The Two Ngugis: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “In the House of the Interpreter”

By Aaron BadyJanuary 30, 2013

In the House of the Interpreter by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

LATELY WE SEEM to be experiencing a boom in the genre of the African literary memoir. In the past five years, we have had memoirs from luminaries like Wole Soyinka (You Must Set Forth at Dawn, 2007), J.M. Coetzee (Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, 1997, and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, 2002), Zakes Mda (Sometimes There Is A Void: Memoirs of an Outsider, 2013), Chinua Achebe (the long-awaited There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, 2012). In November 2012, the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o — who had already written one memoir of his childhood, Dreams in a Time of War, in 2010 — published a second volume, In the House of the Interpreter. Part of the power of the memoir genre is the way it personalizes history, giving us the general past as a single individual’s life story. But in the context of this explosion of “personal histories” from all the old lions of African literature, a book like Ngugi’s feels like something more, like a moment of summing up, both for him, for his generation, and for his relationship to his generation. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, after all, many of this generation’s defining works were portraits of the artist as a young man, and semiautobiographical Bildungsromane formed the foundation of canon-making institutions like the African Writers Series. The book that launched Ngugi’s career, for instance, was Weep Not, Child, a lightly fictionalized version of his own early schooldays. Today, we are seeing the other end of that autobiographical spectrum, as this same literary generation enters its twilight: the writers who collectively came of age in the era of decolonization and independence are slowly retiring from the scene, and their memoirs, in that sense, complete the collective portrait these writers began half a century ago. 

Or perhaps this boom in Great African Writer Memoirs is simply the result of old men discovering that they have little new to say? That none of the Big Names of African Literature live in Africa any more is worth noting: Ngugi, Achebe, Mda, and Soyinka have all lived in the United States for decades now, but, with the exception of Mda, they’ve never been interested in writing about American life or culture; their respective pasts may be the only subject matter they still have available. (One of the few times I’ve agreed with V.S. Naipaul about anything was when he expressed his disappointment that Achebe never chose to write about his decades in the United States — and if ever there’s a writer who wrote all his interesting work before receiving the Nobel, it’s Wole Soyinka.) Ngugi has only written one novel in the past 20 years (albeit a big one: the monumental Wizard of the Crow in 2006), while Achebe and Soyinka have published nothing but nonfiction since the 1990’s. That’s not to say that these books are without interest; they’re each shaped by the personality of the writer, and in illuminating ways, from Achebe’s blend of soft-spoken modesty with ferocious polemic to Soyinka’s sly articulation of crude wit into dazzling flights of multisyllabic poetry (or even Coetzee’s own disappearing act into his own memoir). But while a younger generation of African writers — Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Dinaw Mengestu, to name only a few — have been expanding their artistic imaginations across the globe and into the future, I can’t help but find a certain pathos in the return of their predecessors to the scenes of their youth, as a cohort of greatness confronts its inevitable slide into obsolescence.

In Ngugi’s long exile from Kenya (he currently lives in California and teaches at UC Irvine), we’ve seen perhaps the most intense insistence of all of these figures on living in the West without acknowledging it as home. One would be hard-pressed to find a writer more insistent on remaining relevant and engaged in his home country, even while remaining absent from it. In the House of the Interpreter, his second memoir, not only crystallizes this tension, but also brings a new focus to the problem which has dogged him his entire career: how to write an authentically African literature in the alienating literary tradition of colonial English?


Of this generation of writers, Ngugi has always been the most given to pastoral nostalgia, and the most prone to heightening the contradictions between authentic culture and corrupting modernity. In Dreams in a Time of War, for example, he retold many of the same childhood stories that formed the basis of Weep Not, Child with a palpable longing for hearth and home. The novel stays with me, but the memoir has already become hazy in my mind: against the backdrop of the fallen world he would emerge to face, the Eden of his childhood is almost womblike in its romanticized memory. In the House of the Interpreter, by contrast, is much more highly compressed and tightly constructed, describing only his four years at Alliance High School, and it represents a much more interesting development of the narrative of Ngugi’s journey out of the home and into the world, moving away from soft-focus idealizations and into a more subtly disturbing dissection of his own authorial pieties.

The Ngugi that most people know best is an icon of Afrocentric radicalism. After publishing three novels and a few plays and short stories under the name “James Ngugi,” he began to be influenced by reading Afro-Caribbean writers and radicals like Frantz Fanon and George Lamming. By 1970, he had renounced Christianity along with the Christian name he had been baptized under, and famously argued for the abolition of the English department at the University of Nairobi, to be replaced by a literature department focused on Afrocentric materials. This is the Ngugi who would write the famous polemic, Decolonising the Mind, and who turned his artistic energies towards the work of eliminating the culture of colonialism from his and his society’s cultural repertoire. Since he legally changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in 1977, he has been the standard bearer for the argument that African writers should write in “African” languages, as opposed to English or French, he has composed all of his fiction in his native Gikuyu first (though it has always been quickly translated into English, the language in which he is most widely read).

