Prominent African novelist speaks about laughter, freedom

A famous African author, best known for having penned a novel on toilet paper while imprisoned in Kenya, spoke to students and faculty at the Wesley Gallery on Friday.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, currently on tour to promote his new book Wizard of the Crow, spoke to a diverse audience about his opinions on dictatorships, language and laughter. He also read passages from the book.

The novel, Ngugi is quoted as saying on the book cover, is his attempt to “sum up Africa of the 20th century in the context of two thousand years of world history,” and was originally written in the African language of Gikuyu.

Ngugi is also a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine and the director of its International Center of Writing and Translation.

After introductions by Michael Halleran, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Patricia Saunders, an assistant professor in the English department, Ngugi began with some comic passages pertaining to the dictator character in his novel. From his personal experience, Ngugi said, a dictatorship is a “tragedy which manifests itself in comedy.”

“Laughter is very, very important,” he said.

He supported his statement by describing how the subjects of post-colonial dictatorships in Africa used humor to bring dictators “down from the heavens to the ordinary,” and how he himself used satire to separate himself from the grim reality of prison.

In an interview with the Miami Hurricane, Ngugi also addressed the current controversy over the official language of the United States.

“I don’t like the dictatorship of monolinguism anywhere in the world,” he said, “When you have a monolanguage situation it’s actually destructive to the enrichment of our existence.”

In an effort to combat that, Ngugi wrote Wizard of the Crow in Gikuyu and it was later translated into English. It is among the longest works in an African language, he said.

“I wanted to also show for myself and for others the capacity of African languages to understand and talk to the world,” he said, “Africa is part of the world and African languages must be able to talk not only about Africa but also about the world.

“They must be able to talk about space exploration, they must be able to talk about international politics [and] they must be able to talk about the history of America and all of that.”

Following the program, food and drinks were served as Ngugi signed books and talked to attendees. Nearly all the students who attended received a free copy of the novel.

The event was facilitated by a joint effort between the Creative Writing program, the Caribbean Language Studies program, the Africana Studies program and Books & Books.

Nate Harris may be contacted at