Interview: Mukoma wa Ngugi on Kenyan Heritage, Writing & his Father’s Great Influence

When Mukoma wa Ngugi comes home to Kenya, he sees a country beaming with hope – but also a country shackled by corruption.

The author of three novels and two books of poetry, Mukoma is the son of legendary Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Mukoma was born in Illinois in 1971 but returned to Kenya as a young child and grew up during the iron-fisted arap Moi administration, which forced his family into exile over his father’s regime-critical writings.

Much in Mukoma’s life has changed since those days – but Kenya, in many ways, has remained the same, Mukoma says.

“On the one hand there is the Kenya of great potential, but at the same time there is the Kenya of extreme inequality,” Mukoma told KenyanVibe on Tuesday morning. “When I go to Kenya and meet with all the young people, they’re in a way the people who are pushing the country forward, but the people in political power are extremely corrupt and hold them back.”

Mukoma (right) with his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

At 46, Mukoma is back in the U.S., splitting his time between writing and teaching English at Cornell University in upstate New York. His most recent collection of poetry, “Logotherapy,” was published late last year and explores the characteristically Kenyan battle between hope and disillusion.

Poems such as “Multiplicity and Skins” and the titular “Logotherapy” implore readers, through intensely personal and political anecdotes, to continue the search for purpose and meaning even when the powers that be seem determined to break you.

While on the phone with KenyanVibe on Tuesday, Mukoma recalled as a real-life example of this struggle a Kenyan-American Youth Association event in Seattle that he recently attended with his father. At the event, Mukoma met dozens of Kenyan-American teens dealing with what he called “identity limbo.”

“Their issues is that they don’t have any connection to back home, some of them have never been to Kenya,” he explained.

With Donald Trump in the White House, Mukoma continued, these problems are only “blowing up.” Anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise and many young Kenyan-Americans subsequently feel neither Kenyan nor American. “They have no roots anywhere,” Mukoma said.

“But even in that situation,” he continued, “you have people and activists who fight back and strengthen their communities by finding ties to back home.”

In Kenya, Mukoma said, the same hope manifests itself in the surge of young artists and writers challenging the established order through activism and art. Such efforts harken back to previous Kenyan uprisings, Mukoma said.

“If we look into the history of the Mau Mau and the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army, we are a country that can do great things,” Mukoma mused.

Mukoma (right) together with his father.

Anyone who has spoken at length with Mukoma knows that politics is always front and center for him. In “Hunting Words With My Father” – one of the most remarkable poems from “Logotherapy” – Mukoma credits those political aspirations to his father.

“It’s really a thank you to my dad for giving me the gifts of words,” Mukoma said of the poem, “but not just the gift of words – also the gift of politics.”

The poem explores wistful, deeply metaphorical scenes of the “Nyandarua forest” and a “Mau Mau warrior” piercing a lion with a spear as long as a “root from the earth.” It also divulges meticulous biographical details, such as Mukoma observing his father in his study holding a “blue Bic-pen” and “a cup of tea.” Mukoma’s ability to craft such literary contrast in such a short poem makes him as unique of a writer as his father before him.

While waiting for the fall semester to start at Cornell, Mukoma is working on a retrospective piece about European languages and how they tend to be the default choice for many African writers. Like his father, Mukoma believes that the prevalence of European languages in Africa is a consequence of a lingering colonial mindset. Once he’s got a first draft of the piece, Mukoma said he will send it over to his father for feedback.

“These days, I always send him what I’m working on, and he sends me what he’s working on,” Mukoma said. “It’s an equal partnership now.”