When Ngugi decolonized his mind, however, “James Ngugi” was the baby who was washed out with the bathwater. Along with the cultural baggage of colonialism — the English language, his English name, his Christian beliefs — he also put aside the person he had been when he attended Alliance High School. It was James Ngugi who had been dismissive of his African heritage, who had performed Shakespearean drama, who had been a Boy Scout, who had converted to evangelical Christianity, and who had most fervently believed in the liberal myth of a benevolent British Imperial mission to educate and uplift darkest Africa. This is the person we find In the House of the Interpreter, a person Ngugi has never before chosen to write about.

It’s not hard to understand why. In the past, for all his literary sophistication, Ngugi has generally been satisfied with a very purist sense of identity, making the Afrocentric argument that English names, literature, and religion were nothing more than colonial impositions, inauthentic identities whose only meaning was the extent to which they alienated colonial Africans from who they really were. As he wrote in Decolonising the Mind, Englishness was a “cultural bomb”: 

The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own.

“James Ngugi” was not really an identity, from this perspective, but a dis-identity, a negation and a structure of alienation. And since decolonizing the mind meant negating the negation, removing the false identity and allowing the true one to emerge, there was little place in Ngugi’s earlier work, written in the midst of this process, for an account of his inauthentic self. “James Ngugi,” we might say, was the nightmare from which Ngugi wa Thiong’o was trying to awake. And while he has often told the story of his pastoral, rural childhood — in which he spoke Gikuyu and soaked up the cultural traditions of his people — and has narrated in great detail his coming to consciousness in the late 1960s, he has always skipped lightly over the intervening period, when he himself was a vigorous believer in the mythology of colonial rule.

In 1954, after all, the young man who had been christened “James Ngugi” was ready and eager to be educated in the British Empire’s colonial schools. He was a zealous Christian who wholeheartedly believed that breaking out of the prison-house of tradition through the civilizing modernity of British culture was the road to progress. In 1957, in fact, in his first published work, a young Alliance student who signed his name “J.T. Ngugi” noted that while “[s]uperstition used to play an important role in Kikuyu society,” Christianity — what he called “without doubt the greatest civilising influence” — was leading the Gikuyu people to regard “superstition and witchcraft with derision.” 

Winston Churchill could not have put it better. At Alliance High School, the student who would eventually become a Marxist-Leninist, a proponent of Mao and Fanon, and an advocate of cultural and political revolution by whatever means necessary was still an aspiring member of a black colonial meritocracy, a privileged group of students who anticipated joining the elite class and becoming a part of the future leadership of a multiracial Kenyan nation when they graduated. This was the vision of Alliance’s head-master, in any case — a white liberal named Carey Francis — and the young James Ngugi shared his beliefs wholeheartedly, along with a deep investment in the stories that the British empire told itself about itself, and about the three C’s it was supposedly bringing to Africa: Civilization, Christianity, and Commerce.

This vision was a lie, of course: a light that was destined to fail. Kenya’s white settler government never intended Kenya to be anything but an apartheid-style settler republic, and if a few colonial functionaries and administrators spoke grand platitudes about the white man’s burden — and even if some also believed it — the colonial enterprise in Kenya was always, in practice, a white supremacist engine of capital accumulation and repression. The British built prisons and army barracks much faster than they ever built schools or roads, and mostly they didn’t build anything at all. And if a very few students like Ngugi managed to go to schools like Alliance, the meritocracy they hoped to climb was defined by the fact that there were actually very few of them: the overwhelmingly vast majority of Afro-Kenyans were destined to work as tenant labor on plantations owned by white settlers, part of a labor system which was explicitly modeled on the Jim Crow American South.

In the House of the Interpreter shows us Ngugi’s growing disillusionment with this system; as the young James Ngugi struggles to embrace Carey Francis’s vision of gradualist Christian uplift, he cannot help but be confronted by the harsh reality from which the school walls only imperfectly shelter and isolate him. Outside Alliance, in 1954, a war was raging, the Mau Mau revolt that would shake the foundations of the British colonial rule in Kenya to its core. And while James read Shakespeare, studied the Bible, and went camping with his fellow Boy Scouts, his own brother was taking Gikuyu oaths and fighting in the forest, eventually to be captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp that formed part of what Caroline Elkins famously named “Britain’s Gulag.”

