Each conversation they take up — about colonialism, the fate of their country, economics, art, how women treat men, how men treat woman — has only one destination: the truth. Which is another way of saying that each conversation is attempting to disentangle what is real from what is contrived. Which is another way of saying that each conversation constitutes a search for a new reality.
Such conversations are only possible in a barbershop or salon, in any church in any city in the world, or on a matatu, such as this one, which happens to be traveling from Nairobi to Ilmorog. This van, like those barbershops and salons and church halls, is one of those simultaneously private and public spaces where secrets are freely shared because one is among one’s own. In such places, even the most anodyne observations are freighted with meaning, but then again in such places observations are rarely anodyne. They have been kept alive by their owners in inhospitable climes for such a moment as this, this moment that arrives only once a week or month or year or lifetime. Each observation, though garbed in different clothes, carries within it the same set of questions:
Have you noticed that something isn’t quite right?
What shall we do about it?
In most other places, those spaces in which we work and eat, sometimes even those intimate spaces we share with those we love, we are complicit in maintaining the various fictions that sustain our shared reality because upending reality requires faith and courage. And time. Days, weeks, your entire life.
But in those private public places, say a van traveling from Nairobi to Ilmorog, it’s possible to probe beyond the borders of the familiar. It’s possible to dream of what could be. It’s possible that each conversation is nudging you closer to another realm.
This scene aboard the matatu is featured in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross. Originally published in 1980 (Penguin Classics will be issuing a new edition this month), this novel is bold and disquieting and, like most great novels, wonderfully immersive. So immersive, in fact, that I dreamed about it. I found myself on that matatu, listening and arguing, peering out of a dust-covered window as the conversation flowed around me, occasionally laughing, often shaking my head in disbelief. I woke up and for a moment I forgot where I was. Then I stared up at the unfamiliar ceiling and remembered — I was in Cologne, Germany. I glanced at my phone and realized that I had five minutes to get dressed and downstairs for a meeting with a few local writers. I met them in the lobby. I had never seen them before but I recognized something in them. We went to the hotel dining room for breakfast, and then we wandered around the hotel until we found a small room with two leather couches and no doors. It seemed comfortable. Public, but private. We sat and talked, about writing, art, and life. I listened and argued; occasionally I glanced at the small window directly ahead of me; I laughed; I shook my head in disbelief. It wasn’t until the end, as we were shaking hands and exchanging warm, bittersweet smiles that it occurred to me that the past hour or so of my life rhymed perfectly with the dream I’d been having just before I woke up. Somehow the barrier between my waking life and my dream life had eroded. This is the precise moment when I realized that Devil on the Cross, the novel I’d been reading and struggling to comprehend, is actually about how dreams serve as a framework for our reality. It’s about how our reality constitutes itself around the imaginary, the impossible. Devil on the Cross argues quite convincingly — so convincingly that, for a moment, I became a character in the novel, or perhaps Ngugi became the author of my life — that all of us are living within a dream.
The question is who is the dreamer?
There’s a video online that I can’t stop watching. The opening frame is black. We hear a voice: “Did you think you could beat her?” Then we see a young Venus Williams. She is calm, assured. “I know I can beat her,” she responds. The voice repeats the question: “You know you can beat her?” Venus nods. “Very confident,” says the voice. Venus smiles. “I’m very confident,” she says. Then we see the source of the voice, a white reporter. “You say it so easily,” he says. He seems to lack confidence in Venus’s confidence. “Why?” he asks. “’Cause I believe it,” she says. As she’s talking, we hear another voice somewhere off camera. The reporter turns to the source of the new voice. “Alright, cut right there if you don’t mind,” the new voice says. “And let you tell me why.” The reporter appears angry, perhaps a bit dejected. Venus plays with her nails; she looks like she’s lost interest, but you can tell she is listening intently. The new voice: “What she said, she said it with so much confidence the first time, but you keep going on and on…” The reporter interjects: “But we can’t keep interrupting. I mean if you want…”
Richard Williams, Venus’s father, enters the frame. He strides right up to the reporter. “You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child,” he says. Then he leans over and speaks directly into the reporter’s face. His voice ticks up a few decibels. “And this child gonna be out there playing when your old ass and me gonna be in the grave.” I always beam when he says this. Then: “When she say something, we done told you what’s happening. You’re dealing with a little black kid, and let her be a kid. She done answered it with a lot of confidence. Leave that alone!”
