By James Currey (James Currey)
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (May 2006), pp. 26-54]
[We are privileged to be able to publish this article, which is based on the chapter on Ngugi wa Thiong’o that will appear in James Currey’s forthcoming book ‘Africa Writes Back’ which examines the publishing relationships which emerge between publishers and authors. James Currey was the Editorial Director in charge of Heinemann’s African Writers Series from 1967 to 1984. He has been working through the African Writers Series files which are held in the publishing archive of the University of Reading. He worked in the early days with Chinua Achebe who was the initial Editorial Advisor to the series. In 2005 Chinua Achebe referred to him as ‘my conspirator in the launch of African literature’. James Currey Publishers, which specialises in the publication of academic paperbacks on Africa, has just passed its twenty-first anniversary.]
Ngugi was born in Kenya in 1938. By the time he was thirty he was already known internationally with the publication of the novels Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967) and of the play The Black Hermit (1968). The first Heinemann letters were addressed to him as an undergraduate at Makerere University College, Uganda as J.T. Ngugi. He chose to publish the first titles under the name James Ngugi rather than Thiong’o Ngugi. Keith Sambrook worked in careful detail with Ngugi on the first two novels, which had been written while he was a student at Makerere. While undertaking a postgraduate degree at the University of Leeds he wrote A Grain of Wheat which ran forward with Conradian strides.
Homecoming (1972) was a collection of his work on African writing and culture with a section drawing on his work at Leeds on George Lamming and other Caribbean writers. At that time his short stories were gathered under the title Secret Lives (1975). He had now settled on Ngugi wa Thiong’o for future books.
Ngugi was one of the first writers in Africa to try to survive on his income from writing. In 1969 he resigned from his first job at the University of Nairobi in the Department of English in support of five students whom he considered had been victimised by the administration. His argument as reported in The Sunday Nation was that:
”…’When admitted to the University they swear in front of the Principal, the Registrar and the general academic body, to seek the truth.’ And says Mr Ngugi, ‘free circulation is absolutely essential to any quest for truth and knowledge.’”
(The Sunday Nation 2 March 1969)
Fortunately in 1973 the University appointed him Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of Department with the writer Taban lo Liyong to share responsibilities. They successfully campaigned to get the Department of English changed to the Department of Literatures. His bravery at confronting the authorities with awkward truths was showing itself.
But what was he writing? Keith Sambrook expressed the worries felt in Heinemann:
”I am a bit puzzled by Ngugi; he seems to have come to a full stop. The short stories are good but, in confidence, I don’t think they show any advance on his previous, admittedly high, standard of writing. He is full of ideas, young, famous – what serious writing is he doing or planning?” (KS to David Hill 9 January 1973)
The seriousness of the next stage of his work was to overwhelm everyone and especially the Kenyan ruling elite. The reaction in Nairobi in 1975 to the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, which he wrote with Micere Mugo, taught him the power of performance. But it was his work with the Kamiriithu Cultural Centre in 1976 which concentrated his emerging philosophy, particularly about the use of his own language and the vital importance of plays, as opposed to novels, in communicating with ordinary Kenyans. Ngaahika Ndeenda, which was written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was performed by the villagers in the Centre at their open air theatre which they built as the play was being written; the excitement and popularity frightened the District Commissioner who withdrew the licence to perform. At the time of the publication of Petals of Blood in English in 1977 Ngugi said that in future he would write work in Gikuyu a language which ‘my mother, my peasant mother’ could understand. Mwai Kibaki, now President of Kenya and then Minister of Economic Affairs, launched the book in Nairobi City Hall. But the Kenyan establishment continued to move against him.
Ngugi was taken in on the last day of that very year 1977 and detained without trial for almost the whole of 1978. In his cell he managed to write Caithani Muthuraba-ini on interleaved sheets of toilet paper. It was published in Kenya in 1980 and then in an English translation as Devil on the Cross in 1982. Matigari (1986 English translation 1989) continued this allegorical and fantastic sequence set in the village of Ilmorog. His novels and his plays like Maitu Njugiru (Mother, Sing for Me 1982) the people read aloud, acted and recited in the homes, bars and villages of Kenya. Since the unsuccessful coup of 1984 he has lived in exile first in England and then by teaching in the United States. A very long new novel has been published in Gikuyu and an English translation is in preparation.
It was a significant gesture of support when Ngugi agreed that Decolonising the Mind should come out under the new imprint of James Currey Publishers in 1985. It was co-published, as were his books of essays Moving the Centre (1993) and the rethought Writers in Politics (1997) with Henry Chakava’s Heinemann company in Nairobi and with John Watson’s Heinemann company in the United States of America..
Weep Not, Child
Published in English 1964
”I have gone through my exam. I was placed in Class II Upper Division. The results came out and three days after Weep Not, Child. A very eventful week. I celebrated the publication of the book by donating a pint of blood; I was dragged into it; I was feeling in no virtuous mood.” (Ngugi to KS 14 May 1964)
A year later on 30 July 1965 Keith Sambrook was writing to James Ngugi to tell him that his first novel had been made a set book for West African Examinations Council School Certificate. Such was the speed of take off. It was the first new novel, as opposed to a reprint, to be accepted specifically for the African Writers Series.
Zeke Mphahlele, the South African writer, ran the seminal Mbari conference on African writing which was held in July 1962 at Makerere University College in Uganda. He was in charge of the African section of the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom which, it later turned out, was supported by laundered funds from the CIA. Whatever the provenance of these cold war funds they were singularly important in the establishment of creative writing in English in Africa. Chinua Achebe was there with Van Milne the Heinemann editor who, with Alan Hill, had started the African Writers Series that very year. A student came to the door of Chinua Achebe’s room with two manuscripts. Chinua Achebe and Van Milne read them and immediately decided that they wanted to put them into the African Writers Series. Van Milne phoned the Heinemann Educational Books Managing Director Alan Hill in Britain (in those days publishers on safari rarely resorted to the phone not only because of the expense but because of the difficulty of getting through.) Alan Hill was dragged out of a board meeting and said if Chinua Achebe, as Editorial Adviser to the series, thought well of them then Van Milne should go ahead and accept. The student, who had quietly come in the evening bearing manuscripts, was Ngugi.
The publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958 by the well-established middlebrow publishing house William Heinemann stood out. I remember the excitement of finding No Longer at Ease on the shelves of Randolph Vigne’s house in Cape Town in 1960 with the black man in the white suit striding across the cover. When Alan Hill went to Nigeria in 1959 he expected to be praised for publishing Chinua Achebe. People were surprised that a Nigerian could have been worthy of a London imprint. Alan Hill realised that the only way that Africans might read Achebe would be in paperback.
In 1960 an executive revolt had stopped the surreptitious sale to McGraw Hill by the elders in the family which owned the Heinemann group. Part of the deal was to establish Heinemann Educational Books (HEB) with Alan Hill as its Managing Director as a separate company in the Heinemann Group, which also included other well-regarded companies such as Secker and Warburg and Hart-Davis.
Alan Hill, Van Milne and Keith Sambrook were confident that there would be a demand for African writers in Africa and that as the company worked in Africa it would find interesting new writing. The African market was based on educational institutions. There was little or no general market. They knew that a writer of the quality of Achebe had impressed literary reviewers in London when published in London. But paperbacks were not reviewed and literary critics were snobbish about books coming from an educational publisher. At the time the public libraries closely followed the recommendations of reviewers and bought hardbacks in liberal quantities from the well-established general publishers; they were in effect the major patron of the publishing of new novels and poetry.
Keith Sambrook was able to tell Ngugi that 1600 copies out of the 2000 hardbacks of Weep Not, Child were sold in the first year and that this covered his advance on royalties. This arrangement did not last beyond the publication of A Grain of Wheat in hardback in 1967.
