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NGUGI WA THIONG'O discusses his memoir WRESTLING WITH THE DEVIL

Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir (The New Press)

Written in the early 1980s and never before published in America, this compelling prison memoir gives readers a rare glimpse into the hidden story behind one of Ngũgĩ’s most famous novels. Beginning literally half an hour before Ngũgĩ’s release on December 12, 1978, Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir recounts both the intense drama and painful challenges of writing fiction under twenty-four-hour surveillance.

On December 29th, 1977 armed police pulled Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o from his home and jailed him without charge in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison, one of the largest in Africa. Here, he was quarantined from the general prison population and forced to live in a prison block with eighteen other political prisoners. Nevertheless, in a conscious effort to fight back humiliation and the intended degradation of the spirit, Ngũgĩ—the internationally acclaimed author of Weep Not, Child; Petals of Blood; and Wizard of the Crow, a perennial Nobel Prize favorite—decided to write a novel on toilet paper, the only paper to which he had access. This novel, Devil on the Cross, not only became a classic, but is also the first novel written in the Kenyan language Gikuyu.

Alongside detailing his own experience, Ngũgĩ explores philosophical questions of individual will and traces a history of neocolonial Kenya that, decades later, feels deeply relevant today. Ngũgĩ recounts the culture of silence and fear first perpetuated by European rule and later maintained by subsequent Kenyan rule. Yet despite the government’s endless acts of brute force, imprisoned Ngũgĩ draws inspiration from compelling accounts of Kenyan resistance. In one instance, Ngũgĩ recalls an older woman named Me Katilili, who became the leader of the Giriama people’s resistance to British occupation. Her courage and ability to unify Kenyans were so incomprehensible to the British that the latter could only speak of her in supernatural terms. In another moment, Ngũgĩ remembers putting on extraordinary plays with peasants who easily became talented actors, playwrights, and directors. Unsurprisingly, the government felt so threated by the skill of such “commoners” that these plays were banned. As Ngũgĩ outlines how resistance finds inspiration through both the ordinary and extraordinary, he becomes determined to fight with his only weapons, pen and paper, and write a novel.

Amidst a current political climate of worldwide protests, Ngũgĩ reminds readers that even the most violent and immoral of regimes “knows that no force on earth can finally put town the organized power of an awakened people.” The real danger then, according to Ngũgĩ, is the loss of will to fight.

Praise for Wrestling with the Devil: 

“Engrossing ... At once exhilarating and defiant, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir is a thought-provoking document of a grim time in Kenyan history.” —Publishers Weekly

“The Ngũgĩ of Wrestling With the Devil called not just for adding a bit of color to the canon’s sagging shelf, but for abolition and upheaval. That should be the legacy of his impressive body of work – the stalled revolution we have the power to take up again.” —Bookforum

One of the leading writers and scholars at work today, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1938. He is the author of Wizard of the Crow; A Grain of Wheat; Weep Not Child; The River Between; Petals of Blood; and Birth of a Dream Weaver (The New Press). He is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Event date: 
Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 7:30pm
Event address: 
1818 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
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$25.99
ISBN: 9781620973332
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$25.95
ISBN: 9781620972403
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$15.00
ISBN: 9780143107491
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Published: Penguin Classics - April 11th, 2017