A Grain of Wheat is considered one of Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s greatest literacy achievements. The title derives from 1 Corinthians 15:36: "How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies"; the verse John 12:24 also applies: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” It is the penultimate book of Ngugi's to be written in English before he began writing in Gikuyu.
Ngugi wrote his novel when he was studying at Leeds University in 1964-66; he had received a British Council Scholarship and was conducting postgraduate work. He became distracted from his research MA by his reading and writing what would become the novel. He was inspired by the writings of Marx and Engel as well as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes was also a major influence on A Grain of Wheat, as Ngugi had studied Conrad as an undergraduate.
In 1987 Ngugi revised the novel, trying to give its peasants the more worldly outlook of his understanding of the oppressed throughout history. The two decades between the versions saw Ngugi changing his name from James Ngugi, repudiating Christian teachings, and beginning to write only in Gikuyu. He was also detained by the government for a year in 1977 and was harassed out of the country in 1982 by the administration of Jomo Kenyatta, one of the “heroes” of the Movement. As critic Abdulrazak Gurnah writes, “As Ngugi’s work grew progressively more ‘radical’, it is only consistent that he should want the ‘world view’ of his peasants to reflect the historical triumph of the oppressed rather than a nagging conviction that progress comes at a heavy price. The 1987 revisions do not do very much to improve the novel, but nor are they deep enough to diminish the power and the subtlety of its narrative play and its compulsive drama.”