Ngugi was wanting to go to Britain for further studies. He wrote to Keith Sambrook from the YMCA in Nairobi:
”It may be that I am not going to Leeds after all; getting a scholarship seems much more difficult than I had thought. I am very angry about this as I had hoped that a new country & different environment were just the things I needed for a novel I have in mind. Images keep haunting my mind but I cannot get settled soon enough to grapple and come to terms with them. Kenya depresses me; although I have always written about this country I have never written a thing while I was actually living there; not even on my vacations. However this novel will be the most challenging thing I have done so far, if only Kenya will let me get on. The prospect excited and agonises me.” (Ngugi to KS 17 April 1964)
The River Between
Published in English 1965
Ngugi wrote The River Between before Weep Not, Child and originally under the title The Black Messiah. The manuscript had won the prize in the East African Literature Bureau competition. Charles Richards, the Director, passed the manuscript to Van Milne at Heinemann. Keith Sambrook had written to Ngugi:
”Now that Weep Not, Child is well on the way we’d like to have The Black Messiah ready to follow up.”(KS to Ngugi 4 September 1963)
A year later Keith Sambrook wrote to say:
”This is going ahead well. I didn’t send the manuscript back to you because the alterations were really so small that it wasn’t worth while.” (KS to Ngugi 27 August 1964)
At the last moment the moment the scholarship for Leeds had been cleared. This was largely thanks to an intervention by Simeon Ominde, a geographer who had been the very first African to be hired at the Royal College, Nairobi and who was in the eighties to become the Chairman of Heinemann in Nairobi. Ngugi was met in London by Keith and Hana Sambrook. He wrote in early October thanking them and giving them his first impressions:
”Leeds shocked me, threw me into bewilderment from which I am slowly recovering. It seems to be a city that – mushroom fashion – had sprouted without a planning hand. Black soot seems to be the only clothes the buildings wear to fight off the cold.”
Ngugi went back to talk about the London visit:
”You remember the talk Judith [Verity] you and I had over the novel in Africa at one of your pubs. I said that the great novel from Africa must take count of the impact of African nationalism, that it seemed to me that this one big movement that has affected the lives of so many millions, could not possibly be left out of any creative writing that aimed at capturing the whole vision of Africa. I mentioned Peter Abrahams as one of the writers who had tried. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I did not mean that the novel had to be merely political or a mere study of the rise and spread of African nationalism.
Nationalism itself was born of many forces. All these plus what Achebe and others are trying to do will however be embedded in the intellectual and emotional consciousness of a group of characters, this consciousness which must capture the temper of 20th c. Africa – will have to emerge in the characters’ day to day human relationship. These characters need not be educated, or politicians or be necessarily intellectually articulate.
Africans writers to-day stand in relation to their community, in the same position as the late 19th c. Russian novelists, the Elizabethan writers (16th c) and Greek dramatists (5th B.C.) – who gave expression to the emotional & intellectual consciousness of their society poised between the past and the new era. Whether African writers will have as big hearts as their counterparts remains yet to be seen. Of those writing now, Achebe has the best chance of doing this, if he lets his heart go.”
(Ngugi to KS 12 October 1964)
A Grain of Wheat
Published in English 1976
The University of Leeds was the place for Ngugi to go to. They did realise the importance of this young African writer. The publication of The River Between was celebrated on 25 January 1965 by a party at the University of Leeds with a cluster of professors across the disciplines present.
The English faculty was pioneering, under their enterprising Irish professor Derry Jeffares, a new course which they described as ‘commonwealth literature’. This reflected on the way in which the language of the imperial masters had been kidnapped across the English-speaking world; the concept has twisted and turned through ‘post-colonial literature’ and is now emerging under the description of ‘new international literatures in English (NILE)’. It was Leeds which gave the subject a base and a journal. Wole Soyinka’s early plays were written whilst he was an undergraduate at Leeds in the 1950s, and in 1995 with the support of Martin Banham and the University of Leeds his play The Beatification of Area Boy was premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, having been prevented from being performed in Lagos. Eldred Durosimi Jones, Visiting Commonwealth Professor at Leeds in the 1960s, not only reflected on Soyinka’s work but also on Othello’s Countrymen as they appear in Shakespeare. Aig Higo, Nigerian poet and Headmaster, studied at Leeds before taking over the management of the Heinemann operation in Nigeria. In contrast to the University of Leeds, when Richard Rive went to Magdalen College, Oxford to work on Olive Schreiner for his doctorate, the University was not able to find a supervisor and he had to travel to London.
Leeds gave Ngugi the chance to carry out his ambition of writing A Grain of Wheat which had been growing in his mind in the YMCA in Nairobi. He wrote to Keith Sambrook :
”I’ve become lazier and lazier at doing things. I suppose it’s the climate here and the time moves so fast. There’s only enough time for sleeping!… I want to finish the first draft by the end of this term so I can properly work on it during Summer. I’m however stuck: problem of time. For the whole action is supposed to be contained within 10 days around independence in Kenya.” (Ngugi to KS 22 April 1965).
He developed his characters with Conradian skill. The story, which reflects on the Mau Mau struggle, also prophesies that in post-independence period Kenyans will battle against Kenyans for economic and political ascendancy.
William Heinemann took 1800 sets of sheets for publication in hardback. Some amusement was caused by the typesetter’s readers who had red-marked certain passages, in spite of the fact that this was five years after The Lady Chatterley trial. Roland Gant, Editorial Director at William Heinemann, wrote:
”As legal adviser to HEB (speciality translation into 4-letter English from African languages) I would say that the passages which have been marked in A Grain of Wheat are extremely unlikely in the present climate which prevails, to lead to police action against your company and the printers of the book. Similarly, the jocular reference to the (admittedly punishable) offence of bestiality is unlikely to attract the attention of the non-existent censors in this country. I would therefore say that from the point of view of HEB this is a fair business risk.
As Nigel Viney points out, it is extremely unwise to send books which contain words more explicit than ‘drat’ or descriptions more down to earth than ‘tummy’ to these particular printers. A cherub lurks among this printer’s devils and we have had lot of trouble with them.
I hope that this reassures you and secures me my usual inordinately
(Roland Gant to Tony Beal 18 July 1966)
However Ngugi’s work on Caribbean writers was of singular importance to his developing philosophy. For his postgraduate work he chose to focus on writing from the Caribbean and in particular on George Lamming whose novel In the Castle of my Skin had made such an impact on publication in 1954. The fifties were the time when so many of the Caribbean writers to whom Ngugi refers in Homecoming had made their first appearance in Britain; Mittelholzer, Naipaul, Selvon. He was asking Keith Sambrook to find him a copy of the trilogy by Mais which was already out of print.
The publication of writers from the Caribbean was a decade ahead of those from Africa. There had been many chances for publication in journals in the Caribbean and in books from well-established and adventurous publishers in Paris and London. But the writers had, in particular, been given the confidence that they could write by Henry Swanzy who ran the weekly programme ‘Caribbean Voices’ for the BBC. The Colonial Service, as it was still called, went out from 101 Oxford Street which became the centre of patronage for Caribbean writers who were trying to make a living in the literary world of London; Henry Swanzy also won their laughter by doing impromptu performances in the BBC canteen. One of his scripts unhesitatingly introduces a review of a very slim volume published in Port of Spain by saying these poems are the work of ‘genius’. This time he was right; it was the first book of poems by a poet from St Lucia called Walcott. Thanks to Henry Swanzy and my South African poet father I grew up assuming that there was writing of interest across the world and not just in Fitzrovia. My novelist mother told me with great admiration of George Lamming who had been brought to lunch by Henry Swanzy.
There was lots of Caribbean work for Ngugi to find. The publishers of the fifties were happy to experiment with writers from the West Indies and continued to do so in the sixties. Little from Africa had been published in London even by the mid-sixties, although Beti, Oyono, and Sembene had already made a mark in French alongside the other Caribbean writers of negritude such as Fanon and Césaire
Ngugi says of Lamming in Homecoming:
”He evoked through a child’s growing awareness a tremendous picture of the awakening social consciousness of a small village. He evoked, for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D.H.Lawrence. That was in 1961.” (Homecoming p 81)
A lengthy and singularly well-informed interview with Ngugi before the publication of A Grain of Wheat by a quartet of students in the Leeds Union News of 18 November 1966 reveals how far Ngugi had already come in his beliefs. Fanon was central to his philosophy. These students no doubt had, as I had, welcomed the independence of Kenya only three years before in 1963. Ngugi made it clear to them how the new elite was running the country at the expense of the peasantry who had actually fought the liberation struggle.
