UCI professor earns top California fiction prize
UC Irvine professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o has won the California Book Awards Gold Medal for fiction for his 2006 novel Wizard of the Crow (Pantheon).
The California Book Awards, considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the state, recognize outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction in eight categories. No more than three gold medals are awarded each year. Since the awards’ creation by the Commonwealth Club in 1931, winners have included Nobel Prize winners in literature John Steinbeck and Czeslaw Milosz, poet Robert Hass, and UCI alumnus Michael Chabon.
“It’s wonderful to be in such great company,” said Ngugi, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation.
A sweeping satire of African politics laced with magical realism, Ngugi describes his book as a “global epic from Africa.”
“It has depth and scope, taking in the pathos of a nation tightening the noose on itself,” wrote the book award jurors. “Thanks to the film ‘Last King of Scotland,’ we’ve recently had an up-close look at a despot. Here the author places his ruler within the context of not just colonialism, but also the rich African mythologies that are such a deep part of the culture.”
They added, “The novel feels both real and unreal at the same time, and the thread of stories is the unifying factor that keeps the pages turning.”
Ngugi worked on the novel for eight years, finishing it shortly after coming to UCI.
A novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and professor, Ngugi was imprisoned in Kenya for his literary works and named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International, leading to an international campaign to secure his release. He was forced into exile in 1982 and did not return until 2004, when he introduced the Kenyan-language edition of Wizard of the Crow, called Murogi wa Kagogo.
Ngugi, who established himself as an author and playwright in English, declared his intention to write in Gikuyu three decades ago, in an effort to help revitalize indigenous languages. He translated Wizard of the Crow painstakingly choosing the words that would carry the musicality of the original.
The novel received complimentary reviews around the world, including TIME Europe and The New York Times. Earlier this year, Ngugi’s novel made the short list for the Commonwealth Foundation Writers Prize and was nominated as an outstanding literary work of fiction in the 38th Annual NAACP Image Awards.
Wizard of the Crow is set primarily in the fictional African nation of Aburiria, described as a country “of crooked roads, robberies, runaway viruses of death, hospitals without medicine, rampant unemployment without relief, daily insecurity, epidemic alcoholism.” Aburiria’s despotic ruler proposes to build the world’s tallest building, to be called “Marching to Heaven.” While in New York to get loans from the Global Bank for the tower, the ruler inexplicably begins growing larger and larger. To cure him, a mysterious sorcerer, Wizard of the Crow, is called in. Their adventures, in Africa and New York, unfold in more than 700 pages, narrated by different voices from multiple viewpoints.
The California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction will be presented to Ngugi at a June 7 ceremony in San Francisco. Gold medal winners also receive a cash prize of $2,000.
The Commonwealth Club of California, which sponsors the book awards, was founded in 1903 and is the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum, with more than 18,000 members. The club hosts speeches, debates and discussions on topics of regional, national and international interest.
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