An Interview with Wanjiku wa Ngugi

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • May 29, 2015

The author talks about her debut novel, social responsibility, and the state of African literature.

An Interview with Wanjiku wa Ngugi

Wanjiku wa Ngugi is a political analyst and past director of the Helsinki African Film Festival. She is also the daughter of Kenya's most celebrated novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. In The Fall of Saints, her first novel, Ngugi introduces us to protagonist Mugure and her Eastern European husband, Zack, who have settled in New York. They've adopted a young son and are poised for the good life. Then trouble comes in the door, or really, through the principal's office at school.

A byproduct of a global world — everyone can import and export their criminality. It’s rather fascinating, isn’t it? Crime knows no borders. How do you believe our global world is reflected in our literature?

I believe that most writers do not and possibly couldn’t even write outside of history and/or their own surroundings — outside of what informs who they are, where they have been, and/or what their values are and so on. So in that sense, there are aspects of the story, or even the values of the characters they create, that are a sum or part sum of a real person´s reality.

For instance, in writing The Fall of Saints, I was thinking how problematic it has become, the ease with which we move children as we do commodities from one border to the next. I was greatly disturbed by the idea of assembling babies in the wombs of poor and low-income women, often for export, and the moral and ethical questions surrounding this industry.

And it is an industry — there is supply and demand; sellers, middlemen, agents, and brokers. And like any industry, it has created an immense opportunity for a black market. Take the case in Nigeria where police discovered what they referred to as a baby factory for 32 teenage girls, some of whom were allegedly being held against their will, raped, and their newborns sold on the black market.

So, yes, I think there is a large extent to which our world is reflected in literature. As someone once said, if someone can think it, then it’s within the realm of possibility that someone has done or will do it. Literature can indeed provide us with a reprieve or expose profound truths, or lead us to understand cultures.

You take the reader across the ocean and back. Was writing scenes in the U.S. as easy as constructing scenes in Kenya?

Yes and no. Some of it was constructed out of memory, some research — Google goes a long way. I attended New York University for my undergraduate studies and spent a lot of time in the Village, and was completely fascinated by the city, which probably remains one of the most contradictory, exciting, diverse cities I have visited and/or lived in. In terms of Kenya, although I haven’t lived in the country for over half my life, I visit now and then, keep up with the goings on in the news, and also the day-to-day through my relatives. Skype and all the social media make it so much easier these days.

How and what influenced you while writing the story? Did the characters fall easily into place? 

Once, as an undergraduate, I visited South Africa three months after the first-ever national elections were held. I was assisting a professor who was conducting research on South-African women writers, and it was then that I happened upon a song that black South-African women sang when they were protesting the infamous pass laws during apartheid. “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock. You have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.” The song, after that initial protest, became a symbol of women's resistance. The song stayed with me throughout the years, and I was certainly thinking about it during the onset of the novel.

It certainly inspired Mugure, the lead character. But even she, like all the other characters in the novel, kept morphing. Some of the characters were natural; I liked some more than others. There were two characters that I was especially fond of; they have very small appearances — significant, but we don’t get to know them too well in the novel, and I often wonder about those two [and] their lives. But all in all, I think that a character, no matter how well conceived, keeps morphing, changing, adapting.

Female characters often close their eyes to ugly things that happen right under their noses. Is it a default, this kind of feminine optimism?

I am not sure that I agree with that generalized perception of female characters — women as bystanders. In the novel in particular, I didn’t want to write a book where all women are agents of change; where all women are good, and with great intentions. That’s not reality. In real life, women have also helped sustain and/or create situations that put other women and/or men in powerless positions.

But I don't think women have within them anything that suggests they are dormant. History paints a different picture. For instance, in the case I mentioned earlier from South Africa, resistance of African women was an important aspect of the political movement against apartheid and certainly played a role in the fight for racial justice, and also towards national liberation.

And there are powerful women characters portrayed, for instance, in my father´s The Wizard of the Crow, and I can think of powerful women in Sembene´s fiction, and in that of TsitsiDangarembga, amongst many others.

Mugure is strong, curious, and determined. Is she a symbol of the modern African/Kenyan woman? Do you believe books carry this sort of responsibility? 

Mugure is certainly a symbol of what happens when a person, be it a man or woman, makes the decision to try and right wrongs they see around them. In my knowledge, African women have always played an active role in society. I can think of my grandmother, Wanjiku wa Thiong´o, who played an active role in the Mau Mau (also known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army), for instance. I don't have to search too far.