The Trial of Dedan Kimathi
A play by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo
Published in English 1976
Internationally Ngugi is famous as a novelist. In Kenya it was his plays, especially in Gikuyu, which were to lead to his detention and ultimate exile. The Black Hermit was written at the same time, and with some of the same themes, as The River Between. Over a decade later in 1975 The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was born out of intense controversy. Henry Chakava, the Heinemann editor in Nairobi, put the situation in context:
”This is a play about the now legendary Dedan Kimathi, the leader of of Mau Mau who was arrested and hanged by the colonial government in 1958. The version [by Ngugi and Micere] is made up more of truth than imagination, and the angry tone of the playwrights can only be explained in the context of recent events on the Kenyan Theatre scene.
Some time this year, April or May, a play by Kenneth Watene (published by Transafrica) entitled Dedan Kimathi was performed at the National Theatre. The play depicted Kimathi as an emotional, murderous, lusty terrorist, built up and destroyed in a Macbeth-Othello type fashion. It was written in verse and even some lines were borrowed verbatim from Shakespeare’s tragedies. Although the play received very hostile press reviews it was extremely well attended and went on non-stop for 3 weeks.
I was not there at the performance when Micere Mugo and Ngugi are reported to have walked off. But I know they did walk off – and for many people, including myself – the Watene play was myth-shattering, adapted unscrupulously from Ian Henderson’s book The Hunt for Kimathi.
Ngugi and Micere swore that they would write a play which would restore Kimathi’s historical role as dare-devil freedom fighter, a hero and a patriot of Kenya’s independence. This was partly due to their desire to put the record right, but more immediately to stop Watene’s play from being entered and performed at the All Africa Arts Festival in Lagos (now postponed) by presenting a ‘better’ alternative. I am personally so involved in the dispute that I cannot say which is the better play in strictly dramatic terms. I enclose a copy of the play Ngugi would like us to publish.
Because of the foregoing, I cannot dare give it to anybody here for a report, because I am sure that it will be difficult to obtain balanced reaction. I personally would have no objection to seeing it in the AWS although I realise that the single-play days of Black Hermit are long gone. The ideal thing would have been to publish it here (to coincide with the theatre production which Ngugi is laying on) but unfortunately it would be a one-off as we have no series that could accommodate it. What do you think?” (Henry Chakava to KS 14 November 1975)
There was little difficulty about accepting it in London. After all, the play was by one of our best-known authors and was about a national hero of the anti-colonial struggle. It was described as ‘very powerful’ by Edward Thompson, the Director of Heinemann’s drama list which, along with those of Faber and Methuen, was considered one of the most innovative in London publishing. Henry Chakava wrote to me on 5 December 1975 saying ‘I am very impressed by this quick decision, which I have already conveyed to a happy Ngugi.’
There were two points at issue. Ngugi wanted to have the play performed before publication. I had always argued with Nuruddin Farah how important that was. It would mean losing the undoubted sales that would be made in Nairobi at the time of first performance but would incorporate the lessons learnt in rehearsal on how to make the writer’s words walk on the stage. In the end copies were rushed out in Nairobi at the time of the first performance. Also there was the question of whether Ian Henderson, who was still alive, could take legal action for defamation. In any case Keith Sambrook, Edward Thompson and I felt that the words, quoted verbatim from his book, made the character of Henderson appear forced.
Keith Sambrook wrote to Ngugi on Christmas Eve 1975 to offer publishing terms. Ngugi was one of the first writers to try and survive on his writing rather than as a secondary income to a university or civil service salary. Heinemann had to keep his advances within sight of his potential earnings. Alan Hill was always responsive to Keith Sambrook’s and my appeals for advances as long as they were carefully argued to keep the accountants off our backs. Keith Sambrook had managed to rationalise a very substantial advance which Ngugi wanted in order to build a house. This house at Limuru was designed by an architectural student at the University of Nairobi and was called the Five Huts because it set out to make a traditional compound work in modern terms. Keith Sambrook pointed out to Ngugi that his royalty account was still in the red but that, as the school edition of Weep Not, Child had sold in Nigeria alone 50,460 copies in October and 4,006 copies in November, a new advance could be managed.
Heinemann in Britain has been accused of exerting ‘metropolitan’ control. Ngugi was certainly benefiting from international distribution. It was difficult to sell the series continent-wide except from a British base. Intraregional trade in Africa remains poor to this day and direct sales from Kenya to Nigeria remain difficult; air freight is expensive for books which are called ‘dense cargo’ by the shippers because they have low value in relation to their heavy weight.
The publication of this play led to fresh thinking about the way the African Writers Series might expand outside its London base. In a memo to Henry Chakava I proposed a new development for the publication of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi:
”One off publication by HEB(EA). As there is a rush this is probably the answer. You should originate the publication because the play is going to be of the greatest interest in East Africa. Keith and I feel that this may be the occasion for you to contribute your first title to the African Writers Series. We should subcontract for the market outside Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Ethiopia and Malawi. You would sell us 3000 copies or so for the rest of the world.” (JC to Henry Chakava 8 December 1975)
This led Henry Chakava to propose a development of this idea reflecting the offer of scripts by Francis Imbuga and Joe de Graft and the publishing possibilities in East Africa:
”What would be your views if we proposed starting a single play series with a Heinemann (East Africa) imprint for which you would have the option to do an AWS edition for the rest of the world? Once started we would get all the local playwrights to publish with us since there is no active Drama series in East Africa at the moment.” (Henry Chakava to JC 3 August 1976)
Henry Chakava was disappointed when we decided, as our international sales expectations were growing, that London should pay Heinemann (East Africa) an offset fee of half the setting costs and that we should print our copies in Britain. He complained ‘This is where reciprocity seems to work only one way.’ I pointed out that as long they did not reduce their price the offset fee would be clear profit to them.
Henry Chakava tried to get Joe Osadolor and Aig Higo to take more than the cautious order of 50 copies direct by air freight for the Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos. I had remarked that all authors expected that the Festival would sell thousands of their books but cynically added that ‘It is not just the streets which are going to be choked with traffic but all the book supply lines are going to be choked as well.’ (JC to Henry Chakava 5 December 1976)
Henry Chakava told Aig Higo that due to public demand there had been repeat performances of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and that they had sold three hundred copies of the text outside the theatre:
”For the first time, the African in this part of the world has come to realise the relevance and meaning of cultural independence. You will realise that you West Africans are far more advanced in this area of authentic African theatre than we are.” (Henry Chakava to Aig Higo 8 December 1976)
The contrast between Watene’s Kimathi and Ngugi and Micere’s alternative play pointed up the way in which the emergency had split Gikuyu and Kenyan people. The British had made the decolonisation deal with the loyalists and the ordinary peasant, from whom the freedom fighters were drawn, were robbed. This was not a message the Kenyan elite welcomed.
A play by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii
Published in Gikuyu 1980 and in English as I Will Marry when I Want 1982
Kamiriithu is the transforming name. One of the most moving passages in Detained is when Ngugi reflects in solitary confinement on his memories of his return in 1955 to his childhood village from Alliance, one of the top African boarding schools which was in distant Nairobi.
”I came back after the first term and confidently walked back to my old village. My home was now a pile of dry mud-stones, bits of grass, charcoal and ashes. Nothing remained, not even crops, except for a lone pear tree that swayed slightly in sun and wind. I stood there bewildered. Not only my home, but the old village with its culture, its memories and its warmth had been razed to the ground. I walked up to the ridge not knowing whither I was headed until I met a solitary old woman. Go to Kamiriithu, she told me.” (Detained p.73).