I would have expected Ngugi to tell a story of bitter disillusionment, but In the House of the Interpreter revisits Ngugi’s youth in order to engage with his relationship with British colonial rule with much more ambivalent attachment than he’s ever shown before. After decades spent trying to suppress and forget “James Ngugi,” he has returned to that identity with a surprising warmth and nostalgia, and seems re-interested in forms of subjective ambiguity that his politics have often not allowed him to be. He still marks these beliefs as the product of innocent youth, of course; he has hardly become less “radical” in any simple sense. But he now recalls his youthful illusions somewhat fondly, as formative, even positive. I started In the House of the Interpreter expecting it to be analogous to the “Detroit Red” section of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a narrative of socialization into an alienated and debased consciousness, and I read it anticipating the conversion narrative to come. Instead, it’s a text written under the sign of W.E.B. Du Bois: a work of nostalgia for a divided consciousness that strives for harmony and resolution, rather than ideological purity.

For example, the name “James Ngugi” — the name Ngugi was known by at Alliance — appears in the text only a single time, but that one time sets the tone for the rest of the book. In the book’s dedication, Ngugi offers his memories “To the Class of 1958,” and includes the name “James Ngugi” squarely in the middle of three neat columns of student names, with an asterisk next to it, glossing James Ngugi as Ngugi wa Thiong’o. This is a form of double consciousness, not only typographically — as our eyes flit back and forth between the two names — but in the reference of the dedication itself, which characterizes the class of 1958 as, “A formative part of my intellectual and spiritual strivings.” The phrase “spiritual strivings” is an unmistakable reference to “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the essay in The Souls of Black Folk where Du Bois most famously described the phenomenon of double consciousness:

this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness […] two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

By typographically distinguishing between the “James Ngugi” who belongs within the three columns of school names and the Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has left the school, both literally and metaphorically, Ngugi retains and evokes this enduring tension as his formative trial, something he can neither fully embrace nor fully transcend. In some sense, we know that he’s really Ngugi wa Thiong’o: “James” was simply the name he was given by the British, by colonial schools, and by Christian missionaries, and it’s the name he would discard in 1970. And yet there he is, James Ngugi, in 2012.


What’s in a name? Older editions of the novels that Ngugi wrote in the 1960s — Weep Not, Child, The River Between, and A Grain of Wheat — sometimes still have the name James Ngugi on the cover, which means, among other things, that you can reliably find them in the “N” section of bookstores: “Ngugi” scans easily as his “last” name, and so fits neatly into the alphabetical system of classification which we tend to use in the West. When his name is listed as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, however, you start to run into trouble: Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross, Matigari, and Wizard of the Crow will sometimes wander over to the T’s or even the W’s, which is technically incorrect: Ngugi is sometimes referred to as “Thiongo” or even “wa Thiong’o,” but in this case his “first” name is his “last” name. But his first name can’t really be his last name, of course, and the word “technically” makes it seems like there’s a simple answer. There isn’t. The more one knows about it, the less available any simple answer becomes.

For a start, Gikuyu naming conventions reverse the order which people in the West conventionally use to distinguish personal from family names. My friends and family call me “Aaron,” but my professional and publishing name is the name I share with the rest of my family, “Bady,” which I inherited through a patrilineal line of descent from my father, from his father, from his father’s father, and so forth. There is a sociology embedded in names, then, or an anthropology; the fact that we are “the Badys” — and that my mother took the name of her husband and passed it on to her son — establishes a particular structure of kinship, a line of descent connecting sons and fathers, weaving in mothers, wives, and sisters along the way. Nowadays we decline to draw all the conclusions of this, of course; our gender norms have relaxed since the days when a husband actually owned his wife and her children. But the endurance of patriarchal gender norms is reflected in the endurance of patrilineal naming systems; for some people, it is in fact extremely important that a woman give up part of her own identity and take on part of her husband’s.

I rehearse all of this because the way “James Ngugi” became “Ngugi wa Thiong’o” is similarly complicated by the social relations those two names imply, and one of the most interesting things about Ngugi’s memoir is the way he brings into focus some of the deeper and more complex consequences and meanings of his own name changes. It will not be news to anyone that names are a way of exercising and contesting cultural power, of course. Just as African slaves were given new names in the new world, to demonstrate that they had become new people (or had newly become un-people), black nationalists like Malcolm Little and LeRoi Jones made a point of re-Africanizing their given names to demonstrate that they were rejecting their slave identities. The name “Malcolm X” was a reflection of the fact that Little’s real name was unknown to him, for example — he eventually took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz when he felt he had reacquired his authentic identity — while Jones went straight to Amiri Baraka.

