Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a revolutionary. Take nearly any pressing political topic: the horrors of incarceration, the erasure of indigeneity, the oppression of the poor, the rights of the working class, the corrosive effects of neoliberalism. You’ll find in Ngũgĩ’s oeuvre—his fiction, his criticism, his theory—an incisive, often prescient treatment of the issue, one that always attends to the conflicts that underlie it. This is because Ngũgĩ is a Marxist thinker. In our conversation in early 2021, we discussed his fascination with the idea of contraries: “I talk about struggle a lot, dialectical struggle, dialectics of Marx, dialectics of Hegel,” he said.
Born James Ngũgĩ in 1938 in a village in Limuru, Kenya, he attended Alliance High School, a missionary boarding school in the nearby town of Kikuyu, and in 1959 received a scholarship to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. From 1964 to 1967, he studied at the University of Leeds in England, and as a young professor at the University of Nairobi, he cowrote “On the Abolition of the English Department,” a manifesto arguing for African literatures to be placed at the center of the university’s curriculum. In 1973, four years before Chinua Achebe published his famous essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Ngũgĩ gave a talk in which he argued that “the Conradian narrative itself was rooted in the assumption of the inherent savagery of Africa and the Africans: that even the best minds and hearts of Europe were in danger of being contaminated.” In the seventies, Ngũgĩ decided to write his fiction in his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ, rather than in English. The title of his most celebrated work of theory, a slim volume about the politics of language that led to that decision, has passed the acid test of true virality: the phrase “decolonizing the mind” pervades our public discourse without citation.