The video is only 48 seconds long, but, to paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes. First there is Venus’s resolve, her knowledge — knowledge because this is no mere belief — that she will defeat anyone she must to become a champion. Then there’s the reporter, who seems mystified by her responses. He also seems dismissive, or something close to it. And then there’s Richard Williams, video-bombing the interview, swooping in to save his daughter. His is an act of love and defiance. He is protecting her from a reality that says she cannot become a champion.
Because that’s what this video is all about — dueling realities. It’s obvious that Venus inhabits an entirely different reality from the reporter. Her reality has been formed around a dream that she is a champion. This is remarkable because she is a black girl from Compton, California, and in 1995, when this footage was recorded, very few female tennis champions resembled her. But because her reality has begun to rhyme with her dream — she had already attained a measure of success by then — she does not waver when the reporter inquires about her aspirations. Yes, of course she can beat her. She will beat everyone. But her answer doesn’t suffice. “Do you really believe that?” the reporter seems to be asking. “Are you aware of who you are? Whose you are?”
A dream is a delicate thing, especially when you’re a black girl from Compton. Especially when almost everything around you is a direct repudiation of who you are and who you aspire to be. This is why Richard Williams interjects as aggressively as he does. He is the architect of her dream. He is the one who has told Venus that she is a champion despite what anyone else may think or say. He knows he must protect her and the dream he has shaped for her or the reality of the man across from her will become her reality as well.
And so he silences the reporter.
The dream remains intact.
What is reality? Well, it depends where you’re standing. If you are among the oppressed populations of the planet Earth, it’s likely that your reality is the manifestation of someone else’s dream.
Another dream: A group of Europeans envision a future in which they have apportioned the continent of Africa among their respective countries. Everything on the continent — its resources, its land — will belong to them. The people who currently inhabit the continent — “people” is a generous term, because they aren’t quite — will be incidental. They will provide free labor. Free sex. Most importantly, they will serve as living reminders that the Europeans are superior, the inevitable rulers of the world.
The Europeans dream, plot, execute. Inevitably, reality begins to form itself around their dream. Africans across the continent resist, and sometimes they succeed, but mostly they do not. Their progeny are born and raised and die in this new reality.
In matatus and salons and churches across the continent people begin to interrogate this reality. Surely this is not the way things were meant to be. Surely there must be another way. Leaders emerge. They envision a future in which Africans rule themselves. They dream, plot, execute. All across the continent various countries proclaim their independence. The Europeans leave. Africa is free. All should be well.
But all isn’t well. This is the reality that greets us in the opening pages of Devil on the Cross. We are introduced to a young woman named Wariinga who is having an especially bad day. In quick succession, she loses her job (because she refuses to sleep with her boss), her boyfriend leaves her, and she is kicked out of her apartment. Wariinga blames herself for these incidents:
Wariinga was convinced that her appearance was the root cause of all her problems. Whenever she looked at herself in the mirror she thought herself very ugly. What she hated most was her blackness, so she would disfigure her body with skin-lightening creams like Ambi and Snowfire, forgetting the saying: That which is born black will never be white. Now her body was covered with light and dark spots like a guineafowl. Her hair was splitting, and it had browned to the color of moleskin because it had been straightened with red-hot iron combs. Wariinga also hated her teeth. There were a little stained; they were not as white as would have liked them to be.
There’s an unspoken question here, so obvious one can almost see it hovering above the text: How would Wariinga perceive herself if she had been reared in a space where she was valued for precisely the things she despises most about herself?
A few paragraphs later, as she tries to find a matatu that will take her to her parents’ home in Ilmorog (a town that exists only in Ngugi’s novels and our imaginations), Wariinga attempts suicide. Someone she’s never met prevents her from doing so; this person takes her to a salon. The door is locked, so she sits on the steps. Then she slips into a recurring nightmare. She witnesses a “crowd of people dressed in rags walking in the light, propelling the Devil toward the cross.” The crowd excoriates the Devil for his sins:
Now we know the secrets of all the robes that disguise your cunning. You commit murder, then you don your robes of pity and you go to wipe the tears from the faces of orphans and widows. You steal food from people’s stores at midnight, then at dawn you visit the victims wearing your robes of charity and you offer them a calabash filled with the grain you have stolen. You encourage lasciviousness solely to gratify your own appetites, then you put on robes of righteousness and urge men to repent, to follow you so that you may show them paths of purity. You seize men’s wealth, than you dress in robes of friendship and instruct them to join in the pursuit of the villain who has robbed them.
