Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was named a recipient of the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature on February 2, 2022.
The PEN America Literary Awards Program announced the 2022 career achievement award winners whose honorees are Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Elaine May, and Jackie Sibblies Drury. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was given the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature which is worth US$50,000. The award named in honor of Russian author Vladimir Nabokov is “conferred annually to a living author whose body of work—either written in or translated into English—represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. The writer’s work will evoke to some measure Nabokov’s brilliant versatility and commitment to literature as a search for the deepest truth and highest pleasure—what Nabokov called the “indescribable tingle of the spine.””
The judging panel for the award was David Treuer, Laila Lalami, and Mónica de la Torre said in their citation for the award;
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a transformative figure in African literature. For nearly sixty years, he has been committed to telling the stories of a country and a people whose political destiny was brutally interrupted by outsiders. In novels like Weep Not Child, A Grain of Wheat, The River Between, and Wizard of the Crow he has portrayed with great honesty and sensitivity the lasting divisions that colonial rule sowed within families and cultures, the damage wrought by the dictatorships that followed independence, and the joys of finding freedom in all its forms—personal, political, and linguistic.
In 1977, when he was held without trial in the maximum-security prison at Kamiti, he used toilet paper to write Devil on the Cross, not in English, the language he had used until then, but in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. His refusal to be silenced and his insistence on the value of indigenous languages has inspired a generation of younger writers. His analysis of language and power in Decolonizing the Mind continues to provoke spirited debate many decades later. Between The Black Hermit, a play staged in 1962 by the traveling theatre of Makerere University in Kampala, to The Perfect Nine, a novel-in-verse published by the New Press in 2020, he has produced dozens of novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs that weave myth and folklore, wisdom and humor. The 2022 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature goes to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
The award will be conferred at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony, held on February 28 in New York City, USA.