An Architect of Dreams: On Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “Devil on the Cross”

It’s the perennial question: What is the point of literature? Then she slips into a recurring nightmare. You encourage lasciviousness solely to gratify your own appetites, then you put on robes of righteousness and urge men to repent, to follow you so that you may show them paths of purity. “Why?” he asks. Everything on the continent — its resources, its land — will belong to them. Instead of summarizing the testimony of these men, Ngugi transcribes every word they utter. Yes, of course she can beat her. In such places, even the most anodyne observations are freighted with meaning, but then again in such places observations are rarely anodyne. The matatu departs. But because her reality has begun to rhyme with her dream — she had already attained a measure of success by then — she does not waver when the reporter inquires about her aspirations. There’s an unspoken question here, so obvious one can almost see it hovering above the text: How would Wariinga perceive herself if she had been reared in a space where she was valued for precisely the things she despises most about herself? She witnesses a “crowd of people dressed in rags walking in the light, propelling the Devil toward the cross.” The crowd excoriates the Devil for his sins:
Now we know the secrets of all the robes that disguise your cunning. So immersive, in fact, that I dreamed about it. Their progeny are born and raised and die in this new reality. “Do you really believe that?” the reporter seems to be asking. As she’s talking, we hear another voice somewhere off camera. There were a little stained; they were not as white as would have liked them to be. This is a novel that wants you to act. Ngugi unveils another strategy once the matatu arrives in Ilmorog. The reporter turns to the source of the new voice. Somehow the barrier between my waking life and my dream life had eroded. His debut novel,   The Proximity of Distance,   is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. This is remarkable because she is a black girl from Compton, California, and in 1995, when this footage was recorded, very few female tennis champions resembled her. “And let you tell me why.” The reporter appears angry, perhaps a bit dejected. He also seems dismissive, or something close to it. Leave that alone!”
The video is only 48 seconds long, but, to paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes. It required all my attention. Whose you are?”
A dream is a delicate thing, especially when you’re a black girl from Compton. You steal food from people’s stores at midnight, then at dawn you visit the victims wearing your robes of charity and you offer them a calabash filled with the grain you have stolen. It taught me that I had been living much of my life according to an agenda that had been established by a man who has no regard for me or mine. Days, weeks, your entire life. Each observation, though garbed in different clothes, carries within it the same set of questions:
Have you noticed that something isn’t quite right? It’s about how our reality constitutes itself around the imaginary, the impossible. Each conversation they take up — about colonialism, the fate of their country, economics, art, how women treat men, how men treat woman — has only one destination: the truth. First there is Venus’s resolve, her knowledge — knowledge because this is no mere belief — that she will defeat anyone   she must to become a champion. Then we see the source of the voice, a white reporter. He strides right up to the reporter. And then there’s Richard Williams, video-bombing the interview, swooping in to save his daughter. “’Cause I believe it,” she says. He is the one who has told Venus that she is a champion despite what anyone else may think or say. It seemed comfortable. Grudgingly, I succumbed. Why should we spend so many valuable hours reading tiny print on thin pages when there are so many colorful screens to touch and watch? Someone she’s never met prevents her from doing so; this person takes her to a salon. Wariinga blames herself for these incidents:
Wariinga was convinced that her appearance was the root cause of all her problems. They are telling without a hint of remorse, but with pride. An attentive reader will find herself lowered into the scene, and because it rhymes with scenes that each of us have experienced in our own lives — during a visit to salon or barbershop, perhaps even while sitting in a matatu — the barrier between reality and the imagined will become harder to find. Each time I surfaced from the novel into my life everything seemed a bit clearer. What will you do? In quick succession, she loses her job (because she refuses to sleep with her boss), her boyfriend leaves her, and she is kicked out of her apartment. In most other places, those spaces in which we work and eat, sometimes even those intimate spaces we share with those we love, we are complicit in maintaining the various fictions that sustain our shared reality because upending reality requires faith and courage. You seize men’s wealth, than you dress in robes of friendship and instruct them to join in the pursuit of the villain who has robbed them. Eventually he hands her an invitation for a competition between thieves and robbers called The Devil’s Feast, which will take place in Ilmorog. The door is locked, so she sits on the steps. All should be well. Her reality has been formed around a dream that she is a champion. They crucify the Devil, and then, three days later:
[T]here came others dressed in suits and ties, who, keeping close to the wall of darkness, lifted the Devil down from the Cross. Which is another way of saying that each conversation constitutes a search for a new reality. As the novel progresses, Wariinga begins down a path that will liberate her from the dreams of her oppressors. I listened and argued; occasionally I glanced at the small window directly ahead of me; I laughed; I shook my head in disbelief. He seems to lack confidence in Venus’s confidence. They will provide free labor. He is protecting her from a reality that says she cannot become a champion. They are the men who shape the nightmare around which Wariinga’s life has formed itself. I was keen to watch cable news, to read the latest articles. Unlike the matatu scene, which involves a cast of characters who are lobbing words back and forth, this scene is composed of multiple (mostly uninterrupted) monologues. This is what is happening right now. But in those private public places, say a van traveling from Nairobi to Ilmorog, it’s possible to probe beyond the borders of the familiar. ¤
What is reality? Venus smiles. There are six people inside. You’re dealing with a little black kid, and let her be a kid. Then I stared up at the unfamiliar ceiling and remembered — I was in Cologne, Germany. At work and at home, he was the primary topic of conversation. Each time I picked up this novel, it took me some time to settle into its rhythms. I mean if you want…”
Richard Williams, Venus’s father, enters the frame. Surely this is not the way things were meant to be. This is the reality that greets us in the opening pages of Devil on the Cross. They are telling you what they’ve stolen, how they stole it, and why. This seemed a steep price. I have shown you what you already know, he says. Especially when almost everything around you is a direct repudiation of who you are and who you aspire to be. At the feast, we meet those sinister figures from Wariinga’s dream, dressed in suits and ties with their large bellies and loud voices. APRIL 3, 2017

A MATATU, or taxi van, is traveling from the big city to a much smaller one. But her answer doesn’t suffice. “Very confident,” says the voice. ¤
Another dream: A group of Europeans envision a future in which they have apportioned the continent of Africa among their respective countries. Now her body was covered with light and dark spots like a guineafowl. I met them in the lobby. The opening frame is black. ¤
There’s a video online that I can’t stop watching. The people who currently inhabit the continent — “people” is a generous term, because they aren’t quite — will be incidental. This van, like those barbershops and salons and church halls, is one of those simultaneously private and public spaces where secrets are freely shared because one is among one’s own. His voice ticks up a few decibels. Then he leans over and speaks directly into the reporter’s face. They have known each other for just a few hours, but now they are something like family. They have arrived from all over Kenya to report their expertise at stealing from their countrymen and women to a delegation of representatives from various Western countries. His is an act of love and defiance. I found myself on that matatu, listening and arguing, peering out of a dust-covered window as the conversation flowed around me, occasionally laughing, often shaking my head in disbelief. Originally published in 1980 (Penguin Classics will be issuing a new edition this month), this novel is bold and disquieting and, like most great novels, wonderfully immersive. It wasn’t until the end, as we were shaking hands and exchanging warm, bittersweet smiles that it occurred to me that the past hour or so of my life rhymed perfectly with the dream I’d been having just before I woke up. If you are among the oppressed populations of the planet Earth, it’s likely that your reality is the manifestation of someone else’s dream. They envision a future in which Africans rule themselves. The new voice: “What she said, she said it with so much confidence the first time, but you keep going on and on…” The reporter interjects: “But we can’t keep interrupting. A few paragraphs later, as she tries to find a matatu that will take her to her parents’ home in Ilmorog (a town that exists only in Ngugi’s novels and our imaginations), Wariinga attempts suicide. Most importantly, they will serve as living reminders that the Europeans are superior, the inevitable rulers of the world. We are introduced to a young woman named Wariinga who is having an especially bad day. We hear a voice: “Did you think you could beat her?” Then we see a young Venus Williams. Their conversations coalesce around a single topic: What will they find at this feast? “And this child gonna be out there playing when your old ass and me gonna be in the grave.” I always beam when he says this. Her hair was splitting, and it had browned to the color of moleskin because it had been straightened with red-hot iron combs. Wariinga discovers that a few of her fellow passengers are bound for the same feast. “You, reading these words. Surely there must be another way. All across the continent various countries proclaim their independence. He is the architect of her dream. We went to the hotel dining room for breakfast, and then we wandered around the hotel until we found a small room with two leather couches and no doors. And then Ngugi turns to you. Well, it depends where you’re standing. “You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child,” he says. And their bellies began to swell, and they stood up, and they walked toward Wariinga, laughing at her, stroking their large bellies, which had now inherited all the evils of this world. The dream remains intact. It’s possible that each conversation is nudging you closer to another realm. I can’t say that Ngugi’s intention was to mount a defense of literature when he wrote this, but I can tell you what this novel did to me. She is calm, assured. Africa is free. Card in hand, Wariinga boards a matatu bound for Ilmorog. ¤
