In an extract from his new memoir Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o remembers a moment familiar to many writers: the pain of a rejection letter
The person I really wanted to meet was Chinua Achebe. I had met him briefly the year before when he visited Makerere and talked with English students. I may have mentioned “The Fig Tree” to him, but I didn’t recall our having had a one-on-one. But now I had a big reason for wanting to talk to him face-to- face, outside the formal seminars and plenary sessions. It had to do with a new work, which would later bear the title Weep Not, Child.
As soon as I handed in the manuscript of “The Black Messiah” for the East African novel-writing competition at the end of December 1961, something had happened to me. The story about the contemporary Kenya situation that I had tried and failed to write suddenly started knocking at the door of my imagination furiously. In my diary entry of the third of February 1962, I wrote that I had “been thinking of writing some reminiscences, some of my impressions during the Emergency. I don’t know as yet where to begin, but I will.”
Four days later, I am recording a mix of euphoria and anxiety, which I capture in the entry of February, 1962:
I am in a mood of uneasy expectations. Only last week (on Tuesday/January 30), I sent my collection of short stories to Jonathan Cape. Waiting anxiously for reply. Yet I do fear rejection. Also I am waiting for the outcome of the EA novel-writing competition, “The Black Messiah,” completed Oct. last year. Handed it in on 28th Dec. Still, I am fearing the outcome. Yet cannot do much till those results are out. I would like to write another novel. I shall call it “And This Day, Tomorrow.” It will depict a suffering yet persevering Kikuyu woman during the Emergency. I shall divide it in 3 sections.
The woman [burning of house, village]
The daughter [the murder of—to death]
The son [the son’s return]
It was like an electric needle. Could not read
On February 19, 1962, I recorded my first receipt of a rejection slip:
Received a letter from Jonathan Cape Ltd. in reply to my short stories which I sent them. Said they, “regret that after careful consideration we have decided not to make you an offer . . . we do not believe the collection would be easily saleable in this country at the present time.” It was like an electric needle. Could not read. Never been in a worse situation in my life. Not even 30 cts to buy a stamp. No job for vacation. And Minneh needs support. My studies. Guild work. Which I find so boring. I wish I had never taken it on. Will not give up. Will strive. I’ll immediately begin a new novel. This will deal with a detainee. He is arrested— had not taken the oath—but at the camp he is corrupted by the admn and a man from the forest. Takes the oath to revenge the detainees. The other detainee dies(?). Our hero talks to another who tells him his wife is dead...
These ideas and plots would come and vanish. And this outline remained just that, a plan on paper. As it happened, the first line of what would later become Weep Not, Child came unexpectedly.
It came during a talk by the visiting Ghanaian sociologist K.A. Busia, a distinguished scholar and academic but also a politician, leader of the United Party, which opposed Kwame Nkrumah’s ruling Convention People’s Party. His talk, though, remained focused on what he called the travails of education. My mind drifted from the talk. The word education took me back to the day my mother sent me to school.
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‘Exquisite in its honesty and truth and resilience, and a necessary chronicle from one of the greatest writers of our time.’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Selected as a Book of the Year 2016 in the Guardian
As a young student, internationally renowned author Ngugi wa Thiong’o found his voice as a playwright, journalist and novelist, writing his first, pivotal works just as the countries of East Africa were in the final throes of their independence struggles.
For Ngugi, an ambitious student leaving Kenya for the first time, the prestigious Makerere University embodies all the potential and excitement of the early 1960s. Campus is a haven of opportunity for the brightest African students, a meeting place for great thinkers and writers from all over the world, and its alumni, including Milton Obote and Julius Nyerere, are filling Africa’s emerging political and cultural positions. Despite the challenges he faces as a young black man in a British colony, it is here that Ngugi begins to write, weaving stories from the fibres of memory, history and a shockingly turbulent present.
Birth of a Dream Weaver is a moving and thought-provoking memoir of the birth of one of the most important writers today, and the death of one of the most violent periods in global history.