Africa's Wizard Of Words

GARY CALTON for TIME

OUT OF AFRICA: Ngugi has been writing in exile for 24 years

Most great writers have a knack for bringing their characters to life. But only Ngugi wa Thiong'o could write a character so convincing he almost gets arrested. In 1986, while the author's native Kenya was suffocating under President Daniel arap Moi's oppressive rule, Ngugi wrote Matigari, a novel whose eponymous hero travels the country protesting against the regime. Because Matigari posed questions Kenyans were afraid to ask, they talked about him as if he were real, the way soap-opera fans and comic-book lovers do.

"The regime thought there was a guy actually going...