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Every year when it's time to give out the Nobel Prize for literature, British bookies lay odds on who might win. And every year, Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is viewed as a contender. His work includes novels and plays and essays. But the first thing he ever wrote was a short story. And it's included in a new collection ranging from the 1960s to the present. He told NPR's Lynn Neary it's a kind of literary autobiography.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Ngugi Wa Thiong'o was university student in Uganda in the early 1960s, he was a big fan of the school's literary magazine. One day, he met one of the writers he admired and was so star-struck, he didn't know what to do.
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: So I just blurted out, I have written a short story. Would you like to look at it? And he said, yes, do you have it? And, of course, I did not have it with me, simply because I had not written one. That night, I went back to my dorm and had to concoct something called a story (laughter).
NEARY: Beginning with that story, this new collection has a narrative arc that takes the reader from the sometimes harsh reality of village life through the changes that came with the end of colonial rule. A number of the stories were written just after Kenya won its independence from Britain. It was a time of great hope, which Ngugi says turned out to be a false hope for many.
NGUGI: The coming of independence became a promise of better life to come for everybody - not just for a few people but for everybody. But after independence, I began to see that there was a kind of difference in expectation and reality. And I tried to capture that in my short stories.
NEARY: In the story which gives this collection its name, "Minutes Of Glory," Ngugi tells of a young woman who leaves her village to become a barmaid in one of the many beer halls that sprang up in post-colonial Kenya. Things do not go well for her, and at one point, she yearns to return home but cannot. In this passage, Ngugi evokes the sadness of what has been lost, a connection to the land.
NGUGI: (Reading) She was part of a generation which will never again be one with the soil, the crops, the wind and the moon. Not for them, that whispering in dark hedges. Not for her, that dance and love-making under the glare of the moon, with the hills of Tumutumu rising to touch the sky.
NEARY: Ngugi's writing was often critical of post-colonial Kenya and its rulers. But he says it was not until he wrote a play - not in English but in his native language - that he was seen as a threat and arrested.
NGUGI: The first play that I write in Gikuyu, my mother tongue, I am put in a maximum-security prison - not by a colonial government but by an African government. And that contradiction was so strong, and the questions that it raised became very, very important to me. And I realized the oppressor always - the first thing they do is take away the language of the oppressed.
NEARY: While in prison, Ngugi wrote "Devil On The Cross," his first novel in Gikuyu. Famously, the entire book was written on toilet paper.
NGUGI: But I keep on joking that the paper we are given as toilet paper was not the soft kind we find on television. So it's a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but a very good writing material. It held the pen very well.
NEARY: After getting out of prison, Ngugi went into exile, living first in England and then in the United States. Although he has not lived in Kenya for many years, he still writes about it. The most recent stories in this collection are both set there. Living in exile, he says, is a different kind of prison.
NGUGI: Prison is like internal exile, and exile is like external prison. And both present the same challenges. How do you connect with the people from whom we are separated? So in prison, I wrote the novel "Devil On The Cross." In exile, I tried to do the same thing - to try to connect with Kenya, with Africa through my imagination, through my writing.
NEARY: As for that elusive Nobel Prize, well, Ngugi finds it more amusing than anything. He is more interested in what he calls the Nobel of the heart.
NGUGI: When I go to a place and I meet a person and they tell me, your novel or your short story impacted my life, that's a very special moment when, as a writer I feel, my God, it was worth it. It's what I call the Nobel of the heart, and I really appreciate that one. And the beauty of the Nobel of the heart is that every writer can have it, yeah (laughter).
NEARY: Then again, maybe this year, he will get that other Nobel. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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