The very moment I stepped inside the University of Vienna’s Hauptbibliothek, I felt right at home.
It was a beautiful, old-fashioned European library. There’s a short spiral staircase leading to the bookshelves that were arranged alphabetically. Long tables line up the room. Each table has reading lamps that look like scales, only the plates are like funnels turned upside down. Seats surrounded the tables, but for that particular day, the seats were all facing a mini-stage in the center of the room.
It was the 5th of May 2017 and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’ was scheduled to read from his latest book Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening.
I felt very lucky to be able to attend such an event here in Vienna. The story of how Ngugi wa Thiong’o became a writer was very inspiring as well as entertaining. He certainly knew how to pick profound moments that had potential comic value. He shared with us his experience of attending social nights, and of how he failed to and eventually learned how to dance. He likewise shared with us the events that led him to write his first novel, and told us about an awkward bathroom situation wherein he was called out for going in because it was ‘for officers only’. All these stories made us laugh, but they made us think, too, since each story was laced with the problem of race and the struggle of a writer in such a society.
Looking at the people’s reactions, I could really tell how important his writings were to the people of Kenya and of Africa in general – and I do not mean important in just a literary sense, but also emotionally and politically. Someone even said that he was like a hero.
A writer as hero.
It is not a particularly novel idea. Many writers in history have become instigators of social change, making them heroes of their nations. But to hear it being said in modern day and seeing the writer-hero in the flesh is a different experience. It is inspiring and it makes me feel proud to be a writer.
I have been to many other readings before, but no experience was alike. I noticed that each reading spoke to me in a different way. When I went to a literary event featuring my favorite Filipina writer Merlinda Bobis, I came there primarily as an avid reader. When I co-organized the reading for Man-Asian-Literary-Prize-winner Miguel Syjuco, I was an academic and a literary critic. This time, I felt that I was a writer feeling the experience of how Ngugi wa Thiong’o became a writer.
So instead of analyzing the dynamics of race in the passages or planning how to talk to the writer and tell him that I am a fan, I listened to the speaker as he shared his development as a writer: when he first wrote a story, when he joined the school publication, when he wrote his first novel which went through several title changes until it was published, when he got jailed because of a play that he wrote.
His sharing about his life made me think of my own experiences as a writer: when I first discovered that I like to write, when I lost in a writing competition, when I won in the same competition which I lost before, when I felt insecure about my writing, when I got published in a school publication, when I thought of writing and submitting my work but lost motivation, and the many times when I would think twice about pursuing writing but always eventually decide to go back to it.
For this event, Ngugi wa Thiong’o shared the story of how a dream weaver was born. Because of his story, I felt even more strongly than before that weaving my own dream to become a professional writer is indeed worth pursuing. For writers who are reading this post, Birth of a Dream Weaver may be a book worth your time.