The active role in championing for change is not necessarily a preserve of women in the urban areas. Perhaps change is really brought about by those that are directly in the front lines. For women, it is the case that their activism really does spring from their particular position within systems of sometimes multiple oppressions — racial/ethnic, class, and gender oppression.

It is always great to read a well-written novel that somehow deals with issues plaguing society, and I would like to argue that perhaps artists, who may or may not function as “seers” of the society, have a responsibility with their art. Having said this, I don’t think an author should necessarily start out to write a novel to combat the evils of society. One has to be careful with overburdening the reader with dogma.

What is essential in creating a character?

So much of it depends on what I want to say and how best to say it. It is like painting — you have to imagine the scene, then what kinds of brushes and paints you think you will need. But once you start working on the canvas, you find that you must allow yourself the space to veer, to use a different kind of stroke for the kind of work you want to bring to life.

In the same way, I think that once you start writing, you must respect that your characters are alive; they have to breathe and think their way through. Therein lies the challenge — for me to allow them space to grow, to breathe, to live, and not try to control them. It is a delicate balance, and one that I continue to wrestle with.

New books by African writers seem to be exploding onto the literary stage. What do you make of it? 

There is certainly more publishing of African authors taking place, on the continent and outside. I think the establishment of more local publishing houses on the continent itself, although still inadequate, has certainly helped. I am thinking of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), or Cassava Books in Nigeria, for instance. I am excited to see what Kenyan writer Mehul Gohil, Ghanaian writer Kwei Quartey, or award-winning Chika Unigwe will serve up. There is much to look forward to from emerging writers as well as the old hands.

The Folger Theatre here in Washington, DC, recently hosted three African writers. During the Q&A, a gentleman in the audience raised the issue that “the real African story is on the internet.” So many voices are not being heard in traditional publishing. Do you believe this is true?

There are so many stories out there that need to be heard, and one of the hardest things still for any author is finding a publisher. So I do think that the internet has opened up a whole new space for writers, bloggers, etc. There are several online publications that publish some great short stories on a constant basis.

Take Jalada, for example, a new online magazine which promises to publish an anthology of creative writing every quarter. With that said, one has to ask questions about accessibility. Who has access to the internet? Do the youth living outside urban areas have as much access? Then there is the question of affordability. All in all, I do think that we need to create more writing opportunities both in traditional and online publishing. They are not mutually exclusive.

What kind of pressure is exacted on the daughter of a great writer?

I don’t know that I have felt any pressure because of my father, essentially because writing has no monopoly, and no two authors can write the same story even when given the same instruments and space to write.

I come from a family of storytellers, and we grew up listening [to] and making up stories. When my father was thrown in detention without trial and then was forced into exile, I was 10. I remember times when his effigies were set alight around the country, and when people, relatives included, were afraid of even mentioning his name. But even under such trying times, and they were difficult times, we continued with our own little tradition of making up and listening to stories.

But when I started writing, there was that underlying fear that it might not measure up. But over time, those things don’t matter once you understand that you have a voice and would like to tell a story.

The fun part about this is that my siblings are all published authors — Mukomawa Ngugi has published Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi; Nducuwa Ngugi, City Murders; and Teewa Ngugi, Seasons of Love and Despair. It’s been great, even fun sharing a stage with them — doing readings together, etc. And also, whilst we all don’t spend too much time talking about writing, it does come up, and it’s a clear benefit when one has written something and needs someone to go over the text. 

Of all places, you were director of the Helsinki African Film Festival. How did that happen?

After I moved to Helsinki, I was surprised at the narrow prisms through which African people are viewed. So, in a nutshell, that was how HAFF was born — out of this need to deconstruct and then reconstruct the depiction of Africa as this Dark Continent that only produces dark images, one-sided stories, and dehumanized people who should be pitied. So we wanted to have Africans telling their whole, diverse stories on screen. During my five years as director, the annual festival grew from screening 10 films to screening over 30.

How did you find time to run a film festival and write a book?

They feed each other. There are similarities in my intention with both, which is to entertain, question, and explore. But how to go about it is obviously very challenging in two very different, complex ways. Festivals require one to attend to logistics, managing, and working with people from the get-go, whilst a novel is solitary. And perhaps that’s why it worked. That after a grueling day of organizing, etc., I could sit down and conceptualize a world from scratch in the way that I wanted it, and get things to go the way I wanted them to. I have since retired from the festival and moved to the U.S., where, amongst other things, I hope to write more.

Will Mugure reappear in print?

 I hope so…

 Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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