They crucify the Devil, and then, three days later:
[T]here came others dressed in suits and ties, who, keeping close to the wall of darkness, lifted the Devil down from the Cross. And they knelt before him, and they prayed to him in loud voices, beseeching him to give them a portion of his robes of cunning. And their bellies began to swell, and they stood up, and they walked toward Wariinga, laughing at her, stroking their large bellies, which had now inherited all the evils of this world.
It is hard not to read the first part of this dream, with its direct allusions to the crucifixion of Christ, as an allegory for our postcolonial era, the manner in which the West engages with Africa and the rest of the world. But what about the second part? Who are the men dressed in suits and ties who lift the Devil down from the cross, with their loud voices and large bellies?
Wariinga wakes up, and the man who saved her is there. Eventually he hands her an invitation for a competition between thieves and robbers called The Devil’s Feast, which will take place in Ilmorog. Card in hand, Wariinga boards a matatu bound for Ilmorog. Others board as well. The matatu departs.
Onboard, they argue and sing and discuss Kenya’s past and future. Wariinga discovers that a few of her fellow passengers are bound for the same feast. Their conversations coalesce around a single topic: What will they find at this feast? And who?
Ngugi’s aims become clearer as the novel progresses. He not only wants to tell you a story, but he also wants to implicate you in it. He employs various strategies to achieve this goal: one is to stretch a scene over multiple pages, to keep it going until you can see the dialogue swirling around you. This is what happens during the matatu scene, which is just under 50 pages. The scene occurs at the speed of dialogue, which means that we experience time at the same speed as the characters. An attentive reader will find herself lowered into the scene, and because it rhymes with scenes that each of us have experienced in our own lives — during a visit to salon or barbershop, perhaps even while sitting in a matatu — the barrier between reality and the imagined will become harder to find.
Ngugi unveils another strategy once the matatu arrives in Ilmorog. At the feast, we meet those sinister figures from Wariinga’s dream, dressed in suits and ties with their large bellies and loud voices. They have arrived from all over Kenya to report their expertise at stealing from their countrymen and women to a delegation of representatives from various Western countries.
They are the men who shape the nightmare around which Wariinga’s life has formed itself. More than anything they would like to keep reality as it is.
Instead of summarizing the testimony of these men, Ngugi transcribes every word they utter. Unlike the matatu scene, which involves a cast of characters who are lobbing words back and forth, this scene is composed of multiple (mostly uninterrupted) monologues. These men are talking to the audience, to their silent Western overlords, but they are also talking to you. They are telling you what they’ve stolen, how they stole it, and why. They are telling without a hint of remorse, but with pride.
Somehow you have slipped into this secret meeting with Wariinga and the others, but is this meeting really so secret? Have you not heard other leaders utter these words, or similar ones? “You, over there,” Ngugi seems to be saying. “You, reading these words. This is what is happening right now. This is your reality!”
This is not a well-behaved novel, the kind you might read with your book club while discussing character motivation over tea and biscuits. This is a novel that wants you to act. As the novel progresses, Wariinga begins down a path that will liberate her from the dreams of her oppressors. And then Ngugi turns to you. I have shown you what you already know, he says. What will you do?
I read this novel over the month of February, at a time when my primary extracurricular preoccupation was reading news about the new American president. Morning, noon, and night, I scanned the internet for more information about his immaturity, his horrific policies, his seeming inability to rise to the occasion. At work and at home, he was the primary topic of conversation.
Each time I picked up this novel, it took me some time to settle into its rhythms. It required all my attention. This seemed a steep price. I was keen to watch cable news, to read the latest articles. Grudgingly, I succumbed. Each time I surfaced from the novel into my life everything seemed a bit clearer. This novel cast the rest of my life in relief. It taught me that I had been living much of my life according to an agenda that had been established by a man who has no regard for me or mine. Ngugi showed me that I was living in someone else’s dream.
It’s the perennial question: What is the point of literature? Why should we spend so many valuable hours reading tiny print on thin pages when there are so many colorful screens to touch and watch? And why spend so much time — months, years — writing a novel when writing a successful screenplay, say, will likely win you many more eyeballs?
I can’t say that Ngugi’s intention was to mount a defense of literature when he wrote this, but I can tell you what this novel did to me.
He taught me that it’s time for us to build new dreams. It’s time for us to inhabit them.