Everybody had been concentrated in an ’emergency village’. At that time a youth centre had been built but, when in 1976 the University of Nairobi Free Travelling Theatre put on some plays including extracts from the The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, they had to perform on the grass round the abandoned classroom buildings. Ngugi joined the new management committee and in December 1976 he and Ngugi wa Mirii were commissioned to write what was to become Ngaahika Ndeenda. The performances were to begin on the symbolic twenty-fifth anniversary of the declaration of the State of the Emergency and the beginning of the armed struggle in Kenya. Ngugi says:
”The six months between June and November 1977 were the most exciting in my life and the true beginning of my education. I learnt my language anew. I rediscovered the creative nature and power of collective work.” (Detained p.76)
Ngugi emphasises the totally transforming nature of the enterprise raising money for health projects and the way it reduced drunkenness. The villagers not only wrote a play with the Ngugis, they not only produced a play in public rehearsals with shouted criticisms but they built a whole theatre. Ngugi conveys his astonishment at the enterprise:
”I saw with my own eyes peasants, some of whom had never once been inside a theatre in their lives, design and construct an open-air theatre complete with a raised stage, roofed dressing rooms and stores, and an auditorium with a seating capacity of more than two-thousand persons.” (Detained p.77)
District Commissioner Kiambu, who had not even bothered to come to see the performance, on 16 December 1977 withdrew the licence and sent in the askaris to close the theatre. On 30-31 December 1977 Ngugi was taken in chains to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Detained, his account of these events, will be discussed later.
A few years on, when I was on one of my regular visits to Kenya, Henry Chakava and Ngugi took me on a quiet Saturday afternoon in the rainy middle of the year to see this remarkable achievement. I saw with my own eyes the size of the earthern banks which had been flung up for seating over 4000 people and the circle of bamboo stake fences driven into the ground. I could not only share Ngugi’s pride but also his astonishment at the panic reaction of the Kenyan ruling class to such a desirable local achievement
On that same Saturday afternoon Ngugi took us to meet members of the cast. They were seated on benches up against the walls of the room. I was introduced to the actors in the name of their characters and Ngugi acted as translator. Henry Chakava and I were given seats in the circle and a drinking horn of mead circulated. I was much moved by the whole experience and told Henry Chakava my excited reactions as we drove back to Nairobi. He said ‘It is all very well for you. I have to go back each Christmas to my village and sit round like that for days on end.’ He remarked that they took me, as a mzungu, a white man, absolutely for granted but that they had found him strange because he could not speak Gikuyu and they had many questions about how far away he came from and whether it could possibly be from within Kenya.
It was also all very well for me. I could go back to Britain and have no fear about what I published. I had the additional advantage that whatever was newsworthy helped sell books. But Henry Chakava was in the front line as Ngugi’s publisher. On one occasion after another he showed firmness and bravery. He suffered a savage panga attack when his car drew up at the gate to his house. There was no attempt to demand his watch or wallet. When you shake hands with Henry Chakava you feel the small finger curled permanently under his palm despite all the careful medical treatment he received. He could have lost the use of an arm or hand. He was repeatedly phoned afterwards in Gikuyu and English with threats issued against a background radio to confuse the sounds and prevent identification of the voice. It was a good guess that GEMA (Gikuyu and Embu Association) were behind the calls. The male voices always made references to the hospital visit on the exact date of the panga attack. He even had money demanded with precise details about how it was to be delivered at night on the veld at Thika. These messages were ones of political intimidation, even if Ngugi was not specifically mentioned.
Henry Chakava was much pressed to become an MP and no doubt could have done extremely well by accepting. One midnight he took me to the substantial suburban house of Madivadi, the power broker of Kenyan politics. It was for his wake. Huge bonfires burnt at the four corners of the large watered lawn. Henry was whisked off into the family cabinet meeting, appropriately held in the kitchen, to discuss the emerging political situation.
A Musical Play by Ngugi wa Thiong’o 1982
Title in English Mother, Sing for Me (or Mother, ululate for me)
On a Monday afternoon at the turn of February and March 1982 Ngugi came into Henry Chakava’s office in Kijabe Street, just round the corner from the University of Nairobi, the Norfolk Hotel with its Delamere Bar, the Voice of Kenya and the National Theatre. I had arrived the previous midnight from a winter London via Amsterdam and Cairo. He told us how the Kamiriithu Community Theatre had applied for a licence for their musical play in good time in November 1981 but that the request had been ignored by the authorities. The play was heavily booked at the National Theatre and the production had been planned to make use of their facilities. A cinematic technique was to be integrated to project scenes from colonial history such as the burning of passbooks. The whole performance was packed with songs in Luhya, Kamba, Kisii, Kalenjin as well as in Gikuyu and Swahili. In the meantime rehearsals were being continued in hope in the theatre of the Education Department at the University of Nairobi.
Ngugi was later to remark on the perversity of the Kenyan authorities in Index on Censorship:
”The musical dealt with Kenya during the highly repressive colonial period. So what is surprising is that the authorities should feel sufficiently strongly to suppress an anti-colonial play. It’s very strange. But there is in Kenya a pattern where the authorities actively support, even financially, foreign, anti-Kenyan cultural offerings. This was in fact dramatised in our own case – at the same time that they were banning, or refusing to grant us a licence for the musical, they were showing The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley. It is a novel which is basically racist, it isn’t Kenyan, it isn’t African. It was shown on Kenyan television as a seven-part serial. The government actually spent money on it.” (Interview by Anne Walmsley Index on Censorship 1/83 Other quotes are from her three interviews with Ngugi, Nancy Murray and James Currey)
Ngugi suggested that Henry Chakava and I should come along to that evening’s rehearsal. I imagined it would be like other rehearsals I had attended. I had been taken in 1962 in Lagos to a rehearsal of A Dance of the Forests which Wole Soyinka himself was producing. There had been a small cluster of people in the darkened stalls round that now familiar head. But on that Monday in the University of Nairobi the theatre was bursting with excited noise, every seat taken and the performance about to begin. As Nancy Murray explained when she was asked in Index on Censorship what the authorities were afraid of:
”But if you could see the crowd at this rehearsal you would see what they were scared of. Remember there hadn’t been any advertisement. There hadn’t been a poster. It was spread just by word of mouth. And people came in buses from far, far away. People came who had been to Kamiriithu and seen the previous play Ngahika Ndeenda, people came who had gone to Kamariithu but found the play had been stopped. It was a kind of national occasion.”
To our surprise we were not going to get in. Henry Chakava and I went round to the stage door where we were embraced by Ngugi wa Mirii. He found us two of those rather uncomfortable canvas stacking chairs and then sat us in the wings almost in sight of the expectant audience, as I explained in Index on Censorship:
”Yes, we were on the stage. Now really with the first tableau, all company on for the opening scene, immediately one felt one was in it because everyone was picking up their chains, and the whole thing was symbolic of slavery, they had yokes…Into the middle of the full company – I don’t know how many there were, about 50, a lot of people – is drawn a cart, drawn by a black man, and in the cart is a white district officer/ government figure, sitting with his sola topee. And then the musical gets going. Quite honestly Henry and I thought that perhaps we’d just get a taste of it and go off after a bit. But we were absolutely gripped, although neither of us understands Gikuyu … It was three and a half hours long without an interval, but it was totally engaging…after three hours the opening tableau was re-established. Everybody came off and collected their chains, their yokes and everything. The same cart drawn by the same black man was rolled onto the stage. But this time [in the cart], wearing the sola topee, was a black man.”
There was a strong Brechtian drama holding this play together under the emotional and uplifting song, mime and dance. The white settler Kanoru (The fat one) uses Mwendada (Lover of one’s stomach) to control the farm workers. Kariuki (The one who has been resurrected) leads the armed struggle.
After the performance Ngugi wa Mirii took me to talk to the cast, translating what I said into Gikuyu. I told them that I had been so excited that my seat broke. Days later on 12 March 1982, not only were the rehearsals stopped in Nairobi, but the District Officer in Limuru sent in three truck-loads of askaris to break down the Kamiriithu Theatre which they themselves had built.
I have chosen to write about Maitu Njugira at this point so as to put it in sequence with the other plays and the events surrounding the Kamiriithu Theatre. I now return to the Ilmorog sequence of novels which started with Petals of Blood.
Petals of Blood
Published in English 1976
Ballad for a Barmaid was the original title of the fourth novel which Ngugi was struggling to write during the early seventies. Many writers have the problem of a second novel. Ngugi’s first cluster of novels had all been published by the time he was thirty and drew on the formative influences of Gikuyu social and cultural tradition, Western liberal thought and – however much he resented it – the language of the Bible. He had become famous and the longer people waited for his next novel the greater was the level of public expectation.
