An essay on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o by Kenyan journalist Carey Baraka sparked controversy recently. Baraka spent three days with Ngũgĩ at his home in California and penned a long, reflective essay about his encounter with the renowned novelist. The essay, titled Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: three days with a giant of African literature,” was published in The Guardian and has drawn mixed responses since it was published on June 13, including a feature on Kenya’s public television.
From Ngugi’s son calling the piece “unethical” to those who found it intimate and moving to Kenyan tabloids exploiting details for clickbait to Ngugi clapping back at the Kenyan press, asking them to “cry” for Kenya instead of crying for him, the piece has raised important conversations about the form and politics of biographical writing, especially in the digital age.
We’ve sifted through twitter for some of the key positions in the conversation to give you a sense of what went down.
THOSE WHO LOVED IT:
The piece presents a comprehensive and in-depth exploration of Ngugi’s life through the lens of his accomplishments but also his personal journey. Kenyan author Yvonne Owuor described the essay as “luminous.” Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan journalist, loved the storytelling. And Nigerian author Ike Anya wrote that it was “a joy to read.”
— 🕊Yvonne A. Owuor (@AdhiamboKE) June 13, 2023
— Nanjala Nyabola (@Nanjala1) June 14, 2023
This was captivating, thought provoking & a joy to read. A Grain of Wheat was first Ngugi novel I read, aged 6, Weep Not Child was a set text in secondary school I think https://t.co/KQWfsYL0De
— Ike Anya #EndSARS (@ikeanya) June 14, 2023
The essay is a much-needed contribution to the growing archive of life writing that captures the experiences of African literature’s veterans. Baraka captures the essence of why Ngugi is so loved and widely read and his impact on literature, politics, and activism. He had spent three days with Ngugi, so there was a personal perspective that added on a layer of emotional authenticity. The tenderness, with which Baraka wrote certainly breaks the mold in terms of writings by African men about other African men. There was a vulnerability that was embraced in the powerful love that Baraka had for Ngugi, as an icon, outside of their shared literary bond. All that came through in the piece making it truly memorable.
THOSE WHO HAD ISSUES:
In the essay, Baraka shares information about Ngugi’s health issues, about health workers coming to his house to administer medicine, and his, apparently, on-going divorce. Ngugi’s son, the novelist and poet Mukoma wa Ngugi, described the essay as “unethical.”
Am I the only one finding this story (well written as it is) also unethical? In terms of journalistic standards and what matters and what details are necessary to tell a compelling story? Anything that is gratuitous is unnecessary and gossipy excess. https://t.co/UN1QJfzM07
— Mukoma Wa Ngugi (@MukomaWaNgugi) June 15, 2023
Wale Lawal, the Editor-in-Chief of the Nigerian journal The Republic, felt the essay did not adequately take into account the issue of context collapse.
Many thoughts on this profile, which I’ve found earnest but maybe a bit too earnest. Notwithstanding the rich overview of Ngũgĩ’s history, there’s some vulnerability here that needed protecting (especially from an international audience). https://t.co/x2njqfev9c
— Wale Lawal (@WalleLawal) June 16, 2023
Given how digital technology has brought formerly distant reading publics closer, writers have become increasingly aware of cultural translation issues. This has made writing for international audiences tricky. A lot can get lost as ideas move through different cultural contexts. The essay might have benefited from a greater awareness of the complexities surrounding something like elderly care, particularly considering the significant cultural differences between places like the US and the continent.
The issue that Lawal raised manifested in tabloids exploiting some of the more personal details in the piece as indications of crisis in Ngugi’s life, suggesting that he had been abandoned by his children and living a lonely life. Ngugi’s son Tee has since called out what he describes, in a Facebook post, as the tabloids’ “macabre gossipy fantasies, and ethnic, sexist and ageist prejudices.”
Shock as Details Emerge on How Literary Legend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is Battlling Sickness, Divorce, and Loneliness in the US https://t.co/PFBxXHrl2V
— Kakwenza Rukirabashaija (@KakwenzaRukira) June 17, 2023
Mukoma wa Ngugi also responsed:
On the Baraka Guardian essay on Ngugi, we will read it differently. I find it unethical and voyeuristic where others find it intimate and informative. I think what Kenyan media has done, which is to take one or two sentences and blow that up, to be disgusting. I leave it here.
— Mukoma Wa Ngugi (@MukomaWaNgugi) June 18, 2023
In a piece published in The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper, and titled “Please don’t cry for me, cry for beloved country Kenya,” Ngugi describes Baraka’s account as “very truthful” and “expansive.” He said he was at to loss about how people saw the image of “a desolate life” in Baraka’s profile, and reassured readers that he was doing very well and certainly not on the brink of “destitution.”
Were it not for the grave claims about my alleged destitution in America, there is a comic feel to the fictive constructs that have emerged since my recent profile in The Guardian “went viral”…The expansive Guardian piece by the Kenyan writer, Carey Baraka, looked back on my lengthy life of writing, through our three days of interaction at my home in California, last November. I understand Baraka has been subjected to online vitriol for what was seen as intrusive, unethical journalism by exposing my medical condition…For the record, I shared my story with him as a way of creating public awareness about prostate cancer, as it disproportionately affects black men due to their genetic disposition. There is nothing to hide about prostate cancer. Baraka’s story, indeed, was a very truthful capture of the mood at that time, as I prepared for a medical procedure for my kidney failure….Having read The Guardian story several times, I have no idea how some folks have imagined that I live a desolate life, on the fringe of destitution in America. I am busy at work as a writer, while still serving as a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine. Even as retirement looms, at 85, I am blessed to have worked continuously since 1968, and so I hope I will never suffer want. And I’ll be able to spend more days with my family and friends. As Baraka wrote, our conversations were interrupted by conversations with my children, who constantly check on me. I feel blessed for the support I have had from my entire family in Kenya, America, England, and Sweden. My three granddaughters Nyambura 1 and 2 and 3, my grandson Mĩrĩngũ and his beautiful wife, Wanja enjoy the grand performance that is me, the grandfather telling stories to my grands. [Read the full piece here.]
There you have it. Read Baraka’s profile on wa Thiong’o here. Let us know what you think!