This scene aboard the matatu is featured in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross. Others board as well. This is what happens during the matatu scene, which is just under 50 pages. It’s obvious that Venus inhabits an entirely different reality from the reporter. The Europeans dream, plot, execute. Free sex. He knows he must protect her and the dream he has shaped for her or the reality of the man across from her will become her reality as well. What she hated most was her blackness, so she would disfigure her body with skin-lightening creams like Ambi and Snowfire, forgetting the saying: That which is born black will never be white. More than anything they would like to keep reality as it is. These men are talking to the audience, to their silent Western overlords, but they are also talking to you. They have been kept alive by their owners in inhospitable climes for such a moment as this, this moment that arrives only once a week or month or year or lifetime. The voice repeats the question: “You know you can beat her?” Venus nods. Inevitably, reality begins to form itself around their dream. It is hard not to read the first part of this dream, with its direct allusions to the crucifixion of Christ, as an allegory for our postcolonial era, the manner in which the West engages with Africa and the rest of the world. It’s possible to dream of what could be. “You say it so easily,” he says. Whenever she looked at herself in the mirror she thought herself very ugly. Africans across the continent resist, and sometimes they succeed, but mostly they do not. And who? Wariinga wakes up, and the man who saved her is there. Leaders emerge. “You, over there,” Ngugi seems to be saying. Which is another way of saying that each conversation is attempting to disentangle what is real from what is contrived. “Alright, cut right there if you don’t mind,” the new voice says. “I’m very confident,” she says. Then: “When she say something, we done told you what’s happening. Devil on the Cross argues quite convincingly — so convincingly that, for a moment, I became a character in the novel, or perhaps Ngugi became the author of my life — that all of us are living within a dream. The question is who is the dreamer? Public, but private. Because that’s what this video is all about — dueling realities. “Are you aware of who you are? He taught me that it’s time for us to build new dreams. In matatus and salons and churches across the continent people begin to interrogate this reality. This is why Richard Williams interjects as aggressively as he does. ¤
Tope Folarin is a writer based in Washington, DC. But what about the second part? The scene occurs at the speed of dialogue, which means that we experience time at the same speed as the characters. Ngugi showed me that I was living in someone else’s dream. And they knelt before him, and they prayed to him in loud voices, beseeching him to give them a portion of his robes of cunning. She will beat everyone. And why spend so much time — months, years — writing a novel when writing a successful screenplay, say, will likely win you many more eyeballs? And time. This is the precise moment when I realized that Devil on the Cross, the novel I’d been reading and struggling to comprehend, is actually about how dreams serve as a framework for our reality. ¤
I read this novel over the month of February, at a time when my primary extracurricular preoccupation was reading news about the new American president. I had never seen them before but I recognized something in them. Then there’s the reporter, who seems mystified by her responses. Have you not heard other leaders utter these words, or similar ones? ¤
Ngugi’s aims become clearer as the novel progresses. This is your reality!”
This is not a well-behaved novel, the kind you might read with your book club while discussing character motivation over tea and biscuits. I glanced at my phone and realized that I had five minutes to get dressed and downstairs for a meeting with a few local writers. Morning, noon, and night, I scanned the internet for more information about his immaturity, his horrific policies, his seeming inability to rise to the occasion. She done answered it with a lot of confidence. Somehow you have slipped into this secret meeting with Wariinga and the others, but is this meeting really so secret? They dream, plot, execute. I woke up and for a moment I forgot where I was. What shall we do about it? “I know I can beat her,” she responds. Who are the men dressed in suits and ties who lift the Devil down from the cross, with their loud voices and large bellies? You commit murder, then you don your robes of pity and you go to wipe the tears from the faces of orphans and widows. But all isn’t well. He employs various strategies to achieve this goal: one is to stretch a scene over multiple pages, to keep it going until you can see the dialogue swirling around you. This novel cast the rest of my life in relief. Wariinga also hated her teeth. He not only wants to tell you a story, but he also wants to implicate you in it. It’s time for us to inhabit them. We sat and talked, about writing, art, and life. Such conversations are only possible in a barbershop or salon, in any church in any city in the world, or on a matatu, such as this one, which happens to be traveling from Nairobi to Ilmorog. And so he silences the reporter. The Europeans leave. Onboard, they argue and sing and discuss Kenya’s past and future. Venus plays with her nails; she looks like she’s lost interest, but you can tell she is listening intently.