By the mid-seventies his philosophy had been transformed. He had been influenced by the radical thought of Frantz Fanon, Pan-Africanism and the black power movements. The Caribbean writers he had studied at Leeds had influenced his work and thought.
Ngugi wrote to Keith Sambrook:
”I am alternately elated and depressed by the novel. Hope alternates with despair. It will take me longer to write than any of the other novels – but I hope it will be worth it.
The main problem of several voices, several levels of time, is to get the kind of action (+plot) that would make everything cohere, that would make a reader keep on reading the novel etc.” (N to KS 13 May 1974)
After this long gap, with only collections of short stories and of essays, we were anxious to get Ngugi’s writing attention in literary circles in Britain and America. Efforts to place the hardback rights within the Heinemann group failed. Tom Rosenthal, then the managing director at Secker and Warburg, is believed to have been an inspiration for the well-lunched figure in the Snipcock and Tweed Publisher’s cartoon in Private Eye. He wrote patronisingly to Alan Hill:
”In other words, none of us feels that it sufficiently crosses the border between Africa and a British market sensibility and given the rather heavy load that I am already carrying for 1977 in terms of distinguished non-English books, many of which I fear will lose money, I think we will have to pass this up…”(Tom Rosenthal to Alan Hill 8 December 1976)
There was much more sense of Ngugi’s importance among general publishers in the United States. The distinguished campaigning publisher Lawrence Hill had taken the collection of short stories Secret Lives on the understanding that he was going to have the next novel. When I sent him the manuscript I said:
”Indeed it’s long, but it is closely worked and well worth spending effort on. It really needs a list of characters in the style of translations of Russian novels. Keith Sambrook and I are very taken with it but the elaborateness of his flashbacks means it needs close attention. It needs some editorial work and we are getting Richard Lister, a novelist in his own right and a careful guardian of authors’ individuality, to work over it.” (JC to Lawrence Hill 17 February 1976)
Ngugi was handling US rights and asked Larry Hill for an advance of $15,000 which was far more than he could afford. I was having success with placing African writers with Tom Engelhardt, an editor at Pantheon within Random House, who was the original publisher of Edward Said’s Orientalism. He wrote to me:
”Ngugi was recently recommended strongly to me by someone whose opinion I respect highly. With your urging coming as it did, I would indeed like to reverse myself and give careful consideration to Petals of Blood. Please do send me the page proofs as soon as possible. I would also appreciate it if you could also send me his previous book A Grain of Wheat and anything else you might think useful to me in getting to know Ngugi’s work.” (Tom Engelhardt to JC 17 January 1977)
Pantheon did decline Petals of Blood after all and it was not until early in 1978, after Ngugi’s detention, that it was considered again by Doubledays and then accepted by Dutton. At that time there were sales of Swedish, Italian, Japanese and East and West German translation rights.
Ngugi visited London for British publication on 20 June 1977 and there were widespread reviews. However it was the almost simultaneous launching in Nairobi a few days later in July which was the remarkable occasion. There were over a thousand guests and all 500 airfreighted hardbacks sold immediately. (There were to be sales of some 20,000 paperbacks in Kenya alone in the next eighteen months.)
Ngugi had managed to get Mwai Kibaki, then the Minister of Economic Affairs and in 2003 the welcomed new President of Kenya, to give the launching speech. Our surprise was that it was economics which Ngugi had chosen to study at Makerere where Mwai Kibaki had been his teacher. The reason became clear in Ngugi’s speech:
”The headmaster of Alliance High School had said that Economics was that terrible subject which only Americans studied. Certainly not a subject fit for sober English gentlemen. Well I did not want to be a sober or unsober English gentleman, hence I studied Economics. (Writers in Politics p.95)
Ngugi had movingly started his speech with:
I would like to start by introducing to this audience the woman who has all along inspired me. The woman who in fact made me go to school to learn how to read and write. I am referring to my mother, my peasant mother.” (Writers in Politics p.94)
He had also invited the actors and builders from the Kamiriithu Centre who, like his mother, could not understand English. Ngugi had decided that in future they should be the first to read his work and that in future he would write in Gikuyu.
Henry Chakava handled with great skill what could have become an awkward incident. There is a great sweep of civic steps in front of the Nairobi City Hall. At the top welcoming the guests were Henry Chakava, Joe Osadolor from Heinemann Nigeria and myself. Okot p’Bitek, author of the remarkable Song of Lawino, wandered hither and thither in a vaguely diagonal direction up the steps and fell headlong in front of us. We leapt forward to restore him to his feet. Henry Chakava was most solicitous and said ‘Okot. Do go in that door. You will find the bar to the right.’ Henry Chakava later told us that he was sure that Okot had put on this performance in order to get refused entry to the Ngugi party. He had indeed been asked, for good reason, to leave a previous Heinemann party.
This party marked an important step in the development of an outstanding Kenyan company. Bob Markham had established the company on a sound basis and hired Henry Chakava as an editor straight out of university where he had studied under Ngugi and was starting a post-graduate course in philosophy. Henry Chakava had recently been made Managing Director while only in his thirties. He was to back all the publishing of his old teacher Ngugi whatever dangers the books presented, whether political or commercial. Ngugi was determined that the first publication of his books should be in Gikuyu, although on past record books in the languages of Kenya did not sell. Ngugi was later to write childrens’ books in Gikuyu which no publisher had tried before. The political risks to the Kenyan company remained even after Ngugi went into exile in the early eighties. Alan Hill and Keith Sambrook gave Henry Chakava the right to decide what he should publish whatever the risks. We talked through the dangers with him. He and his staff were in the front line. It was their jobs which were at risk. I believe that the British directors of any other large educational company would have told Henry Chakava to stop publishing such politically sensitive material which would endanger their school textbook publishing and jeopardise their dividends.
As we listened to the Minister that evening in July 1977 one could not forsee that this administration had become so frightened of the power of Ngugi’s writing in Gikuyu that, on the very last day of that year, he would be detained.
Published in English 1981
”…some time in December 1977, two gentlemen, highly placed in the government flew to Mombasa and demanded an urgent audience with Jomo Kenyatta. They each held a copy of Petals of Blood in one hand, and in the other, a copy of Ngaahika Ndeenda.” (Detained p.xvi)
Ngugi’s Detention Order was signed by D.T. Arap Moi, Minister for Home Affairs. He was taken in on the last day of December 1977. What can one do at a distance for a writer incarcerated without reason given? It must be remembered that communication, even on urgent matters, was mostly by return of airmail letters; telexes and cables were as clumsy as text messaging, but you had to get an operator to send them. Telephone calls were majestically expensive and had to go through secretaries, operators and switchboards.
The US rights in Petals of Blood had still not been sold. Ngugi, who had taught a few years before at Northwestern, felt that he personally wanted to handle the US rights. There had been considerable activity in 1977. Ngugi pushed for a bigger advance than Lawrence Hill felt he could earn.
On 30 January 1978 Lisa Drew of Doubledays wrote to me in two capacities. Firstly she wondered what the International Freedom to Publish Committee of the American Association of American Publishers could do to campaign in the United States about Ngugi’s detention. She also asked whether Doubledays might be able to have a new option to reconsider Petals of Blood.
I told her that Henry Chakava in Nairobi and and we at Heinemann in London were acting as a clearing house for information and that we were encouraging the following:
”1. Concerned people in the literary world to write to the press, particularly in Kenya.
