? Are there many Africans there? Or Kenyans?’” One friend wondered if he knew whom the local airport was named after. “John Wayne,” he said, laughing. “So, the cowboy was with me as a warning when I landed.”

Author in African shirt standing in front of Flowers and shrubbery
Ngũgĩ outside his home (Awol Erizku for The Atlantic)

Ngũgĩ famously spent a year in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison—without being charged for a crime—because a play he wrote and staged was viewed as a threat by the country’s political leadership. It was during his time as prisoner K6,77, in 1978, that he made the decision to stop writing in English because, as he later noted in Decolonising the Mind, “the bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.”

From cell 16, Ngũgĩ returned to Gĩkũyũ, his mother tongue, and began composing his next novel, Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ (Devil on the Cross), on toilet paper because regular paper was available to prisoners only to write confessions or appeals.

He has continued to write his fiction in Gĩkũyũ, committing to the indigenous language even as his work has ranged widely through form and tone. Asked about Ngũgĩ, the writer Namwali Serpell, who wrote a 2017 introduction for Devil on the Cross, described an artist of great versatility in “the way he enacts dialectical materialism in the form of his works, from the early bildungsromane to the polyvocal, multi-perspectival, almost theater-like novels of the mid-career, to the stripped-down literalism of later mythic-quest narratives.” It’s a capaciousness that she felt was “genuinely unique in the history of the novel as such.”

At UC Irvine, Ngũgĩ has helped elevate other writers whose own literary innovations go underappreciated because they don’t work in a dominant language. The center begun by Ngũgĩ has a number of different functions—providing fellowships and funding; organizing conferences—all of which support the art of translation and those who write in marginalized languages. “The problem with language is hierarchy,” Ngũgĩ said. “It must have come with the conception of the modern state: ‘One language, one language!’ But it is hierarchy. It’s the oppression of many languages in favor of the one. In order for one language to be, others must die. It’s so backward and unproductive.”

Looking out the window of the Mustang on our drive, Ngũgĩ scratched at his head—he’s lost much of his hair but still has small, scattered tufts of gray. When we stopped at a red light, he laughed at the street sign: Yale. “Harvard must be near,” he said, and he was right. He laughed again when we found ourselves at the corner of Plymouth and Cambridge, and he pointed out that naming streets is often an act of creating memories. “Sometimes replacing old memories with new ones,” he said. “New England. But what about the name given to the place by the original dwellers? What did they call it? The previous memory of place is thus replaced by a colonizing memory.”

The erasure of languages that Ngũgĩ understood from his prison cell is echoed in the erasure that defines Irvine’s sameness. The area that used to be home to the Tongva and Acjachemen became farmland as colonial powers settled in, planting lots of orange groves and pepper fields, and then with urban development and the pouring of concrete, even that was lost.

Staring up at the road sign for Cambridge, Ngũgĩ recalled that T. S. Eliot, an American, fled to England to immerse himself in the works of European writers in order to better understand and master literature. “But this misses the obvious,” he said. “The American tradition is already here. It’s with the Native Americans, and then later the African American and Euro American. The American tradition is really a fusion of all these. But this is not reflected in America, because of colonization. In a way, hierarchy is always what we’re talking about.”

As we drove to the northern edge of the city, near the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, Angel Stadium came into view, Disneyland just beyond it. I asked Ngũgĩ if he’d ever taken in a baseball game. He asked me to clarify what game I was talking about: “Is that the one where they hit the ball?”

This is a man who has spent more than three decades immersed in America, but not the version envisioned by so many Americans—instead, he’s been digging up what’s buried beneath the tabula rasa of street names like Plymouth and Cambridge.

At UC Irvine, Ngũgĩ launched a conference devoted to bringing indigenous writers, as well as those from other regions such as Arizona and Hawaii, to explore their contributions to American modernity. “We were the first to do the obvious,” he said. “The obvious had been invisible all this time. I wanted to make the invisible visible because it had always been here. So that was our opening salvo for the center.”

Ngũgĩ has continued to focus on supporting “the genius of every language,” as he often puts it, including by producing the first dictionary in the Ekegusii language of Kenya. He invited Dalit authors from India, writers from Fiji, Samoa, Iceland, and marginalized regions across Asia and Africa. One of Ngũgĩ’s favorite projects was the campus screening of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—in Māori.

Much has changed in Irvine since Ngũgĩ first arrived, some of it for the better, he said. There are more identical shopping centers, but the people who roam them are more diverse; the 2020 census showed that Irvine’s Asian population (43.6 percent) is gaining fast on those who identify as white (44.9 percent). The university’s faculty has become much more dynamic, too, and Ngũgĩ’s wife is able to get her hair done much closer to home. “I can’t lie,” he said. “Irvine has been very good to me.”

His grandson, who lives nearby, checks in on him regularly. His daughter calls to encourage him to go for walks. He wants to, but his legs are often uncooperative. “My body says it wants rest, and I argue with it sometimes. Motion is life.”

Memoir writing has occupied much of Ngũgĩ’s past few decades. Having already published Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening, he’s now writing about his days at the University of Leeds.

Gĩkũyũ is still his written language of choice, and he asks his publisher to wait for two years before releasing the English translations of his books to give Kenyan readers more time to discover the story in the original language. “The publishers are not always with me on this policy,” he said.

Ngũgĩ recalled his early days of staging plays in Kenya and how important it was to open up the rehearsal process to the public. “A lot of education all around the world relies on mystification. You see perfection, but perfection is intimidating: ‘Oh, I cannot do that.’ Because you did not see the process! You only see the results. So I like to open the process, and when you see it, you appreciate the outcome even more. I don’t like mystification. I want to hear someone say, ‘I, too, can do it. I want to do it.’ That gives me personal satisfaction.”

He likes to visit the California coastline to revive himself and escape from all the master planning. “The ocean is so glorious,” he said. “The waves are still roaring; the birds still fly.” We didn’t get there on our drive, but Pacific Coast Highway is his favorite place to meander, and a beach called Crystal Cove is one of his favorite spots to stop; he likes to sit on the rocky cliff and stare out at the open sea, each wave arriving with its own particular dynamism.