“James” was never Ngugi’s slave name — if anything, it was a signifier of not insignificant social privilege — but it certainly did signify as an erasure of his ancestral past. Being called “James Ngugi” meant that he had been baptized a Christian, that he had washed himself clean of his pagan roots: just as baptism symbolized original sin being washed away by grace, replacing “wa Thiong’o” with the solid Christian name of an English king marked the fact that a rough African child had been washed clean of his pagan culture, clothing him in the uniform of righteousness.

“Ngugi wa Thiong’o” is his authentic name, if it is, because Gikuyu naming conventions dictate that the first son take his name from his mother’s father, a man who was known as Ngugi wa Gikonyo. But this grandfather’s name was “Ngugi” — just “Ngugi”; the phrase “wa Gikonyo” wasn’t really part of his name, any more than “wa Thiong’o” was part of his grandson’s. In other words, “wa Gikonyo” simply indicated that he was the child “of Gikonyo,” a way of socially placing him; Ngugi is a common Gikuyu name, and you would need to specify which Ngugi you meant. In the same way, however, “wa Thiong’o” isn’t quite Ngugi’s “last name” either; it’s just the social context you need to know who he is, the fact that Ngugi’s father was named Thiong’o (Thiong’o wa Ndueu, as it happens, or Thiong’o son of Ndueu). 

When Ngugi was baptized, the name he chose to replace his father’s name also tied him to his father’s landlord: he took the name “James” from the son of the man who baptized him, Lord Reverend Stanley Kahahu (or “Bwana Stanley”), the owner of the land that Ngugi’s family felt was rightfully theirs. This is actually quite an interesting piece of context, since the “stolen lands” narrative of Kenya — the history of white dispossession of African land — is one of Ngugi’s central literary preoccupations. I confess, in fact, that before reading Dreams in a Time of War (the first volume of Ngugi’s memoir), I had never realized that “James” symbolized something other than Englishness and Christianity. But the fact that his family’s dispossession from their land is actually mirrored by his family name’s dispossession from his identity makes Ngugi’s eventual decision to give up the name “James” all the more meaningful. He wasn’t simply rejecting Christianity and Englishness when he gave up the name James: he was enacting a symbolic repossession of his familial rights, taking back his heritage while precisely by expelling the name of those who had expelled them first.

Yet Dreams in a Time of War also starts to uncover the extent to which “Ngugi wa Thiong’o” isn’t exactly his authentic name either, or at least not in a simple sense. Before Ngugi was baptized James, it turns out, he had already changed his name once, from “Ngugi wa Wanjiku” to “Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” Before he started primary school, he had been known as Ngugi wa Wanjiku because “Wanjiku” was his mother’s name (Thiong’o’s third wife). Since Ngugi had little day-to-day contact with his father, people would refer to him as Wanjiku’s child. And in Dreams in a Time of War, he recalls being confused about names on his first day of primary school. When he is asked to identify himself, he names himself as the son of his mother, the name he has always used, which causes the other students to laugh and the teacher to correct him:

Isaac Kuria is registering new pupils. He asks me my name. I say Ngugi wa Wanjiku, because at home I identified with my mother. I am puzzled when this is greeted with giggles in the class. Then he asks me: What’s your father’s name, and I say, Thiong’o. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the identity I shall carry throughout this school, but I am not conflicted by the two ways of identifying myself. 

Ngugi makes a point of observing that he is not conflicted about these two names, because he wants to anticipate the fact that he will be conflicted about the name he would take when he was baptized. When he decolonized his mind, he got rid of the name of his father’s landlord and replaced it with the name of his father. But he didn’t replace it with the name of his mother. 

I don’t mean to suggest that he should have, of course, but I want to emphasize the fact that “returning” to his “authentic” name actually only brought Ngugi back to a deeper and earlier form of colonial acculturation. By taking the name “Ngugi wa Thiong’o,” Ngugi was reaffirming a form of patrilineal descent, though a different form than we practice in the West. My name and my father’s name, for instance, will both be listed in the telephone book under “B,” the name we inherited from father to son and so forth, while if you look up Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s writings and those of his son, Mukoma wa Ngugi, in a bookstore, you’ll find Ngugi’s writings in the “N” section, while Mukoma’s noir thriller Nairobi Heat will be under “M” (or, at least, it should be). 

In the pastoral village society of Ngugi’s youth, however, there were neither telephone books nor bookstores, and, there, one only needed one name, Ngugi. One would also need some kind of indication of which Ngugi you were, of course, but that socialization was only of secondary importance, and these second names could be rather arbitrary, referring to your mother, your father, or something else entirely. As Ngugi  recalls in Dreams, for example:

many of my sisters and brothers had nicknames they had given themselves or had been given by others, and these were individual to them. There was Gacungwa, “Little Orange”; Gatunda, “Little Fruit”; Kahabu, “Half-a-Cent”; Kibiruri, “the Player of Spinning Tops”; Wabia, “Rupee”; Mbecai, “Money”; Ngiree, “Gray”; Guthera, “Miss Clean”; Tumbo, “Big Tummy.” I grew up knowing them by these, and it was a shock when later I learned their real names, which seemed less real. I came to accept that within the framework of Thiong’o’s family, there were multiple ways of identifying oneself or being identified by others. [My emphasis]

If we take “Ngugid wa Thiong’o” to be Ngugi’s real name, as he himself did in the 1970s, we lose this fundamental multiplicity. The colonial identity that was imposed on him was not simply the distinction between an English name and a Gikuyu name — an “African” name and a “European” name — but also a set of ideas about what a name was, the distinction between the many identities that were possible in an open and fluid (and intimately local) social world of his rural and pastoral youth, and the singularity of identity which was required by a political economy of pass cards, libraries, school registers, and censuses. That multiplicity was removed from Ngugi’s name when he went to primary school, in other words, and being officially registered as “Ngugi wa Thiong’o,” was also a kind of colonization of the mind. In this sense, if changing “James Ngugi” to “Ngugi wa Thiong’o” replaces a colonial name with a Gikuyu name, doing so also imposes a distinctly patrilineal understanding of identity on top of that Gikuyu-ness: it specifies that Ngugi is the son of his father, not the son of his mother. And this kind of patrilinealism was also a central part of the cultural distortion that colonialism introduced into African societies, the distinctly Victorian sense of sexual hierarchy that British imperialists forced their subjects to adopt.

To put it simply, if the name “James Ngugi” tells a very partial story about Ngugi ’s identity — a partiality that he bucked against in the 1970s — these memoirs start to add complexity to the partial story that the name “Ngugi  wa Thiong’o” tells about him. Making him the son of his father removes the sense in which he is linked to his father’s landlord, but his mother’s name has also disappeared. And so, in a pair of memoirs that show us a largely absent father — and the pitfalls of a patriarchal order that made this a fact of great importance — Ngugi reinvests his energy in thinking about the names that “wa Thiong’o” replaced.

In his memoirs, then, Ngugi looks with a distinct and unresolved fondness at the James who had not yet come to disassociate himself from the “talented tenth” conception of his future he acquired at Alliance. This desire for greatness would eventually take him pretty far, after all. And what his memoir looks more directly at (than he ever has) is the way his belief in his own superiority — the way his khaki uniform marked him as distinct from the dirty village of his youth and his mother’s hut — was an important part of what made him who he was. Without “James Ngugi,” there could never have been a Ngugi  wa Thiong’o. But perhaps most compellingly of all, it is always his mother that propels him forward, that urges him on to do his best. She sends him to school, she feeds him, she receives him when he returns, and she keeps him grounded in the soil of himself. In this sense, the author of both In the House of the Interpreter and Dreams in a Time of War should probably be named, at last, Ngugi  wa Wanjiku.

It’s hard to tell how conscious Ngugi is about this. In most of his work, women tend to exist as a narrative convenience, representing the prostitution of the nation, for example, in Petals of Blood, or embodying the narrator’s choice between tradition and modernity in his play The Black Hermit. (Ngugi’s career would not do well on the Bechdel test.) But it’s also true that his first Gikuyu novel, Devil on the Cross, has a female protagonist, a very conscious effort to place a woman at the center of his nationalist fiction, which was rare and a bit radical, in his very masculine cohort. Whether it succeeded or not is a different question — I tend towards the negative, actually — but the fact that he tried at all was at least significant.

I would tend to say something similar about Ngugi’s memoirs. He can only seem to identify with his mother through her nurturing and domestic role, and the climax of In the House of the Interpreter is a somewhat cringe-inducing scene of sexual coming-of-age that becomes a metaphor for cultural politics in ways that, well, induce cringing in me. But he’s trying. And if it’s easy to criticize Ngugi  for being a product of his times, for having lived under the influences and formative experiences that he did, it’s also true that we can see him as he was because, for the first time, he has been willing to look at the parts of himself that he once sought to suppress.


LARB Contributor

Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!