2. People with contacts in the Kenyan government to write personal letters of concern.
3. Official bodies to protest.
4. Informed stories in press. (This, of course, becomes more and more important as the months roll on so that he is not forgotten.)” (JC to Lisa Drew 9 February 1978)
Lisa Drew continued to be most devotedly active even after Doubledays declined. She wrote to tell of efforts to raise the case with Vice President Moi and Attorney General Njonjo who were visiting Washington in the first week of March 1978. She wrote that her committee would ask the State Department to track what happens at Ngugi’s trial. I had to tell her:
”[Henry Chakava] regrettably says that there is absolutely nothing to give hope under the present law that Ngugi would have to be brought to trial within three months of his arrest. This law has no date.” (JC to Lisa Drew 3 March 1978)
Faith Sale, who was active in PEN, managed to get Duttons to make ‘a very strong bid for the book’. But Henry Chakava reported that Ngugi’s wife Nyambura was not being allowed to see him until 31 March 1978 when she would have to obtain a proxy to enable her to sign the contract. Mondo Sha the Japanese publishers had cabled doubling their advance on hearing of his arrest. The sale of Swedish and Italian rights followed and it was on offer to a further seven publishers in different languages. William Ash of BBC Radio wanted to give Ngugi a commission from the European Broadcasting Union which would lead to his work being broadcast by radio in many countries. My letter suggested that:
”I think that there would be great psychological advantage in writing directly to him care of his wife Nyambura, making this offer of a joint commission. I am sure that news of it may get through to him and help him in his ordeal. As a result when, and we obviously hope sooner than later, he emerges from detention, he will, health permitting, be anxious to consider your exciting offer.” (JC to William Ash 15 June 1978)
The person who encouraged the BBC was almost certainly the South African writer Mary Benson who had had years of campaigning against political imprisonment. She later wrote a radio dramatisation of Petals of Blood for BBC Radio 4.
A practical and informative letter dated 22 June 1978 came from Cherry Gertzel, Professor of Politics at the Flinders University of South Australia and author of The Kenyatta Election. We had discussed what could be done when she had visited me in London soon after there had been a lunchtime picket of the Kenyan High Commission, which had been joined by the easily recognisable figure of Ali Mazrui. She had visited Kenya on the way back to Australia and wrote on return:
”I understand that only four people have significant power where detention/release are concerned: the Vice President, the Attorney General, the Permanent Secretary, Office of the President, and Head of C.I.D. I myself doubt if petitions or demonstrations outside the High Commission would have influence upon events. It seemed to me one would have to go right to the top, preferably in a quiet behind the scenes way. Have you been in touch with the Foreign Secretary? Someone suggested to me that the only language the Kenyan government understands is the language of commerce!” (Cherry Gertzel to JC 22 June 1978)
Although approaches were made to the Foreign Office I did not have much hope about the British exerting pressure. In 1982 I was to travel back from the Zimbabwe Book Fair with Ngugi’s co-author Micere Mugo and to witness discretely, soon after dawn at Gatwick, the three-quarter hour interview she had with British immigration just to obtain a transit visa to Heathrow to get her onward flight to Canada. The British authorities as usual showed themselves willing to watch Kenyan dissidents as proxies for the Kenyan government in order not to jeopardise British trade with Kenya. Although Cherry Gertzel was dismissive of demonstrations, Ngugi gives examples in Detained of news getting through prison walls. One has to try everything.
Cherry Gertzel also gave her analysis of why the detention had happened at all:
”It seems to me (very obviously) that Ngugi was detained because he challenged the present hegemony of the Kikuyu capitalist society. It is true that there was a strike at the Bata shoe factory, as I told you, but more significant is the fact that it was the local GEMA Chairman who was initially responsible for the arrest. But more significant than the challenge to the capitalist strategy of development is the form which that challenge took; an appeal to Kikuyu identity.” (Cherry Gertzel to JC 22 June 1978)
A Colonial Affair was the original title of Detained. This was because Keith Sambrook had managed in 1967 to get a contract under that title from William Heinemann at the time of Ngugi’s return to Kenya after three years at the University of Leeds. The book was originally to concentrate on the shocking history of the settlers and to reflect the way the period was portrayed by the writers Karen Blixen, Elspeth Huxley and Robert Ruark. He had found the subject so degrading that he had put the book aside. In prison in 1978 Ngugi was haunted by this title:
”A colonial affair…the phrase keeps intruding into the literary flow of my mind and pen…a colonial affair in independent Kenya… It is as if the phrase has followed me inside Kamiti Prison to mock me.” (Detained p.29)
He was suffering in Kenyatta’s independent Kenya from authoritarian laws and procedures which mimicked those of the settler colony.
Henry Chakava posted the draft manuscript to me in London in April 1980:
”It is very much what I expected to find, a broad personal survey of Kenyan life and society seen in an historical and continuing perspective. Ngugi’s ideological inclinations have obviously coloured the approach. In many ways it deepens our understanding of Ngugi the man, his writings, what he considers the reasons for his detention, and his own views about prison life and detention laws. As usual it is full of biblical undertones.” (Henry Chakava to JC 16 April 1980)
I wrote to Ngugi after reading the manuscript:
”It has made me reflect deeply on the realities of incarceration. You have handled the whole problem of writing of the essential boredom of prison life with real craftsmanship.” (JC to Ngugi 6 May 1980)
The University had cancelled his contract after six months of detention and did not re-appoint him after his release. Henry Chakava gave him the vital support of a desk in the office in Kijabe Street in the centre of Nairobi. It was not just important for Ngugi’s writing. It also became central to Henry Chakava and Ngugi’s evolution of a new policy of publishing in Kenya which had lessons for the whole of Africa. In his article on ‘Publishing Ngugi’, Henry Chakava says that this period:
”…witnessed a transformation in the author-publisher relationship that had existed between Ngugi, Heinemann, London, and Heinemann Kenya, and finally the transformation of Heinemann Kenya itself into an independent African imprint with the new name East African Educational Publishers.”
Petals of Blood was the last of Ngugi’s novels to be first published in London and in English. Henry Chakava goes on to say:
”But publishing in African languages was quite another proposition. What orthographies would we use, since some communities had none and others were reacting against those prepared for them by missionaries and were busy compiling new ones? Who would buy these books, in view of the fact that the majority of mother-tongue speakers were poor peasants who lived below the breadline, and only a small percentage of whom achieved literacy beyond the 3Rs? As a publisher, how was I going to promote and distribute these books, in view of the fact that the majority of readers would be people from rural areas where roads were nonexistent or impassable for most of the year? In the absence of newspapers, journals and other promotional outlets in those languages, how was I going to advertise these books?
Ngugi and I agonized over these matters for long hours, him optimistic, me skeptical. In the end we began to realise the power of translation. Who ever remembers that War and Peace and Anna Karenina were written in Russian? What about other classics like Dead Souls, The Idiot, The Cherry Orchard, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Hedda Gabler ,The Plague, God’s Bits of Wood, and all those many books that we so much enjoy reading in English? Ngugi regretted that he had enriched the English language and culture with his novels Weep Not, Child, The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood without giving anything back to the community, culture, and language that had inspired them.”
(Henry Chakava Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective EAEP pp 56-7)
In London we were going through all the usual publishing processes comfortable in our salaried jobs. Henry Chakava brought me up short with the day to day realities of Ngugi’s life:
”Ngugi phoned from Limuru yesterday afternoon. When I informed him that the contracts had arrived, he decided that he was going to drive to Nairobi and sign them so that I can post them back the same evening. We kept the office open for half an hour waiting for him. I have never seen him sign anything so fast.
All this shows how desperately in need of money he is at the moment. He has been coming in to check on his mail twice a day. I suspect he visits his bank several times a day. When we spoke on 6th May on the telephone you said that you had not been aware that it was the money he needed more desperately than the contract. You said you would put it in hand immediately. It is now more than 10 days and, as he says, his children have been thrown out of school. He is at the moment quite demoralised and seems to feel that Heinemann is changing its previous cordial relationship with him.” (Henry Chakava to JC 16 May 1980)
Henry Chakava was trying to get Ngugi to let us have the revised manuscript of Detained by the end of July so that we could get it edited and photocopied in order to show it to potential buyers at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. I was also, far too optimistically, pressing him for the English translation of Devil on the Cross. 1980 was Africa Year at Frankfurt and, following the special programme on Africa at the Berlin Festival in 1979, we were working hard to sell translation rights of our best-established writers in West and East Germany and elsewhere. Amy Hoff, the Rights Manager, had already sold twelve translation rights in Petals of Blood.
