The only thing more amazing than identifying the themes of your life is using them to create deceptively simple literature about it. Such labor is child’s play for the Kenyan novelist and playwright Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The first two installments of his story, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir and his recent release, In The House of the Interpreter: A Memoir are chronicles about a life spent hearing and, ultimately, using stories—literally, true tales of a child at play, attempting to absorb myth, hearsay and the stories within books to expand his mind, body and soul into his adulthood.
Wa Thiong’o’s Kenya is told through the eyes of a young boy born in 1938 and baptized years later as James Ngugi. Dreams is from his childhood, while House is written from the viewpoint of a fully grown teenager. So we learn of his communal, rural family (he is the fifth child of one of his father’s four wives, one of 24 children), the trials and tribulations of his parents and siblings and, ultimately, the horrors of colonialism under British rule. Because the view is child-level, the open paradox of World War II (Kenyans fighting for the British Empire, members of the King’s African Rifles) and the ubiquitous colonial-created relationships between white settlers, Indian merchants and the oppressed, displaced African poor are all dealt with matter-of-factly. His father’s deterioration after his fall from grace (echoes of Barack Obama’s own Dreams) and his strong mother’s resultant suffering, then, create the confusion it should.
Meanwhile, the Mau-Mau guerilla fighters and their post-war skirmishes against the British, along with a revered Kenyan leader named Jomo Kenyatta, wait in the both book’s wings, longing for their cue to bum-rush the stage. They find it when one of James’ brothers, Wallace Mwangi, a.k.a. Good Wallace, joins the revolution for Kenyan’s independence. The British place Kenya under a state of emergency during the formative years of James’ life. “People lived under a double fear: of government operations by day and Mau Mau guerilla activities by night, the difference being that while the guerillas were fighting for land and freedom, the colonial state was fighting to sustain foreign occupation and protect the prerogatives and wealth of European settlers.” Kenyatta is ultimately tried and jailed, but the Mau Mau lives on in the bush. Good Wallace’s patriotic sacrifice and often-unknown fate buzzes in the back of James’ mind in both memoirs as he devours books in a British-run boarding high school, takes up chess, and becomes a scout.
Finding some degree of “refuge in learning,” Shakespeare and The Bible transform teenage James into a committed Christian and lover of plays. He learns how to get along with others from different backgrounds. He judges when to lead and when to follow, when to speak and when to be silent. Debate sharpens his mind. But he returns to his past—his mother, his now-displaced village—when he can. What is bothersome is that the evolving epic, alas, at the end of two books, is still stuck in exposition: House ends in 1959, the year James graduates—and, with appropriately timed symbolism—is subsequently thrown in jail.
The author easily keeps the balance between the whimsical, political, spiritual and personal in both stand-alone volumes. By the end of House, a story about various types of conversions, James has begun to master his life’s negotiations—not only between races and religions, but, more importantly, within himself. He is now the master of his own story. He has learned the language of his own soul, fear fading ever fast. “I am relentless,” he tells himself as he fights for his rights for the first time. “I feel a new power, the power of telling the truth.”
Still, because of the extraordinary life led, important orals have yet to be written in this Book of James. The eagerly awaited next pages of wa Thiong’o’s memory will include college, his first play, his first two novels, his name transformed back to his original, pre-baptism one, adapting Marxism through the lens of Frantz Fanon and, ultimately, arrest and imprisonment for speaking his mind through art. But until then, there is time to savor youthful discovery engaged and shared.These two memoirs allow the trail from childhood dreams to teen visions to adult action, all vicariously lived by the audience—the hallmark of a good story.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Communications Studies at Morgan State University. He is the co-editor, with Jared A. Ball, of the new book “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X.” He is working on a journalistic biography of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.