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Posted November 14, 2012

“In the House of the Interpreter” Is Both Symbolic and Real

By Arelya J. Mitchell

I was given an advance copy of “In the House of the Interpreter”, the second installment of a memoir by award-winning Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’. Amid other books I am reading and reviewing, I wanted to dig into this memoir before its November release date in print and e-book formats. But I make it on the brinks, and I hope you don’t do the same when this book debuts this month.


Author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o takes a historical and personal retrospection of his formative years from  1955-1959  “ In the House of the Interpreter”, which takes its title from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and serves symbolically for the writer’s high school, Alliance, built by Christian missions. Bunyan’s allegory serves as a platform—or should I say as rather a ‘stage’-- for the real life and blood people who come in and out of wa Thiong’o’s adolescent years to influence him, form him, and act  as proverbial sounding boardsIn fact, wa Thiong’o thinks of them as characters and assigns them names based on their occupations or actions, reminiscent of allegorical characters found in “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Throughout the book you find him whimsically naming people Mr. Rifleman, Mr. Machine Gun, Mr. Bank Robber, Mr. Body Parts or the like.


After all, it is perhaps what a writer would do—maybe how he would even reflect  on his  life at its most vulnerable and impressionable timeframe. You can almost see and feel the older wa Thiong’o sitting back and telling us the story of his youth with the hypnotic eye of the Ancient Mariner. We are the wedding guests in his past which is very historical, very personal, and yes, very allegorical. Even though the memoir is written in first-person as would be any memoir, it has a third-person feel where wa Thiong’o has separated himself from himself and there is now this thin sheeting between now and then, between old and youth, between wisdom and idealism.


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o begins the memory of his transition of an idealistic teenager in Kenya which is under Great Britain rule in the 1950s. The sun has begun to sink on the British Empire, the ‘natives’ are restless, and rebellion swells into revolution.


Wa Thiong’o tells of this transition in layers of subtleties. He establishes his own ‘character’ in the context of a life embroiled—or perhaps I should not use the word ‘embroiled’ because I am actually thinking of the word ‘entangled’ in a changing world where the abnormal becomes the normal and seesaws back to the abnormal, which is ‘naturally’ a common occurrence during a time of instability: You live with crap for so long that you don’t mind the stench until a new stench comes along. Then you readjust yet again.


            In the first chapter, wa Thiong’o establishes this pendulum when he first enters the protective confines of Alliance, a Christian boarding high school for Kenyan boys under the tutelage of British Christians. Even when he puts on the school uniform for the first time he feels it an armor of protection. In fact having gotten this far to even attend high school defines him as one of the chosen. 


But when he goes back home on break, he feels exposed likening it to that of an American runaway slave running from bloodhounds.  During this first trip home, he discovers that his family has been displaced yet again in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood is divided by those who have been most loyal to the British Empire and by those who have not been: Lesser haves among lesser have nots. Wa Thiong’o’s family ranks at the bottom of the totem pole. Neighbors know that his brother, Good Wallace, is a Mau Mau revolutionary fighting in the hills, and that his brother’s wife has spent time in prison based on her association of being married to Good Wallace. He first encounters an old man from his village and knows that if anyone would know where his mother is it would be this old man who was considered the neighborhood gossiper as well as one who had worked for one of the well-to-do Kenyan families.


Wa Thiong’o’ is happy to see his mother with whom he has a close relationship and the rest of his close-knitted family, but still he feels an unease until he returns to Alliance. His uniform once more serves as armor as he makes his way back to school. Everyone knows that Alliance students are to be treated differently. Respected as educated black males protected by Her Majesty under the British realm.


 Once back inside Alliance he still feels the hounds are outside waiting for him. 


He writes: “When I first stepped onto the grounds of Alliance High School on Thursday, January 20, 1955, I felt as if I had narrowly eluded pursuing bloodhounds on what had 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 guerillas, real or imagined. Now I was inside a sanctuary, but the hounds remained outside the gates, crouching, panting, waiting, biding their time.”


He describes the high school: “Although Alliance, initially a two-year institution, had literary education at its core, the vocational character of its American South model was maintained through classes in carpentry and agriculture. And like its models, it produced mostly teachers, some later employed in mission and government schools and the independent African schools, before their ban. This model was to remain fairly intact until 1940, when Edward Carey Francis took over as principal and grafted a four-year English grammar onto its vocational American stem.”


It is the formidable and strict British subject Alliance’s principal,  Edward Carey Francis, who becomes such an influential ‘character’  in wa Thiong’o’s youth that he serves as a symbol not only as British self-righteous paternalism and British rule but the hypocrisy though well-intentioned Christianity as practiced under colonialism.


While researching his youth, wa Thiong’o comes across the following letter in which Carey Francis writes to a colleague: “Racial feeling in Kenya is bad. There are faults on both sides. Among many Europeans there is suspicion of missions and of education (‘spoiling the native’) though this is far better than it was; among Africans there is inborn suspicion of the white man. A man who tries to do his job is pretty certain of criticism from both sides, not made easier by the fact that he is bound to make mistakes. But it is a grand opportunity, too. Most of the future leaders of the country pass through our hands.”


Carey Francis is a legend in his own time. He has been on leave when wa Thiong’o enters Alliance and upon the principal’s return the young wa Thiong’o notices the difference between Alliance pre-Carey Francis and a present Alliance with Carey-Francis at the helm. Oddly enough, Edward Carey Francis inspires “confidence” in the teen. But in most situations of apartheid and segregation, it is done unwittingly when an alleged white superiority is construed as ‘superior’ when in reality it is no more than an invisible line between the educated and the ignorant. And ignorance is curable; and once it is cured, it backfires on that status quo known as white superiority. It happened in America’s South; it happened in Kenya.


“Carey Francis produced self-confident, college-prepared, intellectual minds. By the time I left Alliance, I felt that academically  I could go toe to toe with the best that any European or Asian schools could produce,” wa Thiong’o asserts.


 Whether it is a coping mechanism  or the  beginning of wa Thiong’o  becoming a  future masterful writer, you do experience—to reiterate--  his ability to transform the real  blood and guts persons who come in and out of his life into characters in his drama to survive and conquer the ‘hounds’.


As stated earlier, you see his gift  to write in first-person while distancing himself in a third person analysis, and then when occasion calls for he brings you back into himself—his fear, his pain, his anger, his happiness, his confusion and finally his transition.


That transition is pivotal; therefore I shall not give it away because his epiphany is so worth the read and so worth the real-life drama from his being a holier-than-thou young acolyte to a man of substance.


I did like reading the contrast between him and his brother, Good Wallace, even though it is clear that wa Thiong’o was not focused on this and Good Wallace though in this second installment of the memoir was not explored.  The two brothers—though this is true life as they say—seemed almost like characters from the Russian classic novel of conflict such as the “Brothers Karamazov”; but as we know, good fiction evolves from life-- even from its absurdities of and ironies between freedom and confinement. Between race and freedom.  Between the symbiotic relationship of Black and white.


 Again wa Thiong’o re-confirms how ‘real’ life has its very ‘real’ characters. He writes:  “In my mind, political actors had always appeared as fictional characters. In the Ngandi period of my youth, the pre-Mau Mau nationalist lineup had loomed larger than life. Their struggles against the giant white ogre from across the sea were epic battles fought with fiery swords that lit up the dark.”


            He continues: “The new post-Ngandi, post Mau Mau nationalist characters seemed life size, actors on a stage I could comprehend. Perhaps this was because we were witnesses to their entrances and sometimes their exits, or because of their distinct disadvantage of having been forbidden to form political parties based on an area larger than a district.”


            As you get further into reading “In the House of the Interpreter” (Pantheon Books), you see the parallels of America’s South (though segregation was legal throughout the entire United States) and political controversies such as the Suez Canal that not only influenced  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o‘s youth but the world at large. He is a living history.



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