”We are preparing material for Frankfurt because it is the great place for selling rights. As I mentioned to Ngugi now that he is a full-time writer the best way of increasing his income is to sell translation rights. It is regrettable but a fact that sales of translations have increased since his detention.” (JC to Henry Chakava 11 July 1980)
He could ill afford it but on 19 January 1981 he instructed us to give five per cent of his earnings to the Writers Association of Kenya.
The manuscript arrived on 16 July 1980 and there followed the classic misunderstanding between author and publisher, which so often follows the late delivery of a manuscript, when the author expects the lost time magically to be recaptured. Nevertheless from the file I am not altogether clear why it took us a year to publish the book, although extra documents were being inserted into the manuscript well into the new year. I wrote to Henry Chakava:
”I am terribly sorry if you and Ngugi were under the illusion that we would publish this autumn. As the manuscript arrived on 16 July and we had already sent the list to press, it would be counterproductive to publish before Christmas. Apart from anything else it is essential to have a major book three months before publication in Great Britain. I know that you can rush out books in East Africa but the whole marketing situation is different here in Britain… Our efforts to rush through Writers in Politics were disastrous as you know because of the confusion over the accents.” (JC to Henry Chakava 14 October 1980)
It would indeed have been useful to have had the manuscript earlier so that we could have had printed copies of the book at the time of Ngugi’s visit to London towards the end of the year. This followed a trip, together with Bessie Head, organised by the Danish Library Association. Ngugi had caused a national sensation in Denmark. Both writers were on a popular television interview programme which went out each Saturday evening at 6 o’clock. The interviewer of course asked questions about the Danish writer Countess Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa set in the Kenya of Ngugi’s A Colonial Affair. The outcry to Ngugi’s attack on Denmark’s national heroine jammed the switchboard at broadcasting house in Copenhagen.
We kept up our efforts to get Ngugi publicised to a wider international audience. Dagmar Heusler, who ran the Africa Year at the Berlin Festival in 1979, was commissioned by a West German television station to make a film about Ngugi in Kenya. Ben Shephard at BBC TV, who has South African connections, tried to make use of the film:
”As you will have heard from Dagmar Heusler, we showed her film to Anthony Rouse last Monday. It was not a great success.
I chose Rouse because a film on Ngugi could easily have fitted into his ‘Writers and Places’ series and, not least, because he’s one of the few people with the sort of money to spend that the subject requires. But he clearly has no residual sympathy with things African and started off by saying that Ngugi was Marxist and finished by saying that he was ‘too political’. So we were confronted by a very English art-for-art’s sake approach which would have needed a pretty considerable film to overturn it…
I shall explore other avenues but the immediate outlook is not hopeful. Rouse had some of Achebe’s books on his desk, and perhaps he will find that more accessible. I’m going to keep working on him, and perhaps next time one of your writers is over you should invite him to a do.” (Ben Shephard to JC 12 June 1981)
Africa was the place where people were interested. It had always been hoped that it would be possible to print an edition in Kenya. But the problems were that there might be administrative action to ban the book’s circulation or that certain of the individuals criticised by Ngugi might sue for libel. Henry Chakava decided to airfreight in some British copies, get reviews in the papers and test the situation:
”I attach copies of the reviews of Detained. You will be interested to hear that we have sold just over 5,000 copies since it was published 2 weeks ago.
There was an agonising silence after we had put out the 500 UK copies. Then we decided to publish. There has been no action so far, and there is unlikely to be any now since the book has already travelled widely and has been read by the highest authorities. (I replied in the margin to Henry Chakava saying ‘Absolutely delighted by this good news but will continue to keep fingers crossed.’ Henry Chakava to JC 12 August 1981)
Devil on the Cross
1982 Translated into English by Ngugi
from the Gikuyu original Caitaani Muthuraba-Ini 1980
Ngugi excitedly told Henry Chakava and myself that a new entertainment had entered the bar life of Kenya following the publication in 1980 of his novel, the first to be written in his mother’s own language. A man literate in Gikuyu would read Ngugi’s novel aloud to the drinkers until his voice and his glass had run dry. He would then lay the novel page downwards on the bar until another drink was bought for him. Literacy paid off.
The script of the Ngugi’s Ngaahika Ndeenda, which had been produced with such drama in 1978 at the Kamiriithu Cultural Centre, was published at the same time. Ngugi told us that when he had entered one bar a person, previously unknown to him, introduced himself by the name of one of the characters in the play. Then other members of bar cast clustered round him shouting out their own characters’ names. Play-reading had broken out across Kenya.
There were of course political dangers in publishing Ngugi in Kenya. Henry Chakava explained with clarity the worries for them:
”As far as the strategy for publication is concerned, we have had detailed discussion, and some disagreements. I do not want to go into details, but in the end we agreed that Ngaahika Ndeenda and the Gikuyu edition of The Devil on the Cross will be published simultaneously. In this way the novel will draw some fire from the play, but not so much as if the novel had been published first. I have decided to launch the two in a series, say the African Languages Series, and I am sure the authorities will appreciate this as a policy decision rather than a deliberate attempt to embarrass them with this one play. Indeed if these two books do well, we could add more writings in indigenous languages such as the Luo, Luiya, Kikamba, Maasai, etc.” (Henry Chakava to Keith Sambrook 8 July 1979)
In addition there were commercial problems. Lip service was paid to publication in Kenyan languages but it had proved almost impossible to sell the few titles which had appeared unless they were chosen as set books for exams. If the Ngugi books were banned by the government they would be unsaleable outside Kenya. However, even though District Commissioners might ban performances of plays, there was no record in Kenya of them banning published books. Every detail of the strategy of publication was carefully considered in the Heinemann office in Nairobi. Johnson Mugweru, the Sales Director, had described how, in order to register copyright, a copy was taken to a government office where an Indian clerk took the fee in shillings and gave a receipt. It was thus registered for copyright but it did not have to wait for any official approval. That was all. It was a formality. Johnson Mugweru explained how the pre-orders, which had been gathered from across Gikuyu country, would be invoiced out in advance and the books would be put by the printers straight into the boots of the reps’ cars and taken off to the shops to sell before administrative action could taken as it had been by a District Officer against plays.
There had been signs that the reception for these two books would be exceptional. Ngugi, annoyed, had rushed into the office to see Henry because he had been told by a friend that he had bought a copy of the play. Why had the authors not seen a copy? Henry replied that no more had he. He rang up the printers who said they were still binding the book. So somebody had slipped the very first copies out of the works and on to the streets of Nairobi. Ngugi was hot enough to steal off the stack at the printers.
Ngugi had started the novel years before in English. He wrote to me on 10 January 1977:
”I have been working on a new novel whose working title is ‘Devil at the Cross’ or ‘Devil’s Angels’. I am a third of the way through….The novel plays around the Faustus theme; it is about a woman, who, to get wealthy in a money based society (i.e. in a society where one’s status is determined by the size of one’s pocket), sells her soul to the Devil.
She is then given the secret of five ways of making it to the top which, of course, she utilizes with consequences that will be examined in the novel. The whole manuscript should be ready the end of June, at the very latest, but I am hoping sooner. It is coming on well, and it will be the first novel I shall have written in the head, so to speak, before putting it on paper.
It is very character based and it is also full of action. So with the main emphasis being on character and action the woman will be at the centre of the novel. I am sure that you will find it interesting – at least I am enjoying writing it.” (Ngugi to JC 10 January 1977)
By the end of that year he was in detention. At the end of 1978 he emerged from Kamiti maximum security prison brandishing the manuscript of this novel written in Gikuyu on toilet-paper:
”Writing on toilet-paper? Now I know that paper is about the most precious article for a political prisoner, more so for one like me who was in detention because of his writing. At Kamiti, virtually all the detainees are writers or composers…. These prisoners have mostly written on toilet paper. Now the same good old toilet-paper – which has been useful to Kwame Nkrumah in James Fort Prison, to Dennis Brutus on Robben Island, to Abdilatif Abdalla in G Block, Kamiti, and to countless other persons with similar urges – has enabled me to defy daily the intended detention of my mind.” (Detained p 6)
In those days the paper was hard, non-absorbent and came interleaved in flat packs. The written sheets could be concealed at the bottom of the box. He had started to write in English. In prison the language question was solved. He started again in Gikuyu. Then the manuscript was found in a prison search. Ngugi was determined on a third start with his words interleaved between the lines of a Bible. Unexpectedly after three weeks it was returned by a prison officer to Ngugi with the remark ‘You write very difficult Kikuyu!’
