In Summary
  • Described by those who know him as shy and taciturn, organisers at the 1979 Berlin International Literature Festival were taken aback when Mwangi refused to be introduced at the conference.
  • In addition to his stupendous creative writing endeavours, Mwangi has assiduously ventured into the cinema world, engaging in script writing, directing, casting and location management.
  • Known to hibernate and lie low when in serious creative mode, the disarmingly humble writer found himself in the US between 1975 and 1976, further honing his skills as a Fellow in Writing at the renowned Iowa University Writers’ Workshop.
  • Mwangi then proceeded to quip that only thieves and writers have to justify their occupations and explain “why they spend their lives in dark, lonely places when they could be out in sunshine and freedom”.

Standing several inches north of six feet, Meja Mwangi is by no means a small man.

He is not quite what you might describe as a giant either. Perhaps the best description of his physical appearance was the one given by a German acquaintance who described him as “a big man of sturdy build”.

Temperamentally, the 65-year-old writer has a mien that defies his age, which is further defied by his characteristic casual dressing, complete with ornaments around his neck and stylish caps or hats to complete his youthful demeanour.

Self-effacing to the extreme, he eschews publicity while also quietly carrying on with his writing and living up to his reputation as perhaps Kenya’s most prolific writer.

Described by those who know him as shy and taciturn, organisers at the 1979 Berlin International Literature Festival were taken aback when Mwangi refused to be introduced at the conference, which had such other literary greats as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, and writers Chinua Achebe, Dambudzo Marechera, Bessie Head and Camara Laye.

“He also refused to give any interviews, saying that he himself was of no importance and asked people to give their attention not to personal details but to the millions who have no voice and for whom he tries to speak,” Al Imfeld, one of those involved with the organisation of the fete dubbed First Festival of World Culture, once recalled to an interviewer.

LIVING OFF HIS ART

Apart from his sheer staying power, Mwangi is one of the few professional writers in Africa, somehow managing to live off his creative faculties.

Writing has for him been sheer hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and certainly not a walk in the park. Having recently shifted base from Kenya to the United States, it appears like Meja Mwangi is poised for even more exciting developments in his career.

For some years now, he has been attracting the attention of American publishers, who have published his children’s literature titles such as The Mzungu Boy, (Groundwood, 2005) The Boy Gift, (HM Books, 2006) Gun Runner, a screenplay, and The Big Chiefs (HM Books).

The same publisher has also issued Mama Dudu, the Insect Woman (2007), as well as two plays, Power and Blood Brothers, both published in 2009.

Mwangi’s publishing debut in the US has come after years of slogging it out on the Kenyan and African publishing scene over the years.

In the process, he made a well-earned reputation as one of the few African writers who doggedly approached their craft as a lifeline and were prepared to earn a living from it, whatever the challenges.

Having launched his publishing career with the publishing in 1974 of Kill me Quick, the writer was to prove his astounding prolificacy when he followed it up with Carcass for Hounds and Taste of Death in 1974 and 1975 respectively.

By then, he had cut himself an enviable niche in the respected African Writers Series, but was not about to apply the brakes on his extremely fecund imagination.

In 1976, he came out with Going Down River Road, also published by Heinemann Educational Books in their coveted AWS series, and was to follow it up in 1979 with The Cockroach Dance, which was published by Longman Kenya, who also published The Bushtrackers, issued the same year in their Drumbeat imprint.

NEW STAR AUTHOR

Mwangi was to stick with that publisher during the 1980s, coming out with Bread of Sorrow (1987), which was followed in 1989 with the double offer of Weapon of Hunger and The Return of Shaka.

In 1990, the same publisher issued two children’s titles, the widely successful Little White Man and Jimi the Dog, by their new star author.

Not to be outdone, in 1990 Heinemann Kenya published Striving for the Wind, and after changing its name to East African Education Publishers, issued The Last Plague, a fictionalised treatise on the AIDS pandemic, in 2000, following it up in 2001 with Mountain of Bones.

In the meantime, Mwangi had published The Hunter’s Dream in 1993 with Macmillan publishers.

Over the years, Meja Mwangi’s works have received rave international acclaim and awards, including the 2006 Children’s Africana Book Award, which he bagged with The Mzungu Boy, adjudged the best book for older readers.

Strikingly, the same title probably made the writer’s day when it also won the American Library Association National Book for Children Award (USA) and the Society of School Librarians International Honour Book Award.

Earlier, in 1992, his children’s books had already made a stir when he won the Prix Lire au College in France with his title Kariuki.

Across in Germany, during the same year, his book Little White Man was honoured with the Deutscher Jugendliteratur prize.

WINNING STREAK

Back home in Kenya, Mwangi’s children’s writing was also causing a stir, and nobody was surprised when the widely-read The Boy Gift won the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature.

The prize-winning streak came early for the writer, whose first major achievement was in 1974, when his novel Kill Me Quick easily scooped the Jomo Kenyatta Prize.

That feat was to be repeated in 1977 when his novel Going Down River Road bagged the same prize.

As if that was not enough, the writer was to perform a hat trick when yet another novel, the The Last Plague, won Mwangi his third Jomo Kenyatta Prize in 1981.

As if to ensure he left permanent footprints in the annals of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, in 2009 Meja took the third position in the Adult Fiction category with his book Big Chief.

Not content to sit on his laurels, he also caused stirs on the international scene.

In 1978, for instance, he was awarded the prestigious Lotus Award by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. More than 10 years later, in 1989, his new novel Bread of Sorrow won an honourable mention during the Noma Award (Africa) deliberations for that year.

Later, in 2002, The Last Plague, a book focusing on the ravages of the AIDS pandemic, was nominated for the coveted International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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