story behind the book | kate tuttle

A Kenyan writer recalls prison time

david wilson for the boston globe

In “Wrestling With the Devil: A Prison Memoir,” Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o revisits one of the worst periods in his life, the year he spent in a maximum security prison in 1977-78. Even this incarceration — which took place without trial or conviction, as the country was slipping into authoritarianism — somehow yielded literary riches. “Under prison conditions,” the author said, “I was able to write a novel, ‘Caitaani Mutharabaini’ [published in English as ‘Devil on the Cross’] on toilet paper, and in Gikuyu. Thus a modern novel in Gikuyu was born. Out of hell, heaven was born. I resent the hell but embrace the heaven.”

Coming from a country that has had its share of political tumult, Ngugi (as he is referred to in keeping with Gikuyu tradition) described the dictator Daniel arap Moi in terms that mirror current American politics. “When Moi came to power in 1978, people laughed at his roadside declarations; his apparent naivety,” Ngugi said. “Some people laughed at the fact he never read books. Even when he begun to fight against legal institutions, some people described him as a passing cloud, and hence tolerated his apparently eccentric statements and actions.” While the country’s intelligentsia laughed, he continued, “before long, [Moi] had morphed into a full-fledged dictator.”

Ngugi — whose fiction, plays, and essays have made him a perpetual favorite in the annual betting line for the Nobel Prize in Literature — has published three previous memoirs in the past decade. But that doesn’t mean he’s only looking backward. “At 80, I still harbor the ambition to break new ground,” he said. “In one of his poems, Brecht says — I paraphrase him — that even with one’s last breath, one can begin a new life.” A new epic, written in Gikuyu, is expected to come out later this year.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o will read 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Brattle Theatre. For more and information and tickets, visit

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at