Henry Chakava was in 1977 pleased to hire Simon Gikandi full time in the interim before he went to Edinburgh as a postgraduate, having just obtained the only first in the whole faculty of arts in Nairobi. As a student he had reported with singular confidence and perceptiveness on a whole range of writers including Meja Mwangi and Nuruddin Farah. His report on the original Gikuyu Caitaani Mutharaba-ini, is full of positive appreciation though not without criticism for Ngugi’s tendency to lecture his readers. He puts his finger on the problem of what audience is the author addressing:
”Since this is a very long novel. It will be expensive to produce. It will appeal largely to the ‘literary people’ – what Arnold Bennett used to call the professional few who find excitement trying to delve into the intricacies of style and meaning. So, if Ngugi has the ‘ordinary’ readership in mind, he might discover that most people consider reading long and somehow complex novels trying. The play, Ngaahika Ndeenda has the advantage of being short and straight-forward. The novel has an intricate structure built on flashbacks, dreams and allegory, and unless I am under-estimating the literary nature of the rural peasantry/working class, this is one of the problems we have to contend with.” (Report by Simon Gikandi 6 July 1997)
It had been assumed in Nairobi, as in London, that the novel would outsell the play. But the demand was almost equal. By the end of 1980 three impressions totalling 15,000 of the novel and 13,000 of the play had been printed. Douglas Killam asked me in 1982 to estimate the readership. I took a conservative guess that each copy would be read by an average of six or seven people which would mean at least 100,000 readers for each book. There was a ready second-hand market going on the pavements down River Road. In addition, how many people had heard the books read aloud?
Ngugi had come out of detention even more determined to push forward his writing and publishing philosophy without compromise. Keith Sambrook wrote:
”Ngugi is certainly not modifying his views as his full page in the Kenyan supplement of the Guardian the other day clearly shows. Being his publisher will no doubt cause us some awkward moments from now on but we shall retain the most important writer in Africa on our list.” (KS to Henry Chakava 15 June 1979)
The Ngugis and Henry Chakava decided, in a memo dated 8 July 1979, that Heinemann Educational Books (East Africa) should now be the originating publisher for these two books. They wanted all translation rights and American rights to be handled by the Kenyan company rather than by the company in London. The central problem was that Kenya, even if the politics had been more certain, could not provide enough income for a full time professional writer who had to depend upon his writing. The Ngugis pushed the realities as hard as they could.
Henry Chakava and we in London over the next few years developed a policy whereby his company would have exclusive market rights in East Africa and open market throughout the rest of Africa and at various times this allowed the Kenyan company to make sales particularly in Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia and Mauritius. In 1981, soon after the Zimbabwean settlement I wrote to Ngugi about the offers we had had for locally printed co-publications with the newly founded Zimbabwean Publishing House:
”We receive exactly the same message as you do, that they desperately want books from the African Writers Series. In particular they want progressive writers (yourself and Sembene Ousmane) and Zimbabwean writers whether progressive or not.” (JC to Ngugi 18 September 1981)
Amy Hoff and Ruth Swindon ran the small but assiduous contract and foreign rights department in Bedford Square in Bloomsbury. They steadily pursued American and foreign language rights not only for Heinemann titles published in London but also from other offices whether in America, Australia or the Far East. It may have been neo-colonialism but it steadily brought in additional income for the authors wherever it was to be found. When rejections from publishers arrived, they persisted in their approaches to alternatives be they in Japan, Finland or America. Their work went on all year although it was consolidated at the week-long Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn.
The Ngugis insisted that all their work must be translated from the original Gikuyu and not from the English language translations. Dagmar Heusler, adviser on African writing to the distinguished Frankfurt imprint of Suhrkamp Verlag, looked round Nairobi in vain for a Gikuyu-speaking German with literary ability. With Germany’s historic association with Tanganyika that should not have proved too much of a problem. But I could foresee problems with smaller languages such as Finnish.
There was also the problem of audience. Ngugi expected a substantial advance for A Devil on the Cross from one of the renowned US literary imprints; it was declined as ‘a tough sell’ by Doubleday, Pantheon, Dutton, Putnam, and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Kathleen Anderson at Nortons summed up the problem:
”The most interesting thing to me about the novel is Ngugi’s challenge to those African intellectuals who, although they give lip service to the struggle for liberation, are still so wedded to their bourgeois privileges that they are unable to act when the time for action comes…. While Petals of Blood left some novelistic pleasures for a general reader, the current novel is so passionate in its political convictions and so enamoured of the Brechtian political rhetorical devices it uses to display its points that its audience is exclusively those who care about current developments in contemporary African literature or current Marxist thought. Consequently, I don’t think it would transcend that specialized audience for the general reader.” (Kathleen Anderson to JC 29 October 1981)
In fact the company which could get at just such an audience was Heinemann Educational Books Inc, Heinemann’s very own and very new company in the States. Their Sales Director, Tom Seavey, just before I was going to see Ngugi in Nairobi at the end of February 1982, wrote in a brief and practical memo:
”An interesting updated figure to use judiciously in dealing with Ngugi regarding Inc. In 1981 we sold 4512 (net) copies of his novels. In January 1982, we sold 901. Projecting this last figure at the growth rate of Inc. as a whole gives us a possible 6700 total for ’82. Inasmuch as all four novels we have are old, I have no doubt that we could reach 4000 copies of Devil on a Cross, a new and frequently ordered title.” (Tom Seavey to JC 29 January 1982)
Published in Gikuyu 1986
English translation published 1989
Here is the fairy tale as told by Ngugi in Germany in 1989:
”Matigari, the main character, is puzzled by a world where the producer is not the one who has the last word on what he has produced; a world where lies are rewarded and truth punished. He goes round the country asking questions about truth and justice. People who had read the novel started talking about Matigari and the questions he was raising as if Matigari was a real person in life. When Dictator Moi heard that there was a Kenyan roaming around the country asking such questions he issued orders for the man’s arrest. But when the police found that he was only a character in fiction, Moi was even more angry and he issued orders for the arrest of the book itself. That’s why, in February 1987, in a very well co-ordinated police action, the novel was seized from all the bookshops and from the publisher’s warehouse. The novel is now published in English for a readership outside Kenya, the first case, in our history of a fictional character being forced into exile to join its creator. But this was Moi’s Kenya where facts are stranger than fiction, where state actions in the streets here induced more terror in its citizens than that of their nightmares, where the words of the head of state, spoken in all seriousness, would more than match those of the cleverest of satirists.” (Moving the Centre p 175)
It was always essential to get Ngugi’s books out fast across Gikuyu country; fill the boots of cars direct from the printers with orders from across the country and scatter. In fact by the time the Special Branch raided the Heinemann offices there were no copies beyond a few file copies left. Ngugi had been out of the country and it was impossible for him to return after the 1984 attempted coup.
But Henry Chakava was still there in Kenya facing up to the realities. He told me another episode in the fairy tale. Professor Simeon Ominde was the gentle and considerate Chairman of Heinemann (East Africa). He was the person who had made sure that Ngugi could go on to the University of Leeds in 1965. When he heard about the raid he came into the office to tell Henry that he must insist that in future the board approve the acceptance of all books. Henry said that he regretted that he could not agree. Simeon Ominde said that he therefore must resign the Chair and that he must go to State House to tell President Moi that he was doing so. On the appointed day Simeon Ominde sat in the ante-room able to hear the raised voice of the President, a former Primary School Head, shouting at the people who had just gone into the presence. Simeon Ominde’s knees were knocking as in his own schooldays. Eventually he was ushered into the presence but as soon as he said that he wished to resign President Moi said ‘You can’t. I put you there to watch those people.’ I asked Henry Chakava how he knew this and Henry said ‘Simeon was so relieved that he came straight back from State House and told me.’
James Currey is a leading international publisher of Africana, based in Oxford, UK. He was a founding editor of the prestigious Heinemann’s African Writers Series. He is at the moment writing his publishing memoirs.