“In the House of the Interpreter” is the second of two memoirs by one of Africa’s most highly regarded authors. The first volume, “Dreams in a Time of War,” covers Thiong’o’s childhood in Kenya during World War II and the surge of militant anti-colonialism that followed. “Interpreter” covers 1955 – 1958, his years at Alliance High School, the first and most selective secondary school for Africans in Kenya. It’s a very personal story, recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. But there is no escaping the book’s larger political context — for both the author and the reader.
The period leading to independence for Kenya in 1963 was a time of great tension and upheaval. Some members of the Kikuyo (“Gikuyu”) people took to the hills to engage in military struggle against the colonial government: the so-called Mau Mau uprising. Some members collaborated, working on behalf of the colonial authority. Still others, including the author, tried to continue leading a “normal life.”
The arc of Thiong’o’s life story is remarkable. He went from living as a child in a village of huts, working with his mother in the fields, to Alliance, where he studied with the sharpest young minds in the country and learned about Shakespeare, debate and how to write clearly and expressively in English. As the book closes, he is on a train to Makerere University in Uganda, perhaps the most prestigious institution in East Africa.
Known as James Ngugi when he first entered the Alliance compound, he felt “as if I had narrowly eluded pursuing bloodhounds in what seemed a never-ending nightmare. Up to that moment, my life had been spent looking nervously over my shoulder. Since the declaration of the state of emergency in 1952, I lived in constant fear of falling victim to the gun-toting British forces that were everywhere, hunting down anticolonial Mau Mau guerrillas, real or imagined. Now I was inside a sanctuary, but the hounds remained outside the gates, crouching, panting, waiting, biding their time.” Returning home from his first term away at school, he found that the British authorities had razed his village and moved the inhabitants closer to a “guard post,” where their activities could be monitored.
Fueled by a pact with his mother to always work hard and do his very best, young James entered school as an unknown, who was much poorer than most of the other students. The British principal “was a towering figure who was everywhere, who could generate fury, fire, and fun in turns.” The principal believed colonial rule was racist and that “by insisting on high performance on the playing field and in the classroom [Alliance could] produce self-confident, college-prepared, intellectual minds.” That is, African minds. Ngugi flourished academically and, at the end of the first year, was second in his class.
As the author matured intellectually and became even more aware of the political ferment pervading Kenya, he found that “we at Alliance could not take our gaze away from the drama in the streets. Each day brought out something new that impacted our view of the country, the continent, and the world. Our activities on the school compound now played out against the background of the all-year political theater in the streets.”
To continue school he was required to get signatures from local officials attesting that he was not actively opposing colonial rule. Perhaps it was good luck — or even destiny — that he was able to obtain this clearance despite his brother, Good Wallace, who was fighting in the mountains with the Mau Maus. But the involvement of family members in the anti-colonial struggle was not a subject for discussion among James and his schoolmates because they did not want to endanger their loved ones or derail their scholastic careers through guilt by association.
Unfortunately, after graduation the author was beyond the protective walls of “the sanctuary” and experienced firsthand the repression of the British colonial authority and its African minions. He was arbitrarily incarcerated and put on trial. As he considered the futility of resisting the charges, he was guided by the words of his mother: “The truth never dies.” In a very daring move, he pled not guilty and relied on the skills he’d learned as a debater.
“In the House of the Interpreter” is a quick read and a compelling look at one man’s coming of age as a striving intellectual in pre-independence Kenya. In view of what has happened in Thiong’o’s life after high school — the first novel written in English by an East African, “Weep Not Child”; imprisonment and 20-year exile for the novel “Petals of Blood”; teaching posts at Northwestern, Yale, NYU and currently at UC-Irvine — it makes future volumes of his memoir well worth the wait.