The Kenyan author was incarcerated without trial for a year in 1978 and with the re-release of his prison memoir, he talks about the importance of resisting injustice
Ngugi wa Thiong’o believes in the imagination. Perhaps that seems obvious for the decorated Kenyan novelist, scholar and playwright, who’s been publishing for over 50 years. But imagination, and all art, for him, is not just a form of creativity; it’s a form of resistance. In his suit, once imprisoned for his political notion, it was his most important possession in a brutal environment meant to break him.
His memoir, Wrestling with the Devil seems back at his year-long imprisonment in 1978, when, after being arrested in the middle of the night, he was held without trial, in a maximum-security prison. The memoir is a trimmer version of the original work, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, published in 1982. Asked why he chose to publish this updated version now, he replied,” The topic of resistance, and writing in prison, is eternal .”
He committed many acts of resistance while he was jailed, but the memoir deals with the most significant one: the writing of his novel Devil on the Cross on thick, scratchy, prison-issued toilet paper. The legend of the book has become as much a part of its story as the plot itself, about a young lady dealing with racial and gender persecution in neocolonial Kenya.
Because Ngugi was never charged, tried or sentenced, he had no way of knowing how long he would be held. The fiction was ” a kind of spiritual survival”, he says.
” It’s hard to say how I would have reacted after 10 years. But I was scheming as to how I’d survive. I was believing I’d write the fiction in Gikuyu. I didn’t know how long that would take. If it took a year, I guessed I’d take another year translating it into Kiswahili or English. I was scheming ahead, even then .”
The state’s goal in jailing him, he surmises, was to make an example of an outspoken intellectual. He was arrested for his role in the writing and staging of a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (” I Will Marriage When I Want “), produced by and starring local peasants, who had no previous theater experience, and limited economic entails. For Ngugi, who was openly opposed to the government, it was clear what his jailing entail. In the memoir, he writes,” If the state can violate such progressive patriots, if they can build them come out of prison weeping,’ I am sorry for all my sins ,’ such an unprincipled about-face would corroborate the wisdom of the ruling clique in the population division of the populace into the passive innocent millions and the disgruntled subversive few .”