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Your future lies between the hard covers, Ngugi told me

Saturday November 29 2014

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o and author Dr Peter Kimani at the University of Houston in November 2014. PHOTO | COURTESY

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o and author Dr Peter Kimani at the University of Houston in November 2014. PHOTO | COURTESY 

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born…

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

 

 

My birth in writing happened in unusual, if somewhat difficult circumstances. I was among the first lot to receive zero education, working on the logical mathematical formulation of 8-4-4 that was introduced in the mid-1980s.

The new system placed great emphasis on practical skills, but even as educationists experimented with our lives, I was having ideas of my own. I knew I wanted to be a writer soon after joining Form I.

That might sound arrogant and foolish but in those 16-year-old days of our lives, everything lay in the realm of the possible.

I cannot recall the precise moment but I remember the year. The audacity of my vision is borne out by history: I now know that in 1986, the man who had inspired my writing vision had become a fugitive from his own land, from which he had been estranged for at least four years.

When I and other students were asked to bring class readers to school, quite a number of titles, many of them well-worn, surfaced in the classroom.

I took with me Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which I read quickly. It is difficult to re-enact the emotions that the book stirred in me. Having been weaned on a diet of James Hardly Chase thrillers, as well as the Hardy Boys mystery series, the book’s proximity to my own experience left in me awe, and stirred a restlessness that would only be quelled by more reading of Ngugi.

The more I read the more I got hooked. That was the moment I adopted Ngugi as my mentor and decided I would become a novelist, following in his footsteps.

But by the time I left high school, I was wise enough to know writing did not pay off immediately, and that even in the best of circumstances, the publishing processes were painstakingly slow.

Once again, Ngugi did not disappoint: his now very familiar blurb on the back of Weep Not, Child said he had served as a journalist in Kenya. That was enough career guidance for me. I was going to be a journalist, then an author…

RUNNING FOR THE HILLS

My mother wanted me to be a teacher, which was understandable. She dedicated three decades of her life to the Ministry of Education.

Her sister, Auntie Wanjiku, said I had the grades, as well as the height, to join the Kenya Prisons, where she had worked all her life.

I ran for the hills, quite literally, back to the hills of Kimunyu, in Gatundu, and the home of my other aunt, Mama Noni, where I had spent my formative years. I did not tell her I was seeking refuge from an imminent threat to my writing life.

After three months of hibernation, which I judged appropriate for the “prison” heat to have died down, I returned to the city.

But alas! Another prison warders’ recruitment was in the offing in just a few months. But mother changed tact. She invited Auntie Wanjiku’s husband, another prison warder, to come and talk to me about joining the force.

The man arrived accompanied by his colleague, a lay preacher or something close to that, and through dinner, we wrestled about my future career. I flatly declined their overtures. I would become a journalist.

I think mother found the sound of the term “journalist” too fanciful; she derived special pleasure in deriding me for aspiring to be one. She spat the word with a vigorous shake of the shoulders whenever I restated my commitment to the business.

My persistence paid off. She became supportive without any declaration that she had modified her judgment. She even helped type out some articles and guided me in using a typewriter when one was gifted to me.

And mother was most proud of me when I joined the Nation Media Group, although she insisted I was still writing for Taifa Leo long after I had switched to the Daily Nation.

This year I marked my 20th anniversary since my first piece of journalism was published. Along the way, I wrote plays, published poetry as well as novels. When Before The Rooster Crows came out in 2002, I mailed a copy to Ngugi in California, where he works as distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, and thanked him for his encouragement.

What I did not tell him was that I had largely taken the writing path because I had encountered his seminal novel.

I met Ngugi in person the following year, in 2003, in California. Meeting the man that I had first encountered on a book cover seemed surreal: I remember he was standing in the corridor outside his office. He stretched out a hand in greeting; I responded with a hug, no doubt moved by the historicity of the moment.

That encounter would herald the beginning of a deep friendship that was fortified by our mutual friend, Dr Henry Chakava, who also happens to be Ngugi’s and my publisher in Kenya.

Fittingly, Chakava was the last person to wish me luck before I sat for my doctoral defence a fortnight ago, when he called Ngugi on Skype.

CROWNING GLORY

I was Ngugi’s host at the University of Houston as he was sitting on my doctoral committee. I rode on his celebrity as the student who brought the world intellectual to Houston.

There was a luncheon at the historically black Texas Southern University, where November 11 was declared Ngugi wa Thiong’o Day, followed by a dinner attended by faculty from Rice University, Texas Southern University and the University of Houston.

The crowning glory was our joint reading that Ngugi made in my honour, celebrating what he called my “three babies” that arrived in the month of November: the birth of my son Samora, the doctorate and the completion of my new novel.

“Your future lies between the hard covers,” Ngugi said at our first meeting in 2003 to infer that book publishing would be a more fulfilling career trajectory. This month he said in Houston: “We celebrate the birth of the author.”

And as it was in the beginning, when Ngugi’s piercing eyes stared from the blurb of Weep Not, Child to motivate me to take up writing in that memorable year of 1986, he was there in person this month to herald my “birth” on the world stage.

My mother’s dream, too, has come to pass: I am likely to spend the rest of my life teaching at the university.

 

Dr Kimani is a columnist with ‘The Standard,’ where he served as a senior editor. He has published poetry and fiction, most recently the children’s novel, ‘Upside Down,’ winner of Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature for 2011.