Most great writers have a knack for bringing their characters to life. But only Ngugi wa Thiong'o could write a character so convincing he almost gets arrested. In 1986, while the author's native Kenya was suffocating under President Daniel arap Moi's oppressive rule, Ngugi wrote Matigari, a novel whose eponymous hero travels the country protesting against the regime. Because Matigari posed questions Kenyans were afraid to ask, they talked about him as if he were real, the way soap-opera fans and comic-book lovers do.
"The regime thought there was a guy actually going around asking 'Where can a person find truth and justice in this land?,'" says Ngugi. "So Moi sent the police to arrest him." Realizing the character was fictional, they arrested the book instead and Matigari was banned.
It was 10 years before Ngugi could bring himself to write another novel. "The muse seemed to desert me," he says, giggling softly. "She was scared after what they did to Matigari." When she finally returned, she led him into a novel that would take the next eight years to finish. Originally published in Ngugi's mother tongue, Gikuyu, and now translated into English, Wizard of the Crow is an epic satire on the state of modern-day Africa. Set in the fictional "free republic" of Aburiria, Wizard of the Crow pits a bloated, inept dictator whose solution to the country's crippling poverty is to build a tower that reaches heaven against a wizard who cures his clients with emotional therapy disguised as sorcery.
As lyrical as a bedtime story, but also caustic and earthy, the novel grapples with big issues social inequality, corruption, aids along with more subtle signs of Africa's insecurity, like envy of the West or the loss of a national language. And it's laugh-out-loud funny. "Dictatorship is tragedy that manifests itself in comedy," says Ngugi, 68. His ability to put that into words is part of what turned him into a literary hero in Africa and made Moi very nervous.
Ngugi first started writing in the '60s, under his original name, James Ngugi, and in English: the leftover colonial language still revered in parts of today's Africa, where schools punish students for speaking African languages. Pushing aside the influences of his childhood curriculum William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot he instead dipped into Africa's storytelling history. "The tradition from which I came was that of the realism of the 19th-century English novel," he says. "It was very limiting in terms of imagination, time and space. The folkloric tradition frees the imagination humans talk with birds, people change shapes, they go to heaven and back."
Ngugi's early novels were built around defining moments in Kenya's history, such as the Mau Mau uprising against the British in the 1950s, during which one of his brothers was killed. But after his third novel, A Grain of Wheat, "I became increasingly disturbed that I was drawing from a people's history, their lives, blood, sweat and culture created in and by a national language, but what I was writing was encased in English," he says. "I was writing about a community, but not for a community." He changed his name in 1969 (Ngugi wa Thiong'o means Ngugi, son of Thiong'o), and soon after vowed to write only in native languages like Gikuyu and Swahili. That was when he took his place as one of the fathers of modern African literature.
It's a role that brings trouble along with honor. In 1977, Ngugi wrote I Will Marry When I Want, a play that critiques Kenya's neocolonial society. After it was performed, the theater was burned to the ground and Ngugi thrown in jail. He was released a year later thanks to Amnesty International with a new novel, Devil on the Cross, written on prison toilet paper.
While in England to launch the book in 1982, he heard rumors that he would be arrested again if he went back to Kenya. He and his family went into self-imposed exile, moving from England to the U.S. and finally settling in California. Now he teaches English and literature at the University of California at Irvine and heads its International Center for Writing and Translation. Through essays, articles and lectures, he advocates Africa's decolonization, stressing the importance of maintaining indigenous languages. "Language is the key that holds together the economic, the political and all other aspects of a community," he says. "It's a total distortion when a certain people are not only proud of the fact that they acquired a foreign language, but equally proud of having forgotten their own language. I call it the normalization of abnormality."
In 2002, Moi's Kenya African National Union party was ousted at the polls, and, two years later, Ngugi decided it was safe to return to promote Wizard of the Crow. Cheering crowds greeted him and his wife at the airport. But the happy homecoming didn't last. Days later, four men armed with guns and machetes broke into Ngugi's apartment. He was beaten and his wife raped; the men then ran off with a laptop and jewelry.
Ngugi thinks the attack was politically motivated, the work of Moi supporters who believe Wizard of the Crow's despicable despot is based on the former President. (In fact, he's a mix of infamous dictators: a touch of Moi, a pinch of Mobutu, a dash of Pinochet.)
The men were eventually caught, and now Ngugi only goes back to attend their trial. Yet he still hopes to move back one day. He's comforted by the support of his fellow Kenyans. "They come up close to us on the street and start apologizing," he says, "as if they themselves were hurt by the attack." And he's reassured by the current government under President Mwai Kibaki. "I don't see people being imprisoned, exiled or killed for speaking their differences of opinion. That is a ray of light."
For now, though, he's staying in California to teach and wait for the muse to return. But his mind remains very focused on his homeland. "Whenever I get visitors from Kenya, they think I want to ask them large questions about politics and so on," he says with a grin. "They are always taken aback when I question them about simple things. I want to know about the new songs, new words, what are the roads like, what is the dust like? Everyday things." Because it's the simple things, the everyday things, that really bring a story to life.