Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novels “Arzee the Dwarf” and the forthcoming “Clouds.”
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is Africa’s most celebrated novelist, a writer and activist who has been a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature. For more than five decades, Thiong’o has in his novels (“Weep Not, Child,” “Petals of Blood”), plays (“The Black Hermit,” “The Time Tomorrow”) and essays (“Barrel of a Pen”) sparked much fruitful discussion and controversy about power and justice in colonial and post-colonial Kenya and — in a literary version of the same question — the place of English vis-a-vis other languages in modern African literature.
In the late ’70s Ngugi, an outspoken dissident, was incarcerated for a year in a maximum-security prison and upon his release had difficulty finding work in his home country. Now a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine, he has published two memoirs of his early life — “Dreams in a Time of War” (2011) and “In the House of the Interpreter” (2015). “Birth of a Dream Weaver” is the third of this important and moving trilogy chronicling Ngugi’s life story.
“Dream Weaver” focuses on Ngugi’s time at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. A swift-moving portrait of the artist as a young man, it describes the profound ripening of his artistic and moral consciousness. Indeed, it’s a book that should be read by any young person contemplating a degree in the humanities. But for the full force of its majestic revelations and wrenching insights about selfhood, literature, history and politics, one should give a whole weekend to Ngugi and read its prequels first.
In those books, we saw the boy Ngugi among a vast brood of siblings in the large, raucous rural homestead of his father, a goat-herder. He is suddenly cast out when his mother, one of four wives, flees after being beaten by her husband. It’s the 1940s, the world is at war, and Kenya is an impoverished colony of Britain, with a nascent freedom struggle masterminded by an outlawed group called the Land and Freedom Army, or the Mau Mau.
The young Ngugi is poor and often hungry, the captive of a present “born of the power plays of the past.” He takes refuge in the consoling power of stories, including those narrated by a blind half-sister, Wabia, who has learned to compensate for her disability with a marvelous sense of recall and rhythm: “She owned the stories,” he writes in “Dreams in a Time of War.”
He has another stroke of luck. Although Ngugi’s peasant mother is illiterate and a single parent, she has many dreams for her son. When the boy wants to go to school, she makes a pact with him. She will find the money somehow, as long as he agrees to always give his best. This refrain echoes through the memoirs, setting up the sense of a private ethic — the idea that one is answerable to oneself as much as, or even more than, one is to the world. (Adam Smith would have approved.) When Ngugi graduates at the top of his class, he is momentarily bewildered by his mother’s response: But did he give his best?
Ngugi wins a place at an elite boarding school run by British Jesuits. He wears shoes for the first time and goes forth into the world. The ironies multiply: The depredations of colonial rule menace Ngugi’s every dream, but it is a school run by Christian missionaries that provides him a physical and intellectual sanctuary. English books give him a sense of the power of literature and the shape of history, but English is also the language in which the colonizers assert their power and stereotype the native as a primitive.
In “Birth of a Dream Weaver,” boyhood is over; innocence is no longer a virtue or a crutch. Ngugi is in his early 20s and has won a scholarship to the most famous educational institution in East Africa. Once a passive watcher of events in the world (“In my mind, political actors had always appeared as fictional characters”), Ngugi is now part of the intellectual elite of his generation. All around Africa, decolonization movements are changing the old world order. He looks up from his book to “the rise of new flags” and throws himself into passionate debates about race, religion, politics, language and literature.
He decides he wants to become a novelist but is persuaded by his peers to turn to theater to dramatize the burning debates of the day. His work as an artist brings a new thrill and tension to the continuous interplay in these books between the worlds of history and story. In one exceptional passage, Ngugi is electrified by his discovery of a “poetry of Negritude” in the work of the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor. But slowly he begins to see the problems of asserting “an undifferentiated blackness” in literature and tries to give form on the page to a more complex story about history.
When a contract for his first novel arrives from a London publisher, Ngugi is over the moon. (Years later, when writing fiction, Ngugi would abandon English for his mother tongue, Gikuyu.) Meanwhile, in Kenya, the independence movement at long last wins out.
Ngugi leaves the university both a free man — in the sense of having become a thinker who has transcended his limited origins — and the citizen of a free country. Even so, the book ends on an unusually pessimistic note, with forebodings of the crises to come: the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi (under whose regime Ngugi was thrown into prison) and the retrospective sense that colonialism had, even in departing the scene physically, left its tentacles in Africa. The face of the young man slips away, replaced by that of a rueful 78-year-old.
None of that will distract the reader, though, from the stirring message at the heart of this book and its predecessors: Every page ripples with a contagious faith in education and in the power of literature to shape the imagination and scour the conscience. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another living writer today — Orhan Pamuk, perhaps — who speaks so inspiringly and convincingly about the value of literature. No serious reader will want to miss this riveting story of how a herdsboy and child laborer “became a weaver of dreams.”
By Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
The New Press. 256 pp. $25.95