Looking Towards LitFest: Peter Kimani on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Issue   |   Tue, 02/27/2018 - 22:47
Photo courtesy of Julia Shea '21
Peter Kimani will interview author Ngugi wa Thiong’o at LitFest this weekend.

Amherst’s literary festival is upon us once again. From March 1-3, literary figures — including winners of and finalists for the National Book Award — will convene on campus to hold discussions and readings. This year’s program will be capped by the event “Ngũgĩ@80: This Time Tomorrow,” which will feature a reading from renowned writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, followed by a Q&A led by Amherst’s Peter Kimani, a visiting writer and professor at the college.

Thiong’o, a native of Kenya, has been at the forefront of exploring Kenyan postcolonial society and identity throughout his monumental career. Some of his most prominent works include the novels “Weep Not, Child” and “Petals of Blood,” while his various different styles of writing — fiction, essay and play — have made him a Nobel favorite for a decade. This visit is a return for Thiong’o, who worked as the visiting distinguished professor of English and African literature for the Five Colleges in 1991. Kimani, a Kenyan writer himself, who has earned acclaim as a novelist, poet and journalist, has been inspired by Thiong’o both as a friend and a writer.

LitFest, in Kimani’s words, is “a celebration of the full-fledged potential of writing and a reflection of diversity in experience and thought.” The presenters at LitFest represent a broad range of genres and backgrounds, and include noted figures such as Thiong’o, Amherst professor and National Book Award winner Masha Gessen, who has written extensively about Russian politics, and acclaimed writer Junot Díaz, who has roots in both the United States and the Dominican Republic.

As Kimani states, “All these writers coming together forms a compelling voice that we hope people will remember and carry on in those conversations beyond the festival.” For his Q&A session with Thiong’o, Kimani plans to both paint a retrospective for Thiong’o’s career and look forward to what is next. Thiong’o’s life is ripe for reflection; at age 80, he has much to talk about from his prolific and incredibly influential career, and for the past few years, he has also been followed for the making of an upcoming documentary featuring his work and conversations.

Having been exiled from Kenya for two decades and lived outside the country for nearly the past three, a prominent theme during this pivotal time in Thiong’o’s life was the concept of home. In a 1970 play by Thiong’o, “This Time Tomorrow,” a woman who has just lost her home due to gentrification in Nairobi ponders, “Where shall I be at this time tomorrow?” To Kimani, this play seems to parallel Thiong’o’s current situation, as he looks ahead to envision the future life of his works. Where is home to Thiong’o, and how can he define it? What are his plans moving forward? What does he think following generations will take from his legacy, and how may they build upon it?

Kimani first met Thiong’o when he sat on Kimani’s doctoral thesis committee, and Thiong’o has since become a “professional mentor” and friend. However, Thiong’o’s influence on Kimani stems back to his adolescence, when Kimani first read Thiong’o’s novel “Weep Not, Child.” Having primarily read books by Western authors, Thiong’o’s work was liberating in its reflection of Kimani’s own experience and surroundings onto the page. Such an experience represents the power of fiction to synthesize the political with the personal into an inseparable, communicable entity.

Kimani cites Thiong’o as one of the reasons he eventually became a writer. “It was thanks to him, and to Chinua Achebe afterwards, that I became convinced that I too could tell a story; because they did,” he said.

Kimani is one of the many LitFest participants who has written directly about politics in both fiction and nonfiction works. His latest novel, “Dance of the Jakaranda,” confronts Kenyan history under the British occupation by focusing on a young Kenyan of Indian descent. In the text, Kimani delves into themes of racial and ethnic ambiguities that still exist in current society. He ultimately uses “aspects of human love to tell this story that is very political.”

However, for Kimani, “every piece of writing is an act of politics.” The act of writing —putting consciousness into a permanent and communicable form — always has political implications, even when they are not fully realized.

Kimani sees choice of language as one of the most pertinent political aspects of writing; in fact, Thiong’o made the decision in 1977 to write fiction works in his native Gikuyu instead of English. Summarizing the argument of Thiong’o’s essay collection “Decolonizing the Mind,” Kimani said that “language conveys culture, and this culture is negotiated by the language of the oppressor, because English, in part of the world, is not a natural phenomenon, it was implanted within those countries by force.”

Kimani described that Thiong’o’s choice to write in Gikuyu “was a political decision to renounce a language that he saw as a perpetuation of the history that he was resisting.” This act encompasses Thiong’o’s legacy: the manifestation of the written word into life itself. It is a legacy present in his work today, one that has inspired in countless others and one which LitFest will seek to nurture and expand this coming weekend.

The event featuring Thiong’o and Kimani will be held on March 3 from 3:30-5 p.